Unity and Disunity on National Unity Day

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National Unity Day has come and gone. Events were predictable. The nationalists defied authorities and held a modest march of 1500-2000 in Moscow chanting “Russia for Russians.” It was met by 1000 of the 6500 strong police force that was deployed around the city. Police arrested 200 people as they tried to join the illegal march. But not before a Ukrainian journalist named Maria Runova from the newspaper Mir Novostei was attacked. An officially sanctioned rally of 1000 people was held to denounce fascism.

In St. Petersburg, police used tear gas to brake up a massive street fight between 200 nationalists and a group of anti-fascist youths.

Predictably, there is a flood of reporting in the English language press. Nationalism in Russia is a topic that supports a variety views that Russia is descending into chaos and fascism. This is evident in how the rallies are explained in the press. The LA Times, for example, reported the nationalists as “staging marches” while the anti-fascist gathering as a “counter-rally.” Such descriptions create a hierarchy where the nationalists and their views are normalized. This impression is reinforced by the fact that articles tend to repeat the same information with little analysis of why nationalism appears to be on the rise.

Nationalism is on the rise in Russia. SOVA documents a 30 percent rise in neo-Nazi activities this summer alone. Still, the overall impact of neo-Nazi activity is difficult to gage because of the asymmetry between neo-Nazi activities and the reporting on them. The amount of column inches devoted to bands of Russian nationalists and fascists outweigh their actually existence. It should be noted that a march of 1500-2000, while disgusting because it involves fascists, is hardly representative. In America, most marches of similar size are rightly dismissed as fringe. Yet, for Russia such marches are somehow representative of something more widespread.

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 Russia’s most prominent Others were viewed as most likely to wage a nuclear attack. 37 percent of respondents thought that a nuclear attack would most likely come from the United States, and 44 percent saw that it would come from Chechen terrorists. Therefore, what Russian is in contrast what it is not.

Finally, the 1613 battle that drove out Polish-Lithuanian invaders signifies the longstanding negotiation over Russia’s borders. Not only does this fit well with the present tension between Russia and Georgia, it is also a reminder that Russia’s internal integrity is threatened by minorities looking either to separate or gain more autonomy. Thus, Russia’s geographic identity is in relation to these internal and external peoples.

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 Russia’s “common heritage” and the “multinational people of our country united in order to preserve Russia’s independence and statehood.” Here one might read a reformation of the Soviet slogan, “socialist in content, national in form” into “Russian in content, multinational in form.”

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.