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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

From Bolshevism to Chauvinism

The Kremlin took a very important step in 2005 when it decided that Nov. 7, the date that traditionally commemorated the Great October Socialist Revolution, would no longer be an official government holiday. During the Soviet period, millions celebrated the Bolshevik rise to power each year on Nov. 7 in grand fashion. The Communist Party considered the Nov. 7 holiday to be on the same level of importance as May 9, which is the day Russia celebrates the victory over Nazi Germany in World War II.

Even after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the October Revolution holiday was still celebrated -- by inertia -- for another three years. In 1994, President Boris Yeltsin renamed the holiday the Day of Accord and Reconciliation. This was, in part, a clumsy attempt to repeat Spain's national reconciliation. Many people recalled how Spain was able to reach a peaceful reconciliation in the 1970s between the former supporters of dictator Francisco Franco and the former political emigrants.

Supporters of the Communist Party continued to commemorate Nov. 7 with anti-government demonstrations all across the country.

After Vladimir Putin became president, the Kremlin, in accordance with its strategic concept of building a "sovereign democracy," came up with the idea of placing a patriotic and anti-Western accent on this holiday. Since 2002, pro-Kremlin youth organizations, which have positioned themselves as ardently anti-Communist, have used Nov. 7 as a convenient date for staging demonstrations in honor of the expulsion of the Polish and Cossack garrisons from Moscow in 1612, the end of the Times of Troubles and the beginning of the Romanov dynasty -- all rolled into one holiday.

In 2005, the Kremlin revoked the Stalin and Yeltsin interpretations of the November holiday and introduced a new name, People's Unity Day, and a new day, Nov. 4, to replace the old Bolshevik anniversary. The twist this time was that the holiday was linked with the Day of the Icon of the Mother of God of Kazan, one of the greatest sacred symbols of Russian Orthodoxy, which the Vatican recently handed over to Russia.

The new holiday immediately took on a distinctly anti-liberal and anti-Western meaning and, among other things, it was used by many Russians to thumb their noses at Ukraine's 2004 Orange Revolution. In addition, pro-Kremlin forces declared that Nov. 4 was a day to celebrate the strengthening of Russian statehood and superpower status.

But the Kremlin failed miserably to contain the nationalistic elements of People's Unity Day within moderate boundaries. The majority of the 4,000 demonstrators who gathered on Nov. 4, 2005, were members of openly neo-Nazi and xenophobic movements. This led to a huge public uproar. After the country was shocked by riots against people from the Caucasus in Kondopoga in September 2006, the Kremlin outlawed public demonstrations in Moscow the following Nov. 4. Moscow police also brutally broke up anti-fascist demonstrations in front of the Mayor's Office. Then the authorities tried to weaken some of the more odious of the ultranationalist groups, the Movement Against Illegal Immigration and the Slavic Union. This attempt also failed, as widespread demonstrations were held in several cities by thousands of skinheads.

In the end, shortsighted Kremlin ideologists and strategists have given the extremists a wonderful holiday. The baffled authorities saw with their own eyes that chauvinism and xenophobia a priori cannot assume a tame form. Attempts were made to stop the so-called Russian Marches that were held by various ultranationalist groups this year. But what the authorities fail to understand is that the slogans of these demonstrators are merely cruder versions of what we hear from the anti-liberal and anti-immigrant Kremlin propagandists, siloviki, ministers, governors and mayors.

Lev Ponomaryov is executive director of the All-Russia Movement for Human Rights, a Moscow-based nongovernmental organization.