Seventy-nine years ago today, on December 28th 1932, Pavel Petrovich Postyshev called for the installation of New Year trees (Yolka; literally “spruce”) in schools, children's homes, Young Pioneer Palaces, children's clubs, children's theaters and cinemas. The New Year Tree should not be confused with the Christmas tree left up till New Years (or if an artificial tree till Midsummer’s Eve); though they are both similarly decorated. The Yolka had been banned since 1916; first by the Ukrainian Synod because it was seen as German (the enemy in WWI), then by the Russian SFSR because it was “bourgeois and religious”. Resurrecting the tradition invigorated a resurgence of New Years Day celebrations across the USSR. It was party time, and people thought this was a “good thing”.
Pavel was not your typical early 20th century Martha Stewart. Five years before his Yolka letter Pavel had been secretary of the Central Committee of the All-Union Communist Party (Bolshevik) in Moscow where he was in charge of propaganda. I think he kept a little of the propaganda flair when he moved to the Ukraine (he would eventually head the Kyiv Oblast) because in 1932 fancy new media items began popping up there.
The first were a series of Agitprop films which depicted peasants as counterrevolutionaries hiding grain and potatoes at the time when workers, who were constructing the “bright future” of socialism, were starving. At the same time (late 1932) Pavel had State police and party brigades scouring the Ukrainian countryside collecting up anything that looked like food. The name Agitprop came from “Department for Agitation and Propaganda”, which was part of the Central and regional committees of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. The department was later renamed Ideological Department. People in the Ukraine began to go hungry. In January 1933 Ukraine's borders were sealed in order to prevent Ukrainian peasant from fleeing to other republics. 190,000 people were forcibly stopped at the border.
The depictions of Ukrainian peasants as counterrevolutionaries was not just the product of good character development as Stalin was convinced that the Ukraine was a hotbed of "nationalist deviation". Stalin wanted Pavel to clean this out. Pavel started out strong by ousting 100,000 people from the Ukrainian communist party in his first year there(he would oust another 168,000 by 1938). In order to weaken any popular support for this huge number of defrocked communists Pavel hatched a plan to thin out the Ukrainian population. Eventually the implementation of that plan would be called the Holodomor.
In 1933 the soviets began putting up catchy propaganda posters which read “To eat your own children is a barbarian act”. Over 2,500 people would be convicted of cannibalism during the Holodomor.
From 1937 on a marvelous New Year Tree was erected at the Moscow Palace of Unions. An invitation to the Yolka at the Palace of Unions became a great honor for Soviet children.