A Very Soviet Christmas: Dziga Vertov’s Soviet Toys and the reconceptualization of religious holiday
A hammer and sickle as the centrepiece of a Christmas tree is not a common decoration, but in Dziga Vertov's 1924 animation Soviet Toys, the common ideological symbol of the Soviet Union serves as the seasonal object to celebrate. Through the use of Vertov's symbolism, the hammer and sickle act as a replacement for the religious symbols Christmas is often associated with, working hard to disassociate the holiday from its Christian associations. Instead, Soviet Toys insists on a new way to commemorate and observe Christmas by proudly displaying the secular symbol of the hammer and sickle front and centre.
Soviet Toys is an early Soviet propaganda animated short which centres on a businessman's corruption and subsequent downfall at the hands of various members of Soviet society, including the common worker and soldiers of the Red Army. In two scenes of Vertov's film, the common Christmas tree is not a focal point, but instead serves as a backdrop. In the first scene, the characters are all lined up in front of a Christmas tree, in a way reminiscent of festive decorations or a child's toys being proudly displayed. These characters then play out the narrative of Soviet Toys. This scene foregrounds the figurative "toys": several characters from Russian society, such as two priests, two workers, a Red Army soldier and finally a NEPman and his society woman.1 As Lora Wheeler Mjolsness explains, a NEPman was a business person at the time of the New Economic Policy, which focused on relaxing socialist economic principles to allow limited free enterprise, noting that "many urban workers resented the profits made by NEPmen, businessmen and women who took advantage of the opportunities for their own profits."2 The NEPman is depicted selfishly devouring a Christmas feast intended for a table full of people. This act of gluttony represents the greed of Christmas consumerism and, in the course of the film, the NEPman gets his comeuppance from the workers and the Red Army.
The second scene to feature the Christmas tree, the penultimate scene of the animation, shows a newly transformed tree created by the characters described above merging into one. This tree becomes emblazoned with the hammer and sickle, which overshadows the tree and offers an alternative symbol to celebrate Christmas with, one that resonates with the Soviet people in 1924.
Soviet Toys is not a conventional Christmas animated feature, such as the 1964 television special A Charlie Brown Christmas (Bill Melendez) or the 1966 feature How the Grinch Stole Christmas (Chuck Jones and Ben Washam). Both of these films focus heavily on their perceived meanings of Christmas, notably the birth of Jesus Christ and peace and goodwill to men in A Charlie Brown Christmas and the spirit of togetherness in How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Unlike these festive animations, Soviet Toys does not seek to instil an existing Christmas message. Instead it dismantles existing notions and rebuild Christmas as one for the common worker. Dziga Vertov was a strong advocate of Kino-eye, a theory of principles strongly centred on the presentation of truth through filmmaking. Due to the cultural implications of Soviet Toys, his theorising of Kino-eye is important to the contexts that the film presents in Russia of 1924. As Vertov wrote: "Kino-eye plunges into the seeming chaos of life to find in life itself the response to an assigned theme. To find the resultant force amongst the million phenomena related to the given theme."3 Although Vertov's sentiment here applies to his whole Kino-eye movement, which as he says "makes use of every possible kind of shooting technique",4 it is especially relevant to his use in animation, as Vertov is working within the realms of the chaos of life and he is able to use symbolism throughout the animation to represent the problems rife in Soviet society. These are demonstrated by the repeated use of animation techniques that were not yet possible in live action film, the most common being transformation, such as characters transforming into a Christmas tree, the NEPman morphing into a pig to symbolise his greed or two workers merging into one symbiotic worker, representative of the collective. Soviet Toys is a product of what Vertov saw as the problems of the then Soviet Union and he uses the film as an exploration of solutions. Through his exalted depictions of unity, the destruction of corruption and greed and the bolstering and promotion of collective institutions such as the People's Bank, Vertov promotes the change needed in society. Later in the film even more extreme and drastic actions are taken, as we see the hanging of the NEPman and his accomplices, including the society woman and the priests, who are shown to be corrupt. These hangings then form decoration for the Red Army, which transforms into a Christmas tree. This vision of the holiday revised with Soviet symbols and morality in Soviet Toys presents a new Christmas message specific to the Soviet sentiment of the time. The film can even be interpreted as including the communist equivalent to Christmas consumerism, as the animation features two references to the state-sanctioned Goskino production company, which is a nod to a state-supported business venture. Vertov used Soviet Toys as viable advertisement platform within his own animation to offer a solution to the private business practices of the NEPman in the form of public, collective institutions.
Traditional Christmas celebrations in many parts of the Soviet Union often involved a symbolic twelve-dish feast and attending extensive religious ceremonies over Christmas eve. The Russian Orthodox church was targeted by the Soviet Union's anti-religious campaigns and is represented in a negative light in Soviet Toys. Vertov's placement of the hammer and sickle over the Christmas tree refocuses and seeks to redefine the spirit and meaning of Christmas (as a secular communist occasion) instead of a religious occasion for the Russian Orthodox Church to spread and celebrate. In particular, Mjolsness mentions that division and weakness were rife within the church at the time of the production of Soviet Toys.5 This division is demonstrated in the animation when the two priests fight while a Soviet worker looks on with glee, revelling in the dysfunction of the two characters tearing each other apart. With the Church in disarray, the Christmas celebration in Soviet Toys is instead reconceptualised as a celebration for the people and their triumph over the hurdles that plagued Soviet society. The film in this way attempts to overcome and revolutionise the traditional Christmas celebration, making it not a holiday of a church or institution but of the Soviet people, whose importance is emphasised by the transformation of the people themselves – workers and soldiers in particular – into the Christmas tree.
Soviet Toys' promotion of a reframing and reconceptualisation of the Christmas holiday is not very different from the commercialisation of Christmas in the west, although venturing in the opposite direction. Instead of the Christmas tree representing the Christmas celebration as one commonly associated with consumerism, greed and religious overtones, the hammer and sickle represents a holiday that has been repurposed for the Soviet people, one to celebrate the destruction of corruption, religiosity and greed and their replacement by the values and principles of the early Soviet Union.