x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

In Russia, a holiday without meaning

Tens of millions of Russians across the country will celebrate the national People's Unity Day holiday.

Activists of the United Russia party wave flags on People's Unity Day last year.
Activists of the United Russia party wave flags on People's Unity Day last year.

MOSCOW // Tens of millions of Russians across the country will celebrate the national People's Unity Day holiday today. It seems, however, that few of them have any idea what exactly they will be celebrating. Created three years ago by Vladimir Putin, then Russia's president and now the powerful prime minister, the Nov 4 People's Unity Day replaced the national Nov 7 holiday, originally a Soviet holiday marking the Bolshevik revolution in 1917. In 1994, several years after the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia's first president, Boris Yeltsin, renamed the holiday, Day of Accord and Reconciliation, though communist supporters continued to use the occasion to celebrate the Bolsheviks' victory. But in what many saw as an attempt by Mr Putin to co-opt the communist holiday, People's Unity Day was established in 2005, officially to commemorate the expulsion of Polish invaders from Moscow in 1612. Amid the different names and occasions for the day off in November, a little more than one quarter of Russians actually know what holiday they will be celebrating today, according to a survey by the Levada Centre, an independent pollster. Of the 1,600 Russians polled nationwide by the centre, just 28 per cent correctly identified the holiday as People's Unity Day, while 26 per cent thought they would be celebrating Day of Accord and Reconciliation, the holiday created by Mr Yeltsin. Three per cent thought they would be celebrating the Bolshevik revolution, while 37 per cent either did not know or had difficulty answering. Conducted from Oct 17 to Oct 20, the Levada Centre poll had a margin of error of plus or minus three per cent. The lack of a collective historical consciousness in Russia, due in part to decades of manipulation of official history for propaganda purposes by the Soviets, makes it "hardly surprising" that few Russians know what they are celebrating on Nov 4, said Andrei Ryabov, a political analyst. "With the [May 9] Victory Day celebrations, it's very clear what is being celebrated because almost every family lost somebody in the war with the Nazis," Mr Ryabov said. "Almost nobody has the faintest idea what happened 400 years ago to spawn this holiday." The Russian government wanted an excuse to scrap the celebration of the Bolshevik revolution, so it looked for some historical events that were "around the same date" to justify a new holiday, Mr Ryabov said. The confusion over the holiday highlights the problematic nature of Russia's attempts to come to grips with its past. Russian state television is currently broadcasting a series of debates in a show called Name of Russia in which viewers will decide who is the greatest figure in Russian history. The inclusion of Josef Stalin, the Soviet dictator, among the 12 finalists, alongside such figures as Catherine the Great, Peter the Great, Alexander Pushkin and Fyodor Dostoyevsky, has sparked outrage among many Russians, who deride as dangerous the attempts to rehabilitate the tyrant's public image. Particularly peeved at the new holiday have been members of Russia's Communist Party, who plan to ignore today's celebrations and take to the streets on Friday to celebrate the 91st anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution. "This is an artificially created holiday, dreamed up with the aim of minimising the importance of and festive atmosphere surrounding the celebration of the revolution," said Sergei Reshulsky, a Communist Party official and a member of Russia's lower house of parliament, the State Duma. "That is why opinion polls show that nobody understands exactly what is being celebrated." The Communist Party is one of four parties in the State Duma. The party embraces populist rhetoric and Soviet nostalgia, and while it often criticises Kremlin policies, it rarely, if ever, publicly criticises the Kremlin itself. Mr Reshulsky said communist supporters planned to rally in central Moscow and cities across the country on Friday to celebrate the Soviet-era holiday. Perhaps more than any other group, People's Unity Day has been embraced by Russian ultranationalists, who have used the holiday to hold so-called Russian Marches, where the young and old alike come together to rally in central Moscow and rail against Jews and dark-skinned migrant workers from former Soviet republics. The main organiser of these marches has been the right-wing Movement Against Illegal Immigration (DPNI), which in recent years has received permission to hold the demonstrations, despite Russian criminal statutes against inciting ethnic and religious hatred. Last week, Moscow City Hall denied the group permission to hold a Russian March, saying several other groups had already been granted demonstrations in the areas they had requested. It appears, however, that the group has a backup plan: the vaunted Moscow subway. "If we don't get permission from authorities, most likely we will hold our demonstration? at one of the central Moscow underground stations," Alexei Kanurin, a DPNI activist, told the state-run Interfax news agency. cshreck@thenational.ae