The November National Holiday: From Revolution to Union

When I was little, on the 7th November my mother and I once went to see my gran’s sister. Back in 1980s, this day was celebrated as the day of the Great October Socialist Revolution. In the evening there were usually fireworks that people cheered. My mother and I stood at the bus stop when the fireworks began. Since childhood I’ve had a very loud voice for the festive occasions. I was enthusiastically shouting ‘hooray’ at the top of my lungs at every burst of fireworks when an elderly woman who happened to be waiting at the same bus stop turned to me and said: “Why do you scream so loud? You can lose your voice”. For one reason or another, she didn’t approve of my patriotism.

When 1990s came, the Revolution started to be treated with disdain. If you read chapter 4 of Zizek’s In Defense of Lost Causes, you’ll instantly understand what I’m about. It was impossible to ignore the whole event, like you can’t ignore the French Revolution, so the attempts were made to either condemn the event or to ‘apologise’ for it. Finally, the late Boris Yeltzin renamed the ‘Great October Revolution Day’ into ‘Day of Concord and Reconciliation’, thus inviting people of Russia to leave the conflict-bearing watershed behind and think ‘positively’.

But clearly that was still not enough. To quote Zizek again:

Days before the second round of the presidential elections in May 2007, Nicolas Sarkozy formulated the exorcism of the ghost of May 1968 as the true choice facing the electorate: “In this election, we should learn whether the inheritance of May 68 is to be perpetuated, or whether it should be liquidated once and for all. I want to turn the page of May 68”.

In what sounds like a precise analogy to Sarkozy’s statement, the Russian Government in 2004 has shifted the national holiday to 4th of November and called it the ‘Unity Day’. You see, there’d be no happiness yet the misfortune happened yet Russian history was rich and eventful enough to have something memorable, apart from Revolution, happening in November. Namely, it was the victory over the Polish intervent forces in 1612. Following the death of Boris Godunov in 1605, the so-called Time of Troubles, or Mutiny Time, and the Polish intervention had started and lasted more or less until 1618. One of the decisive victories over the Poles that shaped the future of the Polish presence in Moscovia was in November 1612. The Time of Troubles was marked not only by the Polish intervention, but also by civil war, and the Unity Day thus celebrates – and commemorates the example thereof – the unification of the country against the threat of foreign rule. In pre-Soviet times 4th of November also celebrated the day of the Kazan Icon of Our Lady, with whose help the Second Volunteer Army under Kuzma Minin and Prince Dmitry Pozharsky had stormed the Polish forces in Moscow’s Kitai-Gorod. The Kazan Cathedral in St. Peterburg was built by Paul I in honour of the icon, and the icon (or possibly its copy) was moved to the cathedral in 1811.

There seems to be a difference in intentions between the Russian Government and the French President, but it is likely to be only nominal. In truth, both countries are trying at all costs to annihilate the events that may disrupt either liberal or conservative status quo. And while there may be nothing wrong with this sort of tendency in general, in particular it highlights the attempt to veil the rupture or the real problem facing the society. Having said so, it is unclear if Sarkozy had much to offer to either the French electorate or the Government in exchange of the memory and experience of May’68. Russia’s case is potentially much more fecund, as the year 1613 saw the proclamation of Mikhail Romanov as the Russian tzar, thus giving the rise to the Romanov dynasty. I don’t suppose that Russia may one day see the Restoration of the monarchy. But one can certainly expect some kind of political continuity between the Russian leaders, and to judge by the comments from Russia, this is precisely what is happening.


The Icon of Our Lady of Kazan
Ernest Lessner, Poles Surrender Moscow Kremlin to Prince Pozharsky in 1612.
The Kazan Cathedral in St. Petersburg (the photo I took in 1999, during my first visit to the city).
The New Izvestia 2005 report of the new holiday.