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Is This the Symbol Russia Wants? : Yeltsin chooses the particularly inapt double-headed eagle. Why?

December 06, 1993

The hammer and sickle, the world-recognized symbol of the Soviet Union, has now been consigned to the same historical trash heap as the state it represented. By decree of President Boris N. Yeltsin, the emblem that was once omnipresent across the vast empire--the hammer standing for industrial workers, the sickle for the peasantry--is to be succeeded by the once equally familiar double-headed eagle of the czarist era. Russia has already replaced the red banner of communism with the white, blue and red-striped flag of the old regime. Now the eagle seal, one head looking east, the other west, is to be mounted on all major government buildings by Jan. 1. Yeltsin intends it to mark the beginning of a new era in Russia's history. There are some, however, who nervously wonder just how far the return to the old traditions might go.

Whatever its other historical resonances, the two-headed eagle inescapably remains a symbol of autocracy, of the claim to divinely sanctioned absolute rule by the emperor. Under that claim, Russians and non-Russians brought into the empire endured long generations of exploitation, repression and brutality. Having only lately rid themselves of one despotism, Russians are now going to find themselves reminded frequently of an earlier despotic heritage.

To be sure, there are some in Russia who are nostalgic for such a past, with its centralized authority and strict controls on personal freedoms. Others fear just such a reversion. Times correspondent Sonni Efron quotes a 77-year-old woman whose relatives died fighting for the Bolsheviks: "They were fighting against the restoration of that evil eagle that meant poverty and slavery for us . . . and now it is all coming back."

Keeping it all from coming back--whether communist dictatorship or czarist autocracy--is what Russia's start-and-stop movement toward popular government is supposed to be about. Next Sunday, Russians will vote in the first free and competitive parliamentary elections in 75 years. They will also vote on a new 100-page draft constitution that few of them are likely to have seen, let alone read. Yeltsin, again by decree, had originally forbidden any of the 13 parties seeking seats in the new legislature from criticizing the draft. Now, under pressure even from some of his supporters, he has backed off.

That's a small victory for open debate. It will take many such victories before Russians can feel they have truly broken free of the harsh past that both the hammer and sickle and the two-headed eagle represented.

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