While the post-Cold War 1991 dissolution of the Soviet Union brought the promise of closer relations and great cultural exchange between the United States and “Mother Russia,” recent political tensions between the two countries suggest the divide still exists, possible deeper than before. Two shows running this holiday season at the Museum of Russian Icons have the goal of serving to show visitors that even when the Space Age and threat of Nuclear War cast us as arch enemies, our holiday traditions suggested that our similarities were much greater than our leaders may have wanted us to believe.
Curator Laura Garrity-Arquitt said the museum had wanted to present a show of Soviet holiday ornaments for some time but had “the worst luck finding a collection or exhibit available nearby where it would fit in our budget.”
Enter collector Frank Sciacca, who had loaned the museum many of the items featured in its “Rushnyky: Sacred Ukrainian Textiles” exhibition earlier this year. “While he was here, he told us about some of his other collections,” Garrity-Arquitt said. “He had mentioned he had a collection of Russian Soviet toys and that he was looking for a home for them, and we got very excited. And then we said, ‘And what else might you have?’ and he had the Soviet holiday ornaments.”
The resulting “Corncobs to Cosmonauts: Redefining the Holidays during the Soviet Era” exhibition will feature 100 glass ornaments and 50 to 75 toys — many which will look and feel familiar to American audiences. Most are from the 1950s and 1960s.
The center of the show’s exhibition area will feature synthetic evergreen trees trimmed in gold and silver with bobbles and red stars on top to give it the feel of a Soviet and Russian-style New Year’s tree. A section of beautiful glass blown translucent and sea shell ornaments, some with sea horses glued onto them, will be on display nearby.
The show’s title, “Corncobs to Cosmonauts,” was inspired by, in part, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev’s 1959 visit to the United States, which included a visit to an Iowa farming community. He returned home and introduced a huge push to install corn as a major Russian crop, expecting to duplicate the success he had seen overseas. After two unusually warm summers allowed for strong harvests, the campaign was abandoned after the region’s more traditional colder and shorter growing season returned, leaving the Soviet corn crops, which did not take on the foreign soil, dying and rotting.
During the short-lived drive, however, as corncobs had been a popular toy for Midwestern U.S. children, their likeness and other vegetables were turned into toys and ornaments for Soviet children as well.
They were joined by items celebrating the Soviet space program, whose Sputnik 1 was the first object sent into space in 1957, followed by the first human in space, Yuri Gagarin, in 1961. Items in the exhibition include ornaments featuring the likeness of Cosmonauts and Sputnik.