National Unity Day- a holiday in Russia on November 4th (previously commemorating the October Revolution, this was abandoned with the dissolution of the Soviet Union, to be replaced by Unity day in 2005).
It almost sounds good, doesn’t it? A day to celebrate multiculturalism unified in Russia. Any of you who know me in person will know that I have issues with nationalism to the point where I even dislike expressed patriotism (assuming these are on a sliding scale, where patriotism is pride and none of the extreme, exclusive and hate-fuelled discussions and emotions come into play). So it was always going to be interesting to be exposed to what is ultimately the Russian’s version of the 4th of July.
That comparison may be misguided, as for many people nowadays, the 4 of July is about the food and the fireworks (its all about the bbq…). National Unity day on the other hand is very, very political. Before the day articles were circulated warning foreigners to avoid metro stations and crowded areas. Nationalist marches were planned. Those not speaking Russian might be a target if things got out of hand.
We avoided the planned marches, but the experience still proved somewhat intimidating.
Although we witnessed some very entertaining events, such as traditional music and dance, it was shocking to see the city in its full militarized glory. Policemen in furry hats making human barriers to block off the Red Square where only Putin and distinguished (multicultural) guests were permitted to celebrate. Gigantic trucks that were somewhere between a police van and an armoured vehicle. The sea of flags being paraded around the city. So many flags- some with worrying slogans, others simply frighting because of the number that surrounded us.
From further up the street near the Bolshoi theatre we could see and hear the speeches being made to a crowd which primarily had orange and black striped flags (that perversely made me think of Halloween-apparently related to St. George; more about flags). In this situation I realize again that my vocabulary is good enough to get a gist of the motivational speech by members of the Duma- Ukraine, Belarus, Novorossia, Russian Speakers, unity of Russian speakers, pride to be Russian, with so many people here- but not enough to feel in control of the situation, with adequate knowledge of what was being said, what the crowd was roaring in approval for. Feeling slightly uncomfortable I began to question every sign and every face.
The simplest to read and most frequent sign I saw was ‘Putin, we are with you’. This was perplexing: With him on what? Why does national unity day require messages of support for Putin? Who is ‘we’? And, are you getting paid to hold that sign?