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05/02/2013

Back in the USSR one medal at a time

Soviet medal blog
Russian President Vladimir Putin hands out the first "Hero of Labour" awards to Russians since reviving the Soviet-era tradition this year. (AFP photo/ RIA-Novosti/Alexei Nikolsky/Getty Images)

Call it nostalgia, neo-nationalism or just plain politics. Russia is going back to the future again, with a revival of Soviet medals.

Back in the day – Stalin’s – 15 minutes of fame meant being decorated for invaluable services to the motherland. It was far, far better than the reverse, which was an unpaid holiday in a camp in Siberia.

Medals were taken seriously in the early Soviet years and with increasing skepticism over the years. When communism collapsed, some medal-holders headed for market stalls to eke out a few dollars from souvenir-hunting western tourists.

But President Vladimir Putin decided to change those casual attitudes. 

In a 2007 crackdown on medal-buying, a Chilean graduate student visiting from Missouri was under house arrest for three months after unwittingly purchasing one “illegally” while in the impoverished southern city of Voronezh.

Now Soviet-era medals have been restored and updated.

One of the most prominent Soviet honours for women was a medal for “Hero Mother,” awarded (quite rightly) to those who had at least 10 children. In the new Russia the bar has been lowered to a mere four, and the medal renamed the “Order of Parental Glory.”

Putin’s supporters in the Nashi youth group, meanwhile, were encouraged to pair off at their annual summer camps, marry, and produce new Russian citizens – hopefully enrolled in Putin’s United Russia Party.

That got off to a slow start, as fertility rates are still declining and demographic disaster looms.

 But more recently, Putin has started dusting off the “Hero of Labour” awards that inspired factory workers and collective farmers in decades past.

The first re-issues – tweaked to remove the Soviet hammer and sickle motif -- have gone to famed nationalist conductor Valery Gergiev (now of the London Symphonic Orchestra) and brain surgeon Alexander Konovalov, as well as a clutch of blue collar workers.

Some doubters suggest that Putin’s enthusiasm for historic honours has more to do with politics than patriotism.  As protests continue, and grumbling over corruption, alleged election fraud and inequality lowers his poll ratings, he has turned his steely gaze to new  -- or old -- horizons for political support.

The medals will take him only so far. According to the latest census material, Russia’s sprawling regions, once the focus of communist economic plans, are depopulating as lack of modernization, development, employment and environmental protection take their toll.

 “In place of the traditional Russian village,” said commentator Vitaly Slovetsky, “we will soon have lands without any people.”

From Putin’s Russia, with or without medals, there’s no way back to the U.S.S.R.

Olivia Ward covered the former Soviet Union from 1992-2002 as Moscow and European bureau chief. She was never awarded a medal there.

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