Every year, on Victory Day, May 9, Russians don a strip of black-and-orange fabric to commemorate the Soviet defeat of Nazi Germany in 1945. The piece of fabric, known as the ribbon of St. George, is worn to honor Soviet soldiers, both dead and alive, who served in World War II.
The history of the St. George ribbon dates back to the 18th century, when Russia’s Empress Catherine the Great established it as a symbol of courage, prudence, and loyalty to the Russian Empire. In 1943, as World War II unfolded, the orange-and-black ribbon was incorporated into the Soviet Order of Glory, a medal granted to distinguished Soviet soldiers. In the years that followed, the ribbon served an important role in commemorating the efforts of World War II-era soldiers.
Recently, however, the ribbon’s traditional symbolism has been hijacked. Since pro-Russian protests erupted in Eastern Ukraine, following the Maidan revolution in the winter of 2013-2014, protesters and Putin supporters alike have adopted the ribbon, transforming it into a symbol of allegiance to the Russian government.
Upset by Ukraine’s desire for EU integration, the Kremlin began pursuing an aggressive propaganda campaign against the country right as the Maidan protests erupted. That campaign has since continued and has included denouncing the new, post-Maidan, Western-backed government as ‘fascist’ and portraying it as ultranationalist and bent on persecuting ethnic Russians in Ukraine. It has even gone so far as to suggest the new Ukrainian government and its supporters represent a threat as serious to Russia as Nazism once was.
The campaign has come on the heels of similar efforts by the Kremlin to present Western states as threatening Russian sovereignty. Through these measures, Kremlin officials have sought to convince Russians of an impending conflagration between Russia and the West. And they appear to have been successful. As a result of their work, many Russians have come to believe Ukraine’s new leaders are inimical to the country’s ethnic Russian population. Many ethnically Russian Ukrainians have also come to support Crimea’s subsequent annexation by Russia in March 2014.
To express their support for the Russian government, these and other pro-Russia activists have begun donning the St. George ribbon. The National Liberation Movement, which aims to “restore” Russian sovereignty, has been at the forefront of coopting the ribbon for the ultra-nationalist cause. Following this year’s Victory Day, the movement embarked on a campaign linking the World War II-era Soviet struggle with modern day Russian nationalism. Referring to the so-called threat of “US colonial pursuits and intentions in Russia,” the movement displayed banners on its website, which read “Our grandfather defeated the enemy, and we must defeat as well.”
The St. George ribbon was an important, unifying symbol for Russians, celebrating and commemorating those who died fighting fascism. Now, it has become a divisive object highlighting Russia’s growing illiberalization and return to Soviet policies. These changes to the ribbon’s meaning degrade its true significance, substituting notions of glory, honor, and victory with fears about external threats. Understanding the implications of the St. George ribbon’s shifting symbolism is crucial for preserving its true meaning and preventing it from being hijacked by nationalist movements any longer.