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Russia's festive days: tides of history

About the author
Zygmunt Dzieciolowski is a Polish journalist who has covered Russia and other post Soviet republics for European media since 1989. He is joint editor of openDemocracy/Russia.

For more than seventy years, the anniversary of the Great Socialist October Revolution on 7 November 1917 was celebrated in Moscow and across the vast territory of Russia and the rest of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (the discordance of dates being explained by the post-revolutionary shift to a new calendar). The Soviet elite - members of the politburo, the top brass of the Red Army, cosmonauts and others would appear on a raised platform in Red Square - in front of Lenin's mausoleum - to view the gigantic military parade. Amidst these symbols of the nation's power, the speech of the general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union would express his solidarity with peace-loving forces around the world and send a warning to capitalist enemies in the west.

Zygmunt Dzieciolowski is a Polish journalist and writer who has reported on Russia for leading German, Swiss and Polish newspapers since 1989.

He is the author of Planet Russia, published in Poland in 2005.

Among Zygmunt Dzieciolowski's recent articles on openDemocracy:

"How Russia is ruled"(14 March 2007)

"New Russia, old Russia" (5 April 2007)

"Boris Yeltsin, history man" (24 April 2007)

"Russia's unequal struggle" (18 May 2007)

"Russia's immigration challenge" (15 June 2007)

"Tatyana Zaslavskaya's moment" (20 July 2007)
This date was the centrepiece of the Soviet festive calendar, but around it clustered other days (May Day and Victory Day being the most prominent) which were integral parts of the communist state's symbolic architecture: as much part of Soviet life as the seasons of the year, and (since similar festivities took place in all the Soviet republics) a "binding" experience for this huge system.

The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 meant that some rebranding was required, whether by reversion to an older, pre-Soviet history or an invention of new celebratory moments in keeping with the rebirth of national statehood. The idea of cancelling the opportunity for festivity was unthinkable: after all, whatever the formal designation or political meaning, for most Soviet citizens the November or May events principally meant two days' holiday - a right they were not keen to give up after the little matter of the disappearance of their old state.

Communism's echo

Russia's first post-communist leader Boris Yeltsin was unready to call an abrupt halt to the annual Red Square promise of a glorious communist tomorrow. What to do? Yeltsin's advisors proposed keeping 7 November as a state holiday, but - now that the revolution was coming to be seen as the launch of seven decades of suffering and repression - renaming it as the Day of Accord and Reconciliation.

Most Russians themselves did not care as long as they could stay at home, as they had for many years past. But for the new Russian state, the problem of November was emblematic of its difficulty from the start. The older generations that had lived through Soviet times could hardly forget the rituals of their previous life. Meanwhile, the new generation faced with the hardships of a painful transition had more important concerns than to demand new rituals and celebrations. As a result very few people were even aware that the name of the 7 November holiday had changed; or (for example) that the whole nation was supposed to celebrate Russia Day on 12 June.

Among openDemocracy's many articles on Russia politics and society:

Alena V Ledeneva, "How Russia really works" (16 January 2002)

Geoffrey Hosking, "Russians in the Soviet Union: rulers and victims" (26 June 2006)

Christoph Neidhart, "Vladimir Putin, ‘Soviet man' who missed class" (24 October 2006)

Ivan Krastev, "'Sovereign democracy', Russian-style" (16 November 2006)

Oksana Chelysheva, "Russia's iceberg: a Nizhny Novgorod report" (25 April 2007)

Tanya Lokshina, "Russian civil society: an appeal to Europe" (30 April 2007)

George Schöpflin, "Russia's reinvented empire" (3 May 2007)

Armine Ishkanian, "Nashi: Russia's youth counter-movement" (30 August 2007)

Ivan Krastev, "Russia vs Europe: the sovereignty wars" (5 September 2007)
It wasn't just the calendar. Russians, even though (or perhaps because) their lives had changed dramatically were reluctant to say goodbye to some of the old system's relics. In most Russian towns it's not unusual to find streets with communist-era names: Komunisticheskaya (Communist), Sovietskya (Soviet), Oktiabrskaya (October), Lenina (Lenin), Komsomolskaya (Komsomol) and the like.

Lenin too is far from dead. Any attempt to bury his corpse and close his Red Square mausoleum is still met by energetic protests from the surviving Communist Party and its supporters. His statue remains a standard feature in the main square of most Russian towns.

I recently visited the large industrial centre of Tula, two hours' drive south of Moscow, where a freshly renovated Orthodox cathedral stood next to a huge statue of the founder of the Soviet state. As a stream of modern cars whizzed past ubiquitous advertising billboards projecting the new consumerist lifestyles, Lenin - hands in pockets, peering enigmatically towards the communist utopia - seemed like a figure from outer space. Would any harm be done if this monument - and thousands like it - was demolished? Probably not. But if some Russians would oppose such a decision, it is less because they remain fond of the old system than because of a feeling that its monuments are part of the nation's history and should be preserved rather than erased. Conservatism, not communism, demands that Lenin must stand forever in the heart of Tula.

Russia's call

In this sense the new system has been far less efficient than the old, communist one in cleansing evidence of the past it replaced. But if Russia has proved unable or unwilling to demolish the symbols and relics of the earlier era across its still (after the "loss" of the Soviet republics) vast territory, it has had little success in commemorating those who fought for democratic values in communist times.

In the 1990s, two impressive monuments honouring victims of the gulag - both designed by the legendary dissident artist Ernst Neizvestney - were raised: one in the far-east town of Magadan, and another in the southern Russian town of Elista, capital of the republic of Kalmykia. Very little else has been done to remember victims of state repression, yet some intellectuals - including supporters of Vladimir Putin, such as academician and senior Duma official Yevgeny Velikhov - advocate the building of a National Memorial Museum. In a recent TV interview, Velikhov - whose family suffered severe repression in the Stalin era - said that he appreciated the efforts of the "Memorial" organisation to research and record evidence of the tragic Russian-Soviet 20th-century past.

When listening to the trolley-bus announcements along Moscow's Garden Ring, I am always surprised when the next stop is "Academician Sakharov Prospect". The designation of one street in the capital's centre is a meagre honour from Moscow's city authorities to the legendary dissident, who did so much to defend human rights and destroy the communist system. There is also a Sakharov Museum, but it faces financial difficulties and has little official support.

Vladimir Putin's Russia instead has its own favoured symbols. It reinstated the old Soviet anthem, after a widespread sense that Yeltsin had been wrong to discard the song that had inspired Red Army soldiers in the "great patriotic war" against Nazi Germany. The new words were written by the same lyricist (Sergei Mikhalkov), though their nationalistic spirit was not much different to the old.

The Russian authorities followed in 2005 by introducing a new holiday, the Day of National Unity. They knew that citizens would be unhappy to lose their traditional two November days off, so chose a date close to the celebration of 1917. The designated holiday turned out to be 4 November, a day that - as most Russians would not know - was supposed to commemorate Russia's success in freeing itself from Polish occupiers in 1612.

In order to promote the new holiday, Russia's ministry of culture as well as the Kremlin-friendly oligarch Victor Vexelberg generously backed 1612 - a new film directed by the well-known filmmaker Vladimir Khotinenko. Its narrative is a reminder to Russians of the importance of the events of 400 years ago: and the Smuta (the "times of trouble"), when the Russian state was nearly destroyed both by internal chaos and by Polish-Lithuanian invaders but eventually recovered its integrity and its soul.

The majority of the population remained indifferent to the new national holiday, but one group did welcome it: radical nationalists who opposed immigration, supported traditional Russian Orthodox values and claimed to defend the Russian diaspora from alleged repression by the governments of (for example) Estonia and Latvia. In 2006, the Moscow administration banned the "Russian march", a mass demonstration organised by nationalist radicals intended to take place on 4 November. In 2007, both sides negotiated a compromise: the march will take place on the Shevchenko Embankment, next to the renovated Hotel Ukraine. Similar marches will be organised in other Russian cities; their contribution to Russian "national unity" will be close to nil.

Vladimir Putin enjoys high popularity ratings, but even his government's effort to appeal to Russians' patriotic feelings is unlikely to succeed. For most Russians, the priority is not patriotic slogans but material conditions: money and consumption, wages paid on time, improving standard of living, buying new cars and flats. After the turbulent period of perestroika and the chaotic Boris Yeltsin years, Vladimir Putin has brought a measure of (oil-and-gas-fuelled) stability to the country. As long as this continues, a majority of citizens is ready to close its eyes to the Kremlin's clampdown on democratic institutions and values.

At the same time Russians have no illusions. The Kremlin nomenklatura is concerned mainly about power and wealth; no high-ranking official can be expected to sacrifice them for the sake of patriotic values and the motherland. History has taught Russians to know when their rulers lie and when they tell the truth. They know that most of their national institutions now - their parliament, the constitutional tribunal, the central election commission, political parties - are just imitations; that "real" ones would look and act differently.

This is true too of the Day of National Unity. 4 November will come and go, a holiday nobody - except the Kremlin and radical nationalists - wants to celebrate.

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