Historical memory. Much has been said about it in Russia during the recent years. Even a new holiday has been instituted, the Day of the Popular Unity, on November 4. As members of the special presidential commission recollect, they racked their brains for a long time trying to decide what shiny date they should choose in the Russian history to celebrate the people's unification. Under review came the Kulikovo Field Battle, the Battle on the Ice, the Borodino Battle and other great feats of arms of our people. But only one event – the end of the Times of Trouble, the expulsion of the Polish invaders from Moscow at the beginning of the 17th century – has met all the requisites.
Indeed, the events of 1611-1613, in the Kremlin's view, should remind us that we did have a time in our history when all the people, in an upsurge of unanimous patriotism, wiped out foreign invaders, put an end to the interminable internecine strife and at last formed a viable state. The popular host had reunited then, shoulder to shoulder, Christians and Moslems, merchants, townsfolk and nobility….
They were all fighting against the hated Polish invaders, united by a great national idea - that of creating a powerful, centralized Russian state. Such is the ideology of the holiday celebrated recently in Nizhni Novgorod, Moscow and other cities of Russia.
Well, the new holiday, I must admit, has been a success. As they say today, it turned out to be a centripetal force - all-satisfying and all-reconciling. Satisfied is the Orthodox Church, as the holiday has coincided with the great church fete of the Kazan Icon of the Mother of God. Pleased are the Moslems who made up, in those remote times, a third of the popular host of Minin and Pozharski. Happy are the Russian regions reminding Moscow once again where the salvation had come from. Delighted are political parties getting an opportunity of doing some good work across Russia. Glad are the people still not indifferent to the "bread and circuses".
That the Poles have been taken aback and alarmed by the celebration of the new popular holiday in Russia (this event has drawn immense attention in the Polish media) is of course their own problem. Neither shall we heed the Polish dropping hints that it is not quite European manners to celebrate - at a state level - the victory of one people over another, moreover if it happened 400 years ago. Nonsense.
Yet there is something here to think about, gentlemen. And the Polish touchiness has nothing to do with it. There are various holidays all over the world, and they are loaded with different meanings, including ideological ones. Church holidays arouse few questions. Lay holidays are more complex. Traditionally, people all over the world celebrate republic days, independence days, Constitution days, National Flag days, professional holidays, as well as memorable events and what not.
There are also purely national holidays and festivals that underline the national specifics and originality of a people, for example the Thanksgiving Day in the US, the Bastille Day in France or Guy Fawkes Night in Great Britain. These holidays are born of actual historical events that, due to their remoteness, have become wrapped up, as often happens, in numerous legends and myths. At the same time, it is part of a people's history, its vivid part that has for many years defined its historical path.
In the case of the Thanksgiving Day, it is a holiday of American colonists who won their right to live fighting the rough Nature, Guy Fawkes Night is a happy salvation of the British monarchy and the traditional British way of life, the Bastille Day is the end of the hated tyranny, the triumph of the eternal and world-famous slogan of "freedom, equality, brotherhood".
The Day of Popular Unity in Russia seems to fit in this pattern as well, meeting all the system requirements – the salvation of the state, the fight against the invaders, the people's special historical path... The only thing is that it all happened so long ago, and few people remember it, as distinct from the French, Americans and British who have been celebrating their special days for centuries. Traditionally. Consciously. Nation-wide.
As for the occasion for celebrating our Day of Popular Unity, it has taken time to be recollected. Even our cultural and political elite had to make a certain effort to recall it. As it turned out, there has even been a choice! We might just as well have marked November 4 as the day of the routing of the German "dog-headed" knights on Lake Peipus in 1242. Or the glorious day of the Borodino Battle in 1812 (the offended ones would then be the French).
Regretfully, most Russians have a vague idea of those murky times, while others simply do not share those values and ideals for which the Russian people fought at that time. Take, for example, the extremists in Chechnya or the adherents of Russia's confederate structure in the regions… One can still hear the echoes of the post-"perestroika" talk of the regional elites about a Far-Eastern Republic, a Urals Republic, independent Tatarstan… Incidentally, the Americans are still predicting such an end for us!
A forced holiday. Bestowed on us from above. Of course, one may object that the same thing happens to all holidays all over the world. A tradition has to be born, and then time will take care of everything, and people will understand and accept the new red-letter day, a very correct, timely and ideologically sound day. And people will sincerely rejoice and make merry, recollecting the feat of the ancestors. Most likely, this is the way it will happen.
But I also see another memorable date of the same month. November 7. Quite recently on that date we were cheering in manifestations and rallies, each family in the Soviet Union laid a festive table, and we all went to grand meetings and concerts… And we firmly believed that we were one united people, full of strength and vigor, ready for great deeds.
And we did have great deeds. We were proud of them. We did have a special historical path of our own, a great mission and a great national idea. We sincerely believed in it! We gave up our lives for that! How proud we were of our great country! Remember those hard times. Remember yourself. Remember those ideals for which you were willing to suffer any hardship and deprivation.
I have nothing to be ashamed of. In those years I sincerely wanted all the people to be happy and live in peace and prosperity. I studied avidly and dreamed of making good in life. I liked my country and my people. I craved to go to Afghanistan to help the brotherly Afghan people. I loved our Soviet holidays – February 23, March 8, May 1 and 9, November 7. For me, they had a profound sense and were full of very kind, positive meaning.
Today I am told that it was all lies. That Communism is a horrible evil. That we have lived through an awful tragedy that ruined the lives of several generations. That we should repent and forget. Destroy all that is associated with the Communist epoch and its heritage. So that no trace remains. I admit, the Russian variant of the Communist idea turned out to be horrible and anti-popular in its essence. It has to be spoken about. And it has to be remembered.
But at the same time, let us not be led up the garden. Such a hard trial befell not only our people. In the eighteenth century the Great French Revolution bulldozed, like Moloch, all France. Terror and death, hunger and ruin, civil war and repression. The nobility butchered, commissars raging in Paris, the cruel and blind crowd reveling in its unlimited power. Then the dictatorship and massacre, the intervention, the revolution devouring itself…
The French lived through it all. They made due conclusions and learned their history lessons. And they have been celebrating the Bastille Day for about 200 years. Under the strains of "The Marseillaise" – the national anthem, the song of the revolutionary Paris – they celebrate this holiday as the day of a great social upsurge, national unification and pride for their contribution to world political culture.
And what do we have? We have the chronic Russian disease of debunking and negating, then re-thinking and repenting. The appearance of a new holiday on November 4 and the attempts to consign the old one to oblivion – how familiar it is. How foolish and shortsighted. It all has nothing to do with historical memory, just political opportunism.
The current Russian calendar makes it possible for the people to demonstrate their unity every month if they like. In January and April we are brethren and sisters in Christ, in February we unite around the Russian Army, in March around the beloved women, in May we are united by the spring and labor, and also by our hatred for fascism. Then there is the Independence Day, Russia Day, Constitution Day, professional holidays and military glory days.
Now we can have it all once a year on November 4. God willing, the new holiday will survive. But not to the prejudice of other holidays. There are people alive still who cherish the ideals of the outgoing epoch. Many veterans hold dear the memory of those days, first of all as the days of their glorious fight-filled youth.
We do have things to remember on November 7. Let them mourn the rotten monarchy that pushed the country into the precipice, let them bemoan the great aristocratic culture. But there were also other things. The great social break-through. Unheard-of modernization. Mass upsurge. Outer space. Science. Medicine. What we seem to be lacking today is a different sort of holiday – the Day of Popular Forgiveness. We should learn to forgive.