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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Citizen Militia Breeds a Civil Society

During President Vladimir Putin's tenure in the Kremlin, a number of radical reforms have been introduced. We have a new national anthem. The military has a new flag, and officers have new service caps. Now the reformers are turning their attention to national holidays: Nov. 4 has replaced Nov. 7 as the big fall holiday.

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What is traditionally celebrated on Nov. 4, you ask? The day of Our Lady of Kazan. But since there are 20 million Muslims in this country, we can't call the holiday by that name. This may be the first case in history when a holiday has been observed under an assumed identity. Instead we celebrate the day when a militia led by Kuzma Minin and Prince Dmitry Pozharsky expelled the Poles (and various others) from Kitai-Gorod.

By establishing this new holiday, the Kremlin has created the impression that for 400 years Russia didn't celebrate the early-17th-century ending of the Time of Troubles. Now, Putin has finally brought that chaotic period to a symbolic end and stuck it to the Poles (who named a street in Warsaw after Dzhokhar Dudayev) in the bargain.

This raises an important question. The end of the Time of Troubles is an extremely significant date in Russian history. Did we really need Putin to remind us of this? Of course not. Russia used to commemorate the end of the Time of Troubles on Feb. 21, the date of Mikhail Romanov's election to the throne. Why not restore this holiday? It wasn't observed during the Soviet era, but it was for three centuries before that: The election of Mikhail Romanov brought the Time of Troubles to a close, we decided, period. We celebrate Victory Day on May 9, the day it became a fact – not on the day when the Nazis retreated from Khimki.

Very often, the authorities have no assurance that the new symbols they concoct will take root. When asked about the new Nov. 4 holiday, Metropolitan Kirill, head of the foreign relations department at the Moscow Patriarchate, remarked that this was the day when civil society made its appearance in Russia.

I couldn't agree more. A citizen militia is an expression of civil society. But do you really think the state would allow a citizen militia today?

Imagine that the victims of police brutality in Blagoveshchensk in December 2004 had formed a citizen militia. What would they have been called? Terrorists. Or imagine that in Karachayevo-Cherkessia, where seven guys were greased at the dacha of the president's son-in-law, angry friends and relatives of the victims had created a militia. They'd have been dubbed allies of Shamil Basayev.

Recently I suggested that one way to solve the problems in the North Caucasus would be to create citizen militias in North Ossetia and Dagestan -- or, rather, to admit that such militias already exist. There are plenty of people in the North Caucasus who are as willing to fight for Russia as against it. Tsarist Russia didn't subdue the Caucasus by forcing the highlanders to lay down their arms, but by allowing them to fight on the Russian side. These days anyone inclined to take up arms is most likely going to kill Russians. Even if a fighter sides with Russia and picks up his gun to avenge the victims of terrorist attacks in Beslan or Botlikh, he's the first to be nabbed by the cops.

And what's the reaction? Even the moderate commentators now talk of the rise of nationalism in the North Caucasus. This in a country that celebrates the formation of a citizen militia as the dawn of civil society. Militias were possible 400 years ago, but not now. Today Russia's territorial integrity is defended by paid-off cops who escort trucks full of terrorists to their destination; by colonels who go into the oil business with terrorists; and by prosecutors who blandly insist that 32 fighters were somehow crammed into a single army truck.

Before you start conjuring up the spirit of Minin and Pozharsky, you'd better be damned sure that the current residents of the Kremlin are behaving better than Sigismund's Poles.

Yulia Latynina hosts a political talk show on Ekho Moskvy radio.