My daughter was seven years old when she realized that Santa Claus wasn’t to be trusted.
He had received the letter from Lapland with all of her usual recommendations. She was perhaps hoping that it would go through faster, as the mail came from a frozen location.
She was disappointed to discover that her packages did not include the items she was looking for when she finally opened them.
These were filled with Soviet products of varying colors and dangers, inhaling the last enchantments that existed during the 1930s.
Mrs Hitchens had queued fiercely to buy these delights in the colossal Children’s World department store, which stood just across the road from KGB headquarters.
Christmas in the Evil Empire was a different experience, but not necessarily worse.
The festival had been banned in Soviet Moscow by the time that we arrived to visit.
The young Pioneers are no longer required to patrol the streets looking for Christmas tree subversives, just as they did in the Leninist era.
The air no longer trembled with the sound of cathedrals being dynamited, or of great bells being torn from their towers and spitefully smashed, as it had done in Stalin’s day.
Even attempts were made to rebuild some of the Orthodox churches or monasteries that had been desecrated by being used as reformatories, warehouses, and other uses.
The League of the Militant Godless (once a large semi-official group dedicated to mockery, hatred of God and priests, was quietly extinct during the war on Hitler. God was a helpful Comrade during this odd period.
He was exiled, and his cancellation order was cancelled once more. But not with the same disgust as before.
The Western Nativity Festival was, in all cases, too late for the remaining Russians, who managed to keep their faith despite decades of violence, destruction, intimidation, and persecution.
Orthodox Christmas falls in January, even though it is still held to a different calendar. In 1990, Anglican Christmas was still considered a private matter in Soviet Capital.
At seven years of age, my daughter realized Santa Claus wasn’t to be trusted when she was visiting Moscow Christmas Eve 1990. Pictured: Peter Hitchens in Moscow, 1984
St Andrew’s Anglican Church, in Victorian times the centre of a thriving English community on the very borders of Western civilisation, was still at that time requisitioned by a cold-hearted atheist government, and forced to serve as a state-run recording studio. We were left with a worn-out copy of the 1662 Prayer Book.
The Kremlin attempted to erase all memories of the birth and death of Our Savior from everyday life. This was especially true for children.
It had instead encouraged an enormous celebration of the New Year just days before the Orthodox Nativity.
Stalin even gave up his initial attempt to eliminate the Russian Santa Claus. He was a white-bearded, hard-drinking character named Ded Moroz (Grandfather frost) with his female subordinate the Snow Maiden.
They were too popular so the Communist Party had to repurpose them for the new order.
The atheist New Year celebrations included a Communist Christmas Tree that looked suspiciously similar to a Christmas tree, unless it was decorated with an official red Star.
The New Year’s feast was massive, impressive, and difficult to overlook. We lived on a street that was enormously wide, built to accommodate giants.
It roared day and night with dirty, spluttering vehicles, its centre lane much used by the Politburo’s huge, snarling limousines. Even this highway was quiet for the holiday.
In that city it was incredible to witness the Christmas lights being turned on. It made it seem as bright and beautiful as an American capital for just a few hours. However, this celebration was not for us. It was our enemy. Every year since, the New Year has been a constant struggle for me.
So in 1990, our first Christmas in the Russian capital – and what would turn out to be the last Christmas in the USSR – our Western Christian arrangements were pretty much up to us, in the few square yards we occupied.
My wife is the daughter and granddaughter to troublemaking journalists. I was not surprised by the corrupting yet thrilling chaos of the dying Communism. Pictured: Eve Hitchens’ Soviet driving licence
How were we supposed to distinguish it from Soviet life’s normal and crazy times? We didn’t, unlike some expatriates, rush back to home every chance we got.
Our decision to move to Moscow was made, and it wasn’t something we regretted. It was perilous to return home even for just a few days back in those days.
The hardened shell of grim humor and shared adversity that you’d built over many months was quickly lost. You had to spend weeks trying to re-adjust your life. We thought it was better to just endure the pain.
This is a way to discover surprising pleasures. Family holidays were taken in Samarkand and on the Black Sea. We also learned how to tip waiters and doormen at popular Soviet restaurants. Weekends away were spent in Leningrad and Kiev.
My wife was the granddaughter and daughter of troublemaking journalists. She wasn’t dismayed at the corrupt, yet sometimes thrilling, confusion that is dying Communism. It was a fascinating time for us to have been together in the Communist world.
It was not surprising that she had taken down my Christmas Eve report from Bucharest while I concealed under my bed, as tracer bullets flew past my hotel. ‘Whatever is that noise?’ she asked me at one point.
Our mangled Volvo, rammed by a Soviet truck and almost impossible to fix, was driven down the streets of enormous traffic jams and into huge craters full of freezing chocolate-coloured mud. She didn’t mind.
Constructing a family Christmas was no easy task in the capital city of the Evil Empire. So, to her, we were able to owe two beautiful Christmases.
So in 1990, our first Christmas in the Russian capital – and what would turn out to be the last Christmas in the USSR – our Western Christian arrangements were pretty much up to us, in the few square yards we occupied
First and foremost, however, was our gorgeous, but illegally rented apartment. With its haunting view across the mystery city and our neighbor who were mostly KGB High-ups, or worse, it was most profound.
Brezhnevs lived in large flat at the other side of snowy courtyard. They were accompanied by strict Russian Grandmas to keep an eye on their surroundings.
My wife managed to turn this somewhat sinister spot into a home and place of hospitality for the small group of Westerners who were part in our adventures.
I can’t now work out exactly when our Christmas dinner was supposed to be in 1990, because it was delayed and disrupted so many times as I and our guests had to repeatedly rush off to the telephone.
The Congress of People’s Deputies was in session and for the first time was functioning quite like a real parliament, and December 25 was just another day of unpredictable events and news.
The resignation of Eduard Shevardnadze as the foreign minister was a melodramatic gesture of defiance. Also, the threat of dictatorship was averted by Gennady Yayev being appointed vice-president.
Shevardnadze had every right to be worried. Yanayev would, some months later, lead a Stalinist Putsch, drunken and shaking. The fall of the Soviet Union seems inevitable now, but it didn’t then.
The old KGB guard, our neighbors, were enraged by communist violence and spite. Others would prefer to die rather than surrender power.
I was horrified to see the violence that took place in Vilnius just a few days after seeing it.
But in the midst of it we made a ‘lighted island of happiness and peace’, as Winston Churchill described another embattled Christmas long ago.
The Christmas celebrations in the Evil Empire were different. The festival had been banned in Soviet Moscow by the time that we arrived to visit, just as the Gorbachev era was ending. Photo: Hitchens Soviet ID card
The tree was easy – we simply converted a scrawny Soviet New Year tree with decorations brought from home and somehow got past the Soviet customs.
However, the memorable moment was in the food.
Moscow was the capital of an Asian or Caucasian empire in 1990.
My wife had become skilled at negotiating in the gangster-haunted markets of Moscow, most of them near one of the great railway stations which were the gateways to the USSR’s colonial dominions in the Caucasus, on the Black Sea and stretching into central Asia.
People who sold in these markets were usually people who have grown and prepared the produce. They also traveled many hundreds of miles on trains to get a small income from Muscovites who are well-off.
My wife used delicious Caspian Sea dried fruits and Armenian brandy to make the Christmas pudding.
These are the more traditional, powerful tastes that our grandparents may have had. The best Christmas pudding that I’ve ever had.
Georgia supplied the wines – the wistful red Mukuzani, unlike any Western vintage, and the astringent white Tsinandali.
Soviet ‘champagne’, which at the time I used to joke was a form of chemical warfare, was only for the courageous or the desperate. We had only been able to do it once.
Of course, there wasn’t any turkey.
There was instead the goose. After failing to find any appealing items at the market, my wife was walking along a nearby side street when she saw the elderly woman dressed in black. She was a nervous peasant who had one item to sell.
She was clearly trying to avoid having to pay protection money to the mafia that controlled market building. It looked as though she may have magic beans, but it was enough to make her look magical.
The deal was quickly reached. We were shocked at how affordable it was and the woman got far more than she could have ever imagined.
I have never in my life eaten a more delicious goose, like a giant wild duck, not greasy as Western geese are, tasting as if it had been reared in a snowy forest – because it had been.
I still remember the dark evening and night that glittered in my mind.
There was the dirt, brown slush, and Soviet modernity. Outside there was the death agony of a state that was flailing in its fist-pounding political politics.
It contains a compilation of everything that is good about our culture as well as theirs. The book ends with a defiant reminder of Our Lord Jesus Christ, the greatest enemy of tyranny.
The Spectator Christmas Issue first featured this version.