A Russian ribbon with a history

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A St. George ribbon, produced and distributed in Russia to mark the end of World War II (May 2019). TRC collectiom

A St. George ribbon, produced and distributed in Russia to mark the end of World War II (May 2019). TRC collectiom

On Saturday, 18th May 2019, TRC volunteer Shelley Anderson wrote:

I visited St. Petersburg (Russia) on a national holiday. Victory Day, 9 May, celebrates the end of the Second World War, or, as it’s known in Russia, the Great Patriotic War. Millions had gathered in St. Petersburg to participate in a massive parade. Many carried placards with photographs of relatives who had fought and died during the war and the brutal siege the city had suffered. You could spot some people in 1940s-style military uniforms. Thousands of people also wore a ribbon on their chest.

I was curious about this wide ribbon, tied in a bow. It’s called the Saint George ribbon, after a patron saint of Russia, and has three black stripes and four orange ones. It is worn on the left side, closest to the heart, as a symbol of respect for those who  died during the war and as a symbol of pride in being Russian. Its history goes back to 1769, when Empress Catherine the Great first established the prestigious military decoration, the Order of St. George. The black stripe symbolised gun powder, while the orange symbolised the fire of war.

Abolished after the 1917 Revolution, the colours were used in the ribbon of another medal, the Order of Glory, given out by the Soviets during the Second World War. But the ribbon really became popular in 2005, when journalists introduced it as part of a project around personal stories about the war. Pro-government youth groups started giving the ribbons away for free to wear on 9 May.

Wearing the ribbon can be controversial. Putin and other Kremlin officials wear it as a symbol of national unity. It was banned in 2017 in the Ukraine, because supporters of the Russian seizure of the Crimea wore it. Similar bans have been considered in Belarus and Latvia. “In Russia this little ribbon symbolises the rebirth of the Russian empire and one’s belonging to the world that Putin is trying to create,” wrote the Latvian newspaper Latvijas Avize. “Russians who wear the ribbon in Latvia are undeniably demonstrating a desire to merge once again with Russia.”

I was given a St. George ribbon for the TRC collection by a St. Petersburg school teacher. She had her own complaint against the ribbon. This year the government spent some 10 million rubles (almost 140000 euros) on producing and distributing the ribbons. According to state television, enough ribbons were given away to encircle the globe six times. The school teacher was given a box full of ribbons to give to all her pupils. Angry because the money could have been better spent on health care or pensions, she refused to distribute the ribbons.

Is the St. George ribbon a symbol of rightful patriotism or aggressive nationalism? However you see it, this simple ribbon is yet another case of how closely identity can be linked to textiles.

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