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#10 - JRL 2006-248 - JRL Home
Russia Profile
November 4, 2006
Re-Interpreting for the Masses
The New Holiday Is Significant, But Not for Obvious Reasons

Comment by Georgy Bovt

Georgy Bovt is the editor of the Russian weekly magazine Profil. He contributed this comment to Russia Profile.

When the Nov. 7 holiday celebrating the October Revolution was abandoned last year in favor of Nov. 4, the Day of National Unity, many initially thought moving the familiar November holiday three days forward was just a bit of convenient politicking. The traditional day off in early November remained, but without any official association with Soviet traditions.

From the very beginning, official sources propagandized the new holiday as an important step in creating a new, sovereign ideology for Russia. Apparently, on this date in history, important events took place that symbolized the unity of the Russian nation against threats both from external and internal forces. The emphasis of this ideology gives the Putin administration credit for bringing an end to the anarchy and chaos of the Yeltsin era our very own modern day Time of Troubles while also rebutting Western aggressors.

However, commemorating the liberation of Moscow from the Poles seems to make the holiday a lesser cousin of May 9, the day when Russia celebrates its victory over fascism in World War II. Today few states spend so much energy commemorating liberation from external aggression rather than internal achievements. In contrast, June 12, the date on which Russia officially declared its independence, is given a much less honored position in the official holiday hierarchy. Basically, Russia seems to be seeking confirmation of its sovereignty from outside, affirming itself in relation to victories over others rather than on its own merits.

Even without these qualms, Nov. 4 remains a strange day to celebrate. Strictly speaking, nothing of fundamental importance happened regarding the unity of the Russian nation or the country's liberation from Catholic aggressors on that day. Officially, on Nov. 4, 1612, the Polish-Lithuanian invaders were driven out of Moscow, marking the end of the Time of Troubles. In fact, though, it would be more logical to tie the end of the Time of Troubles to the coronation of the first Romanov tsar, Mikhail, on July 11, 1613 a date that was celebrated as a major holiday in Imperial Russia.

We should also not forget that the Poles and Lithuanians were not, in the strict sense, aggressors: They came to Russia as mercenaries hired by various Russian groups vying for power. And the leaders of the popular militia, Kuzma Minin and Prince Dmitry Pozharsky, fought not only against foreigners, but also against various Cossack groups and the peasants who were in a state of general rebellion.

But there is more. Moscow was liberated not in one day, Nov. 4, but in three stages, starting in 1611, when the Poles, who had occupied the city and were worried about popular unrest, decided to fortify the towers of Kitai-Gorod in the city center with heavy canons. The laborers hired by the Poles charged an exorbitant price and were vituperated, and German mercenaries, thinking a riot had started, slaughtered the Muscovites and drove them all the way to the Lubyanka. There, at the same place where the grandiose building of the former NKVD and KGB is located, Pozharsky and his militia made their stand. He stopped the Germans, seized the initiative, and drove them back into Kitai-Gorod. At roughly the same time, most of Moscow was cleansed of Poles, Lithuanians and Cossacks (the Cossacks, incidentally, regularly switched sides depending on who was paying more what kind of national unity is that?)

On Sept. 29, 1612, the Russians started driving the Poles and Lithuanians out of the Kremlin and Kitai Gorod. The Polish commander agreed to negotiate a surrender on Nov. 1, but during the negotiations an argument broke out and Pozharskys warriors stormed Kitai-Gorod, prompting a three-day slaughter. Nov. 4 was already a church holiday the day of the Icon of the Kazan Mother of God and so the fighters took a break. The Poles' final capitulation and the throwing down of the Polish banner into the mud of the Kremlin took place on Nov. 7. So historically, the date of the November holiday could actually have been left untouched.

Despite the many justifications of the day from other perspectives, it seems to me that the real reason for declaring Nov. 4 a national holiday is that it remains the day of the Icon of the Kazan Mother of God, a holiday that Russians have celebrated since the 17th century. 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.