RussiaProfile.Org, an online publication providing in-depth analysis of business, politics, current affairs and culture in Russia, has published a new Special Report on the 20 Years since the Fall of the Soviet Union. The reports contains fourteen articles by both Russian and foreign contributors, who try to analyze the many changes that have taken place in Russian society since then and attempt to answer two perennial questions: was the collapse of the USSR the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century”, as Vladimir Putin once said, or a blessing for its people? And how far has present-day Russia departed from its Soviet past?
Russia Lacks a Unified Policy With Regard to Its Symbols.
It was May 2010, when a group of top officials in charge of the Moscow Kremlin, both museum staff and presidential guards, joined Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s close ally Vladimir Yakunin, head of Russian Railways and the influential St. Andrew’s Foundation, at a press conference, convened to announce some sensational news: the historical icons on the Kremlin’s main towers facing the Red Square, long believed to have been destroyed by the Bolsheviks, were discovered behind a layer of plaster and would be restored to their former glory. It was presented as a highly symbolic case of historical justice on a national scale.
Toward the end of the press conference, a young journalist asked: wouldn’t there now be a contradiction between the icons and the five-pointed red stars atop the towers—the symbols of the power that had fought God and “old Russia?” The luminaries were unprepared for the question. “When was the last time you saw the towers?” Yakunin retorted, while Yelena Gagarina, the director of the Kremlin Museum, nodded in agreement. “Then you definitely did not see the stars there!”
The stars, of course, were there. They were there in the coming months, when President Dmitry Medvedev and Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church christened first the icon of Christ the Savior and then of St. Nicholas on the towers that bear their names. Between them, Vladimir Lenin continued to lie in his mausoleum as the chief communist relic and tourist curiosity. The white, blue and red national flag hoisted over the Kremlin in December of 1991 instead of the Soviet red banner continued flapping over the presidential residence above.
It is hard to believe that Yakunin and Gagarina had confused the Kremlin towers with those of the Historical Museum or Voskresenskie Gates flanking the Red Square, where the double-headed eagles were returned atop the towers in the 1990s. Most likely, they were simply not ready to tackle this issue and discuss what had become Vladimir Putin’s policy on symbols: mix up the Imperial Russian and Soviet symbols and ignore the contradiction between the two, thus instilling the idea of “reconciliation” and continuity of one historical Russia.
To be fair, there is no sizable public movement to remove the stars from the Kremlin, or any other Soviet symbols visible elsewhere in Russia, including the ubiquitous Lenin monuments and Lenin street names. The Moscow Kremlin with its palaces, cathedrals and star-topped towers is not the least coherent or historically authentic seat of power in Russia. In Kazan, the capital of Tatarstan, for example, one can see not only crosses and a star, but also crescents atop the newly built mosque and an old Russian-built tower, which became the city’s symbol. Talk of removing Lenin’s body from the mausoleum arises every once in a while after some public figure broaches the issue—and dies out just as quickly. The mix-up of old and new holidays, the combination of a slightly modernized version of the Imperial double-headed eagle as the national coat of arms and the Soviet-era national anthem with the new lyrics no one can remember bear witness to the fact that Russia does not have an overarching idea and employs a variety of often mutually exclusive myths. Reevaluation of the Soviet past has also stalled, and various degrees of nostalgia for the Soviet Union have become characteristic for many parts of society, including the young. But most people seem to be happy with this post-modernist multiplicity. “It is not a political issue, it’s a cultural issue, and it is good,” said sociologist Alina Bagina, the head of the Sreda Center. “There was a time when only one thing was in fashion, and everything else was not. Today everything is in fashion that you like.”
The one and only meaning
It has not always been like that. As soon as public life reawakened during the perestroika years, national symbols became an important element of political struggle. But only marginal monarchist and nationalist groups carried around the double-headed eagle, while an attempt to re-introduce the white-blue-red flag by one progressive deputy in the Russian Supreme Soviet in 1990 spurred outrage among his fellow deputies. According to sociologist Boris Dubin, at the time half of Russians spoke in favor of the Soviet red flag and only one fifth wanted to bring back the pre-revolutionary flag.
The tide turned during the attempted coup in August of 1991. The tricolor flag appeared on the barricades around the White House, and on August 22 the Russian authorities opposed to the Soviet-inspired coup plotters adopted it as the republic’s symbol. It was hoisted over the building of the Supreme Soviet of the Russian Federation as Muscovites celebrated the victory over the coup and marched through the streets carrying a giant flag. It thus came to symbolize freedom and became pretty much the only meaningful symbol of the new Russia, not just a recreation of old Russia. “The only new Russian symbol that has vitality is the flag,” said cultural critic and television host Alexander Arkhangelsky. “It was adopted at the last bout of mutual love.”
From then on, the situation got more complicated. The Soviet Union fell apart, and new Russia had to get a full set of new national symbols. Endless discussions in the Supreme Soviet began, with vigorous opposition to any attempts to introduce any version of the double-headed eagle and a seeming lack of any other possible non-Soviet symbol for Russia. First the State Bank, having to begin printing money, adopted the symbol it borrowed from the 1917 Transitional Government. Its eagle without the crowns was too non-communist for the communists and not sufficiently stately, without the crowns, for the proponents of a strong Russian state, yet it was good enough for the bank. But what was to appear on embassies, government buildings and seals? Having failed to pass the law in the communist-dominated Supreme Soviet, President Boris Yeltsin adopted the modernized version of the old Imperial Eagle—golden on red instead of black on yellow—and passed it by his decree in 1993, after he shut down the Supreme Soviet and before the first State Duma convened. As for the anthem, Mikhail Glinka’s beautiful but quite complicated entry into the 19th century anthem competition, known as the “Patriotic Song,” was picked, and a competition for lyrics was announced, which never yielded viable results. The Soviet national holiday—Revolution Day on November 7—was renamed the Day of Reconciliation and Accord, since people had got used to having a day off.
As a result, Soviet symbols were gradually and slowly pushed back, by decree and by new symbols that sought to reestablish Russia’s connection to its non-communist past, but bore little connection to people’s immediate lives and experiences.Arkhangelsky believes that the vitality of the Soviet symbols was—and remains—in the fact that they represent a certain set of values. “Soviet symbols were symbols behind which there had been some ideological reality, at least until the 1960s,” he said. “We lived without the coat of arms, without an anthem. I like Glinka’s music—it is very good! But I understand very well why the old Soviet anthem is much closer to many people. The same is true of the holidays. For me, November 7 is a holiday of the enemy, but it has a certain meaningful core that can be mythologized. With November 4, it has not worked. It is a very good day, except it has no connection to my life or the lives of my children.”
The introduction of November 4—the Day of Russian Unity on the Orthodox Christian holiday of Our Lady of Kazan signifying the ousting of the Poles from Moscow and the establishment of the Romanov dynasty—was part of a new bout of symbolic manipulation, which came during Vladimir Putin’s era of stabilization.
Early in his presidency, Putin decided to resolve the conflict as part of his campaign to increase Russian patriotism and “overcome” the instability of the 1990s. He presented the State Duma with a compromise: bring back the Soviet anthem—the music by Alexander Alexandrov written during World War II, but with a new set of lyrics—and legalize the old eagle. This time around, it was the liberals’ time to protest against what many saw as creeping re-Sovietization. But it worked—and stabilized the eclectic and contradictory symbolic space.
The past decade has seen a return to Russia, with military honors of the bodies of White Army generals and anti-communist philosophers, the reburial of the last Emperor’s mother and continued building and reconstruction of new churches. But the campaign to rename streets and towns, which began here and there in the 1990s, has virtually stopped. It appears that the country will be left for a long time with a combination of St. Petersburg as the capital of the Leningrad Region and Yekaterinburg as the capital of the Sverdlovsk Region, as well as with hundreds of “Leninsks” and “Oktyabrskys.”
Even in the commercial sphere, Soviet symbols are still very much alive. When Aeroflot carried out vast rebranding in 2004 it kept its hammer and sickle wing-logo. Thus its flight attendants now wear stylish new uniforms with communist symbols—in a cool orange color—on their sleeves.
This poses an issue that is problematic for some—but not many—Russians. Arkhangelsky calls it “political cowardice.” “We are afraid to admit that what stands behind the Soviet symbols means death and violence, inhumanity and hollow etatism,” he said. “So people say they can reconcile the symbols. I disagree. I insist that the symbolic reality transforms into actual reality. There is no post-modernism, there is relativism. Putin’s policy to give everybody his or her symbols is a relativist policy. The only thing in which we are united is relativism.”
Georgy Vilinbakhov, the deputy director of the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, the head of the State Heraldry and thus the key author of all new Russian symbols, strongly defends another position. “Are we supposed to be like the Bolsheviks, who destroyed all the symbols of old Russia?” he exclaimed. He argues that it is absolutely normal for countries to have various periods of their history represented in their symbolic space. In England, he said, there are monuments to both Charles I and Oliver Cromwell—who ordered his execution, in French heritage there are elements of the monarchist, republican and Napoleonic periods. “One should take a broad historical approach to symbols and not look at them through a narrow political prism,” he said. According to Vilinbakhov, the combination of stars and icons on the Kremlin towers is nothing but a representation of the country’s “transitional” character. The approach, he said, should be not to take the stars down, but to wait until they wear out and require replacement. At that point, eagles should be installed instead.
The general trend, Vilinbakhov said, is to restore the eagles where the Bolsheviks took them down, in the course of the nearest reconstruction. Such was the case, for example, with the Grand Kremlin Palace and the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow, or the Smolny Institute in St. Petersburg—the city’s seat of power since the communist revolution. Likewise, Soviet emblems should stay where they are part of the architectural décor—like the State Duma building, which used to house Gosplan, or the Foreign Ministry building in Moscow. “When I am told that it’s new Bolshevism, I say that the Bolsheviks have removed the good and replaced it with the bad,” said historian Andrei Zubov, who is widely known for his strongly anti-Soviet position. “These 20 years, with all the complications that came with them, have brought us liberation from the lies. These 20 years are just the beginning of change. The soul of the people was destroyed and it is recovering very slowly.”
Arkhangelsky believes that the current symbolical mishmash is not going to last forever, though, because there are no values backing up the new Russian symbols, except the flag. “The double-headed eagle is not going to work as long as there is no empire,” Arkhangelsky said. “Show me the empire, and I will believe in the eagle. The same is true of November 4, which is the mystical beginning of the Romanov dynasty. Show me the Romanovs and I will believe in November 4. The tricolor has a republican connotation and hence there is a value behind it that we can share. I am convinced that if everything in Russia will be fine, the eagle will die as a national symbol and will continue to live as a symbol for those remembering the Russian Empire. November 4 will die as a national holiday, but will remain a holy day for the Russian Orthodox Church, as it has been for centuries—the day of the Our Lady of Kazan. And the Soviet symbols will die. Independence Day—July 12, Liberty Day—August 22, and Constitution Day—December 12—these are the values and days around which Russia can build its future.”