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4 Nov, 2009 06:05

Russia marks newest holiday, the Day of National Unity

Russia is celebrating the Day of National Unity. People all over the country are singing songs, dancing and flying big balloons in the air. Nationalists and anti-nationalists have staged marches in the capital.

The first scream “Russia for Russians”, the second plead with people to coexist peacefully. But Moscow gathered all of them in front of the stage with live music and a large TV screen, depicting text-messages from people from all over the country who are saying what this day means for them and what they want to see for the future of Russia.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev visited the Golden Ring town of Suzdal, where he was to open a chapel dedicated to Dmitry Pozharsky, one of the two men who rallied the revolt for the people to rise up against the occupying Polish and Lithuanian forces in 1612.

While its citizens are celebrating the newest of Russian holidays, an unusually large number of Russians are still not aware of why this day must be remembered.

Brand new holiday a lesson in unity

After the fall of the Soviet Union, Russians were short on national holidays. Obviously, there were always New Year's Eve, Victory Day on May 9th, and the bizarre invention that could only be understandable in this country – Old New Year's Eve. The latter, however, isn't an official holiday, and does not go a long way towards promoting the sense of oneness in the framework of national identity.

And that's just what was missing in the country, where some seventy years went by to the chanting of slogans "On to the Bright Future!" which, for many, led to nowhere particularly pleasant, or indeed bright. These people not only needed something to get them through between the May holidays and New Year. They needed an Idea, a reason to remember why they could still be proud of their Motherland. A holiday around which they could rally as a Nation.

In the Soviet Union, November 7th marked the anniversary of the Great October Socialist Revolution, and was one of the biggest holidays around – with red banners, a parade on Red Square, and a fireworks display. After the dissolution of the USSR though, the idea of celebrating something so dubious seemed pointless. Moreover, continuing the tradition of November 7th threatened to cause a rift between the dwindling number of supporters of the Communist party and those who wanted nothing to do with Communism at all – the latter being an ever-growing tendency among the Russian people. To celebrate November 7th meant to continue the tradition, which many (especially among the younger generation) saw as retrograde, and even insulting. Something else was needed to show that Russia had stepped off the path of Communism, yet retained its sense of national identity.

Thus, in 2005, Russians were presented with a new State holiday: the Day of National Unity.
However, if you stopped anyone on the streets of Moscow and asked them what this
holiday is about, you'd find most of them stumped for answer. According to the latest research, carried out by the Russian Public Opinion Research Center, more than half of the respondents have no idea what holiday gives them an extra day off this week. Only 16 per cent gave the correct answer when asked about November 4th. And 66 per cent will not celebrate it in any way. So what is so special about this holiday?

To answer that, let's travel back to the early 17th Century.

The last Tsar of the ruling Rurik Dynasty died, leaving no heirs to the throne. His successor, Boris Godunov, struggled to keep the country together. The country was struggling with poor harvests, famine and economic instability. In 1603, Polish-Lithuanian troops crossed into Russia, beginning the Time of Troubles, which lasted for ten years. For an entire decade, Russia lived in a state of total chaos. Its nobility, the boyars, could not agree on any one thing, constantly quarreling among themselves. The throne was vacant. The Orthodox Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia was imprisoned. Catholic Poles were in Moscow, in the Kremlin. Protestant Swedes occupied another ancient Russian city, Novgorod. In the South, the Tatars continued their raids on Russian towns and villages. And all over the country, brigades of vagabonds were plundering and raiding whatever was left over.

And in these desperate times, the Russian people carried out something that could be regarded as the first genuinely democratic election: they called on Prince Dmitry Pozharsky and merchant Kuz'ma Minin to lead them on to Moscow, in order to drive out the Poles. Tens of thousands of people not only gave money to arm the troops, but most enlisted themselves to fight the occupants of their land.

On November 4th, the Russians, led by a merchant and a prince, took Moscow, driving the Poles out of the city completely just two days later. The crisis, bloody and destabilizing as it was, nevertheless succeeded in bringing Russians from all walks of life together to fight against the aggressors – and to unite around the noble Romanov family, who went on to rule Russia for the next 300 years.

And if you're ever in Red Square – again, or for the first time – turn away from the Lenin's Mausoleum to your left. There, in the great colorful shadow of St. Basil's Cathedral, you will see a monument to two men, who dared to take on the responsibility of trying – and succeeding – to get their people together for the sake of saving their country.

Unfortunately, for most modern-day Russians it seems, this lesson in Russian history books was quickly forgotten. The lesson being, of course, not to drive out any foreigner that sets foot in the Kremlin – as some critics of the new holiday have implied, citing it as xenophobic and humiliating to the Polish nation – but rather to respect their country and stand united for at least one day a year, as the Russian People.

While many Russians see it as a time to celebrate national tolerance, nationalists try to use it for their own means, organizing their own events on this particular day.

Irina Galushko, RT