November 04, 2014

Unity Day: Whose Unity?

Unity Day: Whose Unity?

As you read this, Russians are wrapping up a relaxing four-day weekend spanning the first four days of November. Rounding out this long weekend is the mysterious November 4 holiday “Day of People’s Unity” – but what exactly is it celebrating?

By all measures, the Day of People’s Unity (or simply Unity Day) is still a baby holiday. It was only instituted as a federal holiday in 2005, replacing the diplomatically named “Day of Accord and Conciliation,” the new, post-Soviet  name for the Anniversary of the October Revolution (celebrated throught the Soviet era on November 7). This way, instead of celebrating a revolution with a questionable legacy, the country got off work in honor of the liberation of Moscow in 1612, some significant part of which allegedly occurred on November 4. The change was suggested by the Interreligious Council of Russia in a petition to the Duma:

We believe that November 7, the day of Russia’s tragic division, did not become a day of accord and conciliation… [the subsequent events] led to the deaths of millions of our fellow citizens. The liberation of Moscow from foreign invaders in 1612, on the other hand, unified our people and put an end to the fratricidal bloodshed.

Nearly everyone in the Duma voted in favor of the change – except the Communists. This prompted an alternative interpretation of the holiday’s provenance:

A long time ago, in the dark depths of the President’s administration, teeming with creatures too hideous even for horror films, this strange holiday, the Day of People’s Unity, was invented. They invented it, by the way, to rid our fellow citizens of the habit of celebrating the Great October Socialist Revolution anniversary with excessive drink, and to thereby diminish the Communist Party’s influence. (Ivan Davydov, [ru])

Politics of the change aside, what really happened on November 4? After digging through the calendars and historical documents, a historian on Radio Ekho Moskva discovered that, at best, something happened on October 22, 1612 – the Russian volunteer army liberated Moscow’s Kitai-gorod, the last bastion before they could storm the Kremlin. In the Gregorian calendar that would have been November 1 (in the seventeenth century, the two calendars were not as far apart). The Kremlin itself was not liberated until four days later, October 26 (November 5). Thus our historian concludes:

So strictly speaking, on November 4, 2005 [the holiday’s first observance], we will be celebrating the anniversary of November 4, 1612, a day on which nothing of any significance occurred, nothing having to do with “the liberation of Moscow from Polish interventionists,” or “the end of the Dark Times.”

And even if the holiday was meant to reference the liberation of Kitai-gorod on October 22, the same historian makes a valid point:

In general, a phenomenon of social, political, and spiritual life, such as unity of the people, cannot be understood as having been achieved forever and henceforth frozen in its achievement. “Tying” it so tightly to a given date constitutes an assault on real historical facts. We believe that the not-so-significant events of October 22 (November 1), 1612, do not justify assigning this date such a lofty meaning. (Ekho Moskva, July 15, 2005 [ru])

But as Russians get ready to go back to work tomorrow, they give little thought to these historical and political considerations. In the wise words of a commenter on Davydov’s article, November 4, like November 7 before it, is “just that ‘holiday in November.’ ”


Photo credit:

Translations: Eugenia Sokolskaya

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Eugenia Sokolskaya
Eugenia Sokolskaya
EUGENIA SOKOLSKAYA came to the United States from Russia when she was four. In addition to a normal public-school education, she also received extensive instruction in Russian literature, film, and history from her parents. She is now a graduate of Swarthmore College and a freelance translator. In 2011, she was short-listed for the Rossica Young Translators Award.
Day of Accord and Reconciliation
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