Politicians from Svoboda, the Ukrainian nationalist party that has been allied with the Euromaidan protests, recently introduced draft legislation at Ukraine's parliament that would classify certain symbols of the Russian Federation as "extremist" and prohibit them in many situations (though they would still be allowed at sporting events and some cultural events not associated with protests).
While the bill is at an early stage and may not become law, it's an important reminder of how important symbolism has become in the battle over Ukraine. And there's one symbol in particular that is specifically named in the legislation as the focus of Svoboda's wrath: the St. George ribbon.
The ribbon in question, with its signature orange and black stripes, has been around since the days of the Russian Empire, when it was was introduced as high military honor (The Order of St. George) under Catherine the Great. Its name comes from St. George, the patron saint of many nations, including Russia, whose biggest claim to fame is (according to myth) killing a dragon. In reality, George was born in what is now part of Turkey in the third century A.D., and served as a soldier in the Roman Empire. He was imprisoned, tortured and eventually beheaded for protesting against Rome's treatment of Christians.
While the Order of St. George itself ended with the Russian Revolution, over the years, the orange and black stripes, said to represent gunpowder and fire, became associated with Russian military valor. The stripes became a true national symbol after World War II, when they adorned many of the highest honors given out by the Soviet state. In 1992, the Order of St. George was reinstated in a moment of post-Soviet nationalist pride, and in 2005, on the 60th anniversary of Victory Day, the ribbon was handed out on the streets in Russia, bringing the symbol back to the forefront of many citizens' minds. Every year on Victory Day (May 9) they reappear.
The ribbon has been spotted repeatedly on pro-Russian separatists since Ukraine's crisis began – as the Associated Press put it, it's become a "ubiquitous" sight as protests have progressed in places like Crimea, Donetsk and Odessa – and in Russia's State Duma, politicians have taken to pinning the ribbons to their lapels as a sign of support. The ribbon hasn't always been met with a positive response: The Christian Science Monitor's Anna Kordunsky reports that some Ukrainians had begun calling it the “Colorado ribbon,” named after a bug that infests potato fields and has similar coloring. "At least one Maidan activist has made a show of burning three ribbons in the eternal flame in Odessa," Kordunksy wrote last month.
To those who wear the ribbon, it's a sign of Russia's proud military history, and in particular the grueling victory over Nazi Germany and the millions of Soviet troops who died in that effort, many of them Ukrainians. But for those angered by the ribbons, they're a sign of something else: Russian empire and Soviet domination. That's a history many believe President Vladimir Putin would like to return to.
The fact that it's the Svoboda party introducing a bill to mark the flags as extremist is noteworthy. To those who wear the ribbons, the current situation echoes that of World War II, with the right wing Svoboda and their more extreme allies, Pravy Sektor, being the modern equivalent of Nazi Germany.Of course, neither Svoboda nor Pravy Sektor help their case much: For example, Pravy Sektor used the banner of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army during the Euromaidan protests, an offensive image for many pro-Russian Ukrainians who recall the group's period of collaboration with the Nazis during the war. One of the Svoboda politicians who authored the new draft bill, Igor Miroshnichenk, has a history of thuggish behavior, and even made headlines in 2012 by using an anti-Semitic slur to insult Mila Kunis.
Whatever the pros and cons of the ribbon are for different groups, there's one segment of society for whom its popularity is no doubt good: Fabric manufacturers. "The ribbon is a symbol of victory," Konstantin Kudryashov, the deputy general director of a textile manufacturer in the Moscow region, told the Moscow Times recently. "Many people died for our victory in World War II. The ribbons are probably being worn more often these days because people are happy that Crimea is a part of Russia again." Kudryashov's company reportedly produces 4 to 5 million ribbons a year.
According to Ria Novosti, some 100 million St. George Ribbons have been distributed around the world for this year's Victory Day.