Commemorative Holidays in Post-Soviet Russia
By Allison Abrams
Commemorative holidays are often mobilized by governments and interest groups in attempts to cultivate myths of legitimacy and foster solidarity. As these needs change in the present, so too do the form and content of the holidays themselves," remarked Kathleen Smith, Assistant Professor, Department of Government, Hamilton College, and Title VIII-Supported Research Scholar, Kennan Institute. Smith also noted that commemorative holidays are particularly attractive at times of political change because they give authorities a chance to found a symbolic base or establish new rituals with which to create a supportive context for new institutions and practices. In her lecture at the Kennan Institute on 8 March 1999, Smith examined the role of holidays in Russia under the newly democratic government by evaluating one old (Soviet) holiday, one newly created holiday, and one revised holiday.
The commemoration of the October Revolution of 1917 on November 7th was the first major holiday of the old regime to fall after the failed coup of 1991. Despite the fact that President Yeltsin banned the communist party on the eve of this anniversary, November 7th remained an official holiday, although there were no official steps taken to mark this day, Smith noted. Instead "dueling rituals" occurred--communist loyalists gathered at the Lenin monument in Moscow's Oktyabr'skaya square cheering anti-Gorbachev and anti-Yeltsin speeches, while liberals mourned the victims of communism by marching from the Lubyanka to the former site of the Church of Christ the Savior.
In the following years, remarked Smith, while no one denied the significance of this date, there was also no consensus on the form of its commemoration. In 1996, Yeltsin attempted a pluralist approach by renaming the holiday the "Day of Reconciliation and Accord," recognizing victims (of all political persuasions) of revolution, civil war, and political repressions in an attempt to create a unifying holiday. This uncritical perspective, which ignored the contradictions inherent in celebrating the revolution in this manner, was not received well by either the communists or liberals, stated Smith. Thus, communists have continued to mark November 7th with meetings and marches and the democratic celebrations--without support from the state--have died off.
Smith cited Russian Independence Day, which honors the declaration of state sovereignty on June 12, 1990, as an example of a newly created holiday. However, similar to November 7th, June 12th almost immediately became a holiday of controversial status as it is also marks the first presidential election in Russia--a day of victory for Boris Yeltsin. Those who lobbied to make this an official holiday, and not just a non-working day, were met with considerable opposition from communists and many others who viewed the day as a personal anniversary for Yeltsin, instead of a national holiday. The second problem with Russian Independence Day has been the Russian public's unfamiliarity with the date's significance--the vote for sovereignty in the Supreme Soviet being much more dramatic for the Russian deputies, than for Russian citizens.
However, despite these difficulties, in 1994 Yeltsin elevated the day to the status of an official national holiday of the Russian Federation. In 1997, he attempted to assuage continued public disdain for the holiday by renaming it "Russia Day" to commemorate the nation's entire history, thus stripping the date of June 12th of its meaning entirely. In addition to the date's lack of significance, Russia Day also lacks a coherent set of rituals, Smith remarked. Festivities have not been established on a national level, allowing Russian citizens little opportunity for participation. The government itself has admitted that Russia Day will be nothing more than a day off from work until it is marked by customs and traditions, added Smith.
Victory Day, the anniversary of the May 9th victory in World War II and largely considered to be the most popular holiday in Russia, was originally greeted with a laissez faire attitude by the Yeltsin administration. There were no military parades or official state ceremonies, causing veterans and communists to complain that the day was not being given enough attention. Victory Day became another highly contested holiday with dueling celebrations: the nationalist and communist opposition organized parades for veterans, while liberals gathered in parks and held various festivities. In 1995 Yeltsin-- acknowledging the lack of popular patriotism and enthusiasm for the current regime--revised this holiday by recreating a military parade similar to those under Soviet times, but at the same time placed the holiday within a new narrative, Smith argued. Yeltsin and the liberal media were careful to promote a new version of the World War II victory from an anti-Stalinist perspective--the Russian people won the war in spite of Stalin, not because of him. However, Smith noted, it is still unclear as to whether this new view has been embraced.
Smith concluded that the democratic government needs a more aggressive stance toward commemorative holidays to create a new genealogy of the regime. The government has been unable to evoke positive feelings of community or collective memory either around old, now partisan holidays or around new, non-participatory celebrations. As for the future, Smith suggested that if the current government continues to fail to create unifying commemorative occasions, religious holidays and popular secular holidays, such as Women's Day, will dominate the calendar.