St George Ribbon

The Ribbon Of Saint George: Russia's Version Of The Remembrance Poppy

St George Ribbon

The Order of Saint George has a rich history dating back to 1769 when it was established by Catherine the Great as the highest battlefield honour awarded by Imperial Russia.

As one of the only 'tsarist' military awards that were not rejected by the Bolsheviks, its legacy was preserved and developed under the Soviet Union. After the Second World War, it became a symbol that marked Russia's victory over nazism.

Today, the orange and black stripes can be seen in the form of ribbons and flags and even bumper stickers.

The award's association with the Russian government has led to it being rejected by some, including Ukraine, which banned the ribbon in 2017.

Order Of Saint George

Catherine the Great instated an award for officers of the Russian Army for bravery on the battlefield - the Military Order of the Holy Great Martyr and Victorious George in 1769.

Originally, the colours were yellow and black to symbolise gunpowder and fire. 

Historians have also pointed out that as well as symbolising flames and smoke, the colours can also represent the national emblem – a two-headed eagle on a golden background. 

The Saint George Order of the 1st degree was the rarest in Imperial Russia, with only 23 people receiving the honour.

In 1807, Alexander I, remembered for his progressive and reformist policies, established the Order of St. George for the lower ranks. Since 1913, it was called the St George Cross.

The legacy of the St George Cross was carried on in Soviet Russia.

In 1943, the Order of Glory was established to award outstanding military personnel of all ranks. It was almost entirely the same as the "soldier's George" except for one big difference – the Christian cross was replaced by a communist star. The colours also received a slight update, becoming more saturated – the yellow in the new version of the "soldier's George" started to look more orange.

During the Second World War, around a million people received the award.

Catherine The Great
Catherine The Great Wearing Ribbon Of Saint George

The Second World War As A Unifying Symbol Of Russia

"In songs, pictures, works of art, monuments, in the names of brigades, collective farms, and streets we cherish the memories of the deeds of our valiant fighters and heroes. This will be our pride-filled military honour roll, which will be cherished by many generations of Soviet people.... The patriotic war will leave among our people an imperishable memorial of glory. And on the memorial will be inscribed the names of all those to whom the motherland is obliged for her future victory!"

Izvestiia, January 22nd 1942

The prophecy expressed in the newspaper Izvestiia one year into the war came true – the memory of the Second World War permeated all aspects of life in the Soviet Union. As argued by Nina Tumakin in Living and The Dead, the victory in the Second World War filled a void where religion once was, becoming an ideological unifier of the Soviet Union.

When Vladimir Putin came to power in 1999, he embarked on reviving patriotic sentiment through remembrance. He used the memory of the sacrifices made in The Great Patriotic War to unite the country that has seen a disastrous economic and social decline since the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s.

According to a poll conducted by news channel Mir, most Russian people agree with sociologist Lev Gudkov that the Second World War was the most significant event in history. 

More specifically, the poll, conducted in 2015, showed that 86% of respondents from the country's various regions believed that the most important historical event was the 'victory of USSR in the Great Patriotic War.'

Official state PR campaigns contribute to the heightened awareness of the importance of the event in history. Still, it would be misleading to attribute that purely to the hegemonic influence of the state. As argued by historian Olga Kucherenko, some fundamental components "such as enormous sacrifices, unparalleled violence directed against civilians, the magnitude of the task faced by the defending nation and its tenacity in the face of great hardship remain undeniable."

It is estimated that 27 million people, including civilians and the military, lost their lives in the USSR during the Second World War. The traumatic experience of the war on the Russian psyche cannot be understated, which is why it proves a robust basis for a unifying history that legitimised the USSR and arguably eclipsed even the Civil War in its significance in shaping Soviet and Russian identity.

Prince Philip
Prince Philip meets Russian World War Two Veterans

A Publicity Campaign For Remembrance

It was not until 2005 that the ribbon received national recognition as the symbol for remembrance of victory over nazism when it was mass-produced to mark the 60th Anniversary of Victory Day, a Russian national holiday that commemorates the surrender of Nazi Germany in 1945.

According to some reports, the idea to create a symbol to mark the anniversary of the ending of the Second World belonged to Natalya Loseva, a journalist at RIA Novosti, a state-funded news agency.

The idea is analogous with the red poppy distributed in the west during November, which marks the anniversary of the Armistice of The Great War.

The initiative received widescale government support. Thousands of volunteers took to the streets to hand out the black and orange ribbons.

Since 2005, the ribbon has evolved from an emblem that marks remembrance on the official anniversary of the ending of conflict to a de facto national symbol that signifies support for the state.

Every November, millions of people across the UK wear a red poppy as a symbol of remembrance, not only for those who died in the two World Wars but for everyone who has lost their lives in conflict.

The poppy comes in many different sizes and materials. It is often a paper boutonniere that is sold across the country by the Royal British Legion or in the form of a shiny badge. However, it tends not to be seen as much outside of November.

Conversely, the Ribbon of Saint George can be seen in many forms regardless of the month. Pro-Kremlin activists are often seen with not only ribbons but orange and black striped flags.

The Ribbon of Saint George rapidly gained political implications.

Since the start of the conflict in Eastern Ukraine in 2014, the Saint George Ribbon has been used by paramilitary groups to mark their allegiance. Pro-Russian activists have been seen sporting the symbol, even tying it to military equipment.

This has led the former Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko to sign a law banning the St George ribbon. However, many have been seen defying the law, especially in Eastern parts of Ukraine.

The country has since officially adopted their own symbol to mark Victory Day – a slightly modified version of the British red poppy. The flower often has a ribbon attached to it – the stripes are yellow and light blue, the official colours of Ukraine, as seen on the country's flag.