Vienna, November 4 – Russia’s Day of Popular Unity which is being marked today is “one of the most unsuccessful improvisations” of the Putin era, a “half-hearted” compromise with history that not only highlights the current lack of unity among Russians but provides the occasion for various groups to try to define what their unity should be based on.
In an essay entitled “’A Day of Unity’ Without an Ideology,” Moscow commentator Taras Burmistrov underscores that point by comparing the new holiday which neither the government nor the Russian people know how to celebrate with the older November 7th Soviet-era event that was clearly defined for both (www.russ.ru/pole/Den-edinstva-bez-ideologii).
Having replaced that celebration of the 1917 October revolution with “The Day of National Unity” on November 4th, he writes, “the Russian powers that be committed one of the most unsuccessful improvisations” of the last two decades, one that failed to promote any unity except agreement that those behind this new event do not know on what it should be based.
In Soviet times, the November 7th holiday served by its very “pompousness” to stress that national history pointed to and took as its point of departure precisely that event. Indeed, even after the collapse of Soviet power, that holiday remained for many “in the direct sense of the word” and for others an occasion to define their opposition to it.
But today’s holiday, Burmistrov argues, does not have the same meaning and cannot fill the same ideological role. And consequently, any “unity” proclaimed on this occasion remains “latent;” that is, it remains until some future event – likely an attack from the outside – brings it into being.
State holidays, as the authors of this one appear to have forgotten, “are always closely linked with some historical turning points,” and because this one does not represent such a change, various political groups, including most prominently xenophobic nationalists, are trying to invest the date with meanings that will serve their narrow political purposes.
The storming of Moscow’s Kitay-Gorod by Minin and Pozharsky and the driving out of the Russian capital of Polish forces in 1612 were important events, but even together with the election of the Romanovs as the ruling dynasty that followed, they cannot serve to unify a Russian society divided by the events of the 20th century.
If the anti-Bolshevik “White Russia” had triumphed in 1991 – something that was impossible because such a movement did not then exist, Burmistrov says – then the new Russia might have replaced November 7th with November 4th. But the processes which took place in Russia at that time were far more complex than “a belated victory of White Russia over Red.”
As a result, Burmistrov continues, Russians now celebrate “at a minimum three contradictory holidays” over the course of four November days: Part of Russia continues to celebrate the 7th as the victory of Red Russia over White; part follows the government and marks the expulsion of conquerors on the 4th; and part uses both to push other agendas.
“Not by accident,” Burmistrov notes, the first “Russian March,” with its xenophobic and even radical nationalist symbols, took place in 2005 along side with the first celebration of the Day of National Unity. Indeed, the failure of the powers that be to provide that event with content invited precisely such a parallel action.
“From the point of view of the Russian nationalist movement,” he continues, “both ‘Red Russia’ with its official holidays and ‘White Russia’ with its official celebrations are phenomena somehow infinitely distant from the interests of the Russian people” now. And consequently, the nationalists have positioned themselves as “the Third Russia” and thus set apart from both.
And that possibility was expanded because, Burmistrov argues, “the powers that be” accidently chose an extremely symbolic event but symbolic in ways that they did not suspect: 1612 was, the Moscow writer continues, “one of the greatest victory of the Russian people which is not associated now with any ideology.”
But whether it planned to do so or not, the regime selected as a new holiday a date which commemorates the victory of the people rather than of the powers that be. And that has inevitably meant, Burmistrov points out, “the powers that be and the Russian nationalist movement” define it in diametrically opposed ways.
“If for the powers that be, [this date] is in fact the beginning of the Romanov dynasty and the appearance of ‘White Russia’ … then for Russian nationalists, this is ‘a victory without ideology, which has great value for Russian history which always was too ideological” and thus opens a way for them to define it anew.
And that in turn means that the Russian nationalists far more clearly than the powers that be can proclaim their ideological positions, Burmistrov says. And the only response the latter have is the OMON. Perhaps a dialogue will take place at some point in the future about a new kind of national unity, but for now, this holiday highlights the lack of that in Russia.