Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 227

Russia’s State Duma is preparing to pass a law governing Russia’s state anthem, flag and coat-of-arms. On December 4, President Vladimir Putin sent the Duma draft legislation covering Russia’s state symbols preserving Russia’s tri-color flag and two-headed eagle coat-of-arms–which his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, revived by decree–but changing the music of the country’s anthem back to that of the Soviet anthem composed by Aleksandr Aleksandrov and giving it new lyrics. In 1991, Yeltsin replaced the Soviet hymn with Mikhail Glinka’s wordless “Patriotic Song.” Putin explained his decision in a December 4 speech to the nation on the issue of state symbols. He said he understood that there were opponents both of maintaining the pre-October Revolution tri-color and coat-of-arms, given the history of Tsarist repression, and of restoring the Soviet anthem, given the history of Stalinist repression. Putin in essence argued that throwing out these symbols would be throwing out the baby with the bath water. After all, he said, the pre-Revolutionary era produced great artists like Pushkin, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy and Tchaikovsky, and the Soviet era produced the world’s first manned space flight and “brilliant” military victories in the Second World War. Indeed, Putin said he would also ask that the red Soviet flag become the official banner of the Russian armed forces (ORT, December 4). The State Duma may pass Putin’s proposed legislation as early as December 8.

Putin’s decision was, on one level, clearly a result of pragmatic political calculation. The left in State Duma, led by the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF), wanted not only the Soviet anthem restored, but the tri-color and two-headed eagle scrapped as well. Liberal factions like Yabloko and the Union of Right-Wing Forces generally wanted to maintain the pre-Revolutionary symbols but strongly opposed returning the Soviet-era anthem. The country at large, meanwhile, is apparently split over the issue: One recent poll found that 49 percent of Russians wanted to see the music of Aleksandrov’s “Unbreakable Union of Freeborn Republics” restored as the tune for the national anthem (Moscow Times, December 6). Indeed, Putin’s decision seems like another attempt to reconcile the political contradictions in Russia’s history. Such reasoning seemed to be behind the staging of his inauguration earlier this year, during which he embraced both Russia’s Soviet and pre-Revolutionary past while stressing that it had become “a truly modern democratic state” (see the Monitor, May 8).

In any case, a number of leading politicians, businessmen and cultural figures strongly denounced Putin’s decision. “There are the expectations of the people and the expectations of history,” said Eduard Radzinsky, the playwright and historian. “The president understood the expectations of the people, but not the expectations of history” (Izvestia, December 6). Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the Nobel prize-winning author, released a statement declaring that he was “categorically against the use of the old anthem music with the new words” (Moscow Times, December 6). At the same time, Anatoly Chubais, the architect of Russia’s controversial privatization scheme who currently heads United Energy Systems, Russia’s power grid, called Putin’s decision an “historic mistake” (Segodnya, Izvestia, December 6). That Solzhenitsyn and Chubais found themselves on the same side of this issue is somewhat ironic, given that earlier this year, Chubais warned that Putin was under the influence of Solzhenitsyn, whose ideas, Chubais alleged, “today fully coincide with the most reactionary part of the Russian secret services and the Communist Party.” Solzhenitsyn, who spent years in Stalin’s labor camps, has strongly criticized privatization a la Chubais. The writer met with Putin in September, after which he claimed that the Russian president has “no thirst for personal power” and is “guided by the interests of the state” (see the Monitor, September 25). Meanwhile, a group of thirty-five leading cultural figures, including ballerina Maya Plisetskaya and members of the rock group DDT, denounced Putin’s decision, saying that it aroused “protest and disgust” and could split society. The letter was published in Izvestia, which has generally supported Putin. The newspaper itself has criticized his decision concerning the anthem (Izvestia, December 5-6).

On the other hand, the decision was supported not only by the KPRF, but also by leading politicians like Federation Council Speaker Yegor Stroev, Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, Tatarstan President Mintimer Shaimiev, and former Prime Ministers Yevgeny Primakov and Sergei Stepashin, among others. Even Sergei Markov, a political analyst frequently quoted by Western journalists, said he supported Putin’s decision to revive the Aleksandrov hymn. Markov argued that it was time to “accept the Soviet period not as a hole in the history of our state, but as a great and tragic period,” adding that Aleksandrov’s music was not written during the “time of repression,” but during the Second World War, “a moment of upward flight of the national spirit of the peoples of Russia, when our victory in the greatest war in the history of mankind had become evident” (Komsomolskaya Pravda, December 6).

It is not yet clear who will provide the words for Russia’s new/old anthem. While one of the main supporters of its restoration, State Duma Speaker Gennady Seleznev, has suggested that a contest might be held for new lyrics, there have been rumors this week that Putin will sign a decree approving new lyrics written by the hymn’s original lyricist, Sergei Mikhalkov (Russian agencies, December 5).