Each year leading up to the May 9 celebration of Victory Day in Russia - the public holiday commemorating the end of World War II - volunteers all over the country hand out black-and-orange striped ribbons to civilians at parks, bus stops, and public squares. Known as the Ribbon of St. George, the orange and black ribbon has persevered as a symbol of military valor through centuries of Russian history, disappearing briefly during the Bolshevik Revolution only to resurface under the Soviet government.
First associated with the Imperial Order of St. George in 1769 during the rule of Catherine the Great, the ribbon has adorned awards received by Royal Passion Bearer Tsar Nicholas II of Russia as well as Soviet war heroes. While the military orders with which the ribbon was associated changed - from the Order of St. George to the Soviet Order of Glory - the pattern of orange and black stripes themselves remained the same, an enduring invocation to St. George’s valor in the fight against evil, curiously persisting even in times of Soviet persecution of the Church.
In the context of Victory Day memorials in Russia, this unassuming little ribbon serves as a reminder of the hard-won victory over German Nazism in the Great Patriotic War, as World War II is also called. But the ribbon - used both in Imperial Russia and in the USSR - also provides an opportunity for reflection on Russia’s understanding of its own history, how that history influences the collective Russian understanding of and support for the current fight against Nazism in Ukraine, and the mixed reactions thereto on the part of Orthodox Christians around the world.
Victory Day parades held across the Russian Federation highlight the source of confusion for Christians outside of Russia in a nutshell. During Victory Day events, citizens march holding pictures of deceased relatives who fought in defense of their country in World War II. The photos of members of this “immortal regiment” are sometimes emblazoned with both the Ribbon of St. George and the red Soviet star, hammer, and sickle.
You may see a child wearing the Soviet military cap of his great-grandfather. Orthodox Christians from other parts of the world sometimes look at this patriotic symbol-blending with confusion and dismay, wondering how modern Russian Orthodox Christians can feel pride or nostalgia over the Soviet regalia of grandparents, fathers, and uncles who fought under the hammer and sickle, symbols of a communist regime responsible for the deaths of millions of Christians. They object that the blending of symbols and continued use of Soviet symbols betrays a glorification of Russia’s anti-Christian Soviet past in a new bid to resurrect the USSR.
This perspective misses the complex reality of the matter, relying on a univocal, western understanding of history and a logical fallacy that assumes that every instance of a particular symbol’s use is equivalent to the way it has previously been used. Westerners have inherited a historiography that often uses current moral values to judge past actors and events. Such a perspective is based on the false notion that the use of a word, a symbol, or even an action that is repugnant by today’s standards should have been equally reprehensible to people of centuries past. This a-historical attitude is why many U.S. citizens do not bat an eye when statues of the Founding Fathers are ripped from their pedestals on the premise that the supposed bigotry of these men does not deserve remembrance or honor. Even those styling themselves “conservative,” who do object to such occurrences on American soil sometimes advocate a similarly destructive project when it comes to Russian policy toward Soviet symbols and statues, not realizing that their attitude does violence to the living collective memory of an entire people and nation.
Far from clinging to the Soviet past, the continued use of Soviet symbols in Russia on military monuments and in patriotic parades betokens a different interpretation of history, one that acknowledges the figures and forces that forged the Russian people and nation while largely avoiding the moral judgments so commonly used to appraise western historical figures. Still engaged in the rebuilding of their nation and identity following the fall of the Soviet regime, Russians acknowledge the grave errors of Sovietism while simultaneously remembering those forefathers whose lives were lived entirely under the Soviet flag, relatives and friends who attempted to live as best they could under circumstances unimaginable to most westerners, ancestors who came to defense of land and people when called upon to do so, sacrificing themselves heroically in the fight against German Nazism.
Thus when an elderly babushka waves the red flag at a patriotic convention to support the current Special Military Operation in Ukraine, she isn’t necessarily exhibiting longing for the return of the USSR, its leaders, or its policies. Given the context, it is more likely that she is invoking the memory of those brave Russians without whom German Nazism could not have been defeated in order to encourage modern Russia in its battle against the current instantiation of sadistic Nazism in Ukraine. In the example given, the elderly woman is issuing a call to unite once again in the same spirit of valor in defense of the Russian homeland. That spirit is the spirit represented by the St. George ribbon.
Unlike other historic Russian emblems that have been used in a multivalent way, the Ribbon of St. George has remained consistently and unambiguously associated with the virtue of courage throughout its usage and in most recent memory is tied in a particular manner to the triumph over Nazism. The timing of the Soviet regime’s resurrection of the St. George Ribbon is worth noting briefly here. After a hiatus of 26 years following the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution during which the ribbon was not used in awards for military valor, the Soviet Union created the Order of Glory in 1943, using the black and orange stripes of the георгиевская ленточка (georgiyevskaya lentochka) to honor valor demonstrated against the Nazi threat.
The Soviet government created a special relationship between this particular ribbon and the defeat of Nazism by again selecting the Ribbon of St. George to grace one of its highest military honors: the Medal ‘For Victory over Germany in the Great Patriotic War 1941-1945’. While to speculate as to the intentions of the Soviets who restored this military ribbon is a fruitless endeavor, the deliberate choice of St. George’s ribbon portends from today’s perspective of the Special Military Operation the larger, even eschatological scope of Russia’s historic role in the defeat of German Nazism.
Today, Russia’s complex history and symbology functions as the lens through which Russians understand the current conflict, as demonstrated by the Russian use of a variety of symbols to cue shared historical memory and awaken patriotic feeling. The Ribbon of St. George’s enduring presence in the Russian symbolic landscape both testifies to a deeply ingrained ethic of courage in the Russian spirit and stands as a rebuke to those detractors who wish to project false stereotypes of Soviet aggression onto the present-day Special Military Operation.
As in its historic battle against the Nazism of the Third Reich, Russia has again risen up to defend not only itself but also the rest of the world from the ugly specter of Ukrainian Nazism and all that its oppressive and hateful ideology represents. In sharp contrast to Russia’s fight against Nazism in the 20th century, however, today’s Russia, having shaken off the anti-religious Soviet yoke, is free to openly take up its historic mantle as defender of Christian Orthodoxy and its principles, to fight under the banner of Christ Jesus, the True King.
Great Martyr Saint George the Trophy-Bearer, intercede for us sinners!