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Ribbon of Victory
by Marina Simakova| Moscow, Russia
Saturday, 10 May 2014
tags: consumer culture, culture, europe, fuzzy sets, making sense
Newspapers around the world today (9th May 2014) feature images of the Russian military at yesterday’s Victory Day parades displaying prominently, among other insignia, an orange and black ribbon on their tunics. This piece by Marina Simakova explains the historical and acute current significance of this symbol. (Editors)
St George ribbon – a piece of striped orange-black cloth – for many years has been a Russian symbol of military heroism. This started long ago at the end of the 18th century when The Order of St George, the highest military award, was established, and signified by the ribbon around the hero’s neck. Later on it was attached to different kinds of awards named in honor of St George, every time signifying bravery and courage. It is considered that the orange stripes symbolize flames of fire, while the black ones remind us of gun smoke.
In May 2005 the orange-black ribbon could be noticed on the streets in the hands of volunteers for the first time. They gave it free to anyone, who wanted to demonstrate that they honour memory of World War II and want to express their respect for Russian veterans. The latter responded very positively to the idea of symbolically commemorating victory over the German invaders and the ribbon gained its extensive popularity across the country. Every year a month or so before victory day (May 9th) thousands of ribbons have been distributed. People fix them on cars, bags, or jackets – or simply wore them around the wrist or in their hair.
In 2010 orange-black ribbons were sent to Russian embassies abroad and in 2011 a giant kite made of St George ribbon fabric was sent flying in the May sky as part of a flashmob event. However, despite its success, the meaning of St George ribbon is ambivalent, and there are people who choose not to wear it. From the very beginning they found it to be undesirably ostentatious and a sign more of patriotic bravado than true homage to the victory or gratitude to the soldiers. The was also a concern about the symbol being, on the one hand, commercialized, and on the other, actively used in ideological work of the state. What happened next is even more worrying.
In December 2013, during the protests in Ukraine, the ribbon was used by pro-Russian activists and counter-revolutionary forces to differentiate themselves from others. This might be regarded as expressing a certain logic: in the period of World War II Russia and Ukraine still were united in one country, and its soldiers fought on the front line together. But this logic doesn’t consider the fact that the ribbon of St George is a shared symbol, a sort of mobile war memorial. It constitutes inclusive collective memory and belongs to all who want to express their solidarity. Using the ribbon as a point of difference in a political standoff is simply unjust. The ribbon as an object, a mere thing, becomes an attribute of segregation and the ribbon as a symbolic figure extends its meaning. Lately on the territory of both Russia and Ukraine the ribbon has acquired rather fresh but often polarizing and negative connotations – from Slavic brotherhood to collaborationism, from tradition to reactionary and imperialistic views. Ukrainian nationalists invented a humiliating nickname for a ribbon – ‘coloradie’ and for those who wear it – ‘colorados’, as the orange-black color mix reminds them of a Colorado potato beetle.
This example shows that once the sign becomes subject to chaotic exploitation, the gap between the signifier and the signified is filled in with contradictions, which may lead to alienation of the initial sense. And now, when the ribbon’s meaning is so procurable, it is of course, regrettably, getting heavily commercialized, while the effect of such marketing is rather unpredictable.
© Marina Simakova 2014