RD Intern Blog: The Fourth of July celebrations have passed over Moscow and left uneasy questions about Russia's own patriotic holidays. What are the main reasons for Russia's apathy towards celebrating its national identity? 

John Tefft (right), U.S. ambassador in the Russian Federation, speaking at the reception at the U.S. ambassador's residence in Moscow, on the occasion of U.S. Independence Day. Photo: RIA Novosti

As part of my small celebration of the Fourth of July, I tried to find an American-Russian flag pin at Moscow’s Izmailovo market. After about an hour of hunting for something I could wear on a suit to symbolize cross-national respect, I approached the only shop I had yet to visit in the sprawling marketplace. I told the shopkeeper what I was looking for, and he sorted through his collection for a few minutes before offering me a pin with the flags of the Soviet Union and the United States conjoined. “This is almost the same,” he said. I bought it for a bargain 200 rubles.

As July 4th passes over Moscow, I’ve come to realize how unique it is for America to have not only a set in stone birthday, but also “ideological tenets proclaimed at that date that remain essentially unaltered” 239 years later. As explained in Ivan Tsvetkov’s RD article, Independence Day: A View from Russia, “despite Russia’s 1000-year history (or perhaps because of it), the Russian state still has no universally accepted ‘birthday.’” On July 4th while America celebrates its independence, I decided to take a look at a few of Russia’s own national holidays to understand how a nation which has “changed course on at least five occasions in the past century alone, each time by approximately 180 degrees,” celebrates its identity.

In the decades after the breakup of the Soviet Union, Russia implemented several patriotic holidays: “Russia Day” on June 12, “National Flag Day” on August 22, and “National Unity Day” on November 4. However, to quote Mr. Tsvetkov’s article again, “the desired public enthusiasm [for these holidays] was not forthcoming.” Russian apathy toward the new holidays in general and “Russia Day” in particular is due, at least in part, to the complicated history of Russian sovereignty and the ambiguous natures of the holidays themselves.

For instance, it wasn’t too long ago that June 12’s “Russia Day” was called “Russian Independence Day.” Officially titled the “Day of Adoption of the Declaration of State Sovereignty of the Russian Federation,” the holiday commemorates the June 12, 1990 creation of a sovereign Russian state within the Soviet Union. On June 12, 1991, Russia’s first open elections were held and Boris N. Yeltsin was elected President of Russia. The following year, Yeltsin declared June 12th a national holiday. However, exactly what is being celebrated on June 12th has not always been clear.

From the holiday’s inception, Russians’ feelings toward it were ambiguous: Many Russians of older generations have negative attitudes toward the collapse of the Soviet Union and the dire 90s that followed, and had trouble understanding what there was to celebrate on June 12th. Because of this, the name was changed to simply “Russia Day” in 2002 to avoid “undue emphasis on the Soviet breakup,” according to the Moscow Times.

Russia’s “Unity Day” offers another example of a complex patriotic holiday: Established by President Putin in 2005, November 4 commemorates Russia’s victory over Polish invaders in 1612. However, according to a 2014 Levada Center poll, only 54 percent of the Russians surveyed could correctly identify the holiday’s name.

As flags evolve and political ties between Russia and the U.S. ebb and flow, for me at least, the feeling of cross-national respect evoked by joined flags remains, in the shopkeeper’s words, “almost the same.” As Ambassodor Tefft explained in his Fourth of July address at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, in the end, “America’s Independence Day is all about people. And I think that – despite the issues that divide our governments – Americans and Russians get along just fine on a “people to people” basis. That’s what today’s gathering is all about.”

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.