Russian ‘Unity Day’: How National Holidays Shape Identity

Written by Beatrice Bertoli

National holidays are powerful tools in the hands of nationalist governments since they project a distinct view of history and national identity. They are an occasion for people to actively perform and reproduce shared history and culture, deploying both in favour of nationalist narratives. No one seems to understand this better than Russian president Putin. Putin heavily relies on a selective retelling of Russian history to legitimize his rule and encourage national cohesion. This is why, in 2004, he established ‘Unity Day’. Celebrated on the 4th of November, the holiday promotes national unity against the ‘Other’, glorifies Russian history and reiterates the importance of territory to the nation. The choice of this date is no coincidence: Putin methodically sifted through hundreds of years of history to select the events that best fit his nationalism.

Putin’s involvement in establishing Russian national holidays first began when he abolished celebrations for the ‘October Revolution Day’, which had taken place on the 7th of November since 1918. In 2004 the president signed a federal law stating the 7th of November was no longer a non-working day. Commemorating the Socialist Revolution would mean celebrating the fragmentation of Russian society and violent defiance against the tsarist regime. This makes the historical event a terrible fit for Putin’s nationalist narrative, where a recurring theme isunity around the nation/regime. Throughout his 24 years of rule, the president has in fact framed his regime as the concretization of the Russian nation. Consequently, anyone who opposes the regime is automatically a traitor to the nation. Putin must have recognized the dangers of commemorating the Socialist Revolution, which lauds disloyalty to the ruling regime and highlights fractures along class lines. His choice to discourage the celebration of this holiday is a way to prevent it from shaping national identity.

Putin did not stop there. The law that abolished October Revolution Day also established the 4th of November as ‘Unity Day’. The holiday commemorates events that date back as far as 1612, when an ethnically and religiously disparate people’s militia led by KuzmaMinim and Dimyty Pozharsky forced Polish-Lithuanian invaders out of Moscow. Unity Day celebrates those people who ensured the survival of the Russian nation by forcefully retaking territory that was rightfully theirs. This grants the nation and its territories a central role in a temporally extended narrative that dates back centuries.The holiday thus contributes to legitimize and intensify the ties between the nation, territory and identity.

Putin stated that the 4th of November 1612 represents a moment in history “when people of different ethnicities and faiths united to save the Fatherland”. Russia, due to the vast territory it covers, is home to over 100 ethnic groups and to many different religions. It is essential for Putin to ensure that, no matter one’s faith or ethnicity, one is first and foremost Russian. National identity must come first and any other religious belief or ethnic identity second. This establishes a hierarchy that stresses loyalty to the nation above everything and shapes identity around this.

It is unsurprising that Putin addressed his adversity towards the “perverted” West in his speech for Unity Day2022. 1612 is known as the ‘Time of Troubles’ and Russian nationalist history portrays it as a period whenWestern powers took advantage of the country’s disunity to rob it of its sovereignty. It was only once the Russian people united around the nation that the ‘Other’ was defeated and the ‘Troubles’ ended. Clearly, Unity Day and the historical narrative it imposes are a great fit for the anti-West nationalist sentiment that Putin promotes; to this day, the West is the evil ‘Other’ that Russians must unite to fight against just like they did 400 years ago. In this light, Putin’s statement that “we will defend our Fatherland the way our heroic ancestors did” acquires major importance. The implication here is that the brave and anti-West blood spilt in the 1612 battle over Moscow is the same blood that runs through the veins of Russians today. Putin thus establishes a continuing, direct line from today’s Russian people to their forefathers, who took it upon themselves to defend the nation from Western powers. This association is particularly powerful in shaping identity.

Every year the Kremlin invests numerous resources to promote the holiday, organizing events that celebrate Russia’s strength and unity. Flowers are always laid at Minin and Pozharsky’s monument on the Red Square by religious leaders and Putin himself. Celebratory events such as concerts take place all over Russia. In schools, special lessons on the events of 1612 are taught. This year in Stavropol a banner with the slogan “We are united and in this is our strength” hung over students, who diligently wrote letters to Russian soldiers in Ukraine. Even Russian diasporic communities living abroad are actively encouraged to observe the holiday by the ‘Russian Orthodox Church Abroad’. National holidays do not pass unobserved: on Unity Day Russians are exposed to practices and discourses that glorify the Russian nation and encourage cohesion and sacrifice in its name. The holiday is thus a significant force in shaping Russian national identity and in establishing the nation as a priority. 

Putin himself stated that history and culture are the basis of national identity; crucially, national holidays involve performative acts that bring that shared history and culture to life. Unity Day celebrates a glorified, nationalized version of the events of 1612. Little does it matter that upon closer observation Russians were not all that united, as the numerous scuffles betweenPozharsky’s militia and Prince Tubetskoi’s army of Cossacks prove, and that the Time of Troubles did not end with the expulsion of Polish-Lithuanian forces from Moscow. In truth, it does not matter at all: historical accuracy is not what Putin is striving for. His goal is instead that of shaping national identity to encourage unity against the Western ‘Other’ and safeguard the Fatherland. For this reason, ethnic and religious identities must come second and must not interfere with expressions of national identity. The rituals, discourses and practices involved in the celebration of national holidays are a powerful tool to deploy history in the shaping of identity, which is why Putin is so invested in Unity Day’s celebrations and meanings.

Featured Imagery: National Unity Day 2012 on Wikimedia Commons.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s