Truth and Myths Behind Russia’s St. George Ribbon
1,087 views   /  10 May 2015
Perhaps you are a resident of one of 70 countries where you could meet volunteers offering you to pin an orange-black ribbon to your clothes a couple of weeks before May 9. What is that ribbon, you might wonder?
By a Reader of Russian Accent
The “St. George Ribbon” campaign started in Russia in 2005 and quickly gained popularity in other countries, exceeding 70 this year. It begins in late April and ends on May 9.
The primary purpose of this campaign is to honor the Soviet people who sacrificed their lives (almost 28 million people!) during the Great Patriotic War, known as the Eastern Front in the West. People fix the ribbon on their clothes right above the heart to show that they are grateful to soldiers and to those who made the victory possible working on the homefront. Women sometimes attach the ribbon to their handbags. Car owners tie it to their auto antennas.
“@dimsmirnov175: Arriving in Moscow, President of Vietnam Shang already out of the plane w the St. George's Ribbon pic.twitter.com/7YwIaPyknI”
— Hatuxka (@Hatuxka) May 8, 2015
The History of Ribbon
The St. George Ribbon is a combination of three orange and two black stripes.
The symbolic ribbon you may see today actually represents the Guard ribbon that adorned the Medal “For the Victory Over Germany in the Great Patriotic War 1941–1945”, established on May 9, 1945. The medal was granted to all military and civilian personnel who contributed to the victory, almost 15 million people in total.
But the ribbon has in fact a centuries-long tradition in Russia. For the first time ever, it was introduced by Empress Catherine the Great in 1769 as an element of the Order of St. George – the ultimate military decoration in Russia awarded for glory and victories. Originally, it was black and yellow.
In 1913, its yellow color was substituted by orange. In 1942, the Soviet Union revived the black and orange ribbon but changed its name to a Guard ribbon. In 1943, it adorned the Order of Glory and later the Medal “For the Victory Over Germany in the Great Patriotic War 1941–1945”.
According to the St. George Ribbon’s campaign’s code, all ribbons are given out for free. It is strictly prohibited to sell the ribbons – the victory’s symbols are not for sale.
Why did I write this piece? Actually I thought that the meaning of the campaign and the St. George Ribbon was clear in all countries where Russian embassies and consulates give them out. However, recently I came across a bunch of news stories in respectable media that presented a distorted and derogatory image of the ribbon.
Сегодня активисты #МолодаяГвардия в очередной раз раздавали #ГеоргиевскаяЛенточка #Ярцево #МГЕР #Победа70 pic.twitter.com/9gTgS2sIY0
— ✒Александра Глебова✒ (@freigan) May 8, 2015
Dispelling the Myths
What surprised and deeply offended me was that some articles described the ribbon as a symbol of some “Russian aggression” and labelled the campaign itself as “a pro-Putin flash mob”. Media spotted that people in Eastern Ukraine also wore the ribbon and simply came to a conclusion that it was a symbol of Russia’s support of the breakaway republics.
This is a shot in the dark that reveals journalists’ poor knowledge of the Russian history and their bias. The campaign participants aspire to show their respect and gratitude towards veterans, they think about the Great Patriotic War but not about the ordeal in Ukraine. The campaign started ten years ago when Russia was not accused of any aggression.
Russian people may like or dislike Putin, their political attitudes may vary from monarchism, socialism and liberalism to complete political indifference – but they are united in their wish to pay tribute to those who ensured Russia’s right to exist, so any “pro-Putin flash mob” rhetoric is just another mainstream myth. As for Putin and Russian politicians, they do wear the ribbon simply because they share the memory about their country’s heroic deed and great sacrifice. That’s quite logical for any state’s leadership, isn’t it?
As for folks in Donbass, yes, they do sport the ribbon. Actually the rest of Ukraine used to do the same before Poroshenko grabbed power and started re-writing history. Showing the St. George ribbon became punishable in Ukraine, and some hooligans even beat up veterans who are still brave enough to adorn their clothes with the ribbon – something they deserved more than anyone else.
So please refrain from making quick judgments based on biased and uneducated sources. You may love or hate modern Russia, but when an activist gives you a St. George ribbon, please do not hesitate to share the victory over Nazism.
The views and opinions contained in this article are those of the author. They do not necessarily represent the views of ‘Russian Accent’.
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Dear Reader, thank you for the rich story behind the ribbon. I just would like to fill in some gap within that story. St. George ribbon was also given to those brave generals who contributed to the expansion of Russian Empire, viz., conquerors of Caucasus, Central Asia, territories of then Ukraine, Belarus, etc. You probably won’t deny that those conquests were not without “blood and steel”. Therefore, one could understand the resentment of some people outside Russia, who condemn the wearing those ribbons. Such resentment is even more acute in light of ongoing crisis in Ukraine, when there are many who see it as an act of Russian aggression. Therefore, I would ask, why did one adopt St. George Ribbon in 2005 to commemorate 9.5.1945? You are saying yourself that it was Soviet Union (not Russian Empire), who won the Great Patriotic War, and issued Guard Ribbon (same color, but not St. George by definition). Logically, if we want to pay tribute to the Great Victory and those who sacrificed lives, we have to wear ribbons called Guard Ribbon. This would not entail resentment, or at least, not as many as St. George does. Naming matters, indeed.
Dear Kanra, thank you for your comment. You pointed out a really interesting and controversial issue: the attitude to the ribbon in the sovereign states which used to be parts of the Russian Empire.
The problem may indeed be rooted in the naming, and probably the controversy would have been averted if the campaign had been named “The Guard Ribbon”, as you suggested.
Whereas the St. George Ribbon awakes both memory about the Russian Empire’s growing area and the memory about the Great Patriotic War, the Guard Ribbon would awake all post-Soviet nations’ memory about the Great Patriotic War only, thus preventing disagreements.
Though “the Guard Ribbon” would be more correct with respect to the 1941-1945 war, there might be an explanation why the activists resorted to the old name.
You see, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia started giving cities, streets and other toponyms the names they had during the pre-Soviet period. So probably in line with this trend, the ribbon retrieved its original name. In addition to that, the period of the St. George Ribbon is way longer than that of the Guard Ribbon.
There is one more thing to be highlighted. Though the ribbon of the imperial period may be associated with acquiring new lands, it may as well be associated with the heroic deeds of all nations (the joined nations as well) in the Russian Empire: repelling Napoleon’s invasion in 1812, defending Sevastopol in 1854-1855, for example. Not only Russian generals received military decorations with the ribbon, but the heroes from the joined parts of the empire were awarded them, too.
Should the name of the campaign be changed? This is hardly possible. Though the campaign is international, its target audience is first and foremost the Russian nation. For Russians, both the Guard and the St. George ribbons are symbols of heroism, that’s why the name stirs no discord inside the country.
But as for other nations, you are right; the Guard Ribbon would be probably more acceptable. Indeed, such a simple but efficient solution (the Guard Ribbon name) would unite people and dodge splitting tendencies.
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