President Vladimir Putin proposed today to restore the music of the Stalin-era Soviet anthem as Russia's national song and the Soviet red flag as the official banner of the army, saying that not everything from the Soviet years can be tossed aside.
In a televised address aimed at one of post-Soviet Russia's most intractable issues, Putin said he was sending legislation to the lower house of parliament, the State Duma, that would formally enshrine the music of Alexander Alexandrov--written for Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin--as the country's national anthem.
Putin did not mention lyrics for the anthem, but Yegor Stroyev, leader of the upper house of parliament, said that "it would be good to write new words"--to replace references to Lenin and "the victory of Communism's deathless ideal," among other things.
Russia dropped the Stalin-era anthem when the Soviet Union collapsed in December 1991, and President Boris Yeltsin signed a decree in 1993 adopting a new one. Yeltsin's choice was the 19th-century "Patriotic Song" by composer Mikhail Glinka, but it had no words. Several attempts to come up with lyrics--including a public contest--reached an impasse.
At the time, Yeltsin also decreed that the Russian red, white and blue tricolor would be the official flag and the double-headed eagle--which dates to imperial times--the official state symbol.
However, Yeltsin's decrees were never codified into law, in part because of deep divisions in parliament on the issue. The disagreements reflected the larger reality that Russia's quest for a unifying national identity has been painful and fragmented. In January 1998, the Duma debated the national symbols and failed to muster the two-thirds vote required to adopt them.
Putin, a career official in the KGB secret police and intelligence service, has lamented the collapse of the Soviet Union and has installed former KGB colleagues in sensitive posts while resorting to autocratic methods to rule.
Putin said he would ask the Duma to approve the anthem, tricolor and double-headed eagle, and the red flag for the Russian army; the navy has its own banner. In explaining his actions tonight after a meeting of the State Council, a body of high-level politicians that Putin recently created, the president sounded defensive about restoring the Soviet-era music to a position of honor.
"Is it true there is nothing to remember in the Soviet period of our country's existence except for Stalin's camps and repressions?" he asked. He mentioned famous Soviet-era composers and scientists. "Where shall we place the flight of Yuri Gagarin [the first man in space] and also the brilliant victories of Russian weapons, as well as the [World War II] victory of the spring of 1945?" he asked.
Putin did not dwell on the history of the Soviet anthem, but said it enjoys popular support. The anthem has been popular among Communists, who played it at the opening of their annual party conference last weekend. The music, written at the behest of Stalin in 1944, had lyrics that were dropped after his death and a denunciation of his crimes by his successor, Nikita Khrushchev. Intellectuals of the period dubbed the anthem a "song without words." The Stalin-era lyrics were revised after Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev came to power.
Boris Nemtsov, leader of the reformist Union of Right Forces faction in the Duma, said that "the cream" of Russia's elite are against restoring the Soviet anthem. "I believe the president has committed a large-scale mistake and we are going to hear its echo for a long time," he said.
"For many people this is not the state anthem; for many people it is a Communist anthem, Stalin's anthem," Nemtsov said. He predicted, however, that parliament would vote to approve the Putin proposal.
Naum Korzhavin, a poet and Soviet-era dissident who served time in Stalin's prison camps, said it was "very disappointing" to have "KGB aesthetics in politics. . . . I don't think the KGB wants to jail everybody, but they want to introduce their aesthetics."