Celebrating Russia's Independence

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It's amazing how difficult it is to remember the name of the holiday on June 12. First it was called Independence Day in 1991, then, in 1994, it was renamed the Day of the Declaration of the Sovereignty of the Russian Federation, and finally, in 2002, Putin again renamed it Russia Day.

Unlike Russia Day, people seem to remember the Nov. 4 holiday easily, even though it came into being only three years ago -- perhaps because this is the day that neo-fascists hold their marches. The State Duma created this holiday as a substitute for the Nov. 7 anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution; therefore, it makes at least some sense.

But the June 12 holiday has no story behind it. What do we celebrate on that day? Who remembers that on this date in 1990, the Congress of People's Deputies of the Soviet Russian Republic adopted a declaration of independence from the Soviet Union (which became irrelevant once the Belavezha Accords were signed on Dec. 11, 1991, effectively dissolving the Soviet Union.)

During Boris Yeltsin's presidency, we tried to celebrate June 12 as the day of Russia's independence. Independence from what or whom? Can you imagine if Britain were to celebrate its independence from India, as if Britain had finally freed itself from India's 200-year yoke?

After that, references to Russia's "independence" gradually disappeared from the political lexicon. After all, the basic idea of the country's newfound independence implied that Russia, as one of the great European nations, had become a state only 20 years ago; this was something too denigrating to imagine for many Russians.

Therefore, we now have a clearly less-divisive Russia Day. But why do we observe it on June 12? The Russian state exists 365 days per year, and it should be possible to find a number of suitable dates from our history to commemorate. Nonetheless, we continue to use a date that has significance only for those who remember the notorious sovereignty declaration made in 1990. But the people who remember this date the most are those who condemn the declaration the loudest; they apparently have still not come to terms with the Soviet Union's collapse.

Thus, for some people, June 12 signifies a tragedy because it marks the end of a glorious Soviet era. And for others, the date means nothing at all. What a fitting date for a state holiday!

Unfortunately, this kind of ambiguity reflects the overall condition in which Russia finds itself today. Despite the current economic boom, the ruling elite cannot find a common national idea or set of values that are able to unite society. Worse, economic growth has actually increased the country's internal divisions and social stratification -- even more so than during the economic stagnation of the 1990s.

Although some people still speak of the economic troubles of the Yeltsin era as a calamity, those difficulties united the nation against the people who were most responsible for causing the problems in the economy -- the politicians and bureaucrats sitting in the Kremlin and the Cabinet. Thus, when Putin's team came to power and oil prices soared, the new generation of leaders were convinced that ideological problems would disappear amid the flood of petrodollars and a boom economy. That was a fatal mistake.

If Putin had guillotined a few liberal reformers, he might have gone down in history as a bloodthirsty leader, but he would have won the public's support for himself and his regime. There's nothing like a little bloodletting to rouse the people. At the very least, authorities could have proclaimed Oct. 25 a national holiday -- the day authorities arrested former Yukos CEO Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Now that would be a day to remember!

But the Kremlin leaders are humane at heart. They have no desire to become the heroes of some historical drama or tragedy. They are more like the characters on a television ad, for which their simplistic and unimaginative political ideology is quite suitable.

Russia won the Eurovision music contest. We are destined to become world hockey champions. Moreover, we will one day match -- and even surpass -- Portugal's per capita income levels. Our people will go all out and unite to achieve this lofty goal.

But even if we don't reach the goals, this won't change anything. The Kremlin will continue on as before.

Boris Kagarlitsky is the director of the Institute of Globalization Studies.