How Soviet Russia Banished Their Version of Santa Claus, Then Brought Him Back to Spread Communist Cheer

Around the world there are different versions of the jolly, bearded man who gives gifts to children in December or, in some countries, January. Unlike the bloated, red-coated father Christmas of the West, Russia’s Santa Claus, known as Ded Moroz (Grandfather Frost), is slender with a wizard-like flowing beard and he wears a long robe that comes in different colors, such as blue and white.
He is assisted not by elves, but by his beautiful granddaughter Snegurochka (Snow Maiden). His sleigh is powered not by reindeers, but three steely horses. What really sets Russia’s Santa Claus apart from his Western counterpart is the turbulent century that he’s faced. He has survived a violent social and political revolution that saw him go from beloved to banned as a subversive element, then beloved again and hailed as a symbol of the true Russian spirit.

The trouble for Ded Moroz and his granddaughter sidekick, who originate from pagan Slavic mythology, began with the creation of the Soviet Union in 1922. Under the new communist regime, which was built on the promise of creating social equality, religion was banned as it was deemed a bourgeois instrument to repress the working class. Many clergy and some believers of the Russian Orthodox Church were sent to labor camps or killed. In 1928, Ded Moroz was banished into exile having been “unmasked as an ally of the priest and the kulak [supposedly rich peasants who the communist party considered a threat to their power],” Karen Petrone explains in her book, Life Has Become More Joyous, Comrades. Christmas day, celebrated on Jan. 7 in Russia and some Eastern European countries that follow the Julian calendar, was erased and all festive celebrations were forbidden. Anyone who broke the rules risked arrest.
In a sharp turn in 1935, Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin decided to bring in Ded Moroz from the cold as part of efforts to “boost his popularity and assert stability,” says Petrone, a history professor at Kentucky University. An aggressive period of collectivization between 1929 and 1932, when the government forced farmers to give up their individual lands and join collective farms, sparked violent opposition. Millions of peasants who resisted the policy were sent to prison camps. The disruption caused by collectivization led to a famine that killed at least five million people across the Soviet Union.
Stalin lifted a ban on celebrations but only on New Year’s eve to avoid giving the festivities a religious significance and instructed Ded Moroz to deliver presents on the morning of Jan. 1. He also brought back the tradition of putting up Chirstmas trees in homes, previously deemed an “economic evil” says Petrone, and rebranded them New Year’s trees. “Life has become better, comrades, life has become more joyous,” Stalin said in 1935 as he promised workers better living standards.
State-controlled footage of New Year’s eve celebrations showing happy workers dancing and drinking to the health of Stalin painted the picture of a more prosperous era. But in reality, life did not improve for the majority of the population. Such footage was part of the state propaganda machine that tried to present the Soviet Union as a “superior system” to the capitalist West that was in the grip of economic depression, says Petrone.
More than just the giver of gifts, Ded Moroz was the giver of pro communist PR. In 1949, the Associated Press reported wrote that at gatherings with children, Ded Moroz ‘customarily ends his talk with the question “to whom do we owe all the good things in socialist society?” to which it is said the children chorus reply “Stalin.”’ In the 1960s, at the height of the space race between the Soviet Union and U.S., Ded Moroz appeared in flying rockets on cards and posters, some with the caption: “Ded Moroz is seriously ready for the space flight.”

Ded Moroz sees off a rocket in a 1963 postcard. Katya Zykova/

PostcardWatch USSR/Etsy.comA 1962 New Year’s card shows Ded Moroz holding a boy who waves a communist flag
Meanwhile, some U.S. officials used Ded Moroz to highlight the supposed dangers of ending religious practices. In 1966, Senator Joseph McCarthy warned that “brutal cynicism” was on the march in the U.S., reacting to a 1962 ban on government sponsored prayer in public schools, “rivaled only by the Soviet Union where they eliminated Santa Claus and brought in Grandfather Frost. Will that satisfy the children of America?”
As communism began to fall across Europe in 1989, Ded Moroz fell out of favor in some satellite states in eastern Europe, where the Russian gift-giver had been exported. Countries such as Bulgaria and Romania restored their original versions of Santa Claus as they returned to their old customs.
When Western cultural influence began to seep into the new capitalist Russia in the 1990s and with it, Coca Cola billboards featuring a beaming Western Santa and ornaments of the tubby man in store fronts, Ded Moroz decided to get into business. In 1998, then Moscow mayor Yuri Luzhkov and local authorities marketed Veliky Ustyug, a small town surrounded by pine forest in the northern region of Vologda, as the home of Ded Moroz and built him a 12-room wooden palace. Open all year round, the palace draws in about 250,000 guests annually. Guests can rent cottages near his residence, where they have access to a swimming pool, sports facilities such as skis and sledges, a restaurant and a New Year’s souvenirs store. In the capital Moscow, Ded Moroz has branches in Kuzminki Park, and on the 55th floor of the Imperia Tower in the city center for visitors over the New Year. Ded Moroz and Snegurochka regularly feature in adverts, including for Pepsi and Russia’s Sberbank.
Ded Moroz is still the most popular gift-giver in today’s Russia and the New Year is the main winter holiday. But there seems to be a rivalry between the Slavic wizard, who some politicians promote as a true symbol of Russia’s spirit, and his Western peer who is often viewed as an “imposter”.
In 2008, then-Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who had been taking steps to revive Soviet nostalgia and drawing closer ties with the Russian Orthodox Church visited Ded Moroz’s wooden palace. The same year, Luzhkov said: “Take a look at our huge, handsome Ded Moroz. The puny Santa Claus is a far cry from him!” after escorting Ded Moroz through central Moscow. Boris Gryzlov, a parliament speaker at the time, declared: “No one will ever be able to take away Ded Moroz from Russia—not Santa Claus nor any other imposters.”
Some Russians feel very passionately about their traditional winter figure and their desire to protect him from Western culture. In December, Denis Amosov, a marketing specialist from the Siberian city Tomsk, launched a lawsuit seeking 30 million rubles ($411,000) in compensation for “moral damages” against Coca Cola for “imposing” the Western Santa Claus in its Russian advert. He has also appealed to Putin and the Ministry of Culture to limit “Santa propaganda” in the country. In an Instagram post, Amosov said: “There is an association among adults and children that a Happy New Year is only possible with Coca Cola and Santa Claus, Russian traditions and centuries-old history are being lost”.

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The 50 Best Family Movies You May Have Missed

You probably arrived at this list because you are in search of a better class of kids’ movie—or at least something to break up the monotony. You have exhausted the catalog of golden age Disney movies on Disney+, classics like The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin. Same goes for the most popular Pixar movies, namely the Toy Story films. Maybe you binged on the Harry Potter series before it disappeared from HBO Max.
If your kids are fans of musicals, the songs from Frozen and Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music are permanently lodged in your brain. You watch It’s a Wonderful Life and Home Alone every December, but this year you’re seeking even more holiday cheer because it’s no secret we all need it more than ever.

Those are all wonderful movies. This list contains none of them. This list strives to be a little less obvious, a little more surprising. It includes new movies you can look forward to this holiday season—including Pixar’s latest, Soul, streaming on Disney+ on Christmas—as well as beloved classics that you may have forgotten about or overlooked, hidden gems that may quickly become some of your favorite films. Here are 50 of the best family movies you can seek out right now.
New Movies
Movies debuting during the 2020 holiday season

PixarTrailer for Pixar’s Soul
Soul (Disney+)
The latest from Pixar is a philosophical jaunt about life, death and what makes us who we are, co-directed by Pixar regular Pete Docter and playwright Kemp Powers. The animated movie stars Jamie Foxx as a jazz pianist and music teacher who has a near-death experience just before he’s set to get his big break at a legendary club, which lands him in a place called The Great Before. There, he’s tasked with helping a rudderless, pesky pre-human soul (Tina Fey) find what makes her tick so she can finally start her life on Earth.

Apple TV+
Wolfwalkers (Apple TV+)
This ethereal Celtic-inspired fantasy ranks as one of the best-reviewed movies of 2020 (and one of TIME’s 10 best movies of the year). A little girl named Robyn who aspires to be a hunter befriends a wolfwalker, or a person who can transform into a wolf, and together they must fight an evil ruler who wants to cut down the forest and cage the wolves. The movie is rife with metaphors about the consequences of trying to tame nature, tame women, tame mystical forces, but at its core it’s a heartwarming tale of female friendship.

Melinda Sue Gordon—Netflix
The Prom (Netflix)
Ryan Murphy’s adaptation of the 2016 musical centers on a group of Broadway actors who travel to a conservative town to support a lesbian student banned from bringing her girlfriend to the high school prom. The film version is unabashedly campy, glittery and over-the-top—shopping mall musical numbers and more sequins than perhaps any other release in 2020. If Murphy had a motto while making it, it was surely, “More!” It’s all in the service of an uplifting story of acceptance and generosity.
Safety (Disney+)
Based on the true story of a Clemson football player who moved his younger brother into his dorm after their mother went to rehab, Safety (from Marshall’s Reginald Hudlin) offers the sort of feel-good sports story of overcoming challenges on and off the field that has become a mainstay at family movie night.
Underrated Classics
Miyazaki’s masterworks

Studio GhibliMy Neighbor Totoro
My Neighbor Totoro (HBO Max)
Famed Japanese director Hayao Miyazaki and his team at Studio Ghibli possess an unrivaled talent for capturing the freedom and innocence of youth. In Totoro, a rotund mystical creature helps two sisters navigate life’s hurdles. Totoro is as ubiquitous as Mickey Mouse in Japan, and with good reason.
Kiki’s Delivery Service (HBO Max)
Both Totoro and Kiki’s Delivery Service are accessible entry points for young kids: this story centers on an intrepid young witch who starts her own delivery business, carrying packages on her broom.
Spirited Away (HBO Max)
Once your kids are ready for more existential fare, move on to the Oscar-winning film Spirited Away. Miyazaki’s work, and Spirited Away in particular, touches on many themes—environmentalism, pacifism and battling the corruptions of the adult world.
Bingeable Series

Studio Canal Paddington 2
The Paddington movies (stream on TBS or rent on Amazon)
These whimsical and sweet movies about an immigrant bear named Paddington routinely make critics’ end-of-year lists, and not just because Nicole Kidman and Hugh Grant make wonderful villains. Paddington quietly demonstrates the power of kindness and human (err, bear) decency.
The How to Train Your Dragon trilogy (Amazon Prime)
These magical movies about a boy who befriends a dragon named Toothless boast dazzling images and a big heart. At first blush, the plot may seem rote. But the trilogy takes risks on big emotional twists. It’s a near-perfect adventure story with a satisfying ending.
The Lego movies (HBO Max)
Yes, these movies are basically two-hour-long advertisements for Legos, but as corporate entertainment goes, they are simply so much fun. Phil Lord and Chris Miller bring their signature self-referential wit and out-of-the-box visual style to, most notably, Lego Movie, Lego Movie 2 and Lego Batman.
Pixar movies that deserve more credit

Walt Disney Pictures and Pixar Animation Studios
Ratatouille (Disney+)
Picking a favorite Pixar movie is a bit like picking a favorite chid. But Ratatouille never seems to get the credit that it deserves. Not only is it arguably the best movie ever made about the emotions that food evokes, it somehow manages to take a really gross premise—rats in the kitchen—and turn it into an emotional tour de force of a film.
Up (Disney+)
A widower flies his house into the sky with balloons and acquires new companions along the way, including a talking dog, a bird who loves chocolate and a boy scout. Up strikes the exact right balance between tugging at the audience’s heartstrings (particularly in the first five minutes) and telling a funny, beautiful tale about dreaming big.
Coco (Disney+)
Before Soul, Pixar toyed with questions about what happens after we die in Coco. This Day of the Dead story, featuring an all-Latino cast, disarms its audience by intermingling the ghoulish with the fantastic. For a movie about those who have passed on, it’s surprisingly full of life.
Disney movies you forgot

RDB/ullstein bild via Getty ImagesThe Great Mouse Detective
The Great Mouse Detective (Disney+)
It’s unclear why in the ’80s and ’90s studios churned out so many children’s movies about mice—The Rescuers Down Under, An American Tale, Stuart Little. Still, we ought to be grateful for this surprisingly witty take on the Sherlock Holmes tropes starring a mouse named Basil who lives on Baker Street and rides a hound.
Hercules (Disney+)
Hercules is zanier and a bit less earnest than most of the other animated Disney films. But that’s what makes it fun. The ridiculously naive but super strong hero is surrounded by characters with schticks—a cynical femme fatale named Meg, a villain who talks like a Hollywood agent in Hades and Danny DeVito as a satyr who acts exactly like, well, Danny DeVito.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame (Disney+)
This somewhat solemn film about outcasts fighting against religious zealotry and threatened extermination has some gorgeous songs and scenery—the illustrations of Notre Dame are particularly poignant now, in the years after a fire consumed much of that landmark. But three wise-cracking gargoyles and a message of acceptance buoy this movie its uplifting conclusion.
Great Adventure Movies

SonyMiles Morales is voiced by Shameik Moore in “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse”
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (Netflix)
The visually stunning, Oscar-winning movie breathes new life into the tired superhero genre. The movie offers up a new Spider-Man in the form of a Black, Puerto Rican Brooklyn teen named Miles Morales—well, technically it offers many new Spider-Men as parallel universes crash into one another. In the process, it conveys the valuable message that anyone can wear the mask, not just guys who look like Peter Parker.
Chicken Run (Hulu)
Would you believe me if I told you a story about chickens (literally) trying to fly the coop had some of the best action sequences in all of animated film? This witty piece of filmmaking from the Wallace and Gromit team refuses to play down to kids. Instead, it appeals to younger audiences with its frantic escape gambits while reserving the laughs for adults.
Kubo and the Two Strings (FX Now)
Kubo, the hero of this story who has suffered great loss in his young life, casts a spell on his audience with his ability to manipulate music and origami for the sake of storytelling and, when occasion demands it, battle. The animation of those pieces of paper flitting into shape, in particular, stands out. Disappointingly, the main characters are nearly all voiced by white characters despite the story being set in Japan. But the story itself has impressive depth.
Looney Tunes

Warner Bros. Bugs Bunny in Space Jam
Space Jam (Peacock)
No doubt this movie does not live up to the cleverest of the ’50s-era Looney Toons. But it has Michael Jordan and Bill Murray playing basketball against aliens, and that is just bizarre enough to be totally fantastic. Plus, LeBron James has a sequel coming out in 2021.
Duck Amuck (HBO Max)
One of the great offerings on HBO Max are the old time (and best) Looney Toons cartoons and movies. Duck Amuck centers on Daffy Duck, who is at odds with a mischievous animator who keeps changing Daffy’s locations, costuming and physical shape, forcing the duck to constantly adapt to new stories. It’s a great way to introduce kids to the concept of a meta text.
What’s Opera Doc? (HBO Max)
Arguably one of the best animated sequences of all time, in What’s Opera Doc? Elmer Fudd chases Bugs Bunny around the opera house to the tune of Richard Wagner’s operas, with added lyrics: “Kill the wabbit, kill the wabbit, kill the wabbit,” Elmer Fudd croons. A sneaky way to introduce your kids to classical music.
Nostalgic Movies

20th Century Fox
The Princess Bride (Disney+)
At the beginning of Rob Reiner’s The Princess Bride, a grandpa tells his grandson (a young Fred Savage) that this story has it all—fencing, fighting, torture, revenge, giants, monsters, chases, escapes, true love, miracles. And it does. Perhaps the wittiest, funniest, most quotable adventure story ever put to film has delighted children and adults alike since its release in 1987.
Iron Giant (HBO Max)
Iron Giant ambitiously tackles a big topic—gun control—with immense empathy. The story of a robot who is capable of mass destruction but desperately wants to make love, not war will be fodder for years of discussions between parents and kids. And even the most cynical adults will dissolve into puddles of tears by the end of the film (as recently demonstrated by a scene in the wonderful Apple TV+ comedy Ted Lasso).
The NeverEnding Story (HBO Max)
A boy picks up a book and begins to read about a fantasy land that will disappear into nothingness if he doesn’t use the power of his imagination to save it. It’s meta, strange and a little menacing, though for every scary puppet creature, there’s something delightful like a flying dragon-dog. This film is pure fantasy at its best.
Heroes Who Aren’t Human

Touchstone Pictures
Who Framed Roger Rabbit (Disney+)
Perhaps it’s unfair to call Who Framed Roger Rabbit a hidden gem given its status as an outright hit when it was released. But the wonderful, bizarre and fairly adult animated-live action mashup can get outshined by the more mainstream Disney princess movies. This bracingly smart movie deserves its status as one of the best (partially) animated films ever made.

Disney The Muppet Movie
The Muppet Movie
There are a lot of great Jim Henson movies—The Muppets Take Manhattan and The Great Muppet Caper are zany as hell. Dark Crystal and Labyrinth are delightfully weird. Even Muppet Treasure Island, which features Tim Curry as a swashbuckling pirate, is a whole lot of fun. But none surpass the original 1979 Muppet Movie which strikes the perfect balance between positivity and wit.
The Witches (Netflix)
The Witches can instill real fear—not only are the children turned into mice, but one of those mice gets its tail cut off—but as a result the story has real stakes. Skip the watered-down remake that debuted on HBO Max this year in favor of the 1990 adaptation starring a charmingly wicked Anjelica Huston and featuring the always-wonderful puppetry of Jim Henson.
Overlooked Musicals

Enchanted (rent on Amazon Prime or Apple)
Enchanted is a surprisingly sharp self-parody of the Disney princess tale. Amy Adams is pitch-perfect as a fairytale princess who falls through a wormhole and accidentally winds up in modern-day New York City. The rest of the cast is excellent too: James Marsden plays Prince Charming, Susan Sarandon the evil stepmother and Patrick Dempsey a cynical New York divorce attorney whose heart Adams’ Giselle will inevitably melt.
Newsies (Disney+)
This sleeper hit of a musical about a newsboy strike starring a Christian Bale is almost unbearably earnest. But the movie, which flopped in theaters, caught fire with theater kids on home video. Perhaps its pro-union message was just a bit ahead of its time. (Also see: the Broadway stage version, available to stream.)
The Muppets (Disney+)
So maybe the Muppets, on the whole, aren’t quite overlooked. But it can be hard to sort through the many attempts to resurrect the glory days of Jim Henson—many of which have largely fallen flat in recent years.The exception is Jason Segel’s lovingly made tribute musical, The Muppets (starring, yet again, Amy Adams). The movie works on two levels: it’s a delight to children and a love-letter to childhood for adults who grew up with Kermit and the gang.
Underdog Sports Movies

DisneyTeam U.S.A. in “D2: The Mighty Ducks”
Mighty Ducks (Disney+)
The Mighty Ducks series qualifies as one of the franchises maligned by critics but beloved by those who grew up with this crew of hockey misfits on the Disney Channel. Even if the plot is pat and not particularly ambitious, an underdog story with a cast of kooky characters will always play well with young kids.
Little Giants (Hulu)
Rewatching Little Giants as an adult, I’m surprised by how much it focuses on sexism in sports: when a talented football player named Becky (a.k.a. Icebox) is passed over for the team, she forms one of her own, filled with rejects. The movie gets a bit derailed with a rather boring romantic subplot, but it’s still a meaningful watch for girls who love sports.
A League of Their Own (Amazon Prime)
Speaking of girls who love sports, this classic, directed by Penny Marshall and starring a terrific cast that includes Geena Davis and Tom Hanks, often veers into schmaltz. But it makes up for it with an inspiring story, funny gags and quotable one-liners, like Hanks’ character’s indelible motto: “There’s no crying in baseball!”
Holiday movies

Elf (Starz or rent on Amazon Prime or Apple)
In a story that channels Big, Will Ferrell plays a human raised by elves in the North Pole and thus, essentially, a kid who loves to chug maple syrup stuck in a grown-up’s body. The movie comes to life when Ferrell first arrives in New York City to find his birth father: he delights in all the mundane and even disgusting parts of urban living, like spinning around in revolving doors and eating gum that’s been stuck to the bottom of the subway railing.
Klaus (Netflix)
In a world of computer-generated images, Klaus is a lovely return to hand-drawn animation. The movie resists cliche by leaning into genuinely funny sight gags and winning dialogue. A charming and Oscar-nominated holiday movie that serves as an origin story for Santa Claus, it’s well worth adding to any yearly Christmastime rotation.
Little Women (Starz or stream on Amazon Prime or Apple TV)
If you didn’t get a chance to see Greta Gerwig’s lovely adaptation of the beloved novel—a staple on many children’s bookshelves—last year when it debuted in theaters, the holidays are the perfect time to revisit the story about an ambitious writer and her sisters learning the meaning of love and charity, particularly at Christmastime.
Hidden Gems
Movies you may have missed

Gkids Breadwinner
The Breadwinner (Netflix)
The impressive visuals in The Breadwinner match its ambitious and brutally honest tale of an 11-year-old girl named Parvana living under Taliban rule in Afghanistan in 2001. Though the somber topic of the film means it may be too dark for young children, Parvana’s quest to find her wrongfully arrested father is spellbinding.

The Orchard—APJulian Dennison, left, and Sam Neill, right, in Hunt For The Wilderpeople.
Hunt for the Wilderpeople (Netflix or Hulu)
Before he directed Thor: Ragnarok or Jojo Rabbit, Taika Waititi broke out with a series of charmingly offbeat movies set in his native New Zealand (and wildly successful at the box office there), including Hunt for the Wilderpeople. This mismatched buddy comedy centers on a boy (Julian Dennison) and his gruff foster father (Sam Neill) who become the targets of a manhunt. The story is filled with tragedy and danger but also spoofs and tender performances from its whole cast, including Waititi in a small role.

MGM Secret of NIMH
Secret of NIMH (Amazon Prime)
This fantastical tale has a dark premise: a rat named Mrs. Brisbee must move her family from their home, but her child is too sick to travel. She seeks help from a group of rats who have genius IQs after being subjected to dangerous scientific experiments at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). The drama plays out against gorgeous and often psychedelic backdrops.

GKIDSMy Life As A Zucchini
My Life as a Zucchini (Starz or rent on Amazon Prime or Apple)
Written by Portrait of a Lady on Fire director Céline Sciamma, My Life as A Zucchini is an intimate and at times brutally real tale of a boy nicknamed Zucchini who finds himself in an orphanage. But this is no grim orphanage with evil caretakers. It’s a joyful place where Zucchini befriends other abandoned children, their bonds a tonic against the harsh realities of their world.

Wallace and Gromit: Curse of the Were-Rabbit (rent on Amazon Prime or Apple)
In this eccentric adventure tale, our heroes are a daffy inventor and his genius dog. They take on, well, a were-rabbit with menacing teeth in this action-packed tale filled with pratfalls, goofiness and a dog in a real aerial dog fight. The claymation stop-motion style, filmed without CGI, took near-masochistic dedication from its filmmakers, and it pays off.

Ernest & Celestine (Amazon Prime)
This gorgeously-rendered water color French film feels like a throwback: an old-fashioned story of unlikely friendship, this time between a burly bear and a mouse who is also a dentist. They bond over their inability to fit into their respective worlds. The elegant film is at times precious but ultimately proves to have emotional bite.

GKids/Cartoon Salloon Secret of Kells
The Secret of Kells (Kanopy or rent on Amazon Prime or Apple)
The same studio that produced this year’s Wolfwalkers conjured up this other tale of Irish folklore. As a fortress in the remote Irish woods prepares for an attack by the vikings, a young boy is enlisted to complete magical tasks. The film, which draws inspiration from Medieval manuscripts, is a visual feast.

Focus Features
Coraline (Starz or rent on Amazon Prime or Apple)
Neil Gaiman’s creepy story comes to life in a stunning and suspenseful stop-motion classic. A girl discovers a secret door that leads to an alternate reality that mirrors her world in many ways, some for the better, some for the worse. The movie takes bold artistic risks.

GKids Mirai
Mirai (Netflix)
Anime master Mamoru Hosoda’s story of a little boy in conflict with his baby sister takes the viewer on a time-hopping and enchanting journey. Told from a child’s eye view but with the wisdom of lived experience, Mirai examines the ties that bind families together.

Disney The Parent Trap, 1998.
Parent Trap (Disney+)
Nancy Myers’ winning remake of the 1961 film borrows Shakespearean plot points: twins switching places, mistaken identities and plots to rekindle a spoiled romance. Those age-old tropes work for a reason, and Lindsay Lohan turns in a winning performance (or pair of them) as the twin girls, separated at birth, who switch places in order to get to know the parent they haven’t seen for years.

Anastasia (Disney+ and HBO Go)
Does Anastasia have much to do with the real history of the Russian revolution? Not really. But it’s an enchanting tale about a street urchin who turns out to be Russia’s long-lost princess that combines the best aspects of My Fair Lady, including some enchanting songs, with the threat of a mystical villain to make the adventure churn.

TriStar Pictures DeVito did double-duty on Matilda (1996), both playing the father of the titular character and handling directing duties.
Matilda (rent on Amazon Prime or Apple)
Roald Dahl had a dark sensibility. He was excellent at writing villains, as in The Witches or The Twits. Even his heroes, like Willy Wonka in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, were a bit menacing. This adaptation directed by Danny DeVito highlights one of Dahl’s few compelling and truly kind-hearted heroes, a girl named Matilda who has miserable parents and an even more horrible teacher but discovers she has the power of telekinesis.

Fox Searchlight Fantastic Mr. Fox
Fantastic Mr. Fox (Disney+)
Perhaps Fantastic Mr. Fox is a “hidden gem” only in the sense that most critics think of Anderson as an adult filmmaker. But kids and adults alike will enjoy Wes Anderson’s adaptation of Roald Dahl’s story of a fox outwitting threatening humans. The typically twee stylistic choices that Anderson makes shine in the animated format. And Anderson elevates the morality tale into a more adult contemplation of a hubristic and reckless fox confronting the responsibilities of fatherhood.

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How a Refugee Revisited His Birth Village During the Pandemic – After 73 Years Away

Days after Hari Krishan Lal Anand’s 90th birthday, he returned to the village where he was born. He had been separated from from his hometown for more than seven decades by political strife, wars and, finally, a pandemic. His family had arranged a trip as a birthday surprise. Tears filled his eyes as he saw the home where he grew up.
Ten minutes later, he slipped off the virtual reality headset and was back in his living room.
“I was taken back to my village, and although there were a lot of changes, I felt at home,” Anand tells TIME. “I can’t explain how grateful I am.”

Anand lives in India, but he grew up in a village in what is today Pakistan. He was forced to flee in 1947 during the Partition of the British Raj. The departing colonialists, battered by the Second World War and facing a powerful independence movement in India, hastily drew a line on the map where there had not been one before. One side would become Hindu-majority India, the other Muslim-majority Pakistan.
It caused the largest mass migration in human history. Amid deepening religious tensions and violence, millions of Hindus and Sikhs living on the Pakistani side fled for India, and millions of Muslims traveled in the opposite direction. Bands of armed men on both sides of the new border raped and massacred the fleeing minorities. An estimated 14 million people were displaced, and between 1 and 2 million were killed.
Originally, Anand’s family had planned to physically make the journey to Pakistan. But even without the pandemic, the plan would have been an ambitious one. The wounds of Partition run deep, and today India and Pakistan are still deeply suspicious of one another. They have fought three major wars since 1947, and each side has a nuclear arsenal and military forces arrayed against the other. Getting a visa to travel across the militarized frontier is difficult for citizens of either country even at the best of times.
Read more: How the Memory of India’s Traumatic Partition Is Being Preserved Across Borders
So, when COVID-19 made their plans impossible, Anand’s family reached out to Project Dastaan, an initiative that since 2018 has connected Partition refugees from both India and Pakistan to their home villages. The catch: the trip is made through the medium of virtual reality (VR). Travel between the two countries is often a bureaucratic nightmare, says Saadia Gardezi, one of Project Dastaan’s co-founders. “Which is why this virtual project has actually worked, because that was the only way to circumvent those physical constraints.”
Escape from Pakistan
Anand’s childhood in the village of Dharukna—in what is now Pakistan’s Punjab province—was a “simple straightforward life,” he says. Punjab at the time was a region with a large mixed population of Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs. Anand’s family—Hindus—were in the minority in the village. “The relationship among Hindus and Muslims was very cordial,” he says. Muslims would attend Hindu weddings, and vice versa. Old men in the village, irrespective of religion, were addressed with the honorific “baba ji.” “There was no conflict,” he says.
But around them, tensions were rising. A movement calling for Indian independence had been gathering steam across the subcontinent for decades, and by 1946 had forced the British government to agree to hand over India within two years. But decades of colonial divide-and-rule policies, including treating Hindus and Muslims as separate electorates, had led to rising religious tensions. Muslims increasingly felt the Indian nationalist movement, which preached secular ideals but was overwhelmingly Hindu, would not govern in their interests after independence. Muslim and Hindu hardliners who each wanted a state for themselves stoked the violence for political ends, despite attempts by leaders like Mohandas Gandhi to calm the tensions.
When the British left in 1947, the tensions reached boiling point in Anand’s native Punjab. The British, who took it upon themselves to determine the independent countries’ new borders, had decided Punjab would be one of the regions to be bifurcated. The line, based on outdated census data, roughly split the province according to which religion was in the minority in each district, despite the large minorities on both sides. (Sikh calls for a dedicated homeland went unanswered.)
At the time, 16-year-old Anand was an apprentice to a local official who worked in Dharukna, but lived in a different village. One day, as sectarian violence in Punjab rose, the official asked Anand to accompany him on his journey home because he feared for his life. Anand’s father agreed he could leave, and the pair set off.
Anand would never return to his village. When they reached their destination safely, Anand met up with a cousin’s family nearby, who told him it was not safe for him to go home. Without knowing what had become of his parents, Anand then travelled with his cousin’s family to a refugee camp nearby, then on to India by train. “Fear was there, definitely,” Anand recalls. “But fortunately, we ended up in India.”
Building peace

Project Dastaan“I was taken back to my village, and although there were a lot of changes, I felt at home,” Anand says of his virtual visit to his hometown in December 2020.
Anand was lucky in that he witnessed no violence on his journey. But like many refugees, his experience of leaving home was traumatic, and in conversation his answers are short and circumspect, even 73 years later.
For Project Dastaan, ethical questions of how to deal with trauma in interviews with survivors are paramount. “One of the key things about our project is this exploration of trauma, but in a sense, what we’re trying to do is give people closure, rather than re-traumatize them,” Gardezi, the Project Dastaan co-founder, says. “Our interviews focus on finding those memories that we can build on as shared cultural heritage or shared experiences, rather than specific questions about violence or the trauma that they felt.”
Project Dastaan was founded by three former students at the University of Oxford, two of whom—Sparsh Ahuja and Gardezi—have grandparents who migrated in opposite directions during Partition. They describe the project as a peacebuilding initiative aimed at bolstering cross-cultural dialogue between India and Pakistan. Though many Indians and Pakistanis speak the same languages and share a common history, the relations between the two countries mean that mutual understanding can be hard to achieve. “We know in our lifetimes we may not be able to create peace between India and Pakistan with Project Dastaan,” Gardezi says. “But it’s about goodwill, finding the shared connections. And if we can use that as the base, maybe we can have a dialogue between the peoples of India and Pakistan at a very human level.”
Read more: As India’s Constitution Turns 70, Opposing Sides Fight to Claim Its Author as One of Their Own
When they began talking to Partition survivors about not just their journeys but their lives beforehand, Project Dastaan’s founders realized the common narrative of widespread religious animosity was not the full picture. “What we’ve learned is, when you start interviewing someone, they’re very nationalistic,” says Gardezi, referring to the preliminary interviews that Project Dastaan does with survivors before the VR experience. “But when you start talking about their story, and their experiences, they also try to clarify—saying our Hindu friend helped us, or our Sikh friend helped us, and somebody hid us in their house and risked their lives for us. And that we have no animosity towards the people that we left behind in our villages and our communities.”
That was Anand’s experience. When he finally met up with his parents again, in Bombay (now Mumbai), he heard the story of their final hours spent in Dharukna. A Muslim neighbor had heard about a conspiracy to kill them in the night, they told him, and warned them to leave. “Amongst the Hindus and Muslims, the confidence was so much that my parents gave the keys of our house to a Muslim who was very close to them,” Anand says, “with the confidence that we would come back.”
‘There were tears in his eyes’

Project DastaanThis image from the virtual reality tour of Dharukna—in what is now Pakistan’s Punjab province—shows a home near where Hari Krishan Lal Anand grew up.
On Dec. 13, a Project Dastaan volunteer wearing personal protective equipment met Anand in his house in Chandigarh, and presented him with a VR headset.
Days previously, a different volunteer on the Pakistani side of the border had traveled to Dharukna with a 360-degree video camera and—with Anand giving her directions via WhatsApp—filmed Anand’s home, the school where he studied for seven years and the village pond. When the filming was complete, the volunteer in Pakistan sent the footage to others in India, who drove it to Anand’s home.
Slipping the headset over his eyes, Anand was transported seven decades back in time. The first things he saw were two lines of text: “Happy 90th birthday, Uncle. Welcome back home.”
Then, immersion. Surrounded on all sides by moving images, he felt as if he was walking around in his village, seeing familiar sights that for years had only existed in his mind’s eye. Lots had changed, he noticed, but they seemed to be good changes. “It is an improvement,” he says. “I like that my village has improved a lot.”
For Shah Umair Ansari, the Project Dastaan volunteer in the room, the change in Anand’s demeanor before and after the experience was profound. The nonagenarian was not very expressive at first. “But slowly and gradually, he told us a lot of things about the migration,” says Ansari. “It triggered that emotion where he wanted to speak about it, wanted to feel about what’s actually been seen there.”
“He was emotional,” Ansari says. “There were tears in his eyes.”
The approach has implications for historians, says Sam Dalrymple, another of Project Dastaan’s co-founders and the author of a forthcoming history book, Five Partitions: The Making of Modern Asia. Not only does it give survivors a sense of closure, but it gives their offspring—second and third-generation refugees—a chance to add some color to their parents’ stories, and perhaps understand their own origins a little better. Plus, when children begin asking their parents questions, Partition survivors are often more forthcoming, Dalrymple says. “When it comes from the children, they answer these questions in a different way than they would to us.” Project Dastaan then records those answers for history.
Now, with COVID-19 vaccines on the horizon, Project Dastaan is planning expansion. The project has VR experiences for 16 more refugees in the works, including its first four in Bangladesh—which Dalrymple says is a “a fascinating and often neglected part of the Partition story.”
The emotional impact on refugees themselves is already evident. Back in Chandigarh, Anand says that the experience has satisfied his desire to return to his home village for one last time. “That ambition has been there all the time,” he says. “But now having seen it, it is enough for me.”

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China Targets Jack Ma’s Alibaba With Monopoly Investigation

China kicked off an investigation into alleged monopolistic practices at Alibaba Group Holding and summoned affiliate Ant Group Co. to a high-level meeting over financial regulations, escalating scrutiny over the twin pillars of billionaire Jack Ma’s internet empire.
The probe announced Thursday marks the formal start of the Communist Party’s crackdown on the crown jewel of Ma’s sprawling dominion, spanning everything from e-commerce to logistics and social media. The pressure on Ma is central to a broader effort to rein in an increasingly influential internet sphere: Draft anti-monopoly rules released November gave the government unusually wide latitude to rein in entrepreneurs like Ma who until recently enjoyed unusual freedom to expand their realms.

Once hailed as drivers of economic prosperity and symbols of the country’s technological prowess, Alibaba and rivals like Tencent Holdings face increasing pressure from regulators after amassing hundreds of millions of users and gaining influence over almost every aspect of daily life in China.
“It’s clearly an escalation of coordinated efforts to rein in Jack Ma’s empire, which symbolized China’s new ‘too-big-to-fail’ entities,” said Dong Ximiao, a researcher at Zhongguancun Internet Finance Institute. “Chinese authorities want to see a smaller, less dominant and more compliant firm.”
The State Administration for Market Regulation is investigating Alibaba, the top antitrust watchdog said in a statement without further details. Regulators including the central bank and banking watchdog will separately summon affiliate Ant to a meeting intended to drive home increasingly stringent financial regulations, which now pose a threat to the growth of the world’s biggest online financial services firm. Ant said in a statement on its official WeChat account it will study and comply with all requirements.
Ma, the flamboyant co-founder of Alibaba and Ant, has all but vanished from public view since Ant’s initial public offering got derailed last month. As of early December, the man most closely identified with the meteoric rise of China Inc. was advised by the government to stay in the country, a person familiar with the matter has said.
Ma isn’t on the verge of a personal downfall, those familiar with the situation have said. His very public rebuke is instead a warning Beijing has lost patience with the outsize power of its technology moguls, increasingly perceived as a threat to the political and financial stability President Xi Jinping prizes most.
Alibaba slid as much as 8.9% in Hong Kong to a five-month intraday trough Thursday. Asia’s largest corporation after Tencent has led losses among China’s internet sector leaders since Ant’s IPO got yanked in November, taking the overall toll to more than $100 billion. Tencent slid more than 2% and internet services giant Meituan declined more than 4%, while SoftBank Group Corp., Alibaba’s largest shareholder, sank as much as 2.9% in Tokyo. Alibaba said in a statement it will cooperate with regulators in their investigation, and that its operations remain normal.
Investors remain divided over the extent to which Beijing will go after Alibaba and its compatriots as Beijing prepares to roll out the new anti-monopoly regulations. The country’s leaders have said little about how harshly they plan to clamp down or why they decided to act now.
The country’s internet ecosystem — long protected from competition by the likes of Google and Facebook — is dominated by two companies, Alibaba and Tencent, through a labyrinthine network of investment that encompasses the vast majority of the country’s startups in arenas from AI to digital finance. Their patronage has also groomed a new generation of titans including food and travel giant Meituan and Didi Chuxing — China’s Uber. Those that prosper outside their aura, the largest being TikTok-owner ByteDance Ltd., are rare.
The anti-monopoly rules now threaten to upset that status quo with a range of potential outcomes, from a benign scenario of fines to a break-up of industry leaders. Beijing’s diverse agencies appear to be coordinating their efforts — a bad sign for the internet sector.
“There is nothing that Chinese Communist Party doesn’t control and anything that does appear to be gyrating out of its orbit in any way is going to get pulled back very quickly,” said Alex Capri, a Singapore-based research fellow at the Hinrich Foundation.
The campaign against Alibaba and its peers got into high gear in November, after Ma famously attacked Chinese regulators in a public address for lagging the times. Market overseers subsequently suspended Ant’s IPO — the world’s largest at $35 billion — while the anti-monopoly watchdog threw markets into a tailspin shortly after with its draft legislation.
The People’s Daily, the mouthpiece of the Communist Party, warned Thursday that fighting alleged monopolies was now a top priority. “Anti-monopoly has become an urgent issue that concerns all matters,” it said in a commentary coinciding with the probe’s announcement. “Wild growth” in markets needs to be curbed by law, it added.
The chances that Ant will be able to revive its massive stock listing next year are looking increasingly slim as China overhauls rules governing the fintech industry, which in past years has boomed as an alternative to traditional state-backed lending.
China is said to have separately set up a joint task force to oversee Ant, led by the Financial Stability and Development Committee, a financial system regulator, along with various departments of the central bank and other regulators. The group is in regular contact with Ant to collect data and other materials, studying its restructuring as well as drafting other rules for the fintech industry.
“China has streamlined a lot of the bureaucracy, so it’s easier for the different regulatory bodies to work together now,” said Mark Tanner, managing director of Shanghai-based consultancy China Skinny. “Of all the regulatory hurdles, this is the biggest by a long shot.”
–With assistance from Jun Luo, Colum Murphy, Amanda Wang and John Cheng.

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‘Cheer’ star pleads not guilty to child porn, sex charges

NAPERVILLE, Ill. (AP) — “Cheer” star Jerry Harris has pleaded not guilty to federal child pornography charges and allegations that he solicited sex from minors at cheerleading competitions and convinced teenage boys to send him obscene photographs and videos of themselves. Harris, 21, of Naperville, Illinois, was indicted earlier this month in a seven-count indictment […]

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A child so sick they feared the worst, now they urge change

MONTPELIER, Idaho (AP) — Kale Wuthrich watched doctors surround his son in the emergency room, giving him fluids though IV tubes, running a battery of tests and trying to stabilize him. He was enveloped by the confusion and fear that had been building since his 12-year-old suddenly fell ill weeks after a mild bout with […]

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Milwaukee County spent nearly $1.7 million on Trump recount

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — The presidential recount in Wisconsin’s Milwaukee County came in slightly under budget, at nearly $1.7 million, according to data released Wednesday. George Christensen, the clerk of the state’s largest county, released numbers that show it spent $1.69 million on its recount, with nearly a third of that — $550,450 — going […]

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How 2020 Will Go Down in the History Books, According to Historians

It’s no question that 2020 has been a historic year for the U.S., but how it will affect the future remains to be seen.
In an effort to take stock of where this year fits into history so far, TIME asked historians nationwide to pick a moment in 2020 that stands out to them. We asked them what future historians will—or at least should—write about when they study the momentous year that is drawing to a close, and whether it signals a new chapter or turning point for America and the world.
Below is what the historians who spoke with TIME, as of early December, identified as the major milestones of 2020:

Feb. 5: The Senate acquits President Trump in his impeachment trial

Nicholas Kamm/AFP—Getty ImagesU.S. President Donald Trump holds up the front page of USA Today that displays a headline “Acquitted” as he arrives to speak at the 68th annual National Prayer Breakfast on February 6, 2020.
Trump’s acquittal in his impeachment trial by the Senate on Feb. 5, 2020, is a really important moment both within American history and for what it says about Trump’s success at imposing an authoritarian style political culture on the Republican party. With only one contrary vote by [Utah Sen. Mitt] Romney, everyone else unanimous. You couldn’t ask for a greater legitimation of his political style.
Sen. Sherrod Brown wrote a really interesting op-ed in the New York Times saying his Republican colleagues were afraid and told him that they acquitted Trump out of fear, not because they really believed he should be acquitted. If you compare it to what happened to Nixon, the difference is you have this authoritarian personality that has managed to take hold.
For historical comparison, some of the other rulers who have done this successfully created their own parties or had leadership roles within their parties for years before they became head of state. Mussolini created his own party. Berlusconi was able to do this, he created his own party. But Trump’s achievement is even greater because the GOP has a very long history, and we only have two parties, and yet he was able to tame it and make it his own.
—Ruth Ben-Ghiat, Professor of History and Italian Studies at New York University
March 11: World Health Organization (WHO) declares COVID-19 a pandemic

Go Nakamura/Bloomberg—Getty ImagesMedical staff members check on a patient at the COVID-19 Intensive Care Unit (ICU) of United Memorial Medical Center in Houston, Texas, on Nov. 8, 2020.
For me the critical turning point in this pandemic was its very early days, when we still didn’t know whether this would turn into a full-blown pandemic. My last 20 years spent reading, writing and teaching about the history of pandemics had taught me what to expect. Since day one, when news about a cluster of pneumonia cases in Wuhan started circulating, I was intellectually, practically and emotionally prepared to face a pandemic. That was almost a year ago. I religiously followed Johns Hopkins University’s COVID-19 dashboard to track the number of cases and deaths worldwide, and already in late January knew we were in for a global pandemic of historic proportions.
Ironically enough, I was then teaching a course on the history of pandemics. In that class, my students and I declared COVID-19 a global pandemic long before WHO did (March 11), because we could clearly see all the signs in that direction. I prepared my students and myself for what was to come. But despite obsessive caution, I was infected as a result of travel in early March, even when there was a total of about 250 reported cases across the U.S. Premodern plague treatises, written about an unfamiliar and far deadlier disease, taught me that good food, good rest and good thoughts were critical for recovery. I was lucky to have both historical and contemporary knowledge for guidance.
That was more than eight months ago. Since then, I’ve been reading, writing and teaching about this pandemic, constantly stressing the importance of historical knowledge for its modern management.
—Nükhet Varlık, Associate Professor of History at the University of South Carolina and Rutgers University-Newark.

May 30: Astronauts launched to space from U.S. soil for first time since 2011

SpaceX—Getty ImagesThe historic May 30, 2020, launch of the manned SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft from the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida.
Two astronauts, Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley, were launched from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida in a commercially-developed spacecraft, the Crew Dragon, atop a Falcon 9 rocket at 3:22 ET. The Crew Dragon achieved earth orbit in 12 minutes, and docked less than 19 hours later at the International Space Station. The lift-off was watched by an estimated 10 million people worldwide. Although both Behnken and Hurley were veterans of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the flight was the first joint public-private crewed space mission under NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. The Crew Dragon was funded and created by Elon Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies Company (SpaceX). It was also the first crewed American lift-off since the cancellation of the space shuttle program in 2011, and was seen as the presage of a new era of private investment and development in space flight, including commercial and passenger traffic in space.
—Allen C. Guelzo, Director of the James Madison Program Initiative on Politics and Statesmanship at Princeton University
The deaths of Breonna Taylor on March 13 and George Floyd on May 25

Ira L. Black/Corbis—Getty ImagesThousands of protesters walk across the Brooklyn Bridge on “Juneteenth,” June 19, 2020, as part of one of the many protests against police brutality and in support of the Black Lives Matter movement that have taken place in 2020.
When historians reflect on 2020, they will recognize it as a pivotal year for several reasons: a global pandemic, a historic presidential election and a year of protest against racial injustice.
After the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor, and (too) many others, people took to the streets demanding an end to police violence against African Americans. They showed up in large cities and small towns across America, with chants of “Black Lives Matter” or “Justice for Breonna Taylor.” Motivated after witnessing Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin choke the life out of Floyd by kneeling on his neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds, people marched. This was a key turning point.
Just like the water hoses and police dogs of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement, Floyd’s death presented evidence of senseless violence by law enforcement. It became a record-breaking year of protest against police violence. And, COVID-19 did not stop people from marching, chanting, singing, speaking and demanding justice and reform. These events represent the largest protest movement in United States’ history as experts say by midsummer, 15-26 million people had marched.
—Daina Ramey Berry, Chair of the Department of History at the University of Texas at Austin
June 1: President Trump holds up a Bible in front of church near the White House

Shawn Thew/EPA/Bloomberg—Getty ImagesU.S. President Donald Trump poses with a Bible outside St. John’s Church near the White House in Washington, D.C., on June 1, 2020.
In 2020 we witnessed, protests all over the country against racism and police brutality. In Washington D.C., the White House was surrounded by crowds. A couple of days before, the Secret Service had taken the President to an underground bunker as a precaution. On June 1, 2020, the Park police and National Guard cleared the way for Trump to walk to St. John’s Church to have his picture taken while holding a Bible, as one would hold a brick to gauge its weight.
The performance was intended to send a signal to his supporters, linking religion and a strong presidential hand against forces they defined as anti-American. In fact, the President’s authority shifted to an increasingly authoritarian and violent stance. Trump would continue during the rest of that year to encourage the use of violence against Black Lives Matter protesters. As it became clear that his followers did not control the streets, however, the rest of his presidency became one protracted attempt to build a dictatorial authority that was eventually frustrated by the elections. In historical perspective, the St. John’s Church gesture had exactly the opposite significance of its intended meaning: it represented a withdrawal from which Trump would not be able to return.
—Pablo Piccato, Professor of History at Columbia University
June: The reclamation of the Robert E. Lee monument in Richmond, Va.

John McDonnell/The Washington Post—Getty ImagesThe image of George Floyd along with the Black Lives Matter letters are projected onto the Robert E. Lee Statue on Monument Avenue in Richmond, Virginia, on June 10, 2020.
The reclamation of the Robert E. Lee statue in Richmond, Va., and the creative way in which the protesters associated with and led by BLM movement were protesting police brutality against Black Americans. The statue’s meaning was ultimately subverted because it was spray-painted, images were projected on it of George Floyd and historical figures, Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass. It refocused the conversation towards the continuity of this historical struggle that Black Americans have faced both in Richmond and the commonwealth of Virginia, but also nationally as well. It became a site of black joy, almost a pilgrimage site. There were many stories about families driving hours to show their children this new location. A sterile middle-of-the-road thing that nobody ever actually used became a place of BBQs and parties and protest and civic involvement.
When monumental spaces have been reclaimed in the past, the structures have been pulled down. They’ve been destroyed. That’s not what happened here, it was repurposed, and I think that shows how monuments function as public signs of power and centers of civic responsibility. The defenders of Confederate monuments have always said they’re just part of the landscape. This shows that that’s really absolutely not the case. They time travel in a way. These monuments were constructed in the past and exist in the present. They are physical manifestations of this long history, that goes back in this particular case to the early 20th century, nostalgia for the Lost Cause and the Confederacy.
I see the reclamation of the Robert E. Lee statue as a piece of what the 1619 Project has done too. Both have made us talk about American History in a very different way now.
—Matthew Gabriele, Professor of Medieval Studies and the Chair of the Department of Religion and Culture at Virginia Tech.

August: NBA and WNBA Strike Over Shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin

Ashley Landis-Pool—Getty ImagesThe court and benches are empty after the scheduled start of game five between the Milwaukee Bucks and the Orlando Magic in the first round of the 2020 NBA Playoffs at AdventHealth Arena at ESPN Wide World Of Sports Complex on August 26, 2020 in Lake Buena Vista, Florida.
Amid an unprecedented national movement for racial justice in the summer of 2020, we witnessed one of the most important political statements in the history of American sport. On Aug. 26, three days after police in Kenosha, Wisc., shot 29-year old Jacob Blake in the back seven times in front of his three young sons, the Milwaukee Bucks refused to participate in a scheduled playoff game to draw national attention to the issue of police brutality and to push state authorities to hold officers accountable for Blake’s shooting.
The NBA and the WNBA had been among the most visible and vocal public supporters of the Black Lives Matter Movement since the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police in late May, and soon other men’s and women’s teams refused to play in the playoffs, defying their collective bargaining agreements and leading to the largest wildcat strike in recent history. These protests against racism and police violence soon inspired similar actions in the majority-white Major League Baseball and National Hockey Leagues. The sports demonstrations are profound expressions of a new, multiracial coalition of Americans calling for racial justice and an end to inequality. 2020 will be remembered as one of the most challenging years in modern history, but also one when new conversations about systemic racism and new forms of collective action, arising in unexpected places, may help put the nation on the path toward meaningful change.
—Elizabeth Hinton, Professor of History, African American Studies, and Law at Yale University
November: Kamala Harris is elected Vice President of the United States

Tasos Katopodis—Getty ImagesVice President-elect Kamala Harris takes the stage before President-elect Biden addresses the nation from the Chase Center on November 7, 2020 in Wilmington, Delaware.
A century after the 19th Amendment, Kamala Harris finally broke the glass ceiling. As the first woman of African and South Asian descent to serve as vice President of the U.S., Harris’s election evokes past trailblazers in women’s history.
Along with Shirley Chisholm—the first African American Congresswoman—we should also remember Patsy Takemoto Mink, the first woman of color in the House of Representatives and the namesake for Title IX. Mink and Chisholm both ran for the U.S. presidency in 1972, and both women traced their family connections to islands, located off the continental mainland of the U.S. Mink was a third-generation Japanese American, born on the territory of Hawai‘i before the islands became the 50th state. Growing up in a plantation society, located in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, deeply shaped Mink’s commitment to advocating for worker rights, women’s rights, racial equality and environmental protection, particularly against military uses of islands as test sites for nuclear and conventional weapons. Like Mink, Harris’s parents originated from former colonies (Jamaica and India), which brought them together out of concern for racial justice. We should recognize Harris as a woman whose personal and political lineage stems from anti-imperial circuits of migration and activism. Along with Mink and Chisholm, Harris is a first. And as she promised, she won’t be the last.
—Judy Tzu-Chun Wu, Director of the Humanities Center and Professor of Asian American Studies at the University of California, Irvine
November-December: President Trump’s refusal to concede the election

Tom Brenner/Pool—Getty ImagesU.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) takes questions as he speaks during a news conference with other Senate Republicans at the U.S. Capitol on December 15, 2020, in Washington, D.C.
For the first time, the majority of a party’s elected officials refused to accept the results of the election and some openly called for ignoring the will of the voters to maintain power. Even in 1860, secessionists acknowledged Lincoln had won the election as they tried to break the nation in two. Ever since the defeated John Adams gave up power willingly in 1800, no American President has refused to acknowledge defeat. While Trump appears to have failed in his effort to subvert democracy (whether we call it a failed coup or an autogolpe matters less than the impact), the lack of repercussions for undermining democracy is a continuation of the Republican Party’s abandonment of principles and democratic norms. Trump’s ignoring of norms isn’t new, Senator Mitch McConnell eroded them during President Barack Obama’s administration, and while perhaps the 2000 election foreshadowed, 2020, now the pretense is gone. The subtext is text; a radical acceleration of the antidemocratic impulse means power is all that matters to the GOP and there is not even lip service given to the will of the voters. With baseless claims of fraud, our democratic system has been further eroded even after the election is over. The GOP has abandoned a strategy of attracting some voters while disenfranchising others and moved to undermining democracy as a system entirely. I fear what happens as the party continues to abandon a fundamental bedrock of democracy in new and more dangerous ways. While our system appears to be stronger than some feared, it also remains far weaker than others claim.
One key question for 2021 is whether Trump and those who enabled him are held accountable for all of his corruption. If not, I fear for democracy’s future. As next time around, kleptocrats may feel empowered take and hold onto power, and they might succeed.
—Adam H. Domby, Assistant Professor of History at the College of Charleston
COVID-19’s toll in Indian Country

Mark Ralston/AFP—Getty ImagesAmerican Indians of the Navajo Nation pick up supplies at a food bank set up at the Navajo Nation town of Casamero Lake in New Mexico on May 20, 2020.
The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020 represents a crucial moment in American Indian history that future historians must address. The pandemic touched off unprecedented responses in Indian Country to mitigate the deadly effects of that viral scourge. Conditions including underlying health issues, inadequate healthcare, poverty, overcrowded housing, a lack of indoor plumbing, shorter life expectancies than other Americans, high rates of uninsurance, unresolved historical grief, and reckless federal and state responses to the pandemic that left them more at risk to become ill and die than other Americans. Carrying oral histories about devastating past pandemics and rejecting COVID-19 conspiracy theories, American Indian and Native Alaskan governments started to exercise their sovereignty in significant ways in hopes of stopping the virus’s spread and saving lives. Their proactive measures included blocking non-residents from entering reservation lands, shutting down non-critical services, establishing work at home initiatives, setting curfews, mandating mask wearing, closing and reopening casinos with new health protocols in place, successfully suing the Trump administration to release federal funds designated for Indian Country for COVID relief, and lobbying the federal government to uphold its trust obligations to protect Indian nations from harm.
—James Riding In, Associate Professor at Arizona State University and a citizen of the Pawnee Nation

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TIME’s Top 10 Photos of 2020

As a measure of time, a year can seem like an abstraction. We mark it out carefully in months and days, but by the time we reach Dec. 31, it’s sometimes hard to pinpoint what happened when. Our brains have their own way of rewriting time, of blurring events we’d rather not remember, or intensifying those we cannot forget.
What’s more, none of us can be in more than one place at once. This is where photographs become invaluable, as a record of events and experiences we have shared as citizens of the world, even if we weren’t present to witness them firsthand. The COVID-19 crisis has touched us all. But a photograph of a man whose job is to shepherd corpses from an overflowing hospital morgue to a refrigerated trailer brings just one aspect of this crisis into sharp relief: suddenly, we have a connection with the daily life of a worker whose job is to care for those who could not be saved. Similarly, it was anguishing to hear news of the August explosion in Beirut that killed and injured so many, as well as displacing hundreds of thousands of people from their homes. A photograph of a man carrying his injured niece makes the intensity of this mass tragedy feel deeply personal.

This is what a great photograph can do. Even if our own lives were untouched by the deadly Australian bushfires, a photograph of a volunteer aiding a koala in distress reinforces the responsibility we all have as stewards of the Earth. And just one moment from a Black Lives Matter march in Brooklyn reminds us that the passionate protests of 2020 aren’t just a set of events in the past; they represent an ongoing struggle. These and other moments, captured by photographers around the world, are the heart of TIME’s top photographs of the year. To revisit these images, or to see them for the first time, is to acknowledge not just where we’ve been, but who we are. — Stephanie Zacharek, with reporting by Andrew Katz

Meridith Kohut for TIME
‘A Light in the Darkness’
This spring, staff and patients at Brooklyn’s Wyckoff Heights Medical Center allowed Meridith Kohut to document their reality on the front line of the pandemic as COVID-19 killed thousands in New York City. They wanted to warn the rest of the country to avoid their fate. On April 22, she captured Kyle Edwards gathering lanterns from inside one of the refrigerated semitrailers that held the overflow of corpses. “Each body bag represented so much pain and suffering, lives lost and families upended,” says Kohut, haunted that the warning went unheeded.

Newsha Tavakolian—Magnum Photos for TIME
‘Their Sadness and Anger Were Real’
At a mosque in Tehran, on Jan. 5, Iranian women mourn Qasem Soleimani following his assassination in Baghdad. “They felt hurt and wanted revenge,” photographer Newsha Tavakolian recalls. Inside, the atmosphere was intense. “I searched long for how to capture this and found this scene, a quiet moment amid what was a whirlpool of people. The woman raising her fist while holding the poster, the others in their own thoughts. They were wandering around, alone with their feelings.”

Hassan Ammar—AP
‘I Couldn’t Forget Her Face’
Hoda Kinno, 11, is carried by her uncle Mustafa after a massive explosion at the port in Beirut on Aug. 4. “When I reached the site, I could not believe what I was seeing,” writes photographer Hassan Ammar. “I was taking pictures of everything when I saw men holding two injured girls on the highway opposite the port. I followed one until they reached a military vehicle that was being loaded with injured people to be evacuated to a hospital.”
In the days afterward, Ammar remained curious about what had happened to her. It took about two weeks, but Ammar found the family south of the capital. The blast had devastated them. The Associated Press reported that Hoda suffered a broken neck and other injuries, and her 15-year-old sister, Sedra, was killed. “That day in Beirut is a day that changed our lives in Lebanon,” adds Ammar, “changed me as a human and a photographer.”

Al Bello—Getty Images
‘She Didn’t Want to Let Go’
On May 24, photographer Al Bello’s sister called to say her in-laws would be visiting in Wantagh, N.Y., and wanted to hug everyone; a drop cloth hung from a clothesline would serve as a barrier. Curious, he stopped by. After Mary Grace Sileo met her grandson at the “hug station,” she began to cry. “Whoa,” Bello remembers thinking, “this escalated quickly.” He captured the embraces over 45 minutes, including that of Sileo and granddaughter Olivia Grant, shown here. “They were long hugs,” he says.

Erin Schaff—The New York Times/Redux
‘It Felt Really Poignant to Me’
Jacquelyn Booth mourned the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the marble porch of the Supreme Court on Sept. 26 while conservative supporters of Judge Amy Coney Barrett prayed at its doors. Thousands marched in Washington, D.C., that day in an event organized by Franklin Graham hours before Trump announced his nomination of Barrett to replace Ginsburg.
“It was interesting because people were walking around her and asking their friends to take photos kind of angled up so they wouldn’t have this crying woman in there at the Supreme Court,” Schaff says of the scene that afternoon. “I sat there for a while, watching, and then these four women went up and put their hands up. I saw her hand on her face, and her composition, and the duality of the emotions that everyone was feeling. It felt really poignant to me of the divisions in this country and how deeply people feel about their beliefs right now.”
Schaff knew quickly that she had something special. After the women prayed, she approached them to introduce herself and make sure she was representing them accurately. “Then I went and sat down next to Jacquelyn and I asked if she was okay and if she needed anything,” Schaff says. “She said she was fine but that she was in mourning and letting herself have that time in a public space.” One month later, Barrett was confirmed by the Senate in a 52-to-48 vote.

Hector Retamal—AFP/Getty Images
‘Nobody Would Touch Him’
Hector Retamal, an AFP photographer based in Shanghai, arrived in Wuhan by train on Jan. 23 as the city was being locked down. “Wuhan had indeed become a ghost town,” he recalled earlier this year. “People on the streets were only out for two or three reasons: to buy food, to go to a drugstore or to visit a hospital.”
On Jan. 30, Retamal and a colleague were walking to a hospital when they spotted the man on the ground, a block away from a different hospital. “There were two women looking at the man without doing anything. When they saw us, they shouted at us. They seemed to tell us not to get any closer,” Retamal remembered. After a while, others in protective suits arrived; they approached the man but would not touch him. The journalists moved across the street at one point, still eyeing the scene.
“Eventually a forensics team got to the place, covered him and his body was taken away in a yellow plastic bag. After that they spread disinfectant on the floor,” he added. The journalists could not confirm whether the man was a victim of the disease. Retamal, who was in Wuhan for more than a week, concluded: “It is a city which lives in fear.”

Peter van Agtmael—Magnum Photos for TIME
‘It’s Hard to Know What He Knew’
Photographer Peter van Agtmael has followed Donald Trump and his rallies since 2016 — “part re-election campaign, part variety show,” he says. “I started to get kind of accustomed to his mannerisms and his expressions, which had a certain kind of consistency to them. Even within his spontaneity and freewheeling, there was intentionality and control.”
On Nov. 4, well after midnight and with the expectation that the vote that remained to be counted (mail-in ballots and early votes) would skew heavily Democratic, van Agtmael walked into a “very, very muted” White House East Room room “looking, I suppose, for the cracks in the façade” as Trump addressed American voters. In many ways, he says, the President maintained his standard range of expressions. “But there was also a clear tension and stress and anger and, for a brief moment, when Vice President Mike Pence was speaking, that kind of rigorous control of some of his emotions dropped for just a few seconds.”
It would be the only image of vulnerability that van Agtmael made that night. “By conventional standards, it wouldn’t be seen as a particularly telling moment,” he adds. “What’s striking is that by the standards of Trump, it is a very vulnerable moment. It’s specific to the individual.”

Adam Ferguson for TIME
‘It Left Without a Fight’
Australia’s bushfire season killed or displaced more than 3 billion animals. As Adam Ferguson photographed at a melted playground on Kangaroo Island on Jan. 16, he spotted a still grey object in the background. “As I approached, I realized it was a koala,” he recalls. A volunteer from a nearby fire-response team noticed and came over with water. “Under normal circumstances, the koala would have scrambled up a tree,” says Ferguson, “but it was exhausted and dehydrated as the woman approached with her offering and poured it on its head.” Minutes later, it was hustled to a nearby shelter.

Malike Sidibe for TIME
‘That Day Shaped My Whole Year’
George Floyd was killed by police in Minneapolis on a Monday. By Friday, America was different. Malike Sidibe, at 23, was moved to attend and photograph a protest for the first time in his life. In Brooklyn, on May 29, he saw protesters struggling with police over one of their own. Being there, Sidibe says, “changed the way I view the world and how I carry myself in this world.”

Jim Huylebroek—The New York Times/Redux
‘It Really Felt Like a Show of Force’
On March 13, weeks after the U.S. and the Taliban signed a peace agreement, Kabul-based photographer Jim Huylebroek and colleagues took advantage of the lull in fighting to visit insurgents in the eastern Laghman province. On the way, their vehicle was stopped by an elite Taliban Red Unit. “They welcomed us in a friendly way, but things felt a bit tense,” he says. As the journalists prepared to proceed, two children walked up the road and past the fighters. “For me,” says Huylebroek, “it shows the harsh reality in which children grow up.”

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The Forever-Online Boyfriends of the Pandemic

The first canceled date was a bad omen. “So, my coworker may have been exposed to COVID,” Sean called to tell me, an hour before we were due to meet at Radio City Music Hall for a show in March. I was sipping wine with a friend, killing time. “Our whole office might need to self-quarantine,” he said. I took my friend to the show instead. I wouldn’t see Sean again, but we would watch each other’s Instagram Stories religiously for eight months and counting. “Ghosting” is the colloquial term for disappearing after a date, but now the more insidious ghosts are the almost-dates that haunt us, indefinitely, around the edges of our digital lives: phantoms that remind us of what could have been, if the pandemic hadn’t changed dating and uprooted plans so swiftly. As case rates rise nationally, the pursuit of love—like much of life—remains stuck in virtual limbo.

After Sean canceled, the chips fell quickly: lockdowns, self-quarantines and isolation became the norm. I had connected on an app with another potential date, a musician named Chris, in February. He was kind and curious in his text banter, and as we hunkered down in our apartments we shared music recommendations and fears about the future. Soon, we were both living back at home with our parents, separated by a two-hour time difference and 2,000 miles. But nearly every night—both insomniacs—we’d check in. “How was your day?” we’d ask each other, going on long tangents about the news and art and family. We never spoke on the phone, never FaceTimed. But I learned the things that made Chris tick, his relationship with his parents, his sadness when his childhood house was sold, then demolished. But when we finally met in person, eight months later, it didn’t feel like he could ever be a partner—he would always be the person on the other end of the text, at once too familiar and not familiar enough. Still, I couldn’t imagine a quarantine without this connection, a relationship untethered from the scheduling pressures of dating and the stress of definitions.

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Now, 9 months in, the pandemic has made these kinds of fully-virtual relationships commonplace. When I was a kid, I thought having a pen pal like this would be the height of romance. I was wrong, of course: at night, the blue light of my phone keeps me company, but the loneliness does not fade. I may be lonely, but in that, at least, I am not alone. A quick poll of friends on Instagram showed that about two-thirds were spending much more time talking to potential dates before meeting up, especially for those who had changed their living situations temporarily or been hit by the pandemic’s economic effects. Early in the pandemic, messages on Bumble were up about 25%. By the end of September, member activity on Tinder was up double digits from February, the company shared with TIME. Smaller sites like The Inner Circle saw message frequency double. Stuck at home and with little to do, people began to stack Zoom dates like they would work calls.
New initiatives, like the aptly named Quarantine Together and Love Is Quarantine, popped up to cater to the circumstances directly. Existing apps like Hinge, Tinder and Bumble launched or bolstered their in-platform video chat capabilities, encouraging the jump to FaceTime if not face time. Smaller groups like the comedy duo UpDating or the speed-dating service Here/Now made virtual versions of their in-person experiences. But there’s a sense of uncertainty around the shape of these connections; a Harris poll from November showed that Gen Z women now consider their relationships “undefined” a full quarter of the time.

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For my generation of Millennials and our younger peers, it’s become normal to project our needs and hopes onto internet strangers, learned early in chatrooms—RIP AIM—or the confessional online forums of the aughts, or as pop culture connoisseurs thirsting after the characters in our favorite shows and actors in our favorite tabloids. The “internet boyfriend” (or girlfriend) is not a new concept; a new book, A Field Guide to Internet Boyfriends, provides a handy roadmap to the type. “An Internet Boyfriend… seems like the type of person you would probably want to get to know and definitely want to date. An Internet Boyfriend often plays characters that are just as intriguing—or even more intriguing—than the Internet Boyfriend himself. An Internet Boyfriend represents something,” writes Esther Zuckerman. And then she names them: Benedict Cumberbatch, Timothee Chalamet, Mahershala Ali. Pretty celebrities with ample documentation online, they are cyphers for our hopes, however unrequited those dreams may stubbornly remain.

Oh we’re talking about Harry Styles this morning???? Here, again, is the excerpt from my book about this sweet icon
— Esther Zuckerman (@ezwrites) November 13, 2020

My internet boyfriends are real, everyday people, even if made concrete only by the photos they post and the messages they send. Chris was just a collection of grey text boxes on a white screen, a guy who was particular about punctuation, until we had a drink and I discovered the contours of his quick smile and the timbre of his voice. I’d met Jack once, at a wedding just before the pandemic, but now we call, text and even have written letters, discussing the confusion of the world around us, knowing we may not see each other again anytime soon. He spent the summer and fall traveling the West in a van, and now when I think of him, I hear his Southern drawl describing the moon while driving through the empty New Mexican desert. Brian sent an emoji reaction to my Instagram Stories almost daily for six months from his own Midwestern isolation, but faced with being back in the same city, we both chickened out about planning a meeting. Over the summer, Phillip’s jokes made me smile; we chatted on an app intermittently for months before, upon my return to New York City, he said he was too busy with work to actually meet for a socially distanced date. He is embalmed in my memories as a guy who headed to Tulum at the pandemic’s height, texting me sunset photos from a faraway beach.
Or there’s someone like Ben, with whom I matched on an app while he was visiting my hometown. I sent him a Google Doc guide to my favorite places and he sent me feedback on his dinners and hikes. He left before the case rate dropped enough for me to see him, and we’ve never lived in the same place. But we have the same taste in restaurants and hikes, and life is up in the air enough that right now, that seems like enough reason to stay in touch. Why concern ourselves with the parameters of reality? Why not keep an open mind? The list of internet pseudo-boyfriends goes on.
Each of them may be distilled to their digital personas, but they have changed the way I think about dating; they have taught me to step back and try to communicate without expectations. Dating during COVID-19 doesn’t offer the romance of infatuation or the passion of a fling, but it teaches us to commit to something different: kindness, curiosity, discovery, patience.
My shifting dating attitude is reflected nationally. A study released in the spring backed by highlighted the turn towards longer conversations and reconsidering values; 63% of respondents were spending more time getting to know potential dates. Honesty was up, as was the percentage of people who said they shared “meaningful conversations” prior to meeting in person. One app, The League, shared data with TIME showing average conversation length went up overall 20-25% between late March and now. (Back in April, they clocked a 41% increase in video usage within the app, plus more number exchanges and double attendance in their weekly video speed dating sessions, but that has since dropped off.) Over at Hinge, two out of three users said they “want to change the way they date once it is safe to meet in person again,” one in three were “open to being exclusive with someone they have only dated virtually,” about two-thirds felt a “growing connection” with someone they’d met only virtually, and two-thirds were “thinking more about who they’re really looking for.”

— Bumble (@bumble) March 25, 2020

Most of these long-term messaging relationships don’t result in true love. One guy shared with me a story about his own COVID dating experience: he’d met a woman on Bumble just before isolation in the spring. After their first date was canceled, they talked daily for three months, ordering each other takeout while jointly watching shows like Money Heist, “double dating” while watching movies at home with their parents, investing in the same stocks on Robinhood and even attending virtual concerts jointly. She asked him to kiss in the comments of a Shadowboxers encore set. Then, as the pandemic dragged on, their online love story dwindled. They never met. They didn’t need each other anymore. (They do still talk, he said.) Yet it was a connection that helped sustain something like joy during the year’s darkest months—the type of connection I’ll continue to seek, for better or worse, online more than offline, as winter closes around us.
Maybe Sean and I will finally go on that date once we eventually get vaccinated, if we end up in the same city. But maybe he—and every other one of these internet boyfriends—will eventually fade out of my life, their purpose served. I’m grateful for them anyway.

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