Old Symbols for New Times

Russia's Post-Soviet Search for Identity

Old Symbols for New Times : Russia's Post-Soviet Search for Identity - Jane Buchanan

With the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Russia not only lost its prevailing political, economic, and social structures, but the citizens of this vanquished empire faced a mental and psychological vacuum that has proven quite difficult to fill. For, until 1991, Russian national self-consciousness was great power consciousness, an identity founded on centuries of political influence and territorial conquest. Fur­thermore, Russian culture and traditions of most of the last century were subsumed and reformulated within the framework of communist ideology, which, through di­rect messages and simple images, imposed a Soviet identity for all individuals in the empire, regardless of heritage. Even for those dissidents and artists who re­jected the dominant paradigms, their identity was nevertheless informed by and defined by its relation to the official culture. With the rejection of communism and the adoption of democratic, capitalist systems, it has proven problematic to deter­mine both what, exactly, of state-sanctioned culture, traditions, and history can or should be repudiated and what might be available to readily replace that which is rejected outright. Russian intellectuals, the independent press, and Western capi­talism have all attempted to fill this cultural void through various and conflicting messages, images, and products. Inevitably, the official leadership of the new Russia has taken up the question as well, and this paper will explore a few of the many ways in which both the Yeltsin and Putin administrations have attempted to gener­ate a new Russian identity as well as the repercussions of such efforts.

The democratic political structures now in place in Russia pose new challenges to political parties and governmental administrations accustomed to the ease with which the public was coerced under Soviet authoritarian practices and overarching ideology. Politicians are now faced with the task of acquiring political constituen­cies by actually winning the hearts and minds of citizens. To do so effectively, offi­cials must engage in the question of identity; that is, they must strive to offer an answer to the pressing question of 'who are we as Russians in a post-Soviet age'? The reborn Communist Party of Russia consistently displays platforms rooted in one form or another of mythic nostalgia: "communist nostalgia for the order of Stalin and the supposedly dependable standard of living under Brezhnev, military nostal­gia for the fear that the Soviet arsenal once aroused in the Western enemy, nation­alist nostalgia for empire and higher spiritual purpose."1 While for this party such a strategy is perhaps to be expected, what is more intriguing are attempts by the democratic Russian leadership to answer the question of identity by also recalling historical elements, including Soviet propaganda materials, state symbols, holidays, and centerpieces. Importantly, this identity retains the appearance of continuity with the past, yet, because it is generated under "democratic" auspices, it acquires a new meaning necessarily distinct from the now defunct ideology that formulated these cultural paradigms at the outset. For the public, these inventions and con­structions offer a certain sense of stability and appeal to a wide spectrum of nostalgias, both misplaced and genuine, yet are nevertheless inherently problem­atic, contradictory, and often even absurd.

One certainly cannot spend any time in contemporary Russia without encoun­tering the remnants of integral parts of the Soviet cultural landscape: images of peasant girls and heroic laborers; patriotic slogans and exhortations on building tops; and the ubiquitous hammers, sickles, and giant sheaves of wheat. All of these elements are simply manifestations of the mass-produced sentimentality that rein­forced the symbols of the Soviet regime. They offered the answers to every question and provided an identity with wide appeal. They are, and remain, in essence, kitsch, whereby the feelings they invoke are of "a kind the multitudes can share [sic] [and] derive from the basic images people have engraved in their memories."2 While the persistence of Soviet kitsch today is often incidental, simply a matter of buildings yet to be repainted or murals still to be replaced, it is nevertheless these same images which have found a unique niche in post-Soviet Russia, owing largely to government efforts. In a sense, this former agitprop (agitation/propaganda) exists for today's politicians as a ready-made body of material to be utilized in an entirely new context and framework, that of the Russian nation, rather than of the Soviet Empire.

Symbolizing the State

This tendency to adopt Soviet kitsch to the new Russia can be seen most clearly in the official symbols and holidays through which the government has intended to inspire patriotism and loyalty. In December 2000, in a move that many opponents considered an evasive ploy to distract national attention from governmental short­comings and failure to resolve pressing economic and social problems, President Vladimir Putin placed before the federal Duma the task of passing legislation on new state symbols, including a national anthem, flag, and emblem. While state symbols seem fundamental to a nation's identity, nine years of Yeltsin leadership in the Kremlin failed to establish any symbols officially. A nineteenth century tune lacking lyrics was only perfunctorily decreed as the temporary anthem.3 Putin may have also had impetus for his decisive move to establish new symbols after receiv­ing a letter from the prominent Spartak-Moscow football club, requesting a proper anthem for them to proudly sing before their matches.4 Indeed, no nation seeking to establish its identity as a still preeminent force in the world can afford to have its sports heroes hanging their heads in the face of their opponents before the contest has even begun.

Thus, while there was both popular and official demand for a new Russian anthem, there proved to be little consensus on which anthem to select. One poll by the National Institute for Socio-Psychological Research revealed that 26 percent of Russians would choose the Soviet anthem, including the words, as Russia's state anthem. Twenty-five percent of respondents believe only the music of the Soviet anthem should be preserved, and 30 percent wanted entirely new music and new words. Ultimately, the Duma, dominated by Putin-loyalists of the Unity party and Communists, resoundingly approved the restoration of the old Soviet anthem, "Un­breakable Union," albeit with new lyrics, thus establishing the fifth new anthem since 1918.5 During the debates on the state symbols legislation, veteran Commu­nist Duma representative Anatoly Lukyanov stated emphatically that the adoption of the Soviet anthem cannot be seen "as compromising Russian statehood," but rather the package of symbols that also includes the tsarist tricolor flag and the double-headed eagle coat of arms unites Russians by "taking the best from their tumultuous history."6 Many argue, however, that the Soviet anthem, although adopted on the eve of the Soviet Union's victory in World War II, is profoundly inappropriate, recalling an era of Stalinist repression and terror that hardly de­serves glorification. Therein lies one of the most fundamental paradoxes of identity formation in the post-Soviet world: to what degree is it possible to recall elements of the nation's history selectively so as to provide continuity, while simultaneously demonstrating a clear break with a repudiated past?

The Soviet tune familiar to everyone may serve well to maintain the connec­tion between past and present, yet many feel that the new lyrics simply replace the ideological anachronisms in the old anthem with uninspired phrases, the kind that might be found in a modern "anthem-generating" computer program.7 Rather than seizing this unique opportunity to inspire people to be proud of their country, to demonstrate a new point of departure into the twenty-first century after the nation's trials of the preceding decades, officials have offered a description of their home­land little more stirring than: "You are unique in the world, one of a kind."8 Ironi­cally, it is exactly this uniqueness that fails to stir much patriotism, but rather makes a coherent Russian sense of self that is difficult to define.

Celebrating the State

The absence of a clear national identity around which to formulate new sym­bols of the nation has resulted also in an odd amalgamation of holidays with am­biguous names, but which conveniently fall on the same calendar dates as the cel­ebrations under communism. This is clearly more than a reflection of a "common desire to celebrate what is and has been great about Russia,"9 but is rather a decid­edly conscious effort to adapt old traditions into a new and changing present con­text. Some holidays, such as the "Soviet Army and Navy Day," now the more gen­eral "Defenders of the Motherland Day," have been easily altered for the new cir­cumstances. Both "International Workers' Day" and the "Anniversary of the Great October Socialist Revolution" have undergone more radical name changes, becom­ing "Spring Festival" and "Day of Accord and Reconciliation," respectively. Others, such as religious holidays, "International Women's Day," and World War II "Victory Day" have survived the transition intact, insofar as they reflect history or senti­ments which transcend regime changes. Finally, new holidays have been introduced to celebrate the short democratic history of the new Russia, with both "Indepen­dence Day" and "Constitution Day."

This amalgamation, while intending to piece together numerous traditions that span several generations, has actually managed, in many cases, to create con­fusion and cultural disorientation. From the outset, most of the Soviet holidays, with the exception of ''Victory Day," remained for decades ambiguous to many for various reasons. For example, the "Anniversary of the Great October Socialist Revo­lution'' was celebrated on November 7, as per the modern Gregorian calendar, rather than the Julian calendar, which was used in Russia until 1918. The Julian calendar had placed the Revolution on October 24, 1917. "International Workers' Day" and "International Women's Day" proved to be equally problematic in that they refer­enced ideals, namely, proletarian emancipation and women's equality, that were, in practice, largely absent from Soviet society. Furthermore, the authorities fre­quently named holidays at random, whether to celebrate the completion of a Five ­Year Plan (ahead of schedule, of course), a great leader's birthday, or a particular professional group, with "Miners' Day" or "Astronauts' Day." The 1995 film, "Burned By the Sun," by Nikita Mikhailkov (the son, incidentally, of Alexander Mikhailkov, the author of the lyrics for the Soviet anthem, both the 1944 and 2000 versions) centers on one family's celebration of a summer holiday extolling the virtues of Stalin just as the Purges gained their most vicious momentum in 1936. Signifi­cantly, most of the participants have little understanding of what, exactly, they are celebrating, with the matriarch of the family going so far as to proclaim, "I can't keep track of all these holidays, but Nadya [the youngest member of the family, ever eager for the day when she comes of age to join the Pioneers youth league] knows all of them!"10 Thus, while the manufactured sentimentality, the kitsch, that produced Soviet holidays provided plenty of days free from work and full of relax­ation, they often failed to inspire a deep loyalty to the state, ideals, or personae which they were designed to celebrate, even when the regime functioned at its most. Transferring such traditions to the post-Soviet world, then, results in an inherent superficiality that appeals to a largely vacuous nostalgia.

Holidays, which have undergone name changes, pose even further complica­tions to the creation of a coherent identity. That the November 7th October Revolu­tion holiday is to now be celebrated as "Day of Accord and Reconciliation," seems so blatantly contradictory as to border on the absurd. The words themselves hold very little meaning in such an abstract formulation: reconciliation with what or with whom? The October Revolution professed to be anything but an attempt at "accord" or "reconciliation," and yet these two holidays are now inextricably linked for all Russian citizens born before 1990. One young Russian intellectual even went so far as to say that for him, this new holiday is so profoundly inappropriate as to be the equivalent of celebrating the "Day of Germanic-Judaic Friendship" on the anniver­sary of Kristallnacht.11 While such a sentiment presses the issue a bit, ultimately, the point is clear: such an official reconstruction of holidays, while easily formu­lated through articulate wording and appealing to a sense of stability, can succeed more in confusing and frustrating than in its ultimate goal of providing a coherent identity rooted in a sense of stability.

Finally, holidays pertaining to the brief democratic history of the Russian na­tion, "Independence Day'' and "Constitution Day" have presented other complica­tions. While they unarguably have a rightful place in the national holidays listings for Russia, they fail to provide a solid foundation for the new Russian identity, as they, like "accord and reconciliation," in many ways produce more confusion than they alleviate. Because the regime change in the early 1990s came largely as an official coup d'etat in the name of a few abstract and foreign ideals, rather than as an organized public movement seeking genuine reform, most Russians fail to readily absorb the notions of independence and democratic constitution into their self-iden­tity in the way that Americans or the French might. "We received independence from what, exactly? This notion of independence remains unclear to me," a Russian colleague stated bluntly in response to inquiries about her relation to certain state holidays.12 "Constitution Day" can only prove to be even emptier, as few Russians have actually read their new constitution or understand the civil guarantees inher­ent in it. Throughout the Soviet era, citizens lived under a series of constitutions, which provided for the particular federal structure, but bore only a vague relation­ship to political realities and power and possessed a strong propagandistic mes­sage.13 Thus, "constitution'' is hardly a new word or concept, but somehow the postSoviet democratic constitution is meant to inspire greater confidence in the state and its guarantees to citizens merely by virtue of a state-organized celebration of it.

The State and Its Heroes

The resurrection of Soviet symbols and traditions through political maneuverings has also led to a revival of discussion over what is to be done with the grand master and Soviet centerpiece himself, V.I. Lenin. The embalmed hero of the proletariat still remains on display in the mausoleum on Red Square and generates a great deal of conflict between left and right wing politicians, particularly in the wake of debates over the anthem. Undoubtedly, Lenin and his ideas were the most obvious and powerful force of continuity throughout the Soviet era. As Brezhnev articulated, "Today's accomplishments of the Soviet people are a direct continua­tion of the cause of October."14 Through exhortations of all plans as fulfilling Lenin's behests and instructions, Soviet leaders were able to collapse the past, present, and future into one "continuously extending historical timelessness" of the Leninist gen­eral line, and thereby avoid existing problems which they could not comprehend theoretically.15 The current Russian leadership seems most hesitant to relinquish such a longstanding tradition, as was Yeltsin, as if somehow Lenin's lingering pres­ence absolves even the post-Soviet failings. More than anything, however, fears that removal of the body and a public burial would be too socially divisive, at least for now, hinder any decisive action in the near future. Even reformist lawmaker Grigory Yavlinsky stated that "Lenin's mausoleum remains a sacred place for many citizens of Russia."16 Obviously, Lenin, like many Soviet symbols, has yet to be reduced simply to historical artifact, and for as long as he continues to dominate the Moscow landscape, so too will he persist in the landscape of Russian identity.

The Cult of War

There are, however, traditions even more persistent and pervasive than that of Lenin, the most obvious being that of the cult of war. Of all the major events in Soviet history, the one that remains most ingrained in the collective psyche, easily surpassing the Revolution in importance, is the unquestionable victory of the re­gime in the Great Patriotic War against Nazi Germany. For some, particularly the hardline communists, victory in the war has long served to legitimize the brutal collectivization and industrialization campaigns and Stalinist repression that went before it. In recent decades, the Party's propagandists portrayed the war as proof of the system's ultimate strength,17 a sentiment that persists today for many, with the nostalgia for military and superpower greatness.

While the valiant victory remains prominent in every day life both among those who can remember those tumultuous years and those who have simply grown up in a system that refuses to let the memories of the war and its millions of victims fade, the most public displays of the cult of war occur on the May 9th "Victory Day" holiday. Given the amount of support for and attention to this holiday, it has pro­vided a rare opportunity for government officials to employ kitsch on a grand scale through parades, banners, souvenirs, and new monuments, particularly in 1995 on the fiftieth anniversary of the Soviet victory over the Nazis. Few would argue that Russians do not deserve to celebrate this tremendous achievement, yet the govern­ment also recognizes the war celebrations as a most vulnerable reflection of the longing for the prestige and greatness of the nation and effectively utilizes the war nostalgia for its own purposes. During the 1996 Yeltsin election campaign, reprints of vintage war posters welcoming the Red Army soldiers home from the front cov­ered shop windows and signposts throughout the capital and other cities. In this way, Yeltsin co-opted the Great Patriotic War for his own political purposes and successfully campaigned on images and ideals that signified both reform and de­mocratization while appealing simultaneously to those who distrusted the reforms and clung tenaciously to the past. 18 Through such means, government officials sanc­tion the selective forgetting of the dark moments of the nation's past and thereby obliterate linear history and transform it into a collective mythology that is both as uplifting and as coercive as the totalitarian kitsch of the Soviet years had been.

Both Yeltsin and Putin have further played on superpower nostalgia and the pride of Russia's might by pursuing military campaigns in the breakaway republic of Chechnya. Chechnya has long held a unique place in the Russian imagination as the paragon of Islamic defiance and the embodiment of the primitive, the cunning, and the elusive. For centuries, Russian and Soviet leaders, including democrati­cally elected presidents, have tried to annihilate the Chechens, "first by war on horseback, then by deportation in cattle cars, and now by heavy artillery bombard­ment and carpet bombing."19 Thus, the Chechens become an easy target for Russia's desire to prove its strength and greatness and its intent to suppress any further fracturing of the much-reduced empire. In 1991, Yeltsin risked virtually no popu­larity by starting the war in Chechnya, as he capitalized on the traditional rhetoric and demonology by describing the republic as a "criminal state." The war ultimately proved to be a humiliation for the Russian military, but nevertheless Vladimir Putin initiated the campaign anew largely out of a desire to rally the nation behind a common cause during the early days of his administration as Prime Minister. In this, he appealed to another dimension of the cult of war and military nostalgia: the wartime focus on working together in troubled times. After a series of bomb explo­sions in Moscow apartment buildings and public places, Russians felt vulnerable and the Putin administration was able to direct blame towards the historic enemy by describing the bombings as Islamic acts of terrorism. To this day no conclusive proof exists as to which organization is responsible for the attacks; more than a few "conspiracy" theories have gained popularity, which implicate government or intel­ligence circles as the real perpetrators. The ongoing conflict in Chechnya, then, takes on a much larger dimension, simply that of another post-Soviet war of succes­sion. It is a reflection of the continuing strength of the notion of Russia as a military power, resolutely united, if by no other means, in opposition to the menace which threatens to undermine the great nation.


Altogether, Russia has experienced a most tumultuous decade of transition, seeking to redefine itself through a tentative embrace of the ideals of Western democracy, while naturally clinging to familiarity, something repeatable that recalls the myth of an established ''home," regardless of whether that home was truly stable or even existed at all. The government strives to provide historical precedence and continuity to the new national identity through an ad hoc mixture of tsarist, Soviet, and democratic symbols and ideas, most of which plays on the public's nostalgia and willingness to accept state-manufactured sentiment and culture in its familiar kitsch forms. The result is often an ironic and confusing amalgamation that fails to fill the cultural void in which the "old" has been repudiated, but a breakthrough toward a unique "new" has yet to emerge. Undoubtedly, Russia will formulate a distinct post-Soviet identity eventually, but only through the long reflective process of facing its history, traditions, and culture in such a way as to produce a coherent narrative that continuous with the past, yet distinctly forward-looking.


Jane Buchanan lived in Russia for three years. She was engaged in civil society and development projects and did similar work at the Open Society Institute/George Soros Foundations in New York. She is currently an MA candidate at The Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies Bologna Center.