The Russian authorities have a serious problem with official holidays. What are national holidays good for, anyway? They are not just about giving people an extra day off. No, they have an important political function. They are designed to reinforce in the public mind the unity of the state and the people, to create a feeling of shared experience and to bring the people and state officials closer together.
The post-Soviet Russian state has got a problem, however. It inherited all its national holidays from the Soviet Union. Officials have not managed to come up with any new dates. There has not been a single achievement worthy of national commemoration or celebration.
Post-Soviet authorities first tried to take over Nov. 7 and turn it from a holiday honoring the October Revolution into the Day of Reconciliation and Accord. They failed: The date was permanently tied to the Bolsheviks’ storming of the Winter Palace. After unsuccessful attempts to remake the holiday, officials decided to scrap it. They decided to celebrate National Unity Day on Nov. 4, the approximate anniversary of Moscow’s liberation from Poland in the 17th century. This holiday, too, will soon be history.
You need more than a presidential decree to turn a day into a holiday. A significant portion of the population needs to observe it without any state prompting.
New Year’s, for example, is a popular holiday among both the public and state officials. Yet it is emphatically apolitical and for this reason cannot be used to serve government ends. Then there’s May 1, which the authorities have tried to strip of its ideology for years. They made some progress especially because the process began during the Soviet era. The new name for May Day, the Day of Spring and Labor, was already in casual use back then, even though the holiday was officially called the Day of International Workers Solidarity. A similar thing happened to the ideology behind March 8, Women’s Day, and even Feb. 23, which long ago ceased to be a professional holiday honoring the armed forces, simply becoming a “men’s day” to match March 8.
Yet there is another side to the fairly successful transformation of May Day. It can no longer be used for political purposes. Only May 9, the day of victory over Nazi Germany, still inspires hope in Kremlin politicians that they will be able to urge the country to come together. The Russian authorities can admit to their status as successors to the Soviet Union while disassociating themselves from the communist ideology. War remembrances reinforce patriotism and strengthen the public’s faith in government institutions. At the same time, the Soviet Union fought together with Western democracies to defeat Nazism. This makes the day a good excuse to invite a bunch of foreign guests and emphasize yet again the necessity of working with Washington. In short, President Vladimir Putin’s administration was destined to make May 9 the big national holiday.
But alas, like always, things turned out badly. You cannot have a public holiday without the public. Moscow was virtually shut down. Police flooded in. Traffic was stopped. The metro closed early. Residents faced every problem imaginable, and some that were hard to imagine. The big parade to Red Square was reduced to 130 faux front-line trucks. The broad windshields on the brand-new trucks glistened, and they looked more like Mercedes than World War II vehicles. They had been custom ordered and probably cost an arm and a leg. The organizers must have thought, however, that the trucks that carried soldiers and supplies to the front were less than luxurious. Thus, they did not reproduce them but refashioned them to fit the tastes of today’s leadership.
The big hero of the official celebration was U.S. President George W. Bush. He was the one everyone was waiting for, the one the parade and fireworks were supposed to impress. They pulled out all the stops to please him, like some rich relative who could make or break the family. The other big hero of the celebrations seemed to be the late dictator, comrade Joseph Stalin. It appears that nothing is as urgent in our country as evaluation of Stalin’s role in history. Whereas some are going to erect monuments to him, others are going into hysteria about it. As a matter of fact it is historians who are supposed to evaluate the deeds of historical figures. However today in Russia history is considered to be way too important to trust the professionals with it.
To discuss the necessity of the official restoration of the good name of the deceased “Father of Nations”, the leadership of the Communist Party set aside meaningless discussions on how to cope with skyrocketing prices for housing and privatization of education. It’s well known that it was the XX Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union that condemned Stalin’s deeds. It is also known that the Communist Party of the Russian Federation is the formal successor of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Therefore all it takes is to simply announce the recall of the decisions of the XX Congress. The mission would have been accomplished then. But for some reason the leaders of the Party appeal to the power (which they themselves call “anti-popular”) as its loyal subjects asking it to make a decision, which in fact is beyond its competence.
Nevertheless judging by the programs of the two official TV channels, the ruling circles actively participate in the discussion. Two versions of the past are brought to the attention of the astonished audience at one time. The first one portrays Joseph Stalin as a wise statesman, astute leader, who never made any mistakes. The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 1939 is viewed as a great epoch-making victory, the Soviet-Finnish War of 1939-1940 – a necessary experiment, that enabled us to be better prepared for the beginning of the war with Germany, and retreat to Moscow and Stalingrad – a tactical necessity. Even Stalin’s obvious failures, which he and his propagandists preferred not to remember ever, are now presented as examples of shrewd political moves.
However at the same time the same TV channels tell another story. Nothing was good in the Soviet Union. Everything the regime did (without exception) was a mistake and a crime. Day and night the top leaders of the country were doing nothing else but inventing the ways to make the life of the people miserable. If anybody did help to inspire masses to victory over the enemy, it was not the Communist Party but the Orthodox Church. And the criminal Soviet regime was no better than the fascist one. This last statement is not ultimately agreed upon though and causes further discussion: some believe that fascism was still better. Apparently the Americans and the British were fighting on the wrong side during the World War II.
By May 9 trustful TV audience that got used to vote for “Yedinaya Rossia”, love President Putin and absorb the ideas, presented by the official media channels should inevitably go crazy. Schizophrenia is becoming a national ideology. The one thing that helps is that that the majority of people have learnt to look upon TV programs as flickering color pictures without trying to figure out if they make any sense at all.
As a matter of fact the case is partly explained by a split personality of the Kremlin Administration. In the current Administration the roles of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde are played by the two authority groups, represented accordingly by Mr. Surkov and Mr. Sechin with their people. Mr. Surkov (Dr. Jekyll) is the embodiment of the liberal face of power, whereas Mr. Sechin has committed himself to an unpleasant role of pure evil – Mr. Hyde.
However the opposition of the groups in the Kremlin does not explain everything. Schizophrenia of the current official ideology in a paradoxical way develops contradictions that trace their roots back to the Soviet propaganda.
The regime formed under Stalin’s leadership was Thermidorian- Bonopartist one. In other words without all those French terms, this regime emerging during the final phase of the revolution was maintaining some of its achievements but was simultaneously acting in the interests of the developing new elite – purging the old Bolshevik activists, depressing society, stifling the revolution from below. Sort of a synthesis of revolution and counterrevolution.
Political regime formed after the failure of the USSR is called to finish the counterrevolution. It is not by chance that the party bosses together with people from security services and Komsomol (Youth Communist League) leaders were the ones to form the core of the new political elite in Russia. As if nobody else in the country could do it.
It turns out that the new-old power that has been formed for the last 15 years still needs Joseph Stalin. Only “corrected and cleansed”. Forget all claims to build socialism and focus on what was done to establish a mighty power. No longer can Stalin be condemned as a killer of multitudes (after all what is a state but an organized violence?). Only as a revolutionary Stalin deserves every reprimand – together with the current evildoers like Viktor Yushchenko and George Soros (who in today’s Russian official propaganda feature as “dangerous revolutionaries”). Mass repressions can be justified, but only if they were necessary to achieve stability, respect for authorities and order.
Celebrating a jubilee of the Great Victory, the Kremlin power claims the achievements of Stalin’s epoch, but for all that they tactfully refuse to recognize any liabilities. Today’s Stalinism turns out to be through and through bourgeois and pragmatic. Officers of secret police (successors of infamous Stalin’s hangmen Beria and Ezhov) are now taking pride in their historical traditions and stand for sacred property rights, free market and privatization.
Defending the new values today’s power demonstrates strong continuity. During the years of Stalin’s repressions, when bureaucracy prevailed the life of each particular individual could hang by a thread. In Putin’s Russia the general principle of private property that is guaranteed, but the interests of particular individuals who own it .
Manners in time are getting somewhat better though. For instance important Soviet leaders like Rykov, Tomsky, Bukharin, together with Tukhachevsky, Yakir and many others were executed. Today oligarchs Platon Lebedev and Mikhail Khodorkovsky are in jail. On the other hand, they are still alive so far.
Who will dare say we haven’t made progress?