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Understanding Russia’s Anniversaries

September 1, 2008

By Jason Vaughn, Guest Contributor

 

Those who know something about Russia know that Russians like to celebrate their military anniversaries with a due level of remembrance and a touch of sadness, not so far removed from their American, French, and British counterparts. For Russians however, these occasions entail a fair amount of drinking and reminiscing about the times of the past that speak of a more glorious and powerful Russia. It is telling when the best Russian vodkas such as “Putinka” are often named for leaders.

 

The biggest of these holidays usually include Victory Day (May 9, celebrating the defeat of Nazi Germany), but also every May Day (May 1, what is now called ‘The Day of Spring and Labor’ to dampen its communist roots), and Russia Day (June 12). Survivors of great Russian victories such as the battles of Kursk, Berlin, and Smolensk gather together  in their own time to talk about who’s still alive, about the Great Patriotic War, and to comment (usually quite negatively) on the current state of Russian affairs.

 

The contemporary, hardened present-day military men—the Russian Colonels and Generals of today—reminisce with an air of resentment; something that might be of interest to outsiders, if they wish to see intimately Russia’s political path since the collapse of communism and where Russia might be going in the future.

 

This year, on October 4 is the 15th anniversary of the shelling of the Russian White House (then the seat of the Russian Parliament) by the army acting under the orders of the then-President Boris Yeltsin. In 1993, Russia was on the brink of chaos and under the threat of civil war. October 4, 1993 marked the culmination of a great crisis for post-Soviet Russia in which the parliament and the President jockeyed for power.

 

The result of that battle for power: the President won. The resulting constitution of Russia, which was installed and ratified by the Russian people in the aftermath of that crisis, is still in force today.

 

However, much like the various holidays related to Afghanistan (December 24 for the Soviet invasion), such an occasion is not publicly remembered today. While those who were involved will remember the storming of the White House in private—some vodka will no doubt be drunk in honor of lives lost in that bloody affair—few in public will mention the day.

 

Another occasion is December 11, which marks the 14th anniversary of the first invasion of Chechnya by Russian forces. From that December of 1994, Russia has fought its way through two Chechen wars, with a nearly four-year pause in between (1996-1999), managing during this period to lose the first one while turning the second into a low-level guerilla movement.

 

For the most part only officers and soldiers who were there come together, usually in their own homes, to talk about their experiences and to complain about the present state of Russia.

 

But, Russia today is much different since those tanks fired on their own parliament building. The Russia of 1993 was in a frightful state, still recovering from the fall of the Soviet Union and the loss of most of its empire, and having experimented with a number of Western-supported economic policies, which failed to improve the living standards of the Russian people in any significant way.

 

Russia is generally more uninhibited these days. The country has been making some significant gains towards regaining the strength of its lost Soviet empire. It is now flying military flights over the Pacific again and it is trying to plant its flag as far north as possible to claim distant possible strategic oil reserves.

 

Looking now at their recently strong military adventure in supporting South Ossetia and Abkhazia in breaking away from Georgia, Russia is again “flying the flag.” While acknowledging that Georgia might have started it, the hardened soldiers of Russia will vow to finish it.

 

Russia, they will say, cannot be surrounded by a foreign military alliance—namely NATO—no matter how “defensive” it may be. Russia can do without friends, looking at the hesitations of China and their other usual allies of the Shanghai Cooperation Agreement. They will be looking back to times of WWII when Russia also felt that they were fighting, and winning, the war alone. Having lost millions of people in that past war, of which was a fight to the death both figuratively and literally—the Soviet Union lost over 20 million people, compared to around 400,000 on the U.S. side—for them the protestations of the West mean nothing.

 

Russia will do what they must do, as the toast will go. Quietly, to the military men—who still reminisce during the anniversaries of Russia’s past glory and the heady days when the ‘Volzhd’ (‘Chief’) Stalin as their great leader—Russia’s rising power is what they have been longing for.

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