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This Month in History

May 1, 1890: The first international celebration of May 1 as a workers’ holiday

By the end of the 19th century, the labor movement had selected May 1 — the traditional start of the sowing season — as a holiday for workers. On May 1, 1886, workers in the United States organized demonstrations, prompting a conflict with police and the death of four demonstrators. In their memory, the Paris Congress of the Second International declared May 1 a day of solidarity among all the world’s workers, to be observed every year with demonstrations of social demands. In Russia, May 1 was first openly observed in 1917, after the February Revolution. In the Soviet Union, May 1 demonstrations turned into a formal and required annual ritual which brought people together and marked the coming of spring. In 1992, May 1 was officially named the holiday of spring and labor.

May 1, 1945: The Soviet flag is raised over the Reichstag in Berlin.

Following a bloody two-day battle for the Reichstag in which thousands were killed and wounded, a unit of the 2 infantry division of the Soviet Army entered the building. The red flag was raised on the roof of the Reichstag in the early morning of May 1 by Lieutenant Alexei Berest, Sergeant Mikhail Egorov, and Meliton Kantaria of a division from the 1 Belorussian front. Although it has been established that soldiers from various divisions had placed flags on the roof of the Reichstag both before and after this, in official Soviet and Russian historiography it is these three men who are credited with raising the banner of victory.

May 2, 1936: Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf” premieres in Moscow.

The story of Peter and the Wolf is based on a traditional Russian fairy tale. Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev set the story to music for his son. The Prokofiev symphony includes a rendition of the story spoken by a narrator with orchestral accompaniment. Its enormous popularity has led to many recordings and many different adaptations, but the Prokofiev score, with its memorable motifs for the main characters, remains a staple of children’s music worldwide.

May 5, 1849: Fyodor Dostoevsky is arrested.

The author who would go on to write such classics of Russian and world literature as The Brothers Karamazov and Crime and Punishment was arrested and imprisoned on charges of antitsarist political activity. He was tried and received a death sentence, which was commuted to four years hard labor at a Siberian prison camp.

May 7, 1895: Alexander Popov demonstrates an original invention that would become the radio.

Although this demonstration would become recognized as a historic achievement and the day would be celebrated in the Russian Federation as Radio Day, there is controversy among historians as to whether Popov Italian scientist Guglielmo Marconi should receive credit for inventing the radio. Popov maintained that the “emission and reception of signals by Marconi by means of electric oscillations was nothing new. In America, the famous engineer Nikola Tesla carried out the same experiments in 1893.” Marconi’s reputation is based largely on commercializing a practical system: His demonstrations of radio use for wireless communications, introduction of the first transatlantic radio service, and role in constructing the first stations for the British shortwave service have marked his place in history.

May 8, 1984: The Soviet National Olympic Committee decides to boycott the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.

After the U.S.-led boycott of the Moscow 1980 Olympic Games that was a part of a series of actions to protest the December 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, it was not surprising that the Soviet Union organized a revenge boycott of the1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. The decision was based on the threats of violation addressing Soviet athletes but actually was purely political. This time 14 nations stayed away - but those nations had accounted for 58 percent of the gold medals that had been awarded at the previous Summer Olympics in1976.

May 9, 1945: Nazi Germany’s surrender to the USSR marks the end of the Great Patriotic War.

Two separate acts of surrender ended World War II in Europe: The Third Reich’s capitulation to the Allied nations was signed in the French city of Reims on May 8, 1945, the date known in the West as Victory in Europe (V-E) Day. However, Soviet premier Joseph Stalin was displeased by these events, wanting the official German surrender to be accepted by the envoy of the USSR’s Supreme Command and signed only in Berlin by Soviet Commander Marshal Zhukov. Therefore, another ceremony was organized on the outskirts of Berlin late in the evening on May 8, when it was already May 9 in Moscow. For this reason, in the Soviet Union May 9 was considered the official day of the Allied victory over the Nazis. Victory Day, continues to be observed in Russia and most post-Soviet states with ceremonial military parades, the most prominent of which is held in Moscow’s Red Square.

May 15, 1935: The first line of the Moscow metro opens.

Four years after the Central Committee’s approval of the plans to build a metro system in Moscow, the first branches of the new system, consisting of 11.2 kilometers of track connecting Sokolniki, Park Kultury, Okhotny Ryad, and Smolenskaya stations, opened to passengers.

May 16, 1972: Russian poet Joseph Brodsky is ordered to leave the USSR.

Arrested in the mid-1960s and charged with “parasitism” by the Soviet authorities, the poet spent years in exile and prison before being expelled from the Soviet Union. He moved to the United States, where he achieved major success as an English language poet and essayist. In 1987, he won the Nobel Prize for Literature, the fifth Russian-born writer to receive the award.

May 21, 1842: The first volume of Nikolai Gogol’s Dead Souls is published.

As in many of Gogol’s short stories, the social criticism of Dead Souls, Gogol’s only novel, is communicated primarily through absurd and hilarious satire. In Russia prior to 1861, landowners were permitted to own serfs to farm their land. These serfs were for most purposes considered the property of the landowner, and could be bought, sold, or mortgaged against, as any other chattel. To count serfs, the measure word “soul” was used. The plot of the novel relies on “dead souls” which are still accounted for in property registers.

May 27, 1703: Peter the Great founds Saint-Petersburg.

May 28, 1928 Maxim Gorky returns to the Soviet Union from Italy.

On May 1, 1703, Peter the Great took the Swedish fortress of Nyenskans and the city Nyen, on the Neva River. Tsar Peter founded his city after reconquering the land from Sweden in the Great Northern War, naming it after his patron saint, the apostle Peter and borrowing the original name from the Dutch Sankt Pieterburg.

The Russian political activist and author who is considered the founder of socialist realism in literature, became disillusioned with the soviet political scene that emerged after the October Revolution of 1917. From 1921 to 1929 Gorky lived abroad, mostly in Italy, before returning to the Soviet Union, a move said to be motivated by material needs. He was decorated with the Order of Lenin and given a mansion in Moscow (now the Gorky Museum, see article on page 26) and a dacha in the suburbs. One of Moscow’s main streets, Tverskaya, was renamed in his honor, as was the city of his birth. Thus the Soviet government celebrated a major propaganda victory. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the street reverted to its pre-Soviet name, but the Moscow park named for the author continues to bear his name.


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