Unity Three Years Ago, Russia Introduced a New Public Holiday Designed to Rally Its Citizens and Overcome Ideological Differences
But it takes more than a presidential order to close the revolutionary chapter in Russian history.
Tensions in Russian society, inherited from communist ideology, have not significantly abated. The two forces that clashed in a life-or-death battle in 1917 had radically different values, including opposing notions of good and evil.
The Communist regime was based on a new code of social morality, with moral, ideological and humanitarian values that took deep root in society. Uprooting these values proved an extremely painful process for millions, though the horrible truth about the Bolshevik methods for building their new society is no longer secret. The millions of "enemies of the people" who were executed, and millions more sent to gulag concentration camps, amount to a genocide.
The majority of Russians will eventually have to come to terms with this history to achieve civil peace. How long will this take?
On November 4 this year, Russia celebrated National Unity Day for the third time. Although the holiday is still in its infancy, its historical roots are as complex as those of the country itself.
The new holiday was introduced in 2005 to replace the November 7 anniversary of the Bolshevik 1917 October Revolution, which had been renamed "Accord and Reconciliation Day" in the 1990s.
Nothing is more contrary to the events of 1917 than "reconciliation and accord." "The bloody gesture of the 20th century," as one émigré poet defined it, left Russia divided, plunged it into a civil war, drove its finest representatives out of the country, and divided the once great and unified Russian culture into two irreconcilable camps.
Historical reality has added nothing meaningful to the newly established holiday, which does not have much actual or even symbolic background.
Chronicles tell us that November 4, 1612 (October 22 according to the Julian calendar used in Russia until 1917) was an ordinary day. One of the most difficult periods in Russian history, known as the "Time of Troubles," would end several years later. On October 22 of that year a people's militia expelled the occupying Polish garrison from Moscow, but the Poles retreated to the Kremlin and did not surrender until a month later.
Traditionally, national holidays in all countries are linked with historical events (the storming of the Bastille, for example), but never with addressing a specific social and political objective such as "accord and reconciliation" or "public unity."
No doubt periods of crisis may give rise to either or both of these laudable aims, but only for a limited time. Russian history had such periods: the Polish intervention in 1612-1613, Napoleon's invasion of 1812, and the 1941-1945 war against Nazism, were all crises when the expulsion of foreign invaders, and indeed the very survival of the country, would have been impossible without public unity and accord. But each time, the unity and accord proved temporary.
Russian society today is not remarkable for its solidarity or cohesion, yet the need for these qualities exists and is keenly felt. It is impossible, however, to create them artificially, as the authorities often try, through top-down directives. Public consensus in peacetime is achieved by agreeing on common objectives and, failing that, through the speedy resolution of social conflicts.
In politics, a stable and steady structure is one that takes into account various interests, however conflicting or diverse, and rather than driving them underground, allows them to compete freely and openly against one another, including seats in parliament.
But while it builds such a structure, Russia has yet to realize that accord is not to be sought between political forces competing among themselves, but at a higher level of public consciousness, where democracy and its related procedures are rooted as unquestionable values.
Relations between ethnic groups are another area of contention in present-day Russia. According to experts, no less than 395 people have been injured, and 40 killed, in racially motivated attacks in 35 Russian regions since the beginning of 2007.
This subject is so controversial that it calls for a separate discussion. For the moment it is worth noting one cause of ethnic tension: an attempt to place the blame for poor living standards on external and internal enemies, instead of where it belongs: on the authorities.
Such an approach is counterproductive in a country where even administrative territorial division takes into account ethnic factors.
Another obstacle to public unity is the gap between rich and poor. The richest 10% of Russians earn over 20 times more than the poorest 10%.
Despite the petrodollar bonanza, the lack of financial security felt by the majority of the population continues to be an obvious threat to the fabric of society. Moreover, it is a threat to national security, because poverty damages the credibility of the state, and can produce a kind of "public unity" with a very negative, destructive charge.
The "public unity" Russia has rushed to celebrate is as yet merely a goal to be reached, not an achievement. How fast it will be achieved is a question to be addressed both by the authorities and the people.
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