11/04/2017, 18.18
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The little-known celebration of Russian unity

by Vladimir Rozanskij

The anniversary of the October Revolution has been replaced by the day marking the victory over the Poles in 1612. Patriarch Alexy gave it its present name. The symbol of the victory of 1612 is the icon of Our Lady of Kazan, which disappeared during the Bolshevik Revolution and found its way to the Vatican from where it was returned to the Russian Orthodox Church by will of John Paul II.

Moscow (AsiaNews) – Since 2005, Russia has celebrated Unity Day on 4 November in lieu of Revolution Day, on 7 November, a popular festivity, especially among students. Although more than half of all Russians don’t know the name of the celebration, and most don’t know what it is for, the day elicits great participation.

History aside, early November heralds the arrival of winter, a time that is marked in Russia when temperatures drops below zero, and the first snow falls. For many Russians, it is a see you later to the spring. With the frost, getting out of the house and meeting people in the streets become difficult. Social life slows down. Outdoor actions, festive or protest, have to wait until 1st May, when people celebrate the "return" of the sun and their survival after the long winter.

Today’s celebration was established in 1996, as the ‘Day of Accord and Conciliation’ to replace Revolution Day, a date whose memory had to be removed, without its military parades and speeches. However, the celebration survived as a school holiday, from the 4th to the 7th of November.

The date alludes to 4 November 1612, and the end of the ‘Time of Troubles’, which marks the beginning of the reign of the House of Romanov that ended with the rise of the Bolsheviks. The first Romanov tsar, Mikhail, established the date as the ‘Day of Moscow’s Liberation from Polish Invaders’.

It must be noted that the difficult period that followed the death of Ivan the Terrible (1584) saw Russia’s Boyar families fight each other, leading some to seek an alliance with King Sigismund III of Poland, who tried to conquer what was still called Muscovy. The Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth included much of the territory of present-day western Russia, and challenged Moscow’s dominance in eastern Europe.

The Polish invasion was facilitated by the appearance of a false pretender to the Russian throne, a certain Grigoriy Otrepyev, who claimed to be the son of Ivan the Terrible, the child Dmitry who had died under mysterious circumstances, but was said to have actually survived and fled to Lithuania. The "false Dmitry" was converted to Catholicism and married off to a Polish noblewoman, Marina Mniszech, a follower of the Jesuits who had regained Poland from Lutheranism.

For a few weeks, Grigoriy and Marina settled in the Kremlin assisted by Polish troops and a group of Jesuits (since then the word Jesuit in Russian is associated with all sorts of horrors and intrigues). But they were quickly cast out (literally thrown out of the Kremlin towers). Marina survived and tried to get on with other false pretenders. But in the end, thanks to volunteers assembled by the merchant Kuzma Minin and Prince Dmitry Pozharsky, the Poles were crushed and driven back to their kingdom in 1612, never to threaten Russia again.

Since 1818, a monument dedicated to Minin and Pozharsky stands in Red Square, protecting the main entrance to the Kremlin, with one hand as a sign to invaders to stop. Of course, the arms of the two heroes are turned westward, beyond Muscovy.

Afterwards, Napoleon and his Grande Armée (800,000 soldiers, half from Poland) occupied the Kremlin in 1812 only to see Moscow torched by the Russians themselves, forcing back to France, utterly defeated. The victorious tsar, Alexander I, placed the statue of the two popular heroes in front of St Basil's Cathedral to ward off new attacks from the enemy. In fact, although he almost dealt a death blow to Stalin's Russia with his spectacular Operation Barbarossa in 1941, Hitler too failed to seize the Kremlin.

In 2005 the celebration was renamed in accordance with a suggestion from then Russian Orthodox Patriarch Alexy II and the Interreligious Council of Russia. The term "reconciliation" did not sound right since the Russians never truly reconciled with the Poles, and many events highlight the country’s internal cleavages like the 1917 Revolution and the subsequent Civil War. What seemed more appropriate was the unity of the people against foreign invaders in the name of Holy Russia and the Orthodox Church, which preaches unity (sobornost) as the foundation of faith.

According to Moscow Patriarchate spokesman Vladimir Legoyda, 4 November has special symbolic meaning on the centenary of the Revolution. "The divisions in society, the destruction of national unity, were the cause of the 1917 revolution, the civil war, and the tragic events that followed." In his view, "driving away the temptations of division allows us to unify society on the bases of faith, love and justice."

The symbol of the victory of 1612 is the icon of Our Lady of Kazan, brought to Moscow by Prince Pozharsky as the patroness of Russian resistance to invaders. During the years of revolutionary chaos, the sacred icon disappeared ending up in the Vatican. The Polish pope, John Paul II, returned it in 2004 to inspire Christian unity, East and West, and eliminate the wounds and tragedies in history.

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