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Russia: Analysis From Washington -- Raising A Red Flag

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 6 December 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Russian President Vladimir Putin's call for the restoration of Soviet and tsarist-era symbols, including the red victory flag as the banner of the armed forces, may go a long way to restore the national pride of many Russians. But at the same time, it has already sparked concerns among both that country's democrats and Russia's neighbors about what these symbols portend for the future.

Speaking on Russian television Monday night, Putin said that he would ask the Duma to make the Soviet anthem the anthem of the Russian Federation, albeit with some new lyrics. In addition, he called for making the tsarist two-headed eagle and the red-white-blue flag the Russian Federation's official state symbols. And he said that the red victory flag which Soviet forces raised over Berlin in World War II should become the flag of Russia's military.

Public opinion polls have suggested that many Russians, including large segments of the officer corps and members of the communist party, will welcome this move, seeing it as a reaffirmation of Russia's greatness after a period in which Russia has suffered greatly. But these polls also show a sizeable number of people who object to what they see as a return to the past.

Anticipating their objections to his proposals, Putin said in his televised speech that "if we accept that we cannot use the symbols of previous epochs, including the Soviet epoch... then we must agree that our fathers and mothers lived useless, senseless lives, that they lived in vain." Putin added that he "cannot accept this with either head or heart."

And he insisted that Russia must not forget its history and that of the Soviet period in particular. "If we are led by this logic alone, then we would forget the achievements of our people over the centuries." And he asked "where would be put the achievements of Russian culture."

Protests against what Putin and the Russian Security Council have proposed were not long in coming. Boris Nemtsov, a leader of one of the most reformist parties in the Russian Duma, complained on Russian television that the Soviet anthem was "not the anthem of a state" but rather of the Communist party and Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin. "We are a country of symbols and mysticism," Nemtsov continued. "This is a huge political error."

Also on Tuesday, the Moscow newspaper "Izvestiya" carried an open letter from Russian writers musicians, and other cultural figures denouncing Putin's actions. Restoration of the Soviet anthem and other Soviet symbols, the authors of this letter said, "causes us revulsion and protest."

"Because we have memory, we are convinced that it will not be possible to join the history of Russia to the history of the Soviet Union without stitching wounds. The stitches are still there," the letter's signers said, "and they still drip blood. Resurrecting phantoms is a risky business."

But it is not only citizens of the Russian Federation who are likely to view Putin's proposal with concern. By restoring Soviet and tsarist-era symbols, many in the countries which are now independent but were part of both the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union are likely to view this action as a symbolic indication of where the Russian president hopes to take his country in the future.

And even further afield, Western governments too may be concerned by Putin's use of symbols that at the very least are problematic in what they suggest about his intentions and the intentions of his country. To the extent that the Russian president's actions restore Russian pride, these governments may even welcome what he has done. But to the extent that they point to something more, they are likely to become ever more nervous.

Putin in his address appealed to Russians "not to hold up events" or "burn bridges," and he asked that everyone direct their "energy and talent not to destruction but to creation." But for many in his country and abroad, the restoration of some of these old symbols is likely to raise a red flag about the future.