The Soviet Union is dead; long live the Soviet Union. This seems to be the current mood in the corridors of power in Moscow. Russian President Vladimir Putin has persuaded the Parliament to restore the Soviet anthem as Russia’s national hymn and the czarist red banner, which was used in Soviet times as well, as the flag of the Russian armed forces. In a fit of nostalgia — or servility, depending on one’s point of view — the Parliament voted 381 to 51 to support this historic initiative, thus returning communist paraphernalia to the limelight.

This is bad news for Western tourists who have spent their money on red flags, purchasing them as souvenirs from cheerful but greedy young vendors on the streets of Moscow. Quite predictably, the red flag has proven to be a bad investment. Visitors from the American Midwest or Holland thought they were lucky if they were able to get it for less than $20. Now the production of red banners will be subsidized by the state again and if anybody is interested, it would be possible to buy a whole suitcase of these disgustful and tasteless artifacts for $20.

So did Putin reintroduce the red cloth to diminish the power of Russia’s black market? There seems to be no other rational explanation for his feat.

He said that the policy is intended to celebrate the positive heritage of the Soviet era, like achievements in space and victories in sports. How very interesting. Why has nobody in Germany bothered to reintroduce the Nazi flag with its stylish swastika to celebrate the autobahns and the Volkswagen automobile, to say nothing about the heritage of the 1936 Berlin Olympics, at which the Nazis did pretty well?

Putin says the reintroduction of the Soviet anthem and flag should stabilize the country. Again a very interesting statement. Since when do hymns and banners help to increase pensions and wages? What makes Putin think all Russians will be happy to go back to the symbols of the gulag? Does he think all Russian sportsmen will feel comfortable while standing to attention to the hymn, established by Josef Stalin back in 1943?

The president says people do not feel connected to the present anthem, a melody by 19th-century composer Mikhail Glinka. Does he think Russians are all that eager to connect with Stalin? Boys who will be drafted into the armed forces next spring were born in 1983 — just eight years before the Soviet Union collapsed. They have only vague memories of the old flag and anthem, and throughout their adult lives have encountered both symbols only in movies and when passing street demonstrations by crazy Communist babushkas.

If the red banner is now the official flag of the armed forces, boys drafted into the army next spring will arrive in Chechnya under its glamorous spell. Does Putin think it will help him win the war against the Chechen guerrillas? Was he so overwhelmed by the green banner of Islam that felt he had to retaliate with another pure color? Actually, if he remembers anything about 20th-century history, he would know that the red flag has already seen defeat once, when the Kremlin lost its empire between 1989 and 1991.

Putin is probably not superstitious, but neither is he is not pragmatic. The introduction of the red flag will win him the support of many people, but this will not be sufficient to guarantee him re-election in 2004. Presently the economic crisis in Russia is hibernating due to the high price of oil on world markets. There is no reason to believe the price of oil will remain high indefinitely. As soon as it drops, the Russian economy will experience yet another collapse — and neither the red flag nor the Soviet anthem will help Putin then.

In this column a year ago, I suggested that the worst-case scenario for Russia would be if Putin proved to be an imperialist romantic. It looks like my worst fears have been confirmed. “Guns instead of butter” is a disgusting slogan, but flags instead of butter or guns is just plain silly.

It would be instructive to see how the world reacts. Putin has at least one buddy among Western leaders — British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who has practically taken a leave of absence to take care of his newborn child while his wife pursues her exciting career. Will Blair send Putin a friendly letter telling him that this whole red flag epic was misconceived? Or will he abstain from such comments?

When Austria elected a rightwing party to power, it faced sanctions imposed by the European Union. Of course, nobody is going to suggest sanctions against Russia just because it is using totalitarian symbols, but a demonstration of concern would be really helpful. Recently, major Internet sites have launched a campaign against the use of the swastika on the World Wide Web. But at all international sports events from now on, Russian athletes, who invariably win plenty of gold medals, will also be awarded Stalin’s anthem. Will people bring tomatoes to stadiums or will they say that sport is divorced from politics?

Enough of reactions from the outside world. What does all this tell us about Russia’s mood at the beginning of the new millennium? Nothing positive, I assure you. The totalitarian past is forgotten or forgiven or both — not by everybody, but by too many people to let the rest of us relax. Flags and anthems are not innocent toys. Stalin knew this only too well when he discarded the “International,” a hymn of 19th-century cosmopolitan idealists, and commissioned the imperial hymn — the one that Putin has now resurrected.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.