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.