Russian President Vladimir Putin has found an ironic way to mark the first anniversary of mass protests aimed at pushing the country toward democracy: On Dec. 10, he called for the revival of the Soviet Union’s highest peacetime honor, the Hero of Labor medal.
The hard part will be figuring out what, exactly, the award should stand for in modern-day Russia.
One year ago this week, no fewer than 40,000 Muscovites took to the streets to protest a rigged parliamentary election — the first in a series of demonstrations that, for a while, succeeded in putting the Kremlin on the defensive.
During a televised question-and-answer session Putin held after the first rally, the shop manager of a tank factory in the Urals, Igor Kholmanskikh, offered help in dispersing the pesky Muscovites. "If our police don’t know their job and can’t cope, the boys and I are willing to go out ourselves and stand up for our stability," he said.
Putin never forgot Kholmanskikh. In May, he appointed him presidential representative to the Urals Federal District, a largely ceremonial but exalted position. In August, Kholmanskikh called for the revival of the Hero of Labour medal, which was abolished when the Soviet Union fell apart in 1991. In Soviet times, 20,605 people received the medal, a gold star with the hammer and sickle in relief at the centre, for their outstanding efforts on behalf of the nation. Josef Stalin was the first recipient in 1939.
On Tuesday, Putin endorsed Kholmanskikh’s idea during a meeting with a group of loyalist notables who helped him run his election campaign earlier this year. "We need to pay more attention to the worker wherever he toils: as an ordinary workingman, an engineer, a scientist or an artist," he said.
The official Twitter account of Lenta.ru, one of the nation’s biggest independent news resources, reacted sarcastically to Putin’s gesture: "Comrades! The Secretary General, beloved President Vladimir Putin has decided to reinstitute the title Hero of Labour! Hurrah, comrades!"
Bloggers pointed out that the distinction, originally called the Hero of Socialist Labour medal, doesn’t make much sense in a country with a market economy. "Does it mean that he who pays the most taxes will be named Hero of Labour?" asked blogger prosto-vova on LiveJournal.
Yet Putin’s populist move struck a chord among many in Russia, where Soviet nostalgia is still strong. Twitter user Alexander Solovyov responded, in all caps, to Lenta.ru’s tweet: "You idiots will never understand how hard a miner, a blacksmith or a milkmaid works. You use their labour and you even dare to laugh!"
Putin, who once described himself as "a successful product of Soviet patriotic education," has long displayed a penchant for reviving attributes of the USSR. He brought back the Soviet national anthem soon after he came to power 12 years ago. His pet project, the Eurasian economic community, has reunited the former Soviet republics of Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan in a customs union, and he is working hard to pull in Ukraine. His rhetoric on international issues, harassment of protest leaders, control of the national media and near-total renationalization of the energy sector all hark back to the Cold War era.
"All we need is the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, the Young Pioneers, party control — and then we’re pulling into Brezhnev Station," former economics minister Andrei Nechayev tweeted on Dec. 10, referring to Leonid Brezhnev, who ruled from 1964 until 1982 and was, in 1961, named Hero of Socialist Labour.
Aside from agreeing to bring back the Hero of Labour, Putin spoke up in defence of keeping Lenin’s Mausoleum, one of the most powerful and contentious symbols of the Soviet past, in Red Square. Many anti-Communist politicians and priests have called for a Christian burial for Vladimir Lenin, whose remains lie embalmed in the tomb.
Putin, an Orthodox Christian himself, begged to differ: "Go to the Kiev-Pechersk Monastery or to Mount Athos," he said. "They’ve got relics of saints there for all to see. In that sense, the Communists took over the tradition. It was neat the way they did it, in keeping with what people needed in those days."
Putin is easy to imagine atop the mausoleum, waving to his marching supporters in the style of Soviet general secretaries. The protest movement that started a year ago is in the doldrums. Fewer people attend rallies in Moscow, and opposition leaders squabble over slogans and other meaningless trivia. The president has won a tactical victory, and he is rubbing it in, confident that the nation loves its Soviet past more than it does an abstract European future.
Leonid Bershidsky, an editor and novelist, is Moscow and Kiev correspondent for Bloomberg View’s World View.