Debating “National Unity Day” – Post-Soviet Russia’s Struggle to Redefine National Holidays

 /  Dec. 3, 2018, 9:29 a.m.

Russian holidays

Another Thanksgiving has come and gone—time for turkey and pumpkin pie, family get-togethers, and Black Friday sales. For some, however, Thanksgiving—similar to Columbus Day—provides an opportunity to protest mainstream historical narratives. Articles published in the New York Times, Huffington Post and Time Magazine over the past few years describe the well-known tale about Squanto and the Pilgrims as being a myth, pointing instead to massacres of Native Americans by settlers in the 17th century as the true origin of Thanksgiving. They also draw attention to the date when the holiday actually became official—not in the time of the Pilgrims, but rather in 1863, after writer Sarah Josepha Hale convinced President Lincoln that such a holiday was needed to heal the divisions caused by the Civil War. To the chagrin of those who want to enjoy their holiday football in peace, Thanksgiving has opened the door for debate about how we tell our history; what we celebrate, what we mourn, and what we choose to forget.  

Such debates are not unique to the United States. Germany grapples with its history every year on November 9, a day which marks the anniversary of both the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the beginning of Kristallnacht in 1938. In Russia, the debates are even more complicated—indeed, many don’t even know what they’re supposed to be celebrating during their national holidays at the beginning of November.

This was not always the case. During the Soviet era, the most significant autumn holiday was November 7, the anniversary of the Great October Socialist Revolution that brought the Bolsheviks to power. From 1917 on, the holiday was celebrated every year with a large military parade through Moscow’s Red Square, family get-togethers, and workers’ demonstrations. However, following the collapse of Soviet communism in 1991, the Revolution’s entire legacy was suddenly cast into doubt—and with it, the status of the once-beloved holiday. Was the Revolution still something to be celebrated, as many Soviet citizens had believed all their lives, or should it instead be mourned?

Many post-Soviet republics swiftly jettisoned the holiday because the Revolution was inextricably intertwined with their experience of Soviet occupation and oppression that came to be associated with the Soviet regime in the era of glasnost, or “openness,” in the 1980s. Russia’s new democratic government, centered no more than a mile from the queue to enter Lenin’s mausoleum, found the question far more ambiguous and the politics tricky, if not treacherous. The past would not be forgotten so easily in the country where the Revolution was born.

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A tent displaying the “Geography of Russian Cheeses.”

The general confusion surrounding today’s November 7 started in 1995, when President Boris Yeltsin approved a new federal law entitled “On Days of Military Glory (Victory Days) in Russia.” The law established new military holidays, focusing on the more “positive” aspects of Russian history—namely, its military victories, won by Russian soldiers regardless of whether they fought under the imperial eagle or the red star. These victories displayed the “heroism [and] courage of Russian soldiers, the power and glory of Russian weapons, [which had for centuries] been an indivisible part of Russian greatness.” The law identified fourteen different days of military glory which would be celebrated in Russia starting in 1995, including November 7, which was not attributed to the Bolshevik Revolution, but marked as “the day that a military parade was held on the Red Square in Moscow to mark the twenty-fourth anniversary of the Great October Socialist Revolution in 1941.” Despite the fact that Hitler’s armies were nearing Moscow, the annual military parade was held on the Red Square, and this event has remained in national memory as a defiant display of national pride in the face of the military might of the Nazis. According to popular legend, the soldiers who marched in the parade went directly from the Red Square to the front.

In 1995, by cherry-picking the 1941 military parade, the Russian political establishment ignored the complicated history of communism and moved decisively in the direction of adopting a policy of prescriptive memory. If the past would not fade out of memory, their new policy declared, then it must at least be remembered selectively, with the government deciding what parts of the past should be emphasized publicly.

In 1996, Boris Yeltsin took a step back from this policy, renaming the November 7 the “Day of Consensus and Reconciliation.” In renaming the holiday, Yeltsin encouraged Russians to use the day as an opportunity to come to terms with their complicated past. According to one local newspaper, part of the reason that this was done was due to the strong and divisive opinions on both sides of the memorial debates about how to memorialize the Russian Revolution. Yeltsin’s 1996 decision was one in favor of ambiguity over doctrine, a rare occurrence in the post-Soviet space.

The years of reconciliation didn’t last long, however. With the rise of Vladimir Putin also came the rise of a new Russian nationalism—one based around patriotism, strength, and Orthodox Christianity. The Day of Military Glory on the November 7 began to be actively celebrated again in 2004, and in 2005, Russian politicians decided it was time to completely replace the outdated November 7 holiday to further destabilize nostalgia for the Soviet Union. To do so, they changed the date of the “November holiday” to November 4 and renamed the holiday yet again, this time to be called “National Unity Day.”

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Poster for “National Unity Day” hanging on the State Duma, the lower house of Russia’s Federal Assembly.

But what is National Unity Day, and what exactly is it supposed to celebrate?

Many Russians ask themselves the same question. Indeed, according to a 2013 poll, 70 percent of Russians couldn’t even name the holiday celebrated on November 4. Two years before that, only 8 percent answered the question correctly.

Part of the confusion is due to the holiday’s new date—if it was meant to replace November 7, then why was it moved to a different day? Many Russians believe the date was switched simply to distance the holiday from the problematic November 7, which in 2005 was contemporaneously removed from the list of recognized state holidays.

Officially, however, the date was changed to coincide with an historic event that the new holiday is meant to commemorate. Specifically, National Unity Day was created to mark the anniversary of the end of the notorious “Time of Troubles,” an era of chaos in Russian history in which power changed hands every few years and Moscow was occupied by forces from the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. This tumultuous era officially ended in 1612 when the people’s volunteer army led by Russian national heroes Kuzma Minin and Dmitry Pozharsky liberated Moscow under the icon of the Lady of Kazan, which was credited with granting them victory over the foreign, Catholic invaders. As a result, the Russian Orthodox Church observes “the Day of Our Lady Kazan,” on the same day. Oddly, by the old Russian (Julian) calendar, the liberation of Moscow and the first Day of Our Lady Kazan occurred on October 22, 1612, which should translate to November 1 on the modern Gregorian calendar.

Historians joke that the error in translation from the Julian to Gregorian calendars conclusively proves that the holiday was thought up by politicians, and not by scholars. The holiday’s political origins are further underscored by the discord that greeted its first celebration in 2005. That year, the center-right liberal party the “Union of Right Forces” immediately called the holiday “partially manufactured,” while the Communist and “Russian United Democratic” Parties refused to even acknowledge the holiday. Putin’s “United Russia” party, on the other hand, actively promoted the holiday, claiming it to be “a symbol of independence and statehood.” This connotation is precisely what many in opposition parties take issue with—that the new holiday seems to have been created to replace “reconciliation with the past” with a strong, triumphant nationalism that not only erases the aspects of history that don’t fit into the ideology, but also prescribe a particular vision for Russia’s future.

Moscow’s celebration of the holiday this year, however, paints a slightly different picture. In contrast to the ultra-nationalistic “Russian Marches” that dominated in the first several National Unity Day celebrations, National Unity Day in 2018 was filled with tasty food, traditional songs, and silly games. Right by the entrance to the Red Square in the center of Moscow, small groups dressed in the national garb of various regions of Russia played instruments and sang, introduced games native to their regions, challenged young boys to plastic sword fights, and gave basic information about the history of their region. Nearby, large tents put Russian cheeses, fish and delicacies on display, giving visitors the opportunity to sample and purchase locally grown products. Vladimir Putin, after laying flowers at the foot of the Minin and Pozharsky memorial, also gave an award for a Russian citizen who “actively aimed at uniting the multi-ethnic Russian people and harmonizing interethnic relations,” which this year was awarded to the President of the Russian Academy of Education.

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Small souvenirs and gifts from various regions of Russia were sold at Moscow’s “National Unity Day” celebration.

But however positive and entertaining the Moscow festivities may seem, National Unity Day is still not cemented into Russian tradition. A new poll conducted in 2017 about the popularity of the holiday show that 43 percent of the respondents still couldn’t name the holiday, while 16 percent struggled to remember if the day was a holiday at all. In an article published right before November 4 this year, economist Nikita Isaev argued that if a holiday isn’t popular among the general population, then the time has come to get rid of it.

And yet, in the same poll that showed such a wide lack of awareness about National Unity Day, respondents affirmed the value of such a holiday—79 percent said that holidays “like National Unity Day” are important. So, if the holiday, which has caused so much confusion among Russians, is going to continue to be celebrated, how can that be done in such a way to arouse neither strong nationalism nor apathy from the public?

In attempting to answer this question, perhaps Russia can learn something from the United States’ debates over Thanksgiving. In a powerful response to the harmful myth of the first Thanksgiving dinner, Sean Sherman—founder and CEO of The Sioux Chef—explains how he has found a positive way to celebrate Thanksgiving that does not conflict with his Native American heritage. “The thing is, we do not need the poisonous “pilgrims and Indians” narrative,” he writes. “We do not need that illusion of past unity to actually unite people today. Instead, we can focus simply on values that apply to everybody: togetherness, generosity and gratitude.”

In the case of Thanksgiving, food can serve as a call to unity for Americans of all backgrounds—as Sherman points out, traditional Thanksgiving recipes bear witness to the land and history that we share, drawing the majority of their ingredients from indigenous foods, such as turkey, corn, beans, pumpkins, and maple. Instead of focusing on the false past of Thanksgiving, Sherman calls Americans to “celebrate the beauty of the present”—to learn about the history of Native foods and tribes, to support local farmers who grow such crops today, and to appreciate the diversity of the land and the people who live on it. Far from absolving Americans from recognizing the difficult history of the holiday, focusing current celebrations on “the beauty of the present” rather than on a falsified past allows Americans to finally let go of the toxic Thanksgiving myth and come to terms with the injustices committed in the past.

Similarly, Russia does not need Minin and Pozharsky to come together, and it surely doesn’t need a military parade to be reminded of its greatness—for that, it needs only to look at the diversity of its people, its culture, its nature and its food. Instead of looking to Moscow for a prescribed message of unity, Russians should focus on the traditions of its smaller cities, which have celebrated National Unity Day with charity actions, concerts, and even round tables on Russian culture and literature. Only with such a shift of focus, both in the United States and Russia, can our holidays bypass the modern tradition of debate and discord and begin to more fully embody their values of unity and gratitude.

All photos provided by the author.

Alexandra C. Price

Alexandra Price is a third-year History and Russian Eastern European Studies double major particularly interested in the Cold War and modern developments in the former Eastern Bloc. As the 2016 recipient of the Gate's annual Reporting Grant, she spent a summer in Germany reporting on refugee integration in Berlin. When she's not writing for the Gate, Alexandra loves to study foreign languages, read, and take long bike rides around the city.


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