What are Russians celebrating when they celebrate National Unity Day?


Russians celebrate National Unity Day on 4 November, but the name masks Russian anxieties about disunity and disintegration.


Victoria Smolkin-Rothrock
5 November 2014

On 4 November, Russia celebrated National Unity Day, as it has every year since 2005 when President Vladimir Putin introduced it, and every year coverage of the holiday focuses on the fact that many, if not most, Russians, don't actually know what it is they are celebrating.

While the holiday holds little significance for many Russians, it matters a great deal to Vladimir Putin.

In the first year it was celebrated, according to the independent pollster Levada Center, only 8% of Russians correctly identified the holiday. This year, that number is 54% – but 46% of the respondents thought they were celebrating either the October Revolution (a Soviet-era holiday), or the Day of Accord and Reconciliation (a Yeltsin-era invention), or they did not know what they were celebrating at all (16% of the respondents). However, even if the holiday holds little significance for many Russians, it matters a great deal to Vladimir Putin and it should matter to those concerned with understanding his ideology. 

The troubled history of a modern holiday

Part of the reason many have failed to grasp the meaning of this holiday is that it commemorates what most consider ancient history. In his search for Russia's identity, Putin reached past both the Soviet and the imperial eras to the 17th century, when a crisis of governance almost brought down the Russian state. National Unity Day marks the expulsion of Polish invaders in 1612 that bought an end to the ‘Time of Troubles’ – a period of foreign occupation and domestic strife lasting from 1598-1613. As the story goes, a crisis of succession brought on by the death of the last ruler of Ryurik dynasty, plunged the country into a dark period of political and social crisis. As Muscovite elites fought amongst themselves, numerous ‘false Dmitrys’ – claiming to be the last tsar's dead brother – made their own bids for the Russian throne, some by mobilising the people to bloody rebellions that ravaged the countryside.

In the end, it was the threat of being converted to Roman Catholicism and ruled by a Polish king that unified the people, led by the merchant Kuzma Minin and Prince Pozharsky, to save Russia. Having learned their lesson, Russia’s noblemen, the boyars elected Mikhail Romanov to be the first Romanov tsar. The Romanov dynasty laid the foundation for Russia's rise as a great power – by the time Mikhail’s grandson, Peter the Great, ruled Russia, it had become a major European empire. 

For most, National Unity Day is the latest failure in the effort to come up with a compelling national idea to fill the ideological vacuum that opened up after the Soviet collapse. Yeltsin's attempts – both his 1996 contest for the ‘Russian idea’ and his Day of Accord and Reconciliation (intended to replace the Day of the October Revolution) – produced little but cynicism and mockery, as most Russians didn't understand what, or who, they were expected to reconcile with.

Unity as a national ideal

As Putin consolidated his power, he consigned Yeltsin-era holidays like Constitution Day (12 December) and the Day of Accord and Reconciliation (7 November) to the dustbin of history. In 2005 – the same year as his famous speech to the Federal Assembly of the Russian Federation where he reflected on the ‘major geopolitical disaster’ of the Soviet collapse – he introduced National Unity Day in an effort to counter the ‘epidemic of disintegration’ that had infected Russia. Contrary to the interpretation that sees Putin's speech as a statement indicating his nostalgia for the Soviet system, the real object of Putin's concern was the Russian state that emerged from the rubble and found itself again on the brink of collapse.

Sovereignty has the same fundamental value as freedom and democracy.

In this year's National Unity Day speech, Putin called the end of the Time of Troubles the most decisive event in Russia's history. For Putin, the Time of Troubles serves as a ‘cautionary tale’ to the Russian people that ‘they have a sacred duty to protect and defend national interests, and to remember that being derelict in this duty can bring the country to disintegration and death, that her sovereignty has the same fundamental value as freedom and democracy.’

If we take National Unity Day seriously as a cornerstone of Putin's ideology, we might better understand his vision of Russia's mission in the world. Those who want to understand Putin would do well to study Russian history. Russia's history is Putin's ideological kitchen, and the Russian idea he has embraced consists of several key ingredients – a strong state, national unity and a moral mission – but these ultimately boil down to the one essential factor that Putin values above all else: sovereignty.

While Russia presents itself as very old, as a nation-state, it is actually very new. 

While Russia presents itself as very old, it is worth remembering that, as a nation-state, it is actually very new. Russia only became a modern nation-state in 1991, and in the absence of a national history, statehood and sovereignty are the central pillars of Putin's ideology. Putin sees a strong state as part of Russian historical tradition, a safeguard against foreign invasion and domestic disunity. However, even as Russia's ideological foundation is grounded in a millennium of statehood, the state had always encompassed territories beyond the borders of contemporary Russia, which most notably extended into Ukraine. As Serhii Plokhy argues in his recent book, The Last Empire, even Yeltsin – the father of the modern Russian nation – found it hard to imagine a Russian future without Ukraine, and it was Ukraine's decision to declare independence in 1991 that sealed the fate of the Soviet Union and the post-Soviet order. Putin has been quoted as saying that Ukraine is not a real state. However, if Ukraine is a nation without a real state, Russia is a state without a real nation – a failed empire still struggling toward a national idea. 

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