If you think of Russia, what’s the first thing that comes to mind? You might have imagined the majestic architecture of St. Basil’s Cathedral, the sturdy walls of the Kremlin, or lines of colorful matryoshkas. You might have pictured the Russian flag or its emblem. Or, you might have imagined some comically stereotypical depictions of Russia — such as a bear, vodka, or even spies. Russia’s long history has spawned several symbols that have now come to define the country, with each having unique significance behind it. This article will explore the three official symbols of Russia and their importance to Russian culture and history.
Russia has a complicated history with its flag. The flag that we know and love today (the red, white, and blue one) traces the origins to 1699 when Peter the Great selected the flag to be used as a maritime symbol for Russian ships. The first official flag, however, was decreed by Tsar Alexander II in 1858 and consisted of three horizontal striped colored black, yellow, and white from top to bottom — which was used until 1896 when it returned back to the red, white, and blue colors. However, very soon as the new flag came into official use, the Soviets overthrew the Russian monarchy and abolished the Russian tricolor, and replaced it with the red hammer and sickle flag. Only after the Soviet Union’s dissolution did Russia adopt the modern flag.
There have been many interpretations and heated debates over the meaning of the flag’s colors, but the most popular interpretation is as follows: the white symbolizes nobility and frankness, the blue for faithfulness and honesty, and red for courage and generosity. Today, you can see the Russian flag everywhere you look in Russia — you can see it flown over all government buildings, pinned to the walls of classrooms, or used as a design in various ways.
The second official symbol of Russia is the Russian emblem, consisting of a double-headed eagle holding an orb and a scepter. The use of this emblem can be traced to as early as 1472 when Ivan the Third adopted the emblem to mark a direct claim to the Roman imperial heritage after the fall of Constantinople and the Byzantine Empire. Following its adoption, the two-headed eagle was used as the symbol of the Russian monarchy for four hundred years. The story of the Russian emblem is quite similar to the one of the Russian flag, as the emblem was used up until the fall of the Russian Empire when it was abandoned by the Soviet Union, which instead used the hammer and cycle as their coat of arms. Only in 1993, under the initiative of Boris Yeltsin, was the emblem adopted again and became official in 2000 under Vladimir Putin.
The double-headed eagle can represent the geographical positioning of Russia — with one head symbolizing the East and the other the West. Many claim that the double-headedness of the eagle can logically be interpreted as a symbol for unity, binding the various regions of Russia together. Other elements of the eagle, such as the orb and scepter, are said to be the embodiment of the Russian state: powerful and united. In the center of the emblem is a horseman killing a snake with his spear. St. George killing the snake has historically represented Russia's victory against its enemies — a symbol of the struggle of good against evil and light against darkness.
Again, as with the flag and emblem, Russia has a long and complicated history with its anthem. For most of its history, Russia did not have an anthem. There were several church hymns and military marches that were closely associated with the Russian people and the imperial state, yet there was no official anthem of Russia. Russia adopted its first national anthem in 1816 when the tsar chose poet V. Zhukovskii’s The Prayer of Russians (“Молитва русских"). Russia adopted its second anthem in 1833 following the expulsion of the French from Russia during the Napoleonic wars, which lasted until the October Revolution in 1918. When the Soviets came to power, as they did with all other Russian imperial symbols, replaced the anthem with their version; they used the anthem of the victorious proletarian revolution, “International.”
The second Soviet anthem (the melody of which is used in the modern Russian anthem) was adopted in 1944. After the Soviet Union collapsed in 1933, President Yeltsin commissioned a new national anthem for Russia, called “Patriotic Song,” yet it was widely unpopular with the Russian people — it failed to strike an emotional chord like the old Soviet anthem did and was too “musically complicated”. Further, modern Russia’s new anthem had no lyrics attached to it, one of the only anthems of that kind in the world. Putin, recognizing the inadequacies of Yeltsin’s anthem, endeavored to change the anthem. He reached a solution by imposing new lyrics onto the old Soviet melody, a change that the Russian people readily accepted a new anthem and it is still used to this day.