May Day in the Soviet Union

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May Day in the Soviet Union


By: Anonymous

Date: c. 1970

Source: Photo by Keystone/Getty Images.

About the Photographer: This photograph is part of the collection at Getty Images, a worldwide provider of visual content materials to such communications groups as advertisers, broadcasters, designers, magazines, new media organizations, newspapers, and producers. The identity of the photographer is not known.


May Day's origins lie in northern Europe as a pagan festival commemorating a cross quarter day (a day falling halfway between two of the four main solar events—the two solstices and two equinoxes) and the official end of the winter months. More recently it has continued to be celebrated as an early summer festival—particularly in Britain, Germany, the Netherlands, and among some immigrant communities in the United States. It is traditionally marked with dancing around a Maypole, bonfires, and heavy drinking. Across most of Europe, the day is usually marked by a public holiday.

For the last 125 years, May Day has been appropriated by trade union and Socialist movements as a day commemorating the accomplishments of workers. It was adopted at the First Congress of the Second International (a coalition of international Socialist and workers movements) in 1889 to mark Chicago's Haymarket protests of May 1886. During the Haymarket protests, workers successfully demonstrated in favor of an eight-hour day, but during the skirmishes that broke out between police and protesters, eleven people were killed. After the Second International's Congress, May Day became a worldwide celebration of the international labor movement and was celebrated as much by workers marching in the colors of their trade unions as it was by neo-Pagan rituals.

Nowhere, however, was May Day celebrated with more fervor than in the USSR and its client states. As elsewhere, it was a public holiday with demonstrations of worker solidarity, but with the onset of the Cold War it increasingly became a propaganda show for Soviet technological achievements and military might. In Red Square, troops paraded their latest military hardware in front of huge, stage-managed crowds. Presidents of friendly regimes were invited to inspect the parades and, under effigies of Socialist heroes such as Vladimir Lenin and Karl Marx, synchronized demonstrations of dance, music, and flag waving took place. These May Day parades and demonstrations were one of the few occasions when the West was allowed a peek behind the Iron Curtain and the displays were designed to inspire either admiration or fear.

The Soviet leadership also choreographed their May Day parades as statements on contemporary global politics. In 1946, Red Army troops, recently returned from defeating Fascism in Europe, took center-stage. In 1963, shortly after the Cuban missile crisis, May Day was a defiant show of military and technological might, in which the latest weaponry was paraded through Red Square. By the late 1960s, with mounting criticism across the world of America's role in the Vietnam War, the May Day parades increasingly became a demonstration of solidarity with the Viet-Cong (whom the USSR were also covertly funding) and an attack on the perceived imperialism and brutality of America's actions in Vietnam.



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Although the origins of May Day as an international workers day lay in the United States, it was never an officially sanctioned U.S. holiday because of its associations with the deeply divisive Haymarket protests and later because of its Socialist connotations. Instead, American workers are recognized and celebrated on Labor Day, a September holiday that also informally marks the end of summer. However, as elsewhere in the world, May Day became a focal point for popular demonstrations of solidarity and discontent in the United States as well. This was especially true in the days surrounding May Day in 1970 and 1971.

Mirroring events in Red Square, protesters in Washington, DC turned May Day into a massive anti-Vietnam war protest in 1970. About 100,000 people turned out in a relatively spontaneous, but highly visible, demonstration against recent U.S. incursions into Cambodia. The following year the demonstrations were more organized and were met by huge police and National Guard resistance. Following a month of veteran protests, 500,000 people converged on Washington, DC, aiming to shut down the federal government by non-violent action. Over several days, they listened to speakers and music, manned barricades and dominated global news reports. Some 12,000 protesters were arrested.

Since the fall of Communism in Europe, May Day has tended to be marked in these countries by demonstrations of adherents to the old regime, or by those disaffected by the inequalities of the post-Communist era. May Day celebrations continue to be important events in the remaining Communist countries, such as China and Cuba, and the day is still widely observed as a public holiday across the West.

In recent years, May Day has been taken over by anti-capitalist and anti-globalization protesters. In London on May Day 2000, anti-capitalist demonstrations in and around Parliament developed into a large scale riot. Branches of McDonalds and Starbucks were vandalized, as was the cenotaph—a monument commemorating the victims of World War I and World War II—and a statue of Winston Churchill was defaced. Following these disturbances, the British government enacted legislation forbidding demonstrations within the vicinity of Parliament. The following year, police contained about 1,000 demonstrators at Oxford Circus, the busiest junction on London's main shopping street, for several hours lest there be a repeat of the previous year's violence. The police actions prompted widespread criticism, with critics complaining that the police were over-reaching themselves and barring the right to legitimate protest.

May Day protests elsewhere in the early twenty-first century have tended to reflect the concerns of individual peoples at that particular time. Thus, in 2002, the May Day demonstrations in France were directed against Fascism, since that country was experiencing a resurgence of far right political groups. In 2006, relatively small, but significantly defiant, demonstrations were held in Belarus and Zimbabwe, where opposition politicians had been incarcerated. Arguably the most significant protest of that year came in the United States, when millions of Latino immigrants staged nationwide protests against proposed immigration reform.



McCauley, Martin. Russia, America and the Cold War, 1949–1991. 2nd ed. New York: Longman, 2004.

Thompson, Bill. The Soviet Union Under Brezhnev: 1964–82. New York: Longman, 2003.

Web sites

Guardian Unlimited. "May Day Protests: Special Report." <,7369,481318,00.html> (accessed May 22, 2006).

Life. "May Day Classic Photographs." <> (accessed May 22, 2006).