The following is a guest post by Peter Roudik, director of legal research at the Law Library of Congress. Peter has written a number of posts related to Russia and the former Soviet Union, including posts on the Soviet investigation of Nazi war crimes, lustration in Ukraine, Crimean history and the 2014 referendum, regulating the Winter Olympics in Russia, Soviet law and the assassination of JFK, and the treaty on the creation of the Soviet Union.
Not long ago I wrote a blog post about Christmas and New Year celebrations in Russia, and it is already time for another holiday break. This time, the four days from April 30 through May 3 are declared non-working days in Russia. These days will be used to celebrate and observe the Holiday of Spring and Labor.
Most people will use this extended weekend for travel, gardening, or picnicking. While following the tradition of enjoying the arrival of spring and warm weather, not many would probably remember that just 25 years ago this was an ideological holiday called International Day of Workers’ Solidarity, and even fewer people would know that it all started in Chicago in 1867. In that year, the Illinois legislature adopted a state law that established an eight-hour workday — at that time it was common to work 10 to 16 hours — and this law was supposed to enter into force on May 1. But, it had a loophole that allowed employment contracts to specify longer hours. A large crowd, which formed a parade more than a mile long, gathered on Lake Street under banners that said “Eight Hours and No Concessions,” demanding the removal of this option. Under the mayor’s order, police dispersed the crowd.
Nineteen years later in 1886, on May 1, other political activists brought people to Chicago’s streets as part of a nationwide union strike in support of an eight-hour workday. As before, the event became violent: police shot into the crowd and killed at least two striking workers, and a larger crowd gathered for a meeting on May 4 at Haymarket Square. During the demonstration, a bomb exploded in the crowd and killed eight police officers. In response, hundreds of workers were arrested and seven anarchists were sentenced to death. As a sign of solidarity with the Chicagoans who fought police in 1886, in July 1889, the French delegation to the Second International Socialist Congress proposed to celebrate May 1st by holding workers’ demonstration.
On May 1, 1890, demonstrations were conducted in Austria-Hungary, Germany, Belgium, Denmark, Spain, Italy, Norway, Sweden, France, and Great Britain. A workers’ strike in Warsaw in 1890 was the first attempt to celebrate May Day in the Russian Empire. The first May Day celebration in Russia was held as a picnic by a small group of workers near St. Petersburg in 1891. In 1895, the first large workers’ gathering occurred in Moscow despite government persecution. In 1917, May Day was for the first time celebrated openly. The Library of Congress has books about these events and their organizers.
After the Bolsheviks came to power in Russia, this day became an official holiday. In 1918, the new Labor Code defined national holidays, and May First was listed as the International Day.
In 1928, the Labor Code was amended, and May 2 was declared as another non-working International Day holiday. In 1970, the holiday was officially renamed the International Day of Workers’ Solidarity.
The Soviet authorities took the celebration of May Day very seriously. Preparations for this day started in the middle of April when all major newspapers published slogans for the May Day demonstrations. The slogans were approved by the Communist Party Central Committee, then the ruling Soviet authority, and reflected the party’s position on all major domestic and foreign policy issues. They were supposed to be discussed at staff meetings at work places and universities, and were distributed to the workers’ parties in Soviet satellite countries. Then, on the eve of May Day, a celebratory conference of all Soviet leadership was conducted. The head of the Communist party or another designee made a speech, which together with the concert that followed was broadcast on all state run TV and radio channels. The next day started with military and people’s parades in all large cities, followed by government sponsored entertainment, and ended with fireworks.
The Library of Congress collection also includes a good number of materials related to the history and celebration of May Day in the Soviet Union. Examples include: a notebook for propagandists with recommended talking points on how to conduct conversations about May Day with workers; a collection of May Day flyers distributed in Latvia from the late 1890s until 1940 when Latvia was annexed by the Soviet Union; and May Day orders issued by Stalin during the years of World War II. These documents are good resources for studying the history of the Communist movement. They allow, for example, researchers to compare propaganda pieces intended for domestic and outside use, and see how the ideology machine was used to emphasize the successes of socialism and criticize capitalist society.
It appears that people’s celebratory mood was not somehow affected by this heavy ideological component. I lived almost thirty years of my life about half a mile from the Red Square in Moscow, and I can say that it was really fun to watch from the balcony of my apartment how groups of nicely dressed happy looking people with balloons and banners walked the streets of a decorated city and then picnicked in city squares and parks. I do not think that anyone was thinking about the international solidarity of workers at that time because there were plenty of other things to do on May First. It was the day of the traditional 10-mile run through the downtown, cruise ships started seasonal navigation on the Moskva River, and newly built carousels were turned on in the central park. The first game of the national soccer season was held on this day at the Olympic stadium in Moscow too, and a firework display at ten o’clock in the evening was a traditional ending for the holiday.
The last official May Day celebration happened in 1990. After the official part of the parade, a several thousand strong crowd of people who opposed the regime entered the Red Square and raised anti-Communist banners. Mikhail Gorbachev and other Soviet leaders left the stage, the TV broadcast was interrupted, and May Day festivities as they were known before were never resumed. Shortly after that the holiday was officially renamed the Holiday of Spring and Labor, which simply means two non-working days at the beginning of May, and only those who remain nostalgic about old Soviet times continue to revive the working class theme.
History professor Donna Haverty-Stacke says that May 1 is “America’s forgotten holiday.” The labor movement roots of this day seem to be forgotten in Russia, too. Therefore, following the new Russian tradition, I would like to wish “Happy Spring” to all our readers.