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Russian National Unity Day: “Stop Quarrelling, Boys!”

 A personal reflection on Russia's history

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This post first appeared on Russia Insider

Up until the year 2005, November 7th was the day the Soviet Union and modern Russia commemorated the October Revolution of 1917. Since then, this observance was replaced with a National Unity Day celebrated on November 4th.

At the beginning of November in 1612, a popular uprising led by a merchant Kuzma Minin and Prince Dmitry Pozharsky, initiated what would result in the liberation of Moscow from Polish invaders. A few months later, in February 1613, Mikhail Romanov was elected Czar, thus marking the beginning of the Romanov dynasty that ruled Russia for more than 300 years. The Time of Troubles, a 15-year period when the country was plunged into chaos by internal disputes and the intervention of the Poles and Swedes was over, and the formation of the modern Russian nation had begun.

<figcaption>The first man in space Yuri Gagarin with Boris (to his right) and Valentina Pankin</figcaption>
The first man in space Yuri Gagarin with Boris (to his right) and Valentina Pankin

Personally, I was glad about the change of the November holiday from the 7th to the 4th because my parents celebrate their wedding anniversary on that day. For ten years now, we have been celebrating our family’s holiday on the same day as the public one. From a national unity point of view, it has a deep symbolic meaning to me.

My father was born in Frunze, now Bishkek, the capital of the Central Asian Republic of Kirgizia in 1931. His father had brought the first tractors to the fields of the collective farms being built in Kirghizia. Descending from a peasant family from the Central Volga region, my grandfather went to the city and attended a trade school before the revolution. During the Civil War, he was drafted into the Red Army and became a devoted communist. At the end of 1920s, when his parents were ‘de-kulakized’ during the collectivization where richer farmers were stripped of their land, cattle and homes  and exiled to the north of Russia, he, as many others, thought it must be a mistake and wrote letters to Stalin asking him to restore justice.

My grandmother on my father’s side, belonged to a wealthy merchant family from Orenburg, a city in the southernmost Urals. The first time the bolsheviks ravaged them was immediately after the October Revolution and her brothers, according to family legend, fought in the Civil War on the side of the Whites and later emigrated to the United States. During the period of the New Economic Policy in the 1920s, the family started a business again and prospered but at some point, great grandfather realized that this would not end well. They packed overnight, leaving everything behind and moved in with relatives in Kirghizia. It was there, that my future grandparents first met.

My young relatives at the time, had enough good sense to look for employment where nobody would scrutinize their social origins. After all, Kirghizia was not the most distant place from his native Volga, where my grandfather had plowed the land and built roads.

But his son, my father, was accepted to the Moscow State University School of Journalism without any patronage. Years later, he was appointed chief editor of “Komsomolskaya Pravda”, a major national newspaper and later went on to become an ambassador.

His father, who received practically nothing but trouble from the Soviet authorities, retained his faith in communism until the day he passed away. My father however, belonged to that category of Soviet leaders, who became increasingly disillusioned with communism as they moved up the ranks. It was these people who started perestroika, which brought us all our first fundamental, political and economic rights. During the anti-democratic coup that took place in August 1991, my father was the only Soviet ambassador who publicly spoke out against the conspirators.

My mother fully supported him in his actions.

I believe it was not easy for a girl 63 years ago, from an educated Moscow family,  to dare to marry a guy who had nothing. By that time however, baffling her own parents, she had taken to studying Turkish and Farsi at university and devoted most of her life to translating the works of Soviet Central Asian writers into Russian. So she too had a tendency toward making uncommon choices.

None of us forgave Yeltsin for taking the Soviet Union from us, the country we were born and raised in, without asking. With regard to the current leadership, my father and I have differing viewpoints. Whereas Gorbachev is closer to him, I believe Putin is а better leader. “Do not quarrel, boys! It’s not worth it”, my mother says when my father and I begin to get angry with each other over politics. As I recall, my father’s mother used to tell her son and her husband those same words.

When my sister and I were still teenagers, our father taught us the proper mindset in viewing history: “One might not like Soviet rule, but without it, a son of a peasant from Volga and а merchant daughter from Orenburg would have never met in Kirghizia and therefore neither I or you both would exist”.

On November 4th, 2015, we will set our holiday table and toast to the health of my parents, who have been together for 63 years now and we will talk about the Great October Revolution that so amazingly stirred the dark and the bright, unchangeable and inescapable past of our family.

Translated by Sergei Malygin

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