Today, November 4, Russia celebrates a new national holiday — People’s Unity Day. The holiday marks the end of the Polish occupation of Moscow in 1612 when the country’s capital was liberated from the foreign intruders by the “joint efforts of the entire Russian society.” But introduced specifically to replace the November 7 celebration of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution – the event that ruined the powerful Russian empire – the new holiday is likely designed to glorify not so much the unity of the people as the unity and stability of the Russian state.
Unlike the former Soviet Union with its official communist ideology, or the chaotic regime of President Boris Yeltsin, who sought legitimacy in militant anti-communism, the Russia of President Vladimir Putin appears to eschew clear-cut ideological markers. The Putinists — mostly former secret service operatives and law-enforcement officers — like to describe themselves as pragmatists and stress the benefits of a strong state. If Putin and his entourage have anything resembling an ideology, it is statism.
In this sense, Putin’s attitude toward communism and the Soviet period of Russian history is very ambivalent. On the one hand, he is on record as saying that the collapse of the USSR was the biggest geopolitical tragedy of the previous century. But he likely perceives the Bolshevik Revolution as an unfortunate upheaval that tremendously weakened Russia and for a long period excluded it from a select group of the world’s great powers. This means that the Putinists appear to have nothing against those aspects of the communist past that are connected with the statist attitudes – such as, for example, creating the industrial base for Soviet military might, the victory in World War II and the establishment of the Soviet empire in Eastern Europe, or the successes in the geopolitical rivalry with the United States during the Cold War era. But they seem keen to exclude from the Soviet tradition any elements that have anything to do with revolutionary (i.e. destabilizing) ideas.
The end result of these exercises is, quite naturally, a very eclectic set of symbols borrowed from the various epochs of Russian history and reassembled anew – what some analysts call Putin’s statist synthesis.
Thus, the Kremlin strategists appear to suggest, the contrast between the old and the new November holidays should be made crystal clear. While November 7 symbolizes the uprising that ushered in the debilitating Smuta – the Time of Troubles in Russia’s dramatic 20th century history, November 4 is supposed to celebrate the end of the first Russian Smuta — that of the 17th century. What matters to the spin-doctors is not so much “people’s unity” and the triumph over the foreign occupation forces as the suppression of internal anarchy and restoration of the state power.
Of the people close to the Kremlin leader, Russian Orthodox Patriarch Alexei II pointed to this newly found symbolism in the most eloquent way. The 17th century Time of Troubles does not boil down to Polish intervention, he argues in an extensive interview with the popular daily Trud. For him, the much more lethal implication of the Smuta was the “utter weakening of the foundations of Russian state and national life.” Some of the other Patriarch’s pronouncements are even more remarkable. “The beginning of the Time of Troubles can be described with just one word – treason,” Alexei II contends. “For the sake of their selfish interests, the various Boyar groupings that existed back then – today they can be called the elite – were ready to commit all sorts of treacherous acts.” Hence, the Patriarch goes on, what we celebrate on November 4 is the holiday of the “salvation of our country.” And, he pointedly adds, the salvation “not from Polish occupation but from internal decomposition.”
This passage is truly symptomatic, particularly given the Kremlin’s wariness of the democratic “color revolutions” proliferating in the post-Soviet lands. As the Kremlin strategists know all too well, the political upheavals that recently occurred in several CIS countries would have been impossible but for the divisions within the local elites and the “treason” of some segments of the political class in the ex-Soviet republics who sided with the opposition. From time to time, Russia’s media outlets spread rumors about various “oligarchic plots” and “anti-state conspiracies” allegedly seeking to destabilize the country. It would appear that, in this context, the political technologists designed the new holiday as an additional ideological prop to the regime aimed at strengthening Putin’s statist synthesis.
But very few analysts believe the Kremlin will succeed with its new Agitprop project. A nationwide survey conducted in mid-October by the respected Levada Center showed that only 8% of Russians were aware of the new holiday and 63% opposed the abolition of the November 7 holiday. In the words of one liberal commentator, the “Putin regime loses the ideological battle with the shadow of the Russian Revolution.”
(Trud, Moscow Times, Russia Profile, Eurasianhome.org, November 3; Polit.ru, November 2; Politcom.ru, October 10)