Grigory Pasko: How the Legion of Honor Award Lost its Value

sarko1206.jpgTheir Name is Legion (or How awards lose their value) By Grigory Pasko, journalist Don’t tell me you’re still not a Knight of the Order of the Legion of Honor! Lately I’ve been getting the impression that they seem to be giving it out to just about anybody over there in France. Recently, French president Nicolas Sarkozy personally pinned the Order of the Legion of Honor – France’s highest decoration – on the vice-premier of the Russian government – the head of the apparat of the government, Sergey Naryshkin. Many people already know who Sarkozy is, but who has ever heard of Naryshkin? The fact is that he became deputy chairman of the government of Russia a mere 9 months ago. Before this, his career had followed the usual trajectory for a Soviet bureaucrat – an ordinary chinovnik: from assistant to the pro-rector of an institute to head of the government apparat. Absolutely nothing noteworthy whatsoever about this personality. Apparently, during the award ceremony, Sarkozy did make some sort of a vague allusion to Naryshkin’s achievements at his post as a member of the international committee of the Eurasian Economic Community. But Naryshkin has been at this post only a few months – since April 2007! They say he’s a good swimmer. He even heads the swimming federation in Russia. So then maybe it’s for swimming that Sarkozy awarded him the Order of the Legion of Honor?

Of course, there had been questions – including from the French – about the awarding by the former president of France, Jacques Chirac, of the Grand Cross (the highest degree of the Legion of Honor) to Putin. In a March 13, 2007 interview published in Italy’s Corriere della Sera, the well-known French philosopher André Glucksmann said: “And he did this just one week after the assassination of my friend Anna Politkovskaya. It’s shameful. In Europe, only two leaders stand out from the background of complicit silence – Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy. Isolated instances, unfortunately.naryshkin1206As can be seen, it turns out that Glucksmann was wrong about Sarkozy.Maybe the problem is not in the personalities, but in the Order itself? It is known that the Order is one of the symbols of France. Like the tricolor flag, like the coat of arms, like Marianne – the very embodiment of the national motto of France: Liberté, Egalité, FraternitéThe Ordre national de la Légion d’honneur is the highest award in France, conferred by the president of the republic for military or civil achievements. It was created by Napoleon Bonaparte on 18 May 1802. There are several degrees of this Order. These are, in descending order:

• Knight of the Grand Cross (Grand-Croix)

• Grand Officer (Grand Officier)

• Commander (Commandeur)

• Officer (Officier)

• Knight (Chevalier)

Previous Russian Knights of the Grand Cross have been the Emperors Alexander I and Nicholas II, the tsarevich [heir to the throne] Constantine Pavlovich, Great Patriotic War (1941-1945) hero Marshal Zhukov, and president Boris Yeltsin. And now Putin too.Becoming Grand Officers were Marshals of the Soviet Union Tolbukhin, Rokossovsky, Sokolovsky, Vasilevsky, Malinovsky, Konev, and Govorov. Okay, this at least makes sense – for military achievements in the Great Patriotic War.Acknowledged Knights of the Order from the number of Russians were cellist Mstislav Rostropovich and his wife, opera singer Galina Vishnevskaya, ballerina Maya Plisetskaya, conductor Vladimir Spivakov, State Hermitage director Mikhail Piotrovsky, mathematician Yuri Osipov, violist Yuri Bashmet, conductor Valery Guerguiev, film director Nikita Mikhalkov, human rights advocates Ella Pamfilova and Ludmilla Alexeeva, «Echo Moskvy» radio editor-in-chief Alexey Venediktov, St. Petersburg governor Valentina Matvienko, scientists Afanasiev, Bagayev, Alfimov, minister of education Filippov, general Kvashnin…Let us take a closer look at that last one, just as an example. Anatoly Vasilievich Kvashnin is currently Putin’s plenipotentiary representative in the Siberian Federal District. Before this, he was chief of the general staff of the armed forces of Russia. Before that, he commanded the grouping of Russian troops in the North Caucasus, or to put it in plain terms, he conducted the Chechen war. Already back in 1995, experienced generals understood that the army was not ready for war, and that the decision to send troops to Chechnya was a wrong one. According to reports in the mass media, more than 540 generals and officers refused to take part in this reckless venture. Many were subsequently fired from the army. But Kvashnin agreed to head the grouping of federal forces. He came out as a supporter of the rapid use of force, something that did not remain unnoticed in the Kremlin. The general wanted to achieve victory, even if it would be a small one. However, the storming of Grozny in January 1995 turned out not at all as they had planned it in Moscow. The army very quickly lost 1426 people killed and 4630 wounded. Around 300 BMPs and BTRs [infantry combat vehicles and armored personnel carriers] were burned, as well as nearly 60 tanks. Practically the entire personnel composition of the 81st and 74th motorized rifle regiments, the 131st Maykop and 276th brigades was knocked out.I find it hard to believe that all this is considered “military achievements” by French standards and corresponds to the status of the Order of the Legion of Honor.n43n-s11.jpgGeneral Anatoly Kvashnin and his boss. Kvashnin’s stunning military achievements include the Russian army’s disastrous 1995 assault on Grozny.It is known that the Order is not merely a mark of distinction, but also the organization of all the Knights who hold the award. At the head of the Order stands the Grand Master, whom the president of France automatically becomes.In order to be awarded the lowest degree (Knight), in addition to other achievements, a person must have served no less than 20 years in military or civil service, or have engaged no less than 25 years in professional activity. Every subsequent degree is conferred no earlier than within a strictly established time frame (5-8 years).If one observes no more than these formalities, then I too am eligible to become a Knight of the Legion of Honor: I was an officer for 20 years and have been working as a journalist for more than 25 years.It is understandable that some Knights do not fit into these standards. For example, what activity of this sort has Putin engaged in during the course of the last 25 years? Chekism? Is that a military specialty or a civil one? And exactly what achievements did he attain in this arena?The Charter of the Order states that nobody has the right to obtain the next highest degree of the Order if he has not had the previous one. An exception is made only to the president of the country. Putin, therefore, must be an exception.True, there is yet another exception: the awarding of foreign citizens with the Order does not require the mandatory observance of the sequence of degrees and does not entail membership in the Order as an organization. So maybe this explains such indiscriminateness on the part of French presidents towards certain Knights of the Order from the number of Russians?


France’s highest distinction, the National Order of the Legion of Honor. Have you gotten yours yet?

By the way, even the French have begun to talk about this indiscriminateness. Thus, the Paris-based organization Reporters Without Borders (Reporters Sans Frontières) in its time directed to the address of president Jacques Chirac and the parliament of France an appeal with a demand to strip the president of Russia of the Order of the Legion of Honor. “The Legion of Honour is France’s highest award and the Grand Cross is the highest rank within the order”, it was said in the statement. “We think Vladimir Putin is not worthy of this decoration and for this reason we have asked President Chirac and the Council of State to withdraw it.” Cited, in my view, were weighty arguments: “It beggars belief that Putin has been given one of the greatest honours France can bestow on a person. A total of 21 journalists have been murdered in Russia with almost total impunity since he became president. Chechnya is black hole for news coverage. …The European Court of Human Rights has condemned Russia twice, in February 2005 and on 12 October 2006, for its actions in Chechnya. It is outrageous to say Putin has rendered service to causes that France defends.”They say that Napoleon Bonaparte, who founded the Order, gave a speech in which he responded to the reproaches of critics who considered that the Legion of Honor was fraught with the danger of creating a new privileged stratum – even a new class within society. He said: “I defy you to show me a republic, ancient or modern, that knew how to get by without honorary awards. You call them baby rattles, but it is with these baby rattles that men are led.”Which is all fine and dandy, but why discredit what is basically a good idea by throwing the Order around left and right indiscriminately to all kinds of shady characters? I used to have a higher opinion of the system of the approaches of the French authorities to the strictness of selection of candidates for the awarding of this Order. Even the case with Putin I could understand: they were giving the Order not to a concrete person, but to the office he held. But now, after Naryshkin, I think I have every right to ask the first person I see on the street: “What, you’re still not a Knight of the Order of the Legion of Honor!?”