December 21, 2000

Russian president Vladimir Putin's decision to restore symbols from the country's past - including the Soviet-era national anthem and, for the armed forces, the Red Flag - has ignited uproar in liberal circles in Moscow.

Nearly ten years after president Boris Yeltsin scrapped "The Unbreakable Union" - a stirring tune approved in wartime by Stalin - in favour of a little-known instrumental tune by 19th-century composer Mikhail Glinka, its re-adoption was set to receive the seal of approval from the Russian upper house, the Federation Council, last week.

Polls show that nearly half of Russians support the re-adoption, although opinion is divided over the choice of the old or new words for the anthem.

Martin Nicholson, associate fellow at the Royal Institute for International Affairs in London, said it would be wrong to read "sinister motives" into Mr Putin's decision.

"It is a response to a lack of identity felt by Russians," he said. "Whether it is the right way to go about solving this lack of identity in the long run I doubt, but as a short-term measure, it is understandable."

Adoption of Soviet symbols might have an impact on other former Soviet states, such as Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan. "This may arouse feeling in the newly independent states that Russia is trying to restore its Soviet role, and it could have a rather curious effect on the 25 million ethnic Russians living in these countries," Mr Nicholson added.

Shane O'Rourke, a social and political historian at York University, said:

"Mr Putin wants to put distance between himself and Mr Yeltsin after having been shoehorned into power. Re-adopting the anthem and Red Flag has enormous emotive symbolism, especially after the fiasco in Chechnya, where the army has looked so incompetent." Mr Putin's deeper motives were less clear, he said, but "for the ruling elite, it is the state that is important - and the restoration of the state and the fear of state at home and abroad".

"It has all been so chaotic in Russia for the past ten years that they are keen to find some form of new identity," he added.

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