Holiday in Chains: Celebrating Christmas in the Soviet Union’s Special Settlements For Deported
Throughout the 20th century, millions of Ukrainians were forced to celebrate Christmas in exile and deportation in Russia. This year is no different. Over 2.8 million Ukrainians, deported and remaining against their will in a hostile country, find themselves over a thousand kilometers from home this Christmas. Current conditions for them are unknown — likely grim — yet, we have testimonies from those who once celebrated Christmas in similar special settlements. For 20th-century deported Ukrainians, Christmas, a holiday symbolizing joy, light, hope and renewal, transformed into a symbol of resistance and defiance. In this material, we are to explore how individuals, who endured repression and displacement, celebrated Christmas. We will also tell about their efforts to uphold traditions and maintain faith in a brighter future despite the difficult conditions they were living in.
Under the slogan “religion is the opium of the people,” Soviet authorities enforced a state atheism policy. This included banning religious holidays, baptisms, and even demolishing churches. Celebrating Christmas clashed with the official Marxism-Leninism policy, aiming to cultivate a new Soviet identity, detached from traditional customs. Secular alternatives, like New Year celebrations featuring a fir tree and Father Frost (“Ded Moroz”), replaced religious festivities. Religious gatherings and rites faced persecution and restrictions; churches were closed, repurposed, or demolished.
Today, Russian authorities continue to destroy sacred structures in Ukraine. For example, Odessa’s main church, the Transfiguration Cathedral, established in 1785, was demolished in 1936 by Soviet directives, deemed culturally insignificant. Rebuilt during Ukraine’s independence, it recently sustained significant damage from a Russian missile attack on July 23, 2023.
Despite harsh conditions in Soviet special settlements, exiled Ukrainians strived to retain elements of their heritage. Facing numerous prohibitions, they persisted in practicing their customs, sustaining a connection to their origins. Integral to the traditional Ukrainian Christmas are practices like caroling with songs that celebrate Jesus’ birth, creating a Christmas nativity scene, preparing a Christmas Eve feast with twelve meatless dishes, and crafting Didukh (a straw mascot resembling a bouquet). These practices, deeply rooted in both Christian faith and pagan origins, were prohibited by the Soviet regime throughout its rule. In addition to embracing Karl Marx’s view of religion as “the opium of the people,” the USSR saw Ukrainian Christmas traditions as a form of resistance against Sovietization. However, efforts to eradicate these traditions were largely unsuccessful. Ukrainians continued to celebrate Christmas with fervor, both in their homes and while in exile.
Vera Krokis, exiled to Kolyma in the Far East of the RSFSR, shared her memories of holiday anticipation: “We scraped together a little bread… whoever had a package saved a little, whatever possible. We gathered not very loudly, a few people on the bunks, celebrated Holy Evening, singing carols like ‘God Eternal’… We kept track of the date. Someone always had a calendar and informed us. We always celebrated those holidays… Yes, we were filled with hope… but there was a time when we didn’t even believe we would survive this. In the special settlements, lack of food was one of the most acute problems. There was always a food shortage, so celebrations occurred under very modest conditions. People saved food throughout the year to be able to arrange at least some festive meal.”
Due to sparse food and harsh living conditions in the special settlements, deportees adapted as best as they could. Yevhen Tashak, relocated with his family from the Lviv region to the Chelyabinsk region at nine years old, recalled their first Christmas in exile: “Our people had already settled, cultivating gardens on barren salt flats and dividing barracks with partitions into ‘rooms’ for four families each. They preserved their customs and traditions: at Christmas, they paraded with a nativity scene… The locals openly envied us because their celebrations were much simpler and more primitive.”
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Yaroslava Hasyuk, deported at 23 to the town of Inta in the Komi Republic, recounted how they saved food throughout the year to bake a festive cake: “And we celebrated the holidays splendidly. We saved bread, dried it, ground it to a flour-like consistency. And then, we baked cakes. And we received a minuscule amount of butter, very little, just enough for twenty people to make a topping. A little sugar was saved too. We received parcels. We always celebrated. We sang. We held services. We caroled. We weren’t afraid. And when Stalin died… we sang ‘Oh in the meadow a red guelder rose.’ They even shot at us, ordering ‘Be quiet!’ They feared everything. Even songs.”
Beyond the festive dinner, an essential part of Christmas celebrations, people tried to sing carols. Maria Lutsiv, deported with her family in 1948 to Gubakha in the Molotov region, recalled: “In exile, Ukrainians maintained self-respect. They did not forget their Greek-Catholic faith, rites, customs, and traditions. Even when there was nothing to eat, on Holy Evening, my mother would light a candle, prepare a bowl with boiled peas, beets, and tea, cook beans, and evenly distribute bread. Everyone gathered at the table, grandma blessed the food, and after prayers before the image of the Mother of God, we dined.
I still remember the carols, when I myself went caroling. My mother taught me carols like ‘Sad Holy Evening in the 46th Year’ and ‘In a deep valley a star lit up’. Those I visited and caroled for expressed so much joy, wishing me happiness, goodness, health, and a safe return to my Ukraine. So our years in bondage went by.”
The Soviet government imposed severe punishments for celebrating Christmas, so Ukrainians kept their observances clandestine to avoid attracting authorities’ attention. Maria Shovgenyuk recalled how she and her friend secretly caroled in the village of Baturino, Asinovsky District, Tomsk Region of the RSFSR: “My colleague Yuliya Sobilyak and I went from house to house, visiting our fellow Ukrainians to carol for them. They gave us money in return. We sang New Year’s carols too. As was often the case, it was my mother who had taught me these songs…”.
Despite living under stringent restrictions and lacking the comforts of home, the spirit of the deported Ukrainians remained unbroken. Christmas traditions like caroling, nativity scenes, and festive dinners transcended mere cultural practices, embodying resistance, unity, and hope. These traditions helped preserve community and cultural roots, even while far from their homeland.
Today, as Russia resumes the forced deportation of Ukrainians, these historical reflections gain new relevance. Echoing their forebears, they endure conditions where home is but a memory, and the prospect of celebrating Christmas with family remains a distant dream. For the second consecutive year, Ukrainian children taken by the Russians will miss the gifts from Saint Nicholas. However, we can offer them a Christmas miracle – by keeping them in our thoughts.
Anastasiia Saenko, author
Oleksii Havryliuk & Maksym Sushchuk, editors
Sources & References:
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