What associations come to your mind when you hear the word “Russia”? What are the visuals? Undoubtedly, millions of people will immediately remember the Spasskaya Tower with the Kremlin chimes and the ruby star, the crenellated and red-brick ramparts of the Red Square, as well as Saint Basil’s Cathedral. Some people will also recall the Spit of Vasilyevsky Island, the Peter and Paul Fortress and the Admiralty building with its gilded spire topped by a golden weather-vane in the shape of a small sail warship. The domes of the Ferapontov Monastery, glinting in the northern sun, will flash through your head along with the old Church of Intercession of the Holy Virgin on the Nerl River and the Novgorod Kremlin. Yet Russia can also be associated with the Sunken Ships Monument in Sevastopol. Although the ships were scuttled, they did not surrender. Russia is also linked with The Motherland Calls statue at the Mamayev Kurgan in Volgograd and with the steel skyward rocket. The Russian image encompasses not only beauty and harmony, but also will, intellect, determination and heroism.
There are “exported” ideas about “the mysterious Russian soul”, including the “Russian roulette”, devil-may-care attitude and permanent faith in sheer luck or miracles. Russians have long been known for their greatheartedness. After his trip to Russia, Alexandre Dumas warned “Never stare at a thing which belongs to Russians; whatever its price is, they will invariably present it to you”.
However, we should not trust stereotypes as they can be partly true and partly false. In Russia common sense and discipline as the basis for the solid nationhood also play a major role. Our first Emperor considered that Russians “would put the most enlightened nations to shame by achieving success in sciences, working patiently and persistently and the magnitude of their undying and considerable fame”. And the dreams of Peter the Great largely came true.
Russians are also typified by mathematically sharp mind and keen intellect. Not only emotional outbursts, but also audacious ideas and inquisitive minds are the Russian traits. We witnessed the technologically advanced country when this spring the first carrier rocket was launched from Russian cosmodrome Vostochny, “on the high banks of the Amur river”. Millions of people viewed the news from the spaceport as something personal; just as it happened when Yuri Gagarin’s flight heralded an era of space exploration almost 55 years ago. Nowadays, a city for the employees of the most state-of-the-art spaceport in the world is being constructed in the Amur taiga. The new city has been named after Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, a school master, inventor and visionary who did not have any doubts that our compatriot would definitely become the first interplanetary traveler.
As Russia’s President Vladimir Putin once put it, “we do not and cannot have any other unifying idea but patriotism”. This statement can be regarded as a knight’s motto of the Day of Russia.
Nevertheless, occasionally we have to deal with the ideas of “harmful and petty” patriotism purporting that patriotic sentiments are meant for the hoi polloi rather than for enlightened or forward-looking people. We can often hear that the creative class is cosmopolitan by definition. If someone thinks otherwise, he or she is portrayed as belonging to “the flag-waving hoi polloi”, “an oaf” who will never ascend to “the creacles”, the members of the creative class.
“Did you pen “Eugene Onegin”? Did you compile the periodic table? Did you fight in the Battle of Stalingrad? You didn’t?! Then why do you believe you can judge other people’s accomplishments?” That is the narrative of those who want to appear “citizens of the world”, but think like rolling stones and birds of passage.
It is quite a sordid approach. Consider it more thoroughly. Apart from rejecting patriotism out of hand, it also dismisses any sense of community or communion as inadequate, unacceptable, or faulty. In effect, it is tantamount to a departure from the solidarity of interests. It is an extreme form of individualism, the kind of militant individualism that verges on the antagonism towards one’s own roots, one’s own civilization.
“We believe you cannot have a strong society and a prosperous nation if you adhere to the every-man-for-himself principle, if you are guided by primitive instincts of intolerance, selfishness and dependence”, said the Russian President. By and large, it was a response to the proponents of the similar outlook.
Indeed, can a country survive if the central pillars are selfishness and extreme individualism? I seriously doubt that. Would we have our motherland if in 1613, in 1812 and in 1941 everybody had cared only about their own survival, had trusted no one but themselves, had lacked people or historical figures whose suit to follow or had lacked the desire to do so?
The Day of Russia is, to a large extent, a day when we express our pride in the country’s history. Its iconic scenes also constitute the images of the country. This brings to mind such grand events as the Christianization of Kievan Rus’, the Battle on the Ice, and the militia resistance of Minin and Pozharsky. We remember Alexander Suvorov and “The Science of Victory”; we recall the voice of Chaliapin, the music by Tchaikovsky, the Soviet flag over the Reichstag, Marshal Georgy Zhukov as the parade inspector at the Moscow Victory Parade, and Gagarin’s flight. And does the music concert staged by the Mariinsky Theater in liberated Palmyra and led by conductor Valery Gergiev not belong here?
It so happened that we look for role models in the past. That is why we are so keen on studying history and learning more about our past. Naturally it would be naïve to claim all the credit for the victory and the discoveries of their ancestors. History teaches us lessons for us to learn rather than show off. But let us recall Pushkin’s words: “One not only can, but also must feel pride in their ancestors’ glory; lack of respect reveals shameful cowardice.”
Excellent models from the past inspire confidence and allow us to discover reserves of strength at “fateful moments of strife.” They provide motivation to create, rather than to stagnate. And the first step to success is the understanding that we are not from the “country of fools”. Our country’s past is a success story rather than the “ordeal.” Despite everything it is a genuine success story. The very word – “Russia” –is so full of resilience.
This article first appeared in the “Istorik” Journal