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Russia: Army Resurrects Soviet-Era Red Star

Russian President Vladimir Putin this week approved a request by the Russian army to reinstate the Soviet-era red star as its symbol. The decision follows the return of the Soviet anthem and red military banner. RFE/RL correspondent Valentinas Mite reports that the resurrection of such sacred symbols of the past may reflect a growing nostalgia for Soviet imperial might.

Prague, 28 November 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The red five-point star -- a symbol of revolution, socialism and once-great Soviet military might -- is on its way back to the flags and banners of the Russian army. Russian President Vladimir Putin approved an army request on 26 November to resurrect the Soviet-era symbol. The parliament is expected to pass the measure without objection.

The move is not the first nod to the country's Soviet past. The country has also re-adopted the Soviet anthem -- albeit with different words -- and the Soviet-era red banner for its military flag.

Some analysts say such steps to resurrect symbols of the Soviet era mean little beyond a simple nostalgia for the past. Others, however, worry that such moves are only a harbinger of bigger -- and more serious -- changes to come.

Pavel Felgenhauer, an independent military expert based in Moscow, says the return of the red star is a bad sign for the Russian military, which has seen its ranks, skill, and prestige dwindle in the years since the Soviet collapse.

"This is a signal to the entire bureaucratic structure -- to both bureaucrats in epaulets and bureaucrats without epaulets. It is a signal that nothing will change, that the Soviet army will remain intact. This army, to tell the truth, is only Russian in name -- its structures remain Soviet and should be reformed."

Felgenhauer says the reintroduction of the red star will put a stop to more than much-needed military reforms. He says it will also stall the country's foreign policy -- leaving the West as Russia's primary enemy.

"Some estimates say that nearly 80 percent of all [of Russia's military] infrastructure is directed against fighting the West. It's natural, because [the infrastructure] is inherited from the Soviet era. For many, a red star on [military] flags is a sign that this is how it will remain in the future."

Felgenhauer says the symbols used by the Russian armed forces are a surrealistic mixture of Soviet and tsarist emblems. You can find the double-headed eagle of imperial Russia side-by-side with the red star of the Bolsheviks who overthrew the tsar in 1917.

Dov Lynch is an analyst with the European Union Institute for Security Studies in Paris. He says Putin is using Soviet-era symbols as a way of achieving present-day political aims, such as attracting voters.

Lynch says the red star may appeal to Russia's older generations, who associate the symbol with the Soviet Union's massive military might. However, he notes the star may lose such symbolism rapidly if Russia's armed forces are not rescued from their current dire state.

"The Russian armed forces have not been reformed in the last 10 years. And this is one area where the Russian governments -- under [Boris] Yeltsin and under Putin -- have failed in transforming the legacy that they have inherited from the Soviet Union."

Leonid Radzikhovskii, an analyst with Russia's "Vremya MN" newspaper, says there is nothing strange about the cocktail of Soviet and prerevolutionary symbols being used now to represent the Russian armed forces. He says symbols -- regardless of their origin -- mean little for a generation of soldiers and officers who suffered severe material hardship in their military service.

"I wouldn't say that [soldiers] are consciously, ideologically well-disposed toward communists. I wouldn't say that. They are rather indifferent. They are dissatisfied with their living conditions, but they are ideologically indifferent and apathetic toward all symbols. I can say it for sure. The Russian army is completely indifferent to all symbols."

Radzikhovskii says, in fact, that there are only two social groups likely to react strongly to the return of Soviet-era symbols: Soviet veterans who welcome it, and former dissidents and democrats who don't. For 18-year-old soldiers, he notes, neither the red star nor the Soviet anthem is likely to stir much emotion, positive or negative.

Putin appears to have limits to his Soviet nostalgia as well. He balked at a recent proposal to resurrect the statue of Feliks Dzerzhinskii -- the first head of the Cheka, the Soviet secret police that preceded the KGB -- in a Moscow square.

Radzikhovskii of "Vremya MN" says Putin may, however, support returning the Soviet-era name Stalingrad to the city of Volgograd, as a way of commemorating one of the biggest Russian victories against the Germans during World War II.