27 February 2012

4 November as 4 February: Towards a History of the Recent Russian Protests

Russian version

Galina Nikiporets-Takigawa

In January 2012, in a report announcing Mikhail Prokhorov’s pledge to participate in the forthcoming demonstrations on 4 February, Gazeta.ru made a meaningful mistake: ‘The presidential candidate, who attended a rally of those protesting the results of the Gosduma elections, has promised to take part in the next rally, scheduled for 4 November’ (Gazeta.ru). A blogger immediately commented in a LiveJournal post entitled ‘4 November or 4 February?’: ‘Yesterday Gazeta.ru wrote that Mikhail Prokhorov had “promised to take part in the next rally, scheduled for 4 November”. – “They’ve confused him with Naval’nyi…” the civic activist Oleg Kozlovskii pointed out on Twitter… 4 November… is the day when the “Russian Marches” take place…’(igiss).

This mistake surely arose out of the firmly established association between 4 November and Russian protests. This association is now so well-entrenched that we might even describe 4 November as a kind of training ground for the contemporary protest movement. Since 2005, this date has been marked annually in cities throughout the country in the form of ‘Russian Marches’: mass demonstrations organised by various nationalist organisations such as the recently banned ‘Movement Against Illegal Immigration’ (DPNI, from the Russian initials), the main organiser of the rallies; the ‘Russians’ movement; and ‘Pamiat’’, etc. Moreover, the 2011 Russian March served as a precursor of the December-February liberal movement, insofar as it was precisely during the last Russian March at Liublino (the Moscow district to which the Russian Marches have long been banished by the authorities), on 4 November 2011, that the leader of the ‘Russians’ movement summoned people to demonstrate immediately after the voting had been closed. The first mass protest against dishonest elections was held by the ‘Russians’ movement, on 4 December at 21:00 in Moscow. This is when the first mass arrests took place (Sova-center.ru).

Yet this symbolic meaning has by no means always been inherent to 4 November, and is in fact studiously ignored to this day in the official discourse. According to the official discourse, 4 November is National Unity Day, a very important state holiday, no less important than Victory Day. As Patriarch Kirill put it,

‘It is only because of the most difficult civil conflicts of the 20th century that this day has not yet taken root in the people’s consciousness under this marvellous word – victory. If you compare what happened then, in the distant 17th century, with what happened in the 20th century, upon careful examination of the events themselves and of the significance of the victory that was sustained, you can say with confidence that these are events of the same order, and one is not more important than the other’ (Argumenty.ru). 

The Russian regime established this holiday in the process of a series of steps aimed at eradicating the collective memory of another holiday: 7 November, the Day of the Great October Socialist Revolution. First, in 1992, Russians were deprived of their traditional companion public holiday on 8 November. Next, Yeltsin changed the name of the holiday, renaming it the ‘Day of Accord and Reconciliation’. In September 2004, the Inter-Faith Council of Russia ruled that 7 November had not led to reconciliation in 1917, and therefore proposed that the holiday be abolished altogether, and replaced by a nearby date, 4 November: the feast day for Our Lady of Kazan, probably the most venerated Russian Orthodox holy icon, and also the anniversary of the popular uprising which expelled the Polish-Lithuanian occupation force from Moscow in November 1612. The Council also proposed a new name for this holiday: National Unity Day. Finally, on 16 December 2004 the Russian State Duma duly resolved to move the traditional holiday from 7 November to 4 November. The official explanation was that 4 November was:

not a new holiday, but a turn back to tradition: the day of Our Lady of Kazan was established by Tsar Aleksei Mikhailovich as a state holiday in 1649. Moreover, in the early 20th century, Kuz’ma Minin (whom Peter the Great called the ‘saviour of the Fatherland’) was commemorated on 8 May (Old Style). Because of the 1917 revolution and the events that followed, however, the tradition of celebrating the liberation of Moscow from the Polish-Lithuanian invaders and the day of Kuzma Minin’s death was lost (Calend.ru).

4 November 1612 was now declared the ‘moment when the Russian Time of Troubles were overcome’ and a ‘triumph of the patriotic spirit’. The replacement of 4 November by 7 November was labeled a ‘counter-revolution’ (Vecherniaia Moskwa).

The newly declared holiday needed media support. The graphs in figure 1, created using the Integrum archives, show how intensively various media have taken part in this support of National Unity Day from the moment it was born.

In performing this quantitative analysis, I do not examine the context in which National Unity Day was mentioned. Instead, I set out to track how often National Unity Day was mentioned in various media. The graphs demonstrated an interesting trend: National Unity Day was mentioned in Russian regional print media twice as often (namely, in 1.5% of all texts printed in all issues of all Russian regional newspapers and magazines from the Integrum databases) as in other media (Russian regional online media – 0.7%, central print media – 0.8%, central online media – 0.4%, TV and radio – 0.6%, the state news agencies – 0.7%). Moreover, despite the fact that the volume of regional print media discussions about National Unity Day has grown from year to year, the central print media and TV and radio channels have discussed it less and less.

How might we interpret this decrease in the central media attention towards this new holiday? Arguably, it might be read as demonstrating that the introduction of the holiday has been successful, such that no further intensive promotional activity is needed, and annual rates of media coverage thus settle down to a basic stable pattern (as, in the case of, for instance, International Women’s Day, 8 March, on the graph in figure 2, created using the Integrum archives).

But did the Russian regime’s attempts to introduce National Unity Day really succeed? Opinion polls indicate precisely the opposite, pointing to an utter failure of this initiative (Interfax-religion.ruSVPressa.ru).  In this situation, one would surely expect the authorities to make maximum use of central media. First and foremost, we would expect them to mobilise the media most easily controlled by the state, TV channel s and print newspapers, with a view to repeating many times for the benefit of slow-witted citizens exactly what should be celebrated on 4 November.

The relevant TV reports from the archives of ORT, NTV, and Rossiia TV channels for 1-7 November 2005-2010 meet our expectations on this point. These materials show how intensively the various channels were developing one and the same discourse, trumpeting the success of the holiday’s introduction. By way of proof, they cited an ever-growing list of festivals, concerts, and other forms of joyous national celebration, such as the unveiling of monuments (eg. Pozharskii’s mausoleum in Suzdal’); commissioned movies (eg. the feature film 1612, and the documentary The End of the Time of Troubles); a Russkii Mir Assembly, and other events aimed at fostering friendship with compatriots abroad (eg. the Pushkin medals); prayers for a United Russia, ‘a blanket of peace’, and other concoctions dreamed up by ‘Nashi’ and similar pro-Kremlin youth movements (Rossiia TV).  

Meanwhile, however, another discourse was taking shape around 4 November – a discourse that was conspicuously absent from all television channels and from many other forms of media: the discourse of the nationalist Russian Marches. Despite the fact that the first Russian March of 2006 was a reasonably organised and serious affair (YouTube), the media coverage made only a vague mention of ‘hooligan elements’ and the arrests of twelve people. From 2007 onwards, even blurred references of this kind disappeared, and reports focused exclusively on the number of police assigned to the marches – numbers that grew steadily, year by year, from 2000 in 2005 to 6000 in 2010.

It was only in 2009 that all media began to report openly on the Russian Marches, after alternative pro-Kremlin Russian Marches were invented as a counterweight to the growing popularity of the nationalist Russian Marches. The intrigue surrounding the lack of media coverage of the nationalists’ marches in 2005-2009, and the tricky maneuver with the alternative marches, invented in 2009, both spoiled the original plan of making 4 November into the National Unity Day. Instead, the combined effect was to reinforce a quite different meaning for the day: as a Day of Protest. Content analysis and quantitative analysis of the related discussions in the blogosphere, which offers a kind of window into the collective unconscious, provides evidence to support this.

Content analysis indicates that in 2005 the dominant discourses in discussions surrounding the holiday were: disapproval of the decision to abolish 7 November (‘many of my childhood memories are linked to 7 November’ (yurik-hashev); parody and irony over the fact that nobody know ‘What’s this holiday actually celebrating?’; and debates about the actual historical event and its real date (‘… 4 November, this is the date when the Poles were driven out of the Kremlin into neighbouring Mozhaisk, beyond which, at the time, Poland began, moreover they were driven out, to all appearances, not on the 4th, but either on the 1st or the 7th’(knippy).

The amount of blogosphere discussion about National Unity Day has grown from year to year. When we take a closer look, however, we find that a key factor in this growth was the intensity with which bloggers discussed their plans for the ‘November holidays’ and the news that the calendar of holidays was to be re-arranged. As for the meaning of the holiday, the blogosphere has continued to develop discourses consistently focused on historical inaccuracies and highlighting the absurdity of this ‘silly’ holiday (‘But what are we celebrating?’ (prostogordon), ‘How we are supposed to celebrate this holiday?’(VKontakte); and disapproval and bewilderment over the replacement of 7 November (‘the day of fear of communism’ (politprosvet), ‘First of all, happy holiday, everybody! Although, to tell the truth, I don’t really understand why it is that all of a sudden, in 2005, we realised that in far-away 1613 our ancestors showed patriotism, and from now on 4 November is a state public holiday, and why 7 November (note that this is also the history of our country!) is not a red calendar day… evidently, back in 1917, something dishonourable was done?’ (liveinternet.ru). 

The second factor in the growth of the blogosphere’s attention to 4 November was a new discourse, centred on the Russian Marches of the nationalists and other street actions. (‘Along the path of the column’s procession, on the opposite bank of the Moscow River, somebody had hung a large black banner with a crossed-out swastika and the words “4 November – the day of unity between the government and the fascists”’ (lenta.ru). Thus, the peak frequency of blogosphere discussion on 4 November was associated with a doubling of marches, mobilising people for these marches, and then reporting back on them.   

Having used the Yandex ‘Pulse of the Blogosphere’ to trace the changes in the meaning of 4 November over the six years of its existence, I can draw several conclusions. First, 4 November has not lost the old associations with 7 November; it remains only very loosely associated with 1612; and ultimately, it has only one generalised meaning – as a ‘day of protest’.

Figure 3. How often ‘National Unity Day’ was mentioned in one sentence with ‘protest’, ‘holiday’, ‘7 November’, ‘1612’, ‘Poland’.

This firmly established association between 4 November and Russian protest has forced central TV channels and print media to mute their trumpeting about the triumph of National Unity Day (as reflected in the descending curve of the two graphs in figure 1). Invented by the government in an attempt to forget 7 November, 4 November absorbed the old date’s revolutionary drive and was transformed from a celebration of unity into a symbol of Russian protest. In turn, it then sparked off additional Russian protests on 10 December, 24 December, and 4 February, thereby rounding off the cycle of historical parallels – from 7 November to 4 November, from 4 November to 4 February.

Galina Nikiporets-Takigawa (Cambridge)

Moscow. Sakharov Avenue. Rally on 24 December 2011. 
Photos by Natalia Mirimanova: