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A Messy Holiday in Moscow

russianationalunity110408.jpg A funny thing about brand-spanking-new nations is that they usually come along with an outdated calendar of holidays, celebrating the historical milestones of the past regimes. The Russian Federation has been no exception to the trend, and oftentimes creative efforts have to be extended by the authorities to reinvent and rebrand past Soviet holidays to something that might be consistent with the ideals of the new country. Such is the case with today’s celebration of People’s Unity Day, a new holiday invented by Vladimir Putin three years ago to replace the traditional Nov. 7th celebration of the Bolshevik Revolution. Although the official reason for celebration is to commemorate the ousting of Polish and Cossack invaders from Moscow 1612, only 4% of the population is aware of this fact, and some Russians at various ends of the political spectrum simply take it as an excuse to express their sometimes virulent nationalism with violent protests in the streets.

Apart from the carefully stage managed celebration of the Nashi in Red Square (I was wondering what this group was up to lately) featuring patchwork quilts and a giant “blanket of peace,” the celebrations didn’t go all that smoothly.For one, the remnants of the Communist Party were pretty upset about losing their favorite Bolshevik holiday, and refused to take part in the gatherings. “This is an artificially created holiday, dreamed up with the aim of minimising the importance of and festive atmosphere surrounding the celebration of the revolution,” said Communist duma member Sergei Reshulsky. “That is why opinion polls show that nobody understands exactly what is being celebrated.”And then there’s the whole problem of those taking their Russia patriotism a little too far, whose unsanctioned march through the streets to call for the expulsion of immigrants complete with Nazi salutes, resulting in more than 200 arrests and scuffles with police. But there were even more ultra-nationalists who had obtained permission for their demonstrations, leading 1,500 people in a “protest action” to declare that Russia should be, well, Russian!Though the celebration of this young holiday certainly didn’t go as planned, it was a frightening reminder of the potential of the powder keg that has been slowly building over the Putin years, whereby state-sponsored extreme nationalism can cross the boundaries from identity politics to destabilizing mob rule with breathtaking speed. Then again, it is positively surreal to see those police batons get used against somebody not involved in the political opposition…Photo: Russian special police forces detain ultra-nationalist activists during their rally in central Moscow on November 4, 2008. Ultra-nationalists made fascist salutes while pro-Kremlin youth yelled praise for Prime Minister Vladimir Putin at varied events in Russia on Tuesday marking a People’s Unity Day holiday. (AFP/Getty Images)