The Invention of Tradition
No. 2 2012 April/June
Alexei I. Miller

Doctor of History
European University at St. Petersburg, Russia
Department of History
Center for the Study of Cultural Memory and Symbolic Politics Research
Institute of Scientific Information for Social Sciences of the Russian Academy of Sciences
Leading Research Fellow


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The St. George Ribbon and Other Symbols in the Context of Historical Policy

The article is published with kind permission from Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. The original Russian-language version is available in Pro et Contra, Vol. 16. No 3. May-June, 2012.


The Ribbon of St. George, which was re-invented by the Moscow-based news agency RIA Novosti in 2005, is an example of a political symbol closely tied to historical policy.

A number of sensitive political problems accompanied the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II in 2005. In the 2000s, the Russian authorities began emphasizing the Soviet victory in World War II, which remains the only historical myth invoking similar, if not identical, emotions among the majority of Russians. Russia deemed it essential for international politics to re-assert the role of the Soviet Union (and Russia as its successor) in the victory over Nazi Germany. Tellingly, Russian President Vladimir Putin invited more than fifty world leaders to attend the Victory Day celebrations in Moscow.

At the same time, the hammer of historical policy pounded out Russia’s ‘Victory myth’ in a number of neighboring countries. The former Soviet Baltic states – Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania – interpret the events of May 1945 as the start of a new Soviet occupation. The idea that Baltic leaders would visit Moscow for the Victory Day festivities fueled heated political debates and scandals among the Baltic governments and Moscow. As a result, only Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga attended the festivities in Moscow. In Poland, there was political debate over President Alexander Kwasniewski’s trip to Russia, while Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko, who had just gained power through the Orange Revolution, found a polite excuse not to attend.

Given these circumstances, the introduction of the Ribbon of St. George was a successful political move. Prior to the 1917 revolution, the ribbon, which would be given a second life during World War II, had been part of two awards issued to soldiers and non-commissioned officers for valor in the battlefield – the Cross of St. George and the Order of Glory. The St. George’s ribbon, with its origins in pre-revolutionary Russia, was not associated with the Socialist past, unlike the Red Banner or other Soviet-era symbols of victory. The ribbon modernized the symbolism of Victory Day and focused attention on the heroism of soldiers, which constituted an indisputable part of the military myth and was deemed acceptable by a much broader spectrum of Russians than the traditional Victory Day symbols tied to the Soviet past.

RIA Novosti staff writers borrowed from two sources when they came up with the St. George’s ribbon. Different colored ribbons have been widely used in the past as a convenient and unobtrusive method to rally support during various public and political campaigns. The British have worn poppies since 1920 in remembrance of those killed in World War I and, subsequently, in World War II.

For the British, the poppy is a commemorative symbol that no political elites have ever questioned. The following episode is quite illustrative in this sense: a conflict broke out between the English Football Association and FIFA in the fall of 2011 when England was poised to play a control game. The match was scheduled for the day when the British mark the end of World War I by pinning a red poppy flower to their coats. The English team wanted to appear on the field with poppies attached to their jerseys, however the FIFA authorities would not allow this, citing regulations that ban political statements on a uniform during a game. A solution was found eventually: the English team entered the field wearing brassards on their arms to which poppies were attached. Deserving special attention in this story is the role of British Prime Minister David Cameron, who claimed that the poppy is a symbol of national consolidation in remembrance of the dead and in caring for veterans.

Cameron must have been quite sincere in believing that the notion ‘political’ is applied only to objects that refer to inter-party struggle. Indeed, poppies do not refer to internal political struggle at all, since all British politicians wear them while laying wreaths during the main annual remembrance ceremony in London. This does not eliminate the symbol’s political nature, though, and any one of the numerous lecturers on political theory, who have lost their jobs in the past year as a result of Tory education reform, could explain this to the prime minister. Rather, the fact testifies to the success of the symbol. It is noteworthy that even separatist parties in Scotland and Wales do not question this political symbol.

It seems the main difference between the St. George’s ribbon and Britain’s remembrance poppy is that the British buy the flower to provide financial support to veterans’ shelters. In 2007, a total of £25 million was raised through poppy sales at a cost of £1 per flower. By contrast, the ribbons are handed out for free in Russia. A statute on the ribbons cunningly states that the ribbons should not be used as political symbols, yet their political nature is much more obvious than that of the British poppies. Already in 2006 the public distribution campaign of the ribbons had turned into a political action campaign under the auspices of the central and regional authorities. For example, the St. Petersburg city budget has spent eight million rubles annually for this purpose since 2008.

The Russian Foreign Ministry conducted the distribution campaign in 2012, and, prior to that, its representations abroad handed out ribbons. Tellingly, immediately after its recent appearance the St. George’s ribbon began to be used in countries neighboring Russia as a symbol of support for the “Russian world” [the worldwide community of people who recognize their close connections with the Russian language, worldview, history, and culture – Ed.]. Since communist symbols are vehemently rejected in these countries, the “non-communist” nature of the St. George’s ribbon was particularly appropriate and the symbol became popular with the local pro-Russian public. In Ukraine, pro-Russian movements have competed for the past several years to make the longest or the widest ribbon. Records were set in Simferopol, where a 50-meter-long ribbon was unfolded in 2009, and in Sevastopol, where a ribbon 300 meters long was made. The Moldovan capital Chisinau took over the lead in May 2011 when a ribbon stretching 360 meters was unveiled.

Activists from Ukraine’s radical nationalistic Vilnost (Freedom) movement, driven by anti-Russian sentiment, tore ribbons from World War II veterans who had gone to lay flowers at monuments to Soviet soldiers in Lviv. In Latvia, nationalists compiled lists of the license plates of cars displaying St. George’s ribbons and said “data on the fifth column would be handed over to the security agencies.” Sources indicate that the Estonian authorities instructed the mass media covertly to hush up distribution of the ribbons.

Thus, like any successfully devised symbol, the St. George’s ribbon conveys a number of meanings in countries neighboring Russia. It is a reaction to “historical revisionism,” which challenges the myth of the Great Patriotic War. Now that many communist images have disappeared, the ribbon offers a way to demonstrate solidarity with Russia. Finally, it serves as a means of political self-identification in a specific political environment.

However, the symbol has a few problems, including its close connection with the Russian government; i.e. when the popularity of the government falls, the attractiveness of the symbol will also wane. While the communists were practically the only force to criticize the St. George’s ribbon when it was first unveiled, now more and more criticism is coming from the liberal opposition, which says the symbol is turning into a governmental instrument. Defenders of the ribbon have set up their own website and say they are protecting the symbol from profanation that turns the action into kitsch.

A curious situation has taken shape in recent months with the introduction of the white ribbon on the Russian political stage as an anti-Putin symbol. The ribbon’s designers clearly drew their inspiration from the success of the St. George’s ribbon. Simultaneously, government leaders who have become the main targets of criticism leveled by the protest movement are using the St. George’s ribbon more and more actively. Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev wore the ribbons at the Victory Day parade in 2012, and Putin had a ribbon pinned to the lapel of his jacket when he introduced Medvedev to the State Duma as the future prime minister. It is not at all clear yet how people sporting a white ribbon will resolve the problem of its similarity to the St. George’s ribbon. Some will certainly ascribe the latter to regime-fostered symbols, yet other opinions are possible as well. Recently, I saw a young woman walking down a Moscow boulevard who had a white ribbon woven into one plait of her hair and a St. George’s ribbon in the other. The first case shows a renunciation of a tarnished state symbol, while the second may indicate a readiness to argue with the authorities over the right to the symbol.

Above all, the seven years since the institution of the St. George’s ribbon have shown the success of a skillfully plotted political symbol that in many ways is attractive because it refers to historical symbols and collective memory. Secondly, this is the story of the gradual imposition of the first non-communist symbol of World War II in Russia, which has acquired an additional meaning of Russian identity and/or friendliness towards Russia in the former Soviet republics. Also, this is an instructive story of how a close association with a political regime that is losing popularity can undermine the attractiveness of a national symbol.



The candle, as a symbol of remembrance and one related to Christian symbology, has had a rich tradition in many countries. Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma signed a decree on November 26, 1998 declaring the fourth Saturday of each November as a day of commemoration for the victims of the Ukrainian famine in 1932-1933. The first action was held in 2003 and was conceived of as a nationwide remembrance for those who had died in the famine. Participants set candles and lamps on monuments to famine victims and lit candles on the windowsills of their homes.

The Holodomor, the man-made famine in Ukraine in 1932-1933, is still a touchy political issue in that country. Some Ukrainian emigrants believe the famine should be viewed as an act of genocide against the Ukrainian people. Ukrainians gradually began to believe this notion, however, the authorities did not play up the genocide theme until 2005, when President Viktor Yushchenko made it a key element of his historical policy. He wanted the international community to recognize the Ukrainian famine as a deliberate act of genocide. Inside the country, Yushchenko made every effort to officially establish this interpretation of the famine. In 2006, the Ukrainian parliament, under pressure from Yushchenko’s fraction, adopted a law on the Holodomor that qualified the famine as genocide and declared any denial of this ‘fact’ as immoral and unlawful. Moreover, Yushchenko and the parliamentarians representing his faction would later submit a number of bills making it a criminal offense to deny the famine as an act of genocide, punishable for up to three years in jail. Subsequently, there was an intense propaganda campaign in Ukraine and commemorative books containing the victims’ names were published quickly. Yushchenko and his political associates worked hard to legitimize the groundless claim that seven to ten million people had died during the famine, thus implying that more people died in the famine than in the Holocaust.

The official campaign concerning the Holodomor culminated in 2008, the 75th anniversary of the famine. An important part of the propaganda efforts was a 1.5-meter long candle that burned continuously and resembled a sheaf of spikes. The candle, made of beeswax collected from across Ukraine and weighing 200 kilograms, traveled around the globe as part of an action called “Ukraine Remembers, the World Recognizes,” the aim of which was to get government and parliaments of various countries to recognize the Holodomor as an act of genocide. In all, the candle traveled to 33 countries, which corresponds to 1933, the year when the greatest number of people died during the famine. The gigantic candle was taken around Ukrainian cities with instructions from the presidential administration to the local authorities on how to hold the ‘welcoming ceremonies’ for the candle.

On November 22, 2008, a memorial complex was opened during a lavish ceremony near the Kiev Pechersk Lavra, or Caves Monastery. The central element of the memorial is the Candle of Remembrance, a 32-meter-tall concrete chapel. The opening was timed to an international forum that commemorated the Ukrainian genocide in 1932-1933 called “Ukraine Remembers, the World Recognizes.” The giant candle became an exhibit in the memorial’s museum.

The candle was a central symbol in Yushchenko’s appeal to the global Ukrainian community and the international community at large on the occasion of the anniversary. Yushchenko said: “I am addressing you on the occasion of the 75th anniversary of the most tragic event in the history of the Ukrainian people – the Holodomor of 1932 and 1933. […] The truth about this genocide, purposely committed by the Stalin regime on the blessed soil of Ukraine, has found its way to broad daylight. […] Ukraine is able to speak in a loud voice about an attempt on the life of an entire nation committed back in the 1930s only after it has shaken off the yoke of communist totalitarianism. […] I would like to express profound gratitude for humanism and solidarity with the millions of innocent victims of the genocide. […] We are not speaking about things that the world could have done 75 years ago had it known the whole truth. We are speaking about what the world might do today as a sign of respect for the dead and for those who survived the perils of the Holodomor. On November 22, millions of candles will be lit by people in Kiev in memory of their fellow Ukrainians tortured to death in the famine. They will merge with the candle’s inextinguishable flame that has traveled to 33 countries and all over Ukraine, and thus has imbued the fire burning in the hearts of caring representatives of various countries and peoples.”

This was how the historical policy pursued during Yushchenko’s presidency made the candle the central symbol of the Holodomor as a specific cultural and political reality, or rather turned it into a symbol of symbols. Lighting candles on the day of commemorating the famine was an event loaded with political meaning and was transformed from a symbol of remembrance into a symbol of support for interpreting the events as genocide. Similar to the situation with the Ribbon of St. George, overt exploitation of the candle symbol as an instrument of historical policy has dealt a blow to its ethical attractiveness.



Poland has a centuries-long tradition of using the Christian cross as a political symbol. The first conflict related to the politicized use of the cross in the post-communist era occurred on October 20, 1997 when two Polish MPs representing the Solidarity Electoral Action party, fresh from winning an election, but not the majority in parliament, hung a cross over the entrance to the parliament’s session hall. This was an arbitrary act, since the Sejm, as the parliament of a secular state, had not passed any decisions to that effect. Moreover, the Solidarity deputies knew that they would not have an opportunity to form a majority in support of their action. Yet their strategy proved successful. Those who opposed religious symbols in the parliament did not initiate debates on the issue, and the cross was not removed. It was only after the 2011 parliamentary election that Janusz Palikot, whose Palikot’s Movement party surprisingly came in third in the election with a blatant anti-church program, promised to start a discussion on whether the cross was appropriate for the parliament. Moreover, Palikot promised to begin hearings on the issue at the Constitution Court. The church hierarchy was quick to react. During the celebrations of the 33rd anniversary of Karol Wojtyla’s election as Pope John Paul II, an announcement was made that the Roman Catholic Church would organize a tour of the pope’s cross around Polish cities. This tour was a response to what the church found to be negative treatment by some politicians of Christian symbols and values.

Against this background, the so-called Smolensk Cross played a central role as a Polish symbol in 2010-2011. A jet carrying Polish President Lech Kaczynski and other top members of the Polish government crashed on April 10, 2010 outside Russia’s Smolensk, killing everyone on board. In the days of mourning after the tragedy, an ad-hoc wooden cross was set up near the presidential palace in Warsaw by a Polish scout organization. Mourners flocked to this cross to pray, lay flowers, or light candles to honor the victims. When the official mourning period was over, the police attempted to move the cross from the square in front of the presidential palace to nearby St. Anne’s Church, but they encountered fierce resistance from allies of the Kaczynski brothers and the Prawo i Sprawiedliwosc (Law and Justice) Party. These groups quickly organized a “movement of the defenders of the Cross” that insisted on keeping it near the presidential palace. The groups even refused to hand the cross over to the scout organization. The Smolensk Cross changed from an object of mourning into a political symbol.

The crash occurred shortly before a scheduled presidential election in Poland, in which Kaczynski and Bronislaw Komorowski, the speaker of the parliament, were expected to have taken part. Komorowski took up the presidential duties after Kaczynski’s death in accordance with the constitution. After this transfer of power, Lech Kaczynski’s brother Jaroslaw became Komorowski’s main political opponent. Jaroslaw Kaczynski and his Prawo i Sprawiedliwosc Party tried to gain the maximum political advantages from this situation. They were partly assisted in this by Polish church officials, since the party positions itself as the main defender of the “religious foundations of Polish society.” For instance, Jaroslaw Kaczynski said: “The Cross was present in the halls of all the sessions of Polish parliaments, and that is very important for us. The crucifix is our value and tradition, and those who want to destroy it are actually seeking to destroy our society and our people. We must put up firm resistance to them.” The church’s stance made it possible to bury Lech Kaczynski in Krakow’s Wawel Cathedral alongside Polish kings. The Kaczynski brothers’ supporters have conscientiously construed a cult around the deceased president as a political instrument.

In the summer of 2010, after Komorowski was elected president, the presidential administration decided to relocate the Smolensk Cross to St. Anne’s Church. In explaining their position, Komorowski and his supporters said the territory surrounding the presidential palace should be neutral and free, including from religious symbols. The administration proposed installing a commemorative plaque on a wall of the palace instead of the cross.

However, in view of parliamentary elections slated for the fall of 2011, the “Defend the Smolensk Cross” slogan was again turned into an important political tool as a symbol of a “true president” in the presidential palace, now occupied by Komorowski. The supporters of the cross rejected the idea of a commemorative plaque and demanded the construction of a full-scale monument in front of the palace. Jaroslaw Kaczynski took part in a rally on September 10, 2010 near the palace and warned that he would file a lawsuit against the Warsaw municipal authorities after they had put up barriers impeding access to the cross. The “Defenders of the Cross” movement drew support from a considerable number of Catholic bishops, including the archbishops of Gdansk and Przemysl. The Smolensk Cross also fitted perfectly into the foreign policy rhetoric of the Kaczynski party. The cross underscored the Kaczynski brothers’ policy of holding up the victims of the Katyn massacre as martyrs, along with their anti-Russian mindset and skepticism towards the post-Christian EU.

Yet the opponents of keeping the cross on the square mobilized as well. Young Poles, driven by anti-Kaczynski and anti-bishopric sentiments, organized through Facebook and staged a thousands-strong meeting in the Krakowskie Przedmiescie Street in Warsaw to demand that the cross be relocated. Participants in the action apparently mocked the fans of the cross, as they carried slogans like ‘Remove the Palace – It Blocks the Cross!” Later many of the protesters voted for Palikot, who had promised to remove the cross.

The defenders only scaled back their activity after Prawo i Sprawiedliwosc lost the parliamentary election. The cross was removed in November 2011, after the cross’s defenders had stopped guarding it around the clock. At first, it was moved to a chapel in the presidential palace, and then to St. Anne’s Church. The cross is no longer used as a political symbol, although one cannot rule out that it will be taken out of the church some day and will be carried at the head of a demonstration once again.

* * *

All of these recent symbols have several common features: firstly, their success in many ways hinges on the use of a potent historical tradition, which is true of the Ribbon of St. George, not to mention the candle and the cross; secondly, allusions to martyrology are a crucial element of their emotional impact; and thirdly, the proponents of symbols invariably reject their political nature. Finally, and most importantly, the clearer the connection is between a symbol and a certain political force, the more limited is its impact on those who do not support that force. All the cases we have analyzed above demonstrate that intensive use of symbols by specific political forces ultimately undermines their legitimacy.