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National Unity Day: Russia's Most Confusing Holiday

On November 4, Russia celebrated Unity Day, a relatively young holiday that symbolises the unity and brotherhood of a multinational people.


Back in 2017 I had made my way to a Russian language class in the Historic Centre of Saint Petersburg when I congratulated all the staff members with National Unity Day. The people stood around looking incredibly puzzled when I congratulated them. I left feeling slightly embarrassed. After all, I had only tried to fit in. 


The staff informed me that November 4, or Unity Day, as it is now called, is the newest in a long line of patriotic national holidays introduced by President Putin, and that nobody understands what the holiday represents. 


Its origins?


The holiday has gone through several transformations. In 2005, President Putin changed Unity Day to commemorate Russia's defeat of Polish invaders in 1612. Years before, President Boris Yeltsin had established November 4 as a Day of Reconciliation after the end of the Soviet Union. Before Yeltsin, Unity Day had been a national holiday commemorating the Bolshevik revolution of 1917. 


The history of 1612 is now transposed onto modern Russia. Liberation from the Western yoke is an important detail for President Putin and worth celebrating every year, as had been the case during Tsarist Russia. This ‘strong man’ idea — where a great leader is capable of leading the bedraggled Russian masses through an existential crisis — is incredibly appealing to the Kremlin. It is no coincidence that this year’s Unity Day coincided with the much anticipated recognition that President Vladimir Putin will participate in the 2024 Presidential election.


Multicultural myth


A big part of official Kremlin propaganda claims that Russia is a ‘melting pot’ of unique cultures and ethnicities. Across Russian cities billboards have appeared in recent weeks with the message: “Russia – many different peoples but one motherland”.


As with most things in Russia, the aesthetic appearance of something is more important than its content. The image of President Vladimir Putin standing beside different religious leaders, or even women in traditional dress, gives the impression of unity but fails to look at reality in the face.


The chief rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt was sent into exile by the Kremlin in 2022 and activists inside Russia fear that antisemitism is on the rise. Minority languages in Russia’s far east are disappearing at an unbelievable rate. National Unity Day forces Russian people to analyse themselves and to ask if there is any unity among the peoples of the largest country on earth at all. It is common to see adverts for apartments to rent in Russian cities with “Slav only” at the bottom of the page, where landlords seek tenants with a ‘slavic appearance”. This discrimination not only impacts foreigners but also Russian people themselves. 


Modern times


According to recent polls for 2023 the importance of celebrating National Unity Day is recognised by three quarters of Russians (75%), with 39% saying this with full confidence. Before the “special military operation” had started in February 2022 the importance of the holiday was noticeably lower with only a quarter of respondents calling it very important (2019 - 24%).


Although Russians mostly recognise the importance of Unity Day, very few people are still familiar with the origin of the holiday. In 2023, recent polls reveal that 59% of the Russian people still don’t know what the holiday represents.


The past year was marked by a revival of popular unity in the country. In just 12 months the share of those who feel a sense of national unity almost doubled from 31% to 56% (2021 vs. 2022). Now, in the midst of full-scale war in Ukraine, there is a sense that the country ought to be united, while racial, cultural, class and national differences be temporarily suspended. It is clear that Unity Day has become an important date for the Kremlin in attempting to rally together people from Kaliningrad to Vladivostock in the existential crisis at home and abroad in Ukraine. Since 2005 the holiday has meant very little, but the war in Ukraine has draped new meanings onto November 4. 


This year Unity Day came shortly after the October 28th anti-Jewish riot which took place in the multiethnic region of Dagestan in the south of Russia, where hundreds of men stormed an airport to look for Jewish people who had arrived from Tel Aviv. Since February 2022, more than 800,000 people have fled Russia, while June 2023 was the month of armed rebellion by Wagner-group rampaging through the south on their “march to Moscow”. Mass political repressions have become the norm within Russian society. According to human rights groups inside Russia there have been more than 19,000 arrests and more than 650 convictions against anti-war protestors and activists. 


Recent studies have also shown that men from eastern regions are overrepresented among the dead and seriously injured in Ukraine. Outside Moscow and Saint Petersburg there are problems of poverty, unemployment and inequality, where joining the army is often the only way out of destitution. Since 2022 the disunity between Moscow and the poorer regions has become much more visible, while the popular recognition and celebration of full national unity remains a distant dream for the Kremlin. 


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