Russia’s Unity Day: the transformation of majority

Nov 04 2015

Many people welcomed the move; in fact it should’ve been done back in 1993. But November 7 was replaced with the state holiday of November 4, known as Unity Day. Obviously, the unification of the Russian nation was meant to take place around Putin’s personality. And it did, for a while, but nowadays Unity Day has a tendency to turn into a set of unpredictable metamorphoses.

But let’s get back to a few years ago. In spite of all the attempts to popularize new state holiday (including a documentary movie made by one of the most prestigious Russian film directors Vladimir Khotinenko), most Russians still didn’t celebrate November 4. According to state polling data, in 2009 1 in 3 Russians didn’t know which holiday the country was celebrating, 1 in 10 thought that the it was to celebrate the October Revolution, and 1 in 15 thought that November 4 was the Feast of Our Lady of Kazan.

The only ones who knew exactly what to do during all these years were nationalists. That’s why for Russian journalists, November 4 is better known as the Day of Russian March. It’s worth noting that the 2005 Russian March was the first popular nationalist rally approved by the authorities. This also marked the period of Putin’s not entirely unsuccessful flirtation with Russian nationalists.

Several years passed but for the majority of Russians, November 4 remained no more than a day off. In 2014, however, a significant change took place, as Putin might as well have been celebrating not just Unity Day, but Unity Year all year long- literally. Each day after the annexation of Crimea, Putin slowly became the Father of Nation: his administration deputy chief Vyacheslav Volodin framed this sacral status, saying, “If there is Putin, there is Russia; and without Putin, there is no Russia”.

And even though few people know exactly what the “Father of the Nation” is, it seems to be someone who is responsible for everything that happens to the nation, both triumphs and tragedies. Four days ago, after months of triumphs, a tragedy took place: a Russian airplane crashed in Egypt, killing 224 people. The airplane in question was a charter flight full of tourists who were mostly from Saint Petersburg, Putin’s home city.

The catastrophe took place on Saturday, but “the Father” didn’t appear before the Nation until Monday. Putin didn’t give a national address, but instead expressed his deepest condolences on the spot before a meeting with the Transport Minister.

Apparently, Putin didn’t think it was worth interrupting his weekend for, or perhaps he simply didn’t want to. But the motive behind his decision doesn’t matter. What does matter is that the president wasn’t there. And for perhaps the first time ever, Russians have at last achieved real unity, the people’s unity; without any fake “Father of Nation”.

This has happened before: when Muscovites sheltered each other in their homes during the smog in 2010 and the authorities did almost nothing; when up to 200 000 people poured into the streets to protest against Putin’s return; when Russians raised millions for those who suffered in the terrible 2012 Krymsk floods; when Russians raise money for cancer sufferers every day because the government doesn’t provide the medication – it happens. It happened, unexpectedly, less than a month ago when the state-owned First TV Channel began a fundraising campaign to provide firewood for the elderly. Most intellectuals have called the fact that so many elderly people live in poverty a source of shame for oil – and gas-rich Russia. Democratic Choice party activist Stanislav Yakovlev fairly said he viewed “cautious attempts at peaceful, humanitarian, nonviolent nation-building as a civil unification through a noble cause”. The current sorry state of Russian nation – building, Yakovlev said, is the idea that “we look after our own”. This works when you either protect or fight someone; there is no other option. Only two weeks before the plane crash in Egypt, Yakovlev remarked that it was lucky that there hadn’t been a repeat of the Krymsk floods.

The plane crash in Egypt could easily become a second Krymsk; only this time it’s happening not during the prosperous years of high oil prices, but in a time when Russia is in the middle of two wars and an economic recession.

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Putin has clearly demonstrated that he is not able to consolidate the nation under the noble cause of nonviolent nation-building. But would “the union over military agenda” be able to survive when even Russian nationalists, many of whom are former good friends of Putin but who have since been arrested or imprisoned, protested today against dictatorship, political repressions and even war in Ukraine?

by Karina Orlova

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