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November 4, 2006
In Search of National Unity
November Holiday Fails to Create Sense of Identity

By Adam Fuss

A Zogby poll published in the summer showed that only 48 percent of Americans say that independence from Britain has anything to do with their celebrations of the Fourth of July. The other half views it merely as a day for spending time with family, or simply as a day off from work.

If commemorating history in a country that has maintained a stable form of democratic government since the late 18th century is problematic, doing so in Russia is even more so. National Unity Day, which will be celebrated for the second time on Nov. 4, highlights the problems that historical remembrance poses in a country where political loyalties, however well tamed under Vladimir Putins presidency, remain divided.

Officially, National Unity Day commemorates the popular national resistance that led to Moscows liberation from occupying Polish-Lithuanian forces, marking the end of what later became known as Russias Time of Troubles. The idea behind the holiday is that people from a diverse group of ethnic and religious backgrounds banded together in a popular insurrection, which succeeded in ejecting foreign occupiers who had brought nothing but destruction and despair to Russia during their brief rule.

The date itself, Nov. 4, was chosen because it marks the first successful act of resistance to Polish-Lithuanian rule in 1612 the seizure of Moscows Kitai-Gorod by Prince Dmitry Pozharsky and Kuzma Minin. Moscows actual liberation did not take place for several more days, and most historians attribute the first Romanovs ascension to the throne in early 1613 as the official end of the Time of Troubles.

The holidays creation last year received enthusiastic support from the Russian Orthodox Church, which has long attributed the events of 1612 to one of Russias most famous icons Our Lady of Kazan. Indeed, for more than three centuries the church has celebrated Nov. 4 as a day of veneration for the Kazan icon. According to one legend, the icon itself was discovered in Kazan in 1579 after a church fire, and was taken to Moscow in 1612 in belief that its protective powers would aide the popular insurrection mounted by Pozharsky.

Although the potential negative reaction never panned out, some initially attributed the holidays creation to increased anti-Polish and anti-Catholic sentiment in Russia, especially given the icons historical significance.

Jaroslaw Pelenski, who taught Russian history at the University of Iowa until his retirement in 1998, argued thirty years ago that the Kazan icon was employed for a variety of ideological purposes, including as a spiritual weapon against Latinism during the Time of Troubles.

The fact that the Icon of Our Lady of Kazan became the second most popular native icon of the Virgin Mary in Russia, he argues, attests to its ideological-religious significance in the countrys history.

Public officials, however, have billed National Unity Day as anything but a religious holiday, despite the dates significance for Russian Orthodoxy. Even Patriarch Alexy II, in comments made last year, emphasized the more secular aspects of the holiday, saying, this day reminds us how, in 1612, Russians of different faiths and nationalities overcame division and triumphed over a menacing foe, bringing the country to a stable and civil peace.

Notwithstanding the enthusiasm high-level officials have expressed for the holiday, most ordinary Russians reacted either negatively or with indifference when the holiday was introduced last year, following the decision to do away with celebrating Nov. 7. For several generations, Nov. 7th had commemorated the October 1917 revolution, but was renamed the Day of Reconciliation and Accord during the Yeltsin era. A Levada Center poll conducted in 46 regions across Russia last October showed that only 8 percent of Russians planned to celebrate National Unity Day while 63 percent reacted negatively to the cancellation of the Nov. 7 holiday.

Many commentators said that cancelling the October Revolutions anniversary almost necessitated the creation of another holiday in early November, and the overall feeling of skepticism about the new holiday persists this year. These commemorative holidays are based only on myths, said Aron Kitunov, a Moscow art and antiques dealer. People love myths in this country. But the lack of a cohesive ideology is keeping holidays like this from becoming popular.

Kitunov questioned in particular the entire rationale for the creation of National Unity Day. As for Nov. 4, he said, it means nothing. This date has never been celebrated officially. Why didnt they choose to celebrate something like the liberation of Russia from the Tatar-Mongol yoke? Or the liberation of Kazan from the Tatars? Perhaps these wouldnt have been politically correct?

Mr. Kitunov agreed that the connection with Nov. 7 was obvious.

Its an obvious political reform. Nov. 7 was cancelled because the political situation has changed here, he said. Nov. 4 was chosen because a large number of Russians grew up in the Soviet Union and their political leanings arent always in line with the new governments path. The government wanted to minimize tension and confusion in society, which is why they chose to keep a holiday in early November.

Rethinking history and national identity in Russia following the collapse of the Soviet Union has been the subject of considerable work by academics in recent years. Kathleen Smith, visiting professor at Georgetown University, has focused on the difficulties that commemorative holidays have presented for Russian officials over the last fifteen years.

As early as 1995, she argues, Yeltsin and some of his colleagues had finally come to crave a set of traditions that would resonate with the public and contribute to a positive sense of patriotism.

Despite the efforts of politicians under both Yeltsin and Putin to instill such patriotic feelings, many are still waiting for positive results. If events surrounding the holiday last year are at all indicative, Nov. 4 may be more a day of national disunity than anything. The most remarkable news surrounding National Unity Day last year had to do with large marches by young skinheads through Moscow carrying neo-Nazi banners with slogans such as Russia for the Russians.

While the radical fringe groups may have exploited the holiday, the idea of national unity itself seems to be lost on many Russians who continue to lack appreciation for Russias great ethnic and religious diversity that this holiday, at least in part, is intended to celebrate.

For me and for many Russians, this holiday doesnt hold great significance, said Svetlana Vakorina, a Muscovite working in the oil-trading industry. Only when Russians begin to feel ourselves at home will this holiday mean something. Only when people from the Caucasus stop controlling our markets and only when business, whether gambling or otherwise, no longer belongs to criminal authorities in Georgia, then this holiday will take on more importance.

As National Unity Day approaches this year, the dominant focus in the news does indeed seem to be on discord and ethnic tension. Following a spat with Georgia over four Russian officers arrested and charged with espionage in late September, a wave of repercussions has taken place in Moscow against Georgian citizens, which thus far has mainly focused on various business interests. In recent comments before the State Duma, Putin called the situation at Moscows markets pure chaos, which was widely interpreted as an affirmation of ethnic Russians angst regarding their countrys economy and who is alleged to control it.

Will National Unity Day grow in popularity as time passes? Vakorina believes it will. With time this holiday will become quite popular, because Russians love holidays.

Others are more cautious, however, saying that such forecasts in Russia are difficult at best, if not outright problematic.

Making any kind of long-term predictions is a worthless pursuit in Russia, said Kitunov. Twenty years ago it was impossible to imagine that the Soviet Union would cease to exist. For this reason, its difficult to say whether this holiday will be popular or not.