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National symbolism in Russia: the old and the new


Anatoly Korolev and Dmitry Kosyrev, RIA Novosti commentators

"New Russia", words you often hear in Moscow and all over the country, are true - Russia really became new through trials and tribulations, achievements and victories.

How is that possible, you may ask. How can a country with a more than a thousand years' history become new? That is not surprising. Even nations that emerged several thousand years ago occasionally get a rejuvenation treatment - or they would die of old age.

National symbols appear among the most salient features as you track down the cycles of nations' and civilisations' ageing and renovation. Symbolism visibly shows a nation's desire to turn over a new leaf, or to cling to old traditions, or perhaps to retain the past but modernize it.

It is hard to find a more indicative and instructive example than the fate of two Russian symbols. One, Independence Day, celebrated on June 12, was conceived at the top political level as a principal national holiday and was approved by an overwhelming majority in parliament - yet it never won true popularity.

Another symbol, St. George's Ribbon, emerged as one of the many attributes of V-E Day celebrations; in fact, one of the most unassuming parts of their pageantry. Its inventors were surprised to see how the public snatched at it to wear orange-and-black ribbons and decorate cars, phones and everything else with them.

Let us analyse the situation in detail as part of an investigation into public mentality.

Established in 1990, Independence Day is the newest of Russian national holidays. Many meet it with indignation and some are enthusiastic about it, but the majority is totally indifferent.

As the VTsIOM, an influential public opinion study center, conducted a poll in 2005, it learned that 30% of Russians had family celebrations on November 7, the October Revolution anniversary, which has been abolished as a national holiday. The respective figure for Independence Day was just 10%. In fact, it is the most unpopular of all national holidays, while the V-E Day, which Russians celebrate on May 9, is the best loved.

Russia's Supreme Soviet (parliament) adopted the Declaration of State Sovereignty soon after the USSR collapsed and the Commonwealth of Independent States, or the CIS, was established. President Boris Yeltsin insisted on the declaration to be adopted in the Soviet Union's lifetime as it reinforced his own position and that of political forces backing him, and provided a documentary basis of Russian independence from the USSR.

Hard times set in after that, so millions of Russians associate June 12 with mass impoverishment, deposits vanishing in ruined banks, collapsing free health service and education, and skyrocketing unemployment. An even greater psychological stress came as Russia lost overnight the lands whose conquest cost it several centuries of wars. Ukrainian independence struck the public the hardest.

Russia emerged about a thousand years ago as a state with two metropolitan cities - Kiev in the south and Novgorod in the north. Neither the Tatar invasion, nor wars with Turkey and Poland, nor the Napoleonic and two world wars, let alone the stormy revolutions, severed the close alliance of two Slavic nations. No wonder many Russians view June 12, 1990, which let them formally separate, as a fatal day.

There were huge losses in the east, too, with the independence of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Kyrgyzstan, which Russia conquered in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Independence Days are joyously celebrated in former colonies - the United States, Canada, India and many African countries. Former empires - Britain, France and Spain - have no such holiday, and that is logical.

Russia never was a colony, so its Independence Day is nonsensical.

There are many more new symbols, starting with the revived tricolour. Its red, blue and white stand for the unity of the army, civilians and the Church. Emperor Peter the Great established it as the national standard in 1699, preferring what was the banner of the merchant marine to several hundred other flags as its heraldry symbolised peace and friendship.

The flag of the Russian monarchy came back onto its own with a parliamentary decree of August 22, 1991.

The majority of Russians are not opposed to it so bitterly as to Independence Day, remembering the centuries of martial glory the tricolour stands for.

Even in an era of rejuvenation, nations cling to their roots. This dedication to history is the reason for the tremendous success of the St. George's Ribbon.

The campaign started shortly before May 9, 2005, during the preparations for the 60th anniversary of victory in World War II. RIA Novosti launched an online project (http://www.9may.ru/) to collect the reminiscences of people whose grand- and great-grandparents fought in the war. Striped ribbons, 50 centimetres long and 3.5 centimetres wide, were distributed free in the streets all over Russia as souvenirs to accompany it.

The ribbon idea was a brainchild of Natalya Loseva, RIA Novosti Internet Projects Director. The Student Community public organisation, the Moscow municipal administration and many others promptly joined in.

Established in 1769, the Order of St. George was conferred in the Russian Empire on heroic soldiers, and worn on an orange-and-black ribbon - the highest class on a broad one, running across the chest, and privates' small crosses on a short and narrow, initially run though the uniform collar tab. Experts on heraldry have different opinions on its colours. Some say they came from the national coat-of-arms, with a black two-headed eagle against a gold background, others think the black-and-orange stands for gunpowder and fire.

The ribbon decorated the flags of the Guards - the most valiant military units.

St. George's Ribbon was one of the few Russian imperial symbols that survived in the Soviet times. The Order of Glory, established during WWII, had a ribbon of the same colours, so St. George's struck a familiar note in the mind of wartime soldiers' descendants.

If you cherish your ancestors' contribution to the Allied cause, tie a ribbon on your bag, round the collar, or on anything you like, and wear it as long as you like. That was how the RIA Novosti project initially planned it.

The campaign was a stunning success. Ten million ribbons have been distributed so far in Britain, the US, Greece, Iceland, the Czech Republic, Italy, Estonia, Spain, South Africa, Serbia and China, to say nothing of Russia. Thousands of ribbons dangle from cars, hats and bag handles, and decorate streets and shop windows in Moscow, where the campaign started. Counterfeit items often come up. The authors of the idea do not mind so long as the ribbons are not used for commercial gain.

The ribbons that symbolised martial glory and remembrance succeeded where Independence Day and many other symbols failed - they united the Russian people. The tiny ribbon is worn as a symbol of patriotism, which rises above politics and other personal convictions, and does not demand spectacular action. Its symbolism crosses the borders of V-E celebrations. The number of people who wear it to show that they love their country grows every day.

The little ribbon focuses the achievements of a revived and rejuvenated Russia in its progress. -0-

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