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Patriotism and unity in Russia in times of pandemic. From theory to practice

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The first part of November offered, despite the cold weather in Moscow, fervent topics of debate in the Russian public space. The month started off with the Day of National Unity, on the 4th on November, celebrated this year in a delicate epidemiological situation, with high numbers of COVID-19 infection cases and deaths, which led to a generalized non-working paid days regime for the Russian citizens. Hence, the day off turned rather into a week of holidays, with Russians filling up quickly the airplanes to Turkey or Egypt, or booking tours for domestic trips.

Day of National Unity – past and present

This holiday is rather a new one in the calendar of Russian official holidays. If one were to look at this calendar not so long ago, or if one were to ask the members of the Communist Party, the month is rather welcoming in its first part the anniversary of the October Revolution, turned “November Revolution” due to the change of calendar from the Julian to the Gregorian one. However, starting with 2005, the new Day of National Unity was established as a national holiday, celebrated ever since and including a day off. The day evokes the events of 1612, when a popular uprising gathering different ethnic and social groups led by Kuzma Minin and Dmitry Pozharsky managed to expel the Polish troops from Moscow. The event is historically appraised as the beginning of the end of the “Time of Troubles” and the emergence of the Romanov Dynasty and has enjoyed official attention throughout the Russian history. For example, Mikhail – the first Romanov tsar – named the event as the “Day of the Cleansing of Moscow from the Polish invaders”, while Alexander I ordered the erection of a monument to Minin and Pozharsky in the Red Square, marking in this way the building of the first statue in the Russian history dedicated to a national hero, and not to a political or military leader. The monument, though moved to make way for Lenin’s Mausoleum, still guards over the heart of the Russian capital, close to St. Basil’s Cathedral.

A simple glance at the current Russian calendar  would show how, except for the New Year’s and Christmas holidays, all the other Russian public holidays celebrate a historical event or what could be argued as a national value/tradition, nonetheless with historical background: February 23rd – Day of the Defender of the Fatherland, March 8th – International Day of Women, May 1st – Labour Day, May 9th – Victory Day, June 12th – Russia’s Day, November 4th – Day of National Unity. Sure, comments and evaluations could be pertinently drawn on the significance of each of these holidays, but, restraining to the Day of National Unity, the version exposed publicly and officially in the past days in the Russian arena would clearly show how this is imagined as a celebration and reinforcement of patriotism, heroism and unity of a multinational people. There is also a religious connotation behind this holiday, doubling as an Orthodox celebration, in the Church’s calendar: the day of the Kazan icon of the Mother of God. Nonetheless, this dimension is also subscribed to 1612 events, when the icon accompanied the militia in their march on Moscow and subsequently expelling the Polish forces out of the city; even this year, Patriarch Kirill emphasized this significance, and prayed for maintaining “our sovereignty, our independence”, understood “not only formal independence, but the ability to live by our own reason, the source of which is the great spiritual and cultural tradition of our people”, clearly hinting at the Russian values and traditions.

This year’s celebration, marked by the pandemic and the aforementioned non-working days, enjoyed some attention in the Russian media. Overall, the mainstream outlets followed two main paths: one to present the history and significance of the holiday, and one to expose the planned events and programmes for the day all around the country. Following the first path, TASS published a day prior, a lengthy article to popularize the history of Minin and Pozharsky, but also the significance and the motivation for marking this event every year as a public holiday, citing the text of the law that made it official: “On November 4th, 1612, soldiers of the people’s militia … demonstrated an example of heroism and solidarity of the whole people, regardless of origin, religion and position in society”. RT chose another way to engage the public, preparing a quiz – “Together to freedom: RT test for the National Unity Day” to test the readers’ knowledge on the holiday.

RIA Novosti contributed to the second path, with a generous expose, published at midnight of the 4th of November, on the plans and views of “parties, youth movements and activists”, mentioning how most of the actions would take place online, due to the epidemiological situation, but how, nonetheless, the interest and support for the holiday were high. The article highlighted, for example, the activities of the United Russia Party or of the Liberal Democratic Party, and declarations such as the one belonging to Elena Tsunaeva, co-chairman of the central headquarters of All-Russia People’s Front (ONF): “The Day of National Unity, like no other holiday, is in tune with our multinational, multi-confessional country, which periodically responded to various challenges and won thanks to the very unity that citizens have.”

Not so popular holidays?!

The enthusiastic tone of the declarations and the abundance of programmes included in the above mentioned articles would create the impression of a generalized popularity of this public holiday. This perception could easily be reinforced by, for example, the poll made known through RIA Novosti on the Day of National Unity by the youth section of ONF, which highlighted how, out of the 1500 people that took part in the study, aged 14-35 (indicated as making part of the “official publics of the Youth ONF” and of the “Russia-My country platform”), 94% of the respondents knew when the holiday was celebrated, while 75% were able to tell who the heroes of the holidays were. The authors of the study concluded that “young Russians are united by a common goal, a strong Fatherland, a friendly peaceful life and patriotism”, values which seem to be at the core of this holiday, as envisioned by the promotors of the holiday and the official discourse.

However, there were outlets that offered a different angle on the matter. In this sense, Novaya Gazeta brought forward a poll conducted by Levada Center (listed by the Russian Ministry of Justice as a “foreign agent”), which indicated how the holiday was not so popular among Russian, with 71% stating they would celebrate neither the Day of National Unity or the October Revolution. Following on age groups, 82% of those aged 18-24 seemed to incline to not celebrating at all, with the holiday being most popular among those aged 55 or older (20% wanting to celebrate the Day of National Unity, with even more of them – 28% -wanting to celebrate the October Revolution). The study did provide an indicator pertinent to the Russian people’s awareness on the holiday, showing how 64% of the Russians currently know what holiday is celebrated on November 4th, in contrast with 2017 (53%) and even more with 2005 (8%).

Some recent reactions coming from representatives of pop culture and social media might be exemplifying for the results of the study. A couple of scandals precisely connected to the way these public holidays and national value are perceived made the headlines of all major media outlets in the period before the celebration. One of them was connected to another public holiday, arguably the one that attracts most attention nowadays in the Russian society, naming Victory Day. In an interview with journalist Ksenia Sobchak, the Russian rapper Alisher Morgenshtern launched some controversial comments on the lavish annual celebrations manifested in Russia to glorify the victory of the Soviet Union against Nazi Germany in the “Great Patriotic War”, declaring that “maybe there is nothing to be proud of”, that “remembering that once upon a time we won something, and doing this every year for almost a century… I don’t understand”, adding that it might be high time Russia celebrated some recent achievements, in different fields, like IT.

The reaction of the authorities was immediate and vehement, with Dmitry Peskov, President Putin’s spokesperson, pointing out that “those young people who are famous, who are popular with their peers, they must understand that they are somehow responsible for understanding such important concepts for our entire country as Victory Day. They need to bear the moral responsibility for this”. Plus, he invited the rapper to “go to some veterans, of whom there are fewer and fewer left but who still live among us. Ask them why Victory Day is so important and why it was, is and will be forever important for our country”.

Following the wave of negative reactions coming both from the officials and private persons on social media, Morgenshtern ended up apologizing for his remarks, admitting that he “incorrectly” expressed his ideas and that he respected  and was “proud” of the veterans. It should be noted that earlier this year, a law was passed by the Duma that made the insults against veterans a criminal offense carrying a potential five-year jail term and that an official investigation into Morgenshtern’s declarations was launched.

Putin, Sevastopol and national values

On the Day of National Unity, President Putin’s schedule included a visit to Sevastopol and a video-call with the Belarussian President, Alexander Lukashenko, as part of the discussion with the Supreme State Council of the Union State, set to review the integration process of Belarus and Russia. RIA Novosti followed the leader’s activity closely, publishing multiple articles that followed his path and declarations.

During his trip, Putin laid flowers at the memorial dedicated to the end of the Civil War (opened in April this year) and delivered some remarks for the holiday. The president started off his speech addressed to all “citizens of Russia”, highlighting what the holiday stood for and the “main, basic values that are close and understandable to each of us”. Among those mentioned, he included courage, heroism, loyalty, all considered to be “traditions of caring for the Fatherland, willingness to defend, protect it”, as part of the character of the “multimillion and multinational people” of the Russian Federation.

Putin continued with describing the event the holiday is dedicated to, using the occasion to underline how the “united” people of Russia “got rid of the interventionists, invaders and traitors” and “took responsibility for saving the country and opened the way for rebirth and strengthening of Russia”. He postulated patriotism, unity, and the care for “the fate, the future of the Motherland” as being above everything else for the Russians and built a bridge between 1612 and the Russian Civil War, described as a moment when the unity was challenged; nonetheless, even the Civil War, despite being a moment of “turmoil”, was still led by “patriots” on both sides: “of course, most of them [the ones that went into exile] were patriots of Russia and sincerely loved it – just like those who remained to build a new country and, as they thought, a better life”.

The last part of the speech was dedicated to the historical and current significance attributed by the president to Crimea. Putin evoked how the region bore the “memory and pain” of the Civil War and how it would be “an eternal symbol not only for the tragedy of the fratricidal conflict, but also, which is especially important, of subsequent reconciliation, the triumph of historical truth and justice”. The speech was ended on a decisive note, with Putin declaring that Russia “has regained its historical unity” and that Crimea was “now forever with Russia”, legitimizing this statement with the claim that “such is the sovereign, free and unshakable will of the people, of our entire people”.

Memory, politics and national identity

It could be noticed how both the mainstream media and the president’s speech revolved around the same key terms – patriotism, unity – postulated as part of the Russian traditions and national values. History and memory are significant for every state and every people/nation. It could be argued that they are stepping stones for a state’s identity. And there are multiple perspectives and theories that could be brought forward in this sense.

One of them, for example, coming from the international relations field, could be the constructivist theory of IR, through Alexander Wendt’s view on state identity. Relevantly for this topic, the theoretician argued how the states are entities with identities and interests. When discussing identity, Wendt suggested that states have several kinds of identities, proposing four of them: personal/corporate, type, role, and collective. It doesn’t make the object of the current discussion to develop all four, but what is pertinent is one component of the first type of identity, naming: “a consciousness and memory of Self as a separate locus of thought and activity” that together with a material base make states be “distinct entities” (Wendt, 1999, p.225). Hence, memory, i.e. collective memory, historical memory, traditions, values are what give sense and cohesion, a common consciousness to a group of people inhabiting a certain territory and what create and fuel the mainstream, dominant discourses, politics and ideologies.

Another approach that could be mentioned comes from the historical and political fields and focuses more on the impact or interference of the authorities and regimes with the historical memory, with how events are recorded, discarded or celebrated, insisting on terms such as “politicization”, “politics of memory” or “historical politics”. Literature is rich in this direction; one author that could be mentioned is Aleksei Miller, Russian historian, who targeted in a book co-authored with the Ukrainian historian, Georgii Kasyanov, the tendency of some states and regimes to politicize history and invest significant funds and energy in institutes and policies in order to generate politicized discourses on historical events and the state history in general. Miller appraised the politicization of history “as inevitable and inescapable” (Kasyanov&Miller, 2011, p.12) and how this process is done not only by politicians or historians, but also by readers that only look for opinions that align their own. Moreover, the historian distinguishes between “politics of memory” and “historical politics”, with the first referring to how regimes create and impose certain limits and views on subjects of history (such as what should be commemorated, which events should be praised and which marginalized, or forgotten etc.) in order to legitimize their rule, while the second being more applicable to democratic societies, or societies that at least postulate democratic values, where the mechanisms and intentions are different. Nonetheless, beside the theoretical taxonomy, what is relevant is how, no matter the regime, history and politics are intertwined, and perception – naturally/collectively emerged, or imposed by the authorities, plays a paramount role in the way society as a whole observe values and public holidays.

On a theoretical and especially political level, it might be explained and explainable why states grant so much significance and attention to national holidays built up around historical events which may have been politicized in different degrees: they give legitimacy to the regime and glue to the society. On a personal, private level, catalyzed by the modern societal and globalized filters based on what are considered nowadays universal principles (such as freedom of speech), but also an attitude influenced by what is popular or brings popularity (the pressure of the “like” or “views” on social media) it may also be explainable why there are such outbursts of what may be considered rebel behaviour, disrespectful for the common heritage. What differs, for sure, from state to state, is how the authorities handle such cases.

Further reading:

  • Duncan, Peter, Russian Messianism, Third Rome, Revolution, Communism and After, Routledge, London & New York, 2000.
  • Kasyanov, Georgii Vladimirovich, Miller, Aleksei Ilich, Rossiya – Ukraina: kak pishetsya istoriya, RGGU, Moskva, 2011.
  • Kensi, Kate, Hall Jamieson, Kathleen (eds), The Politics of Memory. The Oxford Handbook of Political Communication, Oxford University Press, Oxford & New York, 2017.
  • Perrie, Maureen (ed.), The Cambridge History of Russia, Volume I – From Early Rus’ to 1689, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2006.
  • Platonov, Sergei Feodorovich, The Time of Troubles: a Historical Study of the Internal Crises and Social Struggle in Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century Muscovy, University Press of Kansas, 1970.
  • Wendt, Alexander, Social Theory of International Politics, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1999.

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