I first noticed the orange and black-striped ribbons when I arrived in Moscow in May 2007 for what was going to be an extended stay. I’d been to Russia many times, but on the car ride from Shere-
metyevo Airport to the city, it was impossible to miss this sudden addition to the visual landscape -- they were tied to car antennas, on signs in shop windows, tied to kids’ school backpacks.
That May was when the ribbons caught on and went mainstream. But the idea of them had been hatched a few years earlier by one of the state news agencies as a way to commemorate Victory Day -- a Russian variation of the poppies you often see around Veterans Day in the West.
There are multiple layers of meaning behind the simple strips of fabric. They are supposed to recall the victory medals that were awarded to everyone who served in the Great Patriotic War -- from the heroes who charged Nazi tank battalions to the NKVD goons standing behind them waiting to machine gun them if their nerve cracked. The actual medal itself featured a portrait of Stalin, and it hung from an orange and black ribbon -- an idea actually borrowed from the tsarist St. George Medal. In the dark days of the war, Stalin was using any sort of national or religious imagery he could find to rally the entire nation.
Today, you see those ribbons all over Russia around Victory Day on May 9. And you also see them as the default visual emblem of the pro-Russian separatists in Crimea and eastern Ukraine. They are a new symbol of Putin’s Russia, with its selective appropriation of a heroic history, easy nationalist sentimentality, and public piety. What began as a simple way to remember the honored war dead has turned into something considerably more sinister.
The main adjective construction for the first decade of the Putin years in Russia was "increasingly authoritarian," and in the past few weeks we can say it has jumped up to just plain "authoritarian." Those years saw the creation of a frightening new machine -- hammered together with recycled components of the Soviet regime and given a bright new polish of Imperial slavophilia. As the situation in Ukraine developed, the machine has sputtered to life.
While the world watched with alarm Russia’s behavior abroad, perhaps even more worrying are the steps the government has taken at home to clamp down dissent once and for all. Amid a lot of disturbing talk of "fifth columnists" and "traitors," new laws regulating the Internet and speech are appearing at an alarming rate, passed by a now permanently compliant Duma made up of Putin’s lackeys. Among the proposed new rules is one that would criminalize questioning the heroic narrative of the Second World War (so I’d have already run afoul for being rude about the NKVD). All the changes seem to flaunt the best hopes of the optimists about why the 21st century would be different. We can see that the Internet, like any communication technology, can be controlled and taken away. And that voters still often make bad decisions.
While it may seem to be a return to the old days of the Cold War, this is significantly different. For all its obvious faults, global communism was at least an ideology that appealed to millions all over the world. Putinism is a cult of personality built on a foundation of narcissistic nationalism. It has no friends, only temporarily aligned interests with the likes of Bashar al-Assad. The current playbook goes back to Tsar Nikolai I and the guiding idea of "Orthodoxy, Autocracy and Nationality." Then as now, it carries itself in the world like an awkward 13-year-old bully, believing that being feared is the same as being respected, and not self-aware enough to realize the cost of being so disliked.
It is discouraging for those of us who love and care about Russia to see the hands of time yanked back this way. That the window for Russia to become a happy and prosperous place was slammed shut for another generation. But time suggests that another chance will come again. The Russian economy is woefully unbalanced, still wholly dependent on extraction industries like oil and gas and mining, and the resentments and unrest caused by such extreme social polarization never ends well -- remember what ultimately happened to the tsars.
I prefer to think about another ribbon you saw a lot of for awhile. During the last elections, and the cynical return of Putin to the presidency, the opposition movement took to wearing white ribbons. So much of the power of governments like this come from making you feel alone and powerless, even in a crowd.
I remember coming back from the protests at Bolotnaya in May 2012, perhaps the last gasp of that moment. On the way home we stopped at an Azeri restaurant full of people, ordinary Muscovites who you’d see on the street all the time and wonder how they felt inside. On that day and in that place they were all wearing white ribbons. I hope the experience of having seen one another gives them the cour-
age to get through the next few years.
Christopher Marcisz is an occasional Eagle contributor.