22 Dec Speaking Of Decembers
As December is on its way out, taking the year with it, it occurred to me how much this month contributed to history. Here is what I remembered, in no particular order.
Eighty years ago the first Kindertransport group arrived in Great Britain.
Eventually, ten thousand lucky Jewish children, mostly from Nazi Germany and Austria, and also Eastern Europe, escaped the Holocaust thanks to this rescue effort organized by Jewish and Quaker organizations. The majority of the families left behind perished in concentration camps.
Also eighty years ago, the USSR was expelled from the League of Nations, the predecessor to the United Nations, whose first meeting took place in December – when else? It didn’t like the Soviet invasion of Finland. Incidentally, the world has that war to thank for the Molotov cocktail.
And if this does not speak volumes for the Finnish sense of humor (to say nothing about their common sense), the song Njet Molotov surely does.
A group of Russian aristocrats assassinated Grigori Rasputin, a supposed mystic and healer of Tsar’s son’s hemophilia. They didn’t like his influence over the royal family or his less than stellar personal reputation. It was too late though: the Tsar abdicated two months later and the rest is, well, history.
A 101 years ago, and a year after the Rasputin drama, KGB was born. It began its life as Cheka and went through GPU, OGPU, GUGB, NKGB, MGB, MVD before arriving at its most-recognizable abbreviation. In 1991, appropriately the day before the 74th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution, the name ceased to exist. But the organization is alive as FSB.
I was a teenager when Shostakovich’s 13th symphony titled Babi Yar and based on the Yevtushenko’s poem Babi Yar was performed in Moscow. We learned of the trials and tribulations preceding it from the Voice of America.
Almost without fear, people admired, thanked, worshipped the poet. The tired clichés that the newspapers threw at him – a pigmy who forgot his roots; a trampler on the sacred Lenin’s heritage – were laughable. The poem was published! The symphony was performed! If that was not open revolt I didn’t know what was.
The Law of the Land
In my time, Stalin Constitution Day, December 5, was a holiday, a red-letter day.
Adopted in 1936, during the peak of Great Terror, it defined USSR as a “socialist state of workers and peasants” and guaranteed all the rights and freedoms mankind could think of, including the right to rest and leisure.
Of course, Soviet people understood that it was one thing to list freedoms and it’s quite another to, well, take them at face value. With my luck, no sooner did I emigrate than a new version of the constitution took effect, though not in December.
Prohibition in the United States ended on December 5, 1933
by passing the Twenty-first Amendment to the Constitution that repealed the Eighteenth Amendment that had banned alcohol 15 years earlier.
The Rise and the Fall
The massive statue of Lenin in Kiev had a profound December history. Considered a work of art and even exhibited at the New York World’s Fair before WWII, it was installed on December 5, 1946, on the tenth anniversary of Stalin Constitution.
On December 8, 2013, rioters toppled the sacred figure.
To add insult to injury, they replaced it with a gold-painted toilet bowl. Whether they timed their action to mark the old constitution is not clear.
We’re down to just a few nuggets.
Stalin, Mao Zedong, and Brezhnev were born in December.
USSR was formally established on December 30, 1922. At the time the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics consisted of Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, and the short-lived Transcaucasian Federation.
USSR formally collapsed on December 26, 1991. At the time it consisted of 15 republics that each became an independent state.
And the last but not least: my home state of Illinois joined the Union – I mean the Union of the United States – two hundred years ago, on 12/3/1818.