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Russia: New Russian Holiday Has More Behind It Than National Unity

A girl lights a candle, as Russia marks its new holiday (AFP) Russia on 4 November celebrated its new national holiday, People's Unity Day, whose creation was initiated by the Kremlin, supported by pro-Putin political forces, and blessed by the Russian Orthodox Church.

The official pretext for creating the holiday was to celebrate on 4 November 1612 the liberation of Moscow from Polish-Lithuanian occupation. The expulsion of the foreign troops from Moscow by a Russian people's militia is considered by many historians to be the end of the period of chaos and weak rule in Russia known as the Time of Troubles. The liberation helped usher in the revival of the Russian state and its subsequent expansion -- within 50 years, Russia had taken Ukraine under its control, and in 100 years' time its borders had reached the Pacific.

There is, however, another significant event that took place on this date in Russian history that the media has failed to mention. Following the victory in the Northern War against Sweden, which resulted in Russia gaining control of the Baltic region and present-day Finland, the St. Petersburg Senate voted on 4 November 1721 (22 October according to the Julian calendar) to grant Peter the Great the status of "Father of the Nation and Emperor" -- effectively creating the Russian Empire.

The bill that eventually established the new holiday was introduced in 2004 by the leaders of the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia and the nationalist parties Motherland and Liberal-Democratic Party of Russia, and was signed into law by President Vladimir Putin in December 2004. The new holiday replaced a 7 November holiday known during the communist era as the Day of the Great October Socialist Revolution, which honored the 1917 Bolshevik revolution and which was renamed "Accord and Reconciliation Day" following the fall of the Soviet Union.

To offset the outrage his decision caused among communists and nationalists, in the same decree Putin also eliminated a holiday that was particularly symbolic to the country's liberals -- Constitution Day, which commemorated former President Boris Yeltsin's adoption of the Russian Constitution on 12 December 1993.

In explaining the significance of the new holiday, Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov characterized it as a "patriotic holiday [celebrating] Russia's military glory. It also serves as a reminder of the dangers and unacceptability of confrontation within society," quoted him as saying on 3 November. "We are a unified people with a great history and common future."

Kremlin Campaign

The Kremlin has invested considerable resources into promoting the new holiday. Schools were directed to conduct special lessons explaining to pupils the significance of the 1612 events. The national television networks Channel One, RTR, and NTV were reportedly asked to broadcast documentaries on the subject.

Meanwhile, the Russian Orthodox Church -- which before 1917 had for 270 years celebrated on this date the "Day of the Kazan Mother Of God Icon," gave its official blessing to the new holiday. Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia Aleksii II arrived on 3 November in Nizhnii Novgorod -- from where leaders of the people's militia, Kozma Minin and Dmitrii Pozharskii, led their troops to Moscow in 1612. To deflect criticism that the new holiday is, essentially, the celebration of an Orthodox feast, the leaders of the Interconfessional Council, which includes pro-Kremlin Muslim and Jewish leaders, issued a statement saying that the "holiday is necessary for the restoration of historical ties and the unification of the peoples of our country," RTR reported on 2 November. Putin, meanwhile, took care in an interview with Dutch mass media on 30 October to note the role that Tatar detachments played in the liberation of Moscow.

Another argument against the new holiday -- that the idea derives from clearly anti-Polish motives and might anger Warsaw -- was dismissed by Andrei Isaev, one of the leaders of Unified Russia. Isaev said the holiday is not directed against Poland because, "In the 17th century, the Polish state as it is today did not exist," reported on 2 November. "Besides," he added, "Poland today is an anti-Russian state and, finally, Germans are not offended that we celebrate V-Day."

On the occasion of People's Unity Day, neo-imperialists took the opportunity to exhibit their devotion. A "Right March" was held in Moscow in which at least 2,000 people participated, chanting slogans such as "The Russians Are Coming" and "Glory to Russia, Glory to Empire." The primary backers of the demonstration were the Eurasian Youth Union (ESM), a branch of the Eurasian Movement headed by Aleksandr Dugin; the Movement Against Illegal Immigration; the National Statist Party; Pamyat; and other similar organizations.

ESM leader Valerii Korovin said in announcing the march that, while in 1612 "our enemies were Poles and Lithuanian interventionists," today they are Atlanticists and NATO. A spokesman for the Movement Against Illegal Immigrants, Aleksandr Belov, said its members were participating out of concern at the "rise of ethnic nationalisms in Russia."

But despite the Kremlin's promotional efforts, it seems the average Russian citizen was indifferent to the new holiday. According to a poll conducted by the Yurii Levada Center in October among 1,600 Russian citizens in 46 regions, just 6 percent approved of the introduction of the new holiday, while 36 percent disapproved of it and said they would prefer to continue observing Accord and Reconciliation Day (Day of the Great October Socialist Revolution), reported on 3 November.

Approximately 24 percent said they did not care which holiday they celebrated, so long as they got a day off.