Two May Days
Illustrated by Aleksandr Nikolaev under the pseudonym “Usto Mumin,” Two May Days portrays the disparity between Soviet Russia and Germany in the celebration of International Workers’ Day. Otherwise known as “May Day” (First of May, or Pervomai) International Workers’ Day recognizes the contributions of laborers and the working class. The holiday was established in 1891 by the Socialists and Communists of the Second International, and continues to be observed annually on the first of May. While the Soviet Union was still in existence, May Day ranked amongst the most important of its official public holidays. Elaborate military parades were held in honor of the working man, with the grandest of these occurring in Moscow’s Red Square. Nikolaev’s The Second May Day paints a picture of this day as it is celebrated in both the Soviet Union and Germany.
Two May Days follows two young boys, Sergei Litkov and Hans Stuve, as they prepare for and partake in the observance of May Day. A member of the Soviet youth organization, the Pioneers, Sergei is excited to attend a May Day celebration occurring at a nearby factory. He anticipates a joyous day filled with song, dance, and speeches. Sergei’s experience of May Day contrasts sharply with that of Hans, a German schoolboy who is imprisoned for his commitment to celebrating the holiday.
Published in 1930, Two May Days draws inspiration from the tragic occurrences of the year prior. On May 1, 1929, in Berlin, Germany, police officers responded with brutality to the May Day demonstrations of members of the Communist Party of Germany. The ensuing violence resulted in the deaths of 33 individuals, and injury to countless others. Two May Days condemns the political regime that oppressed the May Day celebrants, and glorifies those who risked their lives to exalt the common laborer.
It is important to note that Two May Days was published two years into Stalin’s first Five Year Plan (1928-1932), an effort to develop the USSR’s heavy industry while collectivizing agriculture. Nikolaev includes several details that emphasize key elements of this first Plan. For example, Sergei and his classmates parade about on tractors. Tractors played an integral role in collectivization, as peasants made use of state-provided tractors to farm their shared land. Nikolaev takes care to portray the vehicles in a positive light.
A unique feature of this book is that all the text is presented on the inside cover, before the illustrations. The narrative that accompanies Nikolaev’s illustrations was provided by Soviet author and playwright, Evgenii Shvartz. Shvartz, born October 21, 1896, was an employee of the Gosizdat (Children’s State Publishing House) as well as an author of numerous children’s books and a contributor to several youth magazines. Shvartz was also an active member of the Soviet avant-garde artists’ group, OBERIU. In this book, his commentary, which precedes all of Nikolaev’s illustrations, orients the reader in time and space, and introduces them to the characters Sergei and Hans.
While Two May Days garnered the approval of the Soviet State Publishing House, not all of Nikolaev’s works were so well received. A pupil of Malevich, Nikolaev moved to Uzbekistan after serving in the Red Army, where his artwork became heavily influenced by Central Asian tradition. Nikolaev was so enamored with the culture of the region that he converted to Islam and adopted the name “Usto Mumin,” which translates to “Faithful and Gentle Master.” While living in Uzbekistan, Nikolaev’s paintings grew increasingly homoerotic in nature. It is believed that Nikolaev’s depictions of homosexuality contributed to his sudden arrest in 1938. After four years of imprisonment, Nikolaev was released, and he spent the remaining years of his life painting and engaging in social work. He died in 1957.
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Richard Huang, Jack Allen, Erin Endres, Maya Silverberg (SLA 221, 2018)