Grandpa Frost is on his way
15 декабря 2021 284 Читать на русском

Ded Moroz is on his way!

Even as an adult, the thought warms my heart. But especially now that I have grandchildren. It seems like if Ded Moroz doesn’t come, something will be seriously off. From time to time, I do start to think that Ded Moroz–one of the main symbols of a happy Soviet childhood, one who successfully survived the fall of the atheist USSR—is seriously lacking in meaning. He, of all characters, is a great example of the roots and mechanism of myth creation in post-war Soviet society and the methods of replacing central psychological needs.

Isn’t it remarkable that you couldn’t believe in God in the Soviet Union, even while you could, and were supposed to, believe in Ded Moroz? [Ded Moroz (“Grandfather Frost”) is a traditional character of Slavic folklore and Soviet analog to Santa Claus. He brings gifts to children on New Year’s Eve.]

For my parents, belief in Grandfather Frost was an unconditional part of their project for raising children, a project that they were more or less able to realize when it came to my childhood. It was also the cause of a serious fight between my dad and my grandma. When I was five and a half, my parents sent me over to Grandma’s just before New Year to fight off a flu (my parents were teachers busy organizing holiday parties at the schools where they worked). I’d caught the flu after attending a children’s holiday-themed play.

In one of the New Year skits I’d seen, the bandits kidnapped the Snow Maiden [initially a character of Russian fairy tales, Snegurochka, or “Snow Maiden,” became Grandfather Frost’s granddaughter and helper under Soviet culture], sat her on a (real) camel, and took her off to the Sahara desert—so she’d melt. The Snow Maiden was saved of course, aided in her escape by cartwheeling acrobats, flying gymnasts, and trained dogs. All the usual circus tricks were employed in the course of the rescue operation. What I saw made a huge impression on me. And by evening I had a full-blown fever.

You’d think it wouldn’t be that hard to deduce the cause of my symptoms, given that this was in the middle of a flu epidemic. But my grandma preferred to think that powerful impressions were to blame. She thought all illness was psychosomatic, the product of nervous tension, and decided to fight fire with fire by revealing a terrible secret. The Grandfather Frost I’d seen in the play wasn’t real—he was a costumed actor. He’d put on a beard and painted his nose red. Grandma pantomimed Grandfather Frost painting his nose, and giggled. Her performance made no less of an impression on me than the Snow Maiden’s kidnapping had the day before. An entirely new reality revealed itself to me, one with endless opportunities at transforming myself. And that meant…. That meant I could be the Snow Maiden! I could be Grandfather Frost’s beloved granddaughter, with a white fur coat, a pair of soft high boots, and long white braids.

It’s not that I wanted to leave my own parents and Grandma behind. After all, the transformation wasn’t forever. It would be just for the holidays. I had no qualms whatsoever about this kind of “dual-citizen” compromise. The mere thought of those long white braids immediately supplanted any potential doubts. They were my ultimate dream. My own hair was naturally dark and my mom claimed it would never amount to a convincing braid. “You don’t need a rat-tail!” she’d say as she dragged me off for yet another short haircut. But now I’d learned that there were ways to outwit nature itself. I could wear a wig! Everyone would think it was my real hair. And then I might start to think it was, too.

By evening, my fever had abated. My grandmother was terribly happy with herself and her exposure of Grandfather Frost.

The very next day, Mom and Dad came to pick me up. And the first thing I told them, with obvious enthusiasm, was the news about Grandfather Frost. He was just a costumed actor with makeup on his nose.

My mother looked scared:

“Marina, how do you know that?”

Dad turned silently to Grandma. He wasn’t tall or broad-shouldered. Quite the contrary. My dad was a fairly small, thin man, but he did have a remarkable ability to “transform in size.” Back in those days, you couldn’t watch the famous Disney movies in the Soviet Union and few had heard of the “body without organs” theory. But even then, my father had that gift. As he entered a state of righteous indignation, the air around him was charged with electricity, and onlookers would shudder at the horrible transformation. 

My Grandma wasn’t about to wait for a discharge. She grabbed her lightning rod:

“The child was overexcited! She had a fever!”

An invisible lighting bolt came crashing down.

“Anna Mikhailovna….We’re going to have to talk.”

My father strong-armed Grandma into the corner (as though I wouldn’t be able to hear anything!).

I listened closely. Turns out Grandma had deprived me of my childhood! With one stupid story she’d shaken my faith in Grandfather Frost, a faith vital to any small child.

My mom sat down at the edge of the bed and stroked my hand with pity in her eyes. It could be that she was translating some of the sympathy meant for my grandmother.

When my grandmother was little, there was no Grandfather Frost.

As for Mom and Dad…well, it had never even occurred to me to ask them if they’d had Grandfather Frost in their childhoods. Like any child, I thought that the surrounding reality was eternal, that things had always been this way. How else could they be?

My dad was born just a year before the holiday tree was “rehabilitated”–a former symbol of Christmas that was forbidden in the “young Soviet state.” What’s interesting is that the tree made its comeback just as the destruction of churches was reaching a peak. The tree was a symbolic trophy of sorts, “snatched away” from the bourgeoisie. In the past, wrote tree proponents, only bourgeois children could join in the fun, while the children of the proletariat looked on from afar, watching with jealousy as tree lights glittered in the windows of great homes. We’ll restore justice, the Soviets decided. Have the trees shine for the children of the proletariat, as well.

But the holiday that the tree was connected to was now gone from the new state’s calendar. And that meant there would have to be a new set of “interactions” with the tree. In 1936, educators and educationists got together and discussed, with utter seriousness, what could and should be hung on the New Year tree for proletariat children. It would certainly not be what the bourgeois had preferred, especially around Christmastime!

Then there was the question of what children would be doing around the tree. Before, things were clear. There were presents under the tree and sweets hanging from the branches to take off and give to the children. But that was only possible if the tree was the center of a family celebration, and if there was enough money for candy. In the young Soviet state, the tree represented a gathering for a group of children. The main activity was admiring the tree, and so the first ornaments were meant to educate and serve as symbols of the new realities of Soviet life—Young Pioneers, airships, the SS Chelyuskin….

And the million-dollar question: would there be costumes and skits? What would they depict? Would there be some kind of grandfather to go along with the tree? Perhaps the Petrushka of Russian folk puppet shows, or Morozko, the Father Frost of our fairy tales? A snowman come to life? (The Snow Maiden familiar to us today did not merit a mention at the time.) 

Now what would the characters do? What if the children got scared? Sure, we could have costumed characters, but it might be better if they stood still without moving. Those first events around the tree were quite the ordeal for the pioneering teachers. An older lady dressed as a snowman might have to stand stock-still through a whole children’s holiday party, trying not to blink, and nearly fainting in the process.

I’m not making any of this up. I’ve read the reports in pedagogical journals of the time.

So there was no Grandfather Frost in my parents’ childhood, certainly not as we know him today. My dad was still a preschooler when the war started. In wartime evacuation, as I understand, there was no time for Grandfather Frosts.

Grandfather Frost’s time came after the war, in the fifties. Then, the idea was no longer a stock-still costumed figure, an immobile snowman. It was time for Grandfather Frost to come into his own as an active, “real” figure, someone to be believed in.

For the adults who survived the wartime horrors, the children born in the fifties and especially the sixties (when the destruction and grinding poverty had started to recede a bit) shared an important trait: they didn’t know war. That ignorance was supposed to make them fundamentally happy. Naturally, it wasn’t an individualized happiness. It was collective. It was bestowed upon children as their birthright: Thank you, dear homeland! For our happy childhoods! 

I’d yelled those words countless times, singing in unison with friends on our Young Pioneer marches. Though at a certain point that unconditional nature of my happiness started to seem less obvious.

For adults in the decades after the war, these words about children’s happiness didn’t simply refer to the ideology of the socialist system. If not a complete acknowledgement of childhood’s inherent value, it was a step toward recognizing that children see the world and interact with it differently than adults do. An understanding that children might have their own particular child’s way of seeing and feeling things. While adults were to believe in the building of communism, the triumph of scientific and technological progress, with happiness meant to come “later,” in the future, children could have their happiness “here and now”—a product of their “irrationality.” Oh, children, they’re such daydreamers! In the thirties, children’s fantasies and their possible ramifications were the subject of intense pedagogical debate (fantasies are an escape from reality!), and the fairy tale genre was very nearly prohibited. In the sixties, though, fantasies of both kinds were no longer seen as a handicap, as something to be lived through as quickly as possible. To the contrary, belief in magic became a defining feature of childhood. It’s no accident that the mid-fifties saw a resurgence of the fairy tale genre in children’s literature. This is also the period when the image of Grandfather Frost is formed and “canonized.” Belief in Grandfather Frost becomes a key symbol of children’s happiness.

Attempts to get at Grandfather Frost’s folkloric roots are understandable, but fraught. Same with the Snow Maiden. Evidence for her “existence” was desperately sought after by one of the mayors of Kostroma in his region. The ethnographers' complaints (“there is insufficient ethnographic data to confirm these facts”) were met with a strict order to “Dig deeper!”

Of course, signs of Grandfather Frost are to be found in folklore and older literary tales. But Grandfather Frost as children since the fifties know him is a purely literary construction with clear creators. They were Lev Kassil and Sergei Mikhalkov, giants of children’s literature of the time. It was in their scripts, written for the country’s main holiday play, that the image of Grandfather Frost appears and “blossoms.” It’s brilliantly constructed, answering to the conscious and unconscious hopes of the post-war generations and replacing the earthly and heavenly gods that had been brought low, while filling the ranks of the collective missing grandfathers. Around that time, after Stalin’s cult of personality had been exposed and denounced, “Grandpa Lenin” became a popular turn of phrase. Stalin had been the “Great Father,” a Father of the People, a huge rock-solid idol, while Lenin inhabited a different ideological register, with his air of “humanity.” “Grandpa Lenin always loved kids,” we were told. There was also “Grandpa Durov,” the famed animal trainer. Chukovsky, the children’s poet, had become a “Grandpa” by then, too. So, too, with Grandfather Frost: children commonly address him as Dedushka.

Ded (“Grandfather”) is patriarchal, and Dedushka (“Grandpa”) feels kinder, more familiar. In the sixties, there was a visible shortage of grandfathers. Grandpas were those who’d been to war. And a great many never came back….

The Snow Maiden emphasized Grandfather Frost’s special connection to children. Folklore scholars were not able to find enough of the necessary material about her and all she inherited from her literary prototypes was the name and overall idea. No one had made her from snow and there was no love interest. Her obvious lack of parents didn’t matter much. No one asked where she came from, a granddaughter alongside a grandfather. The Snow Maiden has no personal history. That’s another characteristic sign of the time—if there’s a gap in your history, it’s better not to dig around in the past. It’s safer that way. Better enjoy what you have in the here and now.

If our children don’t learn the price, so be it. That’s the basis of a happy childhood, which is exactly what Grandfather Frost stands for.

I know I’m making things more complicated. But isn’t it all true?

By the way, a year after my grandmother had exposed Grandfather Frost, my dream suddenly came true. I got the role of the Snow Maiden in the New Year play. I’d always been a snowflake, something that had started to become almost embarrassing, but in the end I finally got to be the Snow Maiden. I donned the wig with the long white braids.

And I’m still trying to figure out if all of this had any effect on my later life.

Marina Aromshtam
Translated from the Russian by Alisa Cherkasova 

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