The Cold War is long over and, unless you’re a labor organizer or a communist, May 1st is probably just another day on the calendar.
In leftist and Soviet-allied regimes around the world, dictators would send their militaries into major public areas in ostentatious shows of authority and force. There was some irony in these over-the-top celebrations: In the course of heralding the ideological underpinnings of Soviet-allied regimes, those governments only demonstrated how rapidly communist regimes had morphed into brutal military dictatorships.
Here are some of the best pictures we found of May 1st military parades from the Cold War period:
The Soviets would roll out their big guns for May Day. Here, 2 intercontinental ballistic missiles made their way across Red Square in 1968.
Tanks and rocket launchers would stream through the center of the Soviet capital …
… along with nuclear-capable missiles, like these, which also appeared at the 1968 parade.
Anti-American messages made their way into the May Day parades as well, such as during this parade in early 1980s Moscow.
The Soviet Union’s top leadership attended and reviewed the military from a platform on top of Lenin’s tomb in Red Square — here’s Soviet premier Leonid Brezhnev at the 1980 May Day parade.
May Day military parades were fixtures throughout the Soviet bloc. On May Day in 1956, high-ranking East German officials and thousands of soldiers marched through East Berlin …
… creating scenes that didn’t look so different from Nazi military marches in the city less than 15 years earlier.
The parade, which included dozens of military motorcycles with accompanying sidecars, was also a show of force aimed at the British, French, and US troops stationed in West Berlin.
There were parades in other parts of communist Europe as well. This image is from the 1965 May Day parade in Prague, in the former Czechoslovakia.
The 1965 May Day parade took place just 3 years before the crackdown and Soviet military invasion that crushed the “Prague Spring,” the political and social liberalization that took hold in the country in 1968.
These kinds of demonstrations of force weren’t just aimed at the “imperialists” in western Europe, but at the people inside the countries themselves.
Just 3 years after these pictures were taken, the communist government and the Soviet military turned some of these same guns against Czech protesters (although these anti-vehicular missiles would have been of limited use).
There were military-related May Day festivities in other parts of the communist world. Here, Chinese soldiers march through Tiananmen Square in Beijing on May Day, 1967, the year after Mao Zedong launched the disastrous Cultural Revolution.
Red Guard units, or paramilitary youth factions mobilized during the Cultural Revolution, marched into the center of the Chinese capital with placards and banners.
There were performers as well, such as this young woman.
May Day was a chance for communist Cuba to flex its muscles as well. The 1961 May Day Parade in Havana included this float depicting “the action on Giron Beach where Fidel Castro’s forces defeated invaders” during the ill-fated Bay of Pigs invasion in April of that year, according to the Associated Press.
Cuban athletes carried portraits of Raul and Fidel Castro, along with an image of communist philosopher Karl Marx …
… while brand-new Czech-built armored tanks provided by the Soviet bloc streamed through central Havana.
There would be signs of unrest at May Day parades as the Cold War wore on. Here, Polish military dictator Wojciech Jaruzelski speaks at the 1983 May Day parade in Warsaw. Wide-scale protests were unfolding nearby, and Jaruzelski was forced to repeal a state of martial law in mid-July of that year — although he stayed in power until 1990.
The 1988 May Day parade in East Berlin — on the second-to-last May Day before the Berlin Wall fell — there were already signs the end might be nearing for European communism. The parade had a large police presence after what the Associated Press described as “widespread rumors that dissidents would try to disrupt the parade.” These policeman already look like they’re fighting a losing battle.
As communism disintegrated, May Day parades could themselves be signs that the ideology’s days were numbered. In this 1990 photo, pro-Moscow communists in Lithuania organized a May Day parade as a show of force in opposition to the Baltic country’s secession from the Soviet Union. Lithuania had declared independence on March 11th.
The Cold War is over, and few communist regimes remain. Events like the 1946 parade in Kiev, where marchers carried giant photos of Josef Stalin, are a thing of the past.
You’ve seen Soviet-era May Day parades