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How an unlikely PR campaign made a ribbon the symbol of Russian patriotism

Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, shake hands with WWII veterans at  the Victory Day military parade. (Yury Kochetkov/AP)

MOSCOW — As my colleague David Filipov wrote on Tuesday, Moscow is back in orange and black, the informal symbol of the Soviet Union’s victory over Nazi Germany in World War II. It was loosely adopted from a ribbon tied to the Order of Saint George, the highest battlefield award in Imperial Russia, established under Catherine the Great in 1769. The colors, one legend goes, represented gunpowder and fire.

The St. George ribbons are ubiquitous in Russia, particularly in the weeks before the Victory Day celebration on May 9, when they symbolize patriotism and the memory of the war. The ribbon is one of the most successful stories in Russia’s search for unifying symbols under President Vladimir Putin, tying modern support for the state to the country’s Soviet-era contribution to the defeat of fascism.

But until 2005, the ribbon was rarely used as a symbol tied to the war at all. The Order of St. George wasn’t awarded during what Russians call the Great Patriotic War, or World War II, because it was abolished after the Communist revolution and only revived in 2000. (Other awards, like the Order of Glory, pictured below, were minted during the war and did carry an orange-and-black ribbon, as did elite “guards” units beginning in 1942.)

But what brought back the orange-and-black ribbon was a 2005 PR campaign at Russia’s RIA Novosti state-run news agency, where the head of Internet projects, Natalya Loseva, was tasked with coming up with a souvenir to accompany the site’s online project collecting family memories about the war. The ribbons were “not made up from nothing,” she said in a 2014 interview. “We took a familiar combination of colors, a familiar context. ... These factors came together and it evoked quite a natural reaction in society.” The ribbons were first handed out by student volunteers in 2005 but quickly found support from the city and federal government, which distributed the ribbons widely both in Russia and abroad.

By 2014, more than 100 million ribbons had been distributed. Columnists at RIA Novosti claimed that its “grass-roots” campaign had succeeded where top-down efforts to create unifying symbols of Russian identity had failed.

“The ribbons that symbolized martial glory and remembrance succeeded where Independence Day and many other symbols failed — they united the Russian people,” RIA Novosti wrote in an op-ed in 2007, when 10 million ribbons had been distributed abroad.

The ribbons quickly adopted a political meaning, too.

Oleg Kashin, a liberal journalist, wrote that Russian nationalists were already wearing the ribbon during protests in Estonia in 2007, when the NATO-aligned government of the former Soviet republic announced it wanted to remove a Soviet war memorial from a central square.

“The participants of that spring also wore the ribbon and it was an important episode in the transformation of the ribbon into a symbol of a concrete political partiality and views, and not just memory,” Kashin wrote in 2014 after the ribbon became controversial because of its use in east Ukraine. “The ribbon was a symbol of memory, then almost immediately became a symbol of the state, and then a symbol of loyalty to the authorities.”

There were rumors that the ribbons were invented as a counterrevolutionary symbol to Ukraine’s 2004 Orange Revolution, although those seem untrue. Later, however, when a mix of Russian liberals, nationalists and other activists coalesced in a 100,000 person strong rallies under the symbol of a white ribbon, some presented the St. George ribbon as one of opposition. “St. George’s Ribbon stands against the White Ribbon," Dmitry Rogozin, a hawkish deputy prime minister, tweeted then.

Loseva, the inventor of the ribbon, said she was never comfortable with the ribbon’s use as a political symbol, particularly when separatists in Ukraine rallied around the colors orange and black as a symbol of their support for Moscow (and Moscow’s support for them).

“Now it’s suddenly and spontaneously being used against part of the Ukrainian people and the authorities of the Maidan,” the main square in Kiev where large protests are held, Loseva said in her 2014 interview. “I am not sure, that this kind of politicization of symbols and signs is good.”

This year the biggest issue is slightly more practical: how to properly wear the St. George ribbon. One group, Volunteers of the Victory, has declared that tying the ribbons to bags or car antennae (where they quickly become ragged) is no longer allowed. The ribbons can be tied in a bow, square or loop and attached to a jacket lapel or affixed elsewhere on one’s clothing, preferably “closer to the heart.” Putin’s press secretary Dmitri Peskov, however, balked at these new rules: “I have been wearing the St. George ribbon for eight years on my bag,” he said. “And I don’t want someone to punish me for how I wear the St. George ribbon.”

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