National Unity Day has come and gone. Events were predictable. The nationalists defied authorities and held a modest march of 1500-2000 in
Predictably, there is a flood of reporting in the English language press. Nationalism in
Nationalism is on the rise in
In my opinion, this is exactly what the nationalists and fascists hope for. Similar to terrorists, they hope that small acts of protest and violence will inflate the little power they have or give the impression that their acts represent the true will of the people.
The media, however, is not only culprit. The state shares some of the blame. Legal crackdowns and tough police action against nationalism, though necessary and welcomed, also give the impression that these groups have more power and influence than they possess. I for one have no problem with the police throwing racists to the ground but it should be recognized that like with other protests movements, activists wear battles with the cops as badges of honor. The police are thus caught in that inevitable catch-22. Inaction is unacceptable, even dangerous, but action potentially reproduces the obstinacy of the very thing they are fighting.
Everyone recognizes National Unity Day is a joke. The day has revealed more cracks in Russian society than unity. This is where I think the nationalists do represent something real. While their views do not represent Russian attitudes in general, the fact that they are given public voice does provoke questions about Russian national identity. The holiday raises the very question it seeks to answer: What is Russian national identity?
Interestingly, the National Unity Day was created to replace Revolution Day, which did provide a theoretical template for unity. The Bolshevik Revolution, while born of deep class animosity, eventually became a point of unity under the Soviet multiethnic banner. The Revolution was written not only as an event that liberated all peoples in the Russian empire from oppression, it was the starting point for the eventual liberation of all of mankind. Thus Revolution Day formally recognized no ethnic nation and ultimately no national border.
National Unity Day can’t make the same claims. First the day celebrates the Russian liberation from the Polish-Lithuanian (read: Catholic) yoke in 1613, marking the end of the Time of Troubles. Many, like Russia Profile’s Georgy Bovt, dismiss the day as indicating “nothing of fundamental importance happened regarding the unity of the Russian nation or the country’s liberation from Catholic aggressors on that day.” This is true in regard to Russian history. But memory is rarely about the past. It is more directed to the present making the Polish-Lithuanian defeat has great symbolic significance. It creates an Other in which to situate Russian national identity in regard to religion, ethnicity, and the integrity of its borders.
Russian Orthodoxy is often overlooked in discussions of Russian national identity, even by those who are actively trying to create it. As Bovt notes, since the 17th century, 4 November was a church holiday celebrating the icon of the Lady of Kazan. By making the day also one national unity, “today’s authorities have managed, largely unnoticed by the general public, to turn a profoundly religious Orthodox holiday into an official state one. It is part of an ongoing plan to give Russian Orthodoxy the trappings, if not the title, of a state religion and thereby to help define the evolution of the “sovereign ideology.”
Another component of that “sovereign ideology” is giving Russian ethnicity a central place in the development of the Russian nation. This is the attempt to reconcile the inner contradiction of russkii and rossisskii, about which I’ve written about before. Celebrating the Polish-Lithuanian defeat concomitantly provides an example of unity and an Other to remind Russians of many present day internal and external Others. Here one can substitute the Poles for Georgians, Chechens, Azeris, Ukrainians, or even Americans for the “Polish-Lithuanians.” It should be noted that in a recent pole by VTsIOM on Russian attitudes to nuclear weapons, two of
Finally, the 1613 battle that drove out Polish-Lithuanian invaders signifies the longstanding negotiation over
Putin’s brief address to commemorate National Unity Day is full of attempts to reconcile the contradictions inherent in Russian national identity. His statements moved between highlighting
I think the Kremlin deserves credit in its attempt to fuse the important place Russian (russkii) culture with its multinational (rossisskii) character. The problem is how this translates to the rest of the population. If the fissures the nationalists exposed in the National Unity Day celebrations are any indication, Russian (russkii) identity continues to present problems for Russian (rossisskii) identity.