Hotspot – Russia

Hotspot – Russia Shutterstock
01 Oct
There is no easier way to insult a country than to deface their flag. Klaus Dodds looks into the recent Russian flag controversy, and explores the complicated relationship between countries and flags

In late July, Jared Hasselhoff, the bass player with the US rock band Bloodhound Gang, stuffed the Russian flag into his underpants during a performance in the Ukrainian
city of Odessa. He’s reported to have said, ‘Don’t tell [Russian President Vladimir] Putin.’

The band’s next stop was Russia, where it was due to play at the Kubana rock festival. However, an amateur video of the incident soon went viral after it was uploaded on YouTube and the band’s invitation to play at the festival was quickly rescinded, with the organisers saying in their official statement that ‘we will not allow anyone to insult the inhabitants of any country’.

A national flag is important both as a material object and as a mode of representation. It can invoke great passions, however contradictory – happiness and pride on the one hand and fear and loathing on the other. We use expressions such as ‘flying the flag’ and ‘wrapping oneself in the flag’ to draw attention to its visual, socio-cultural and geopolitical power.

Flags are also associated with the formal ceremonies of the state – for example, Trooping the Colour in the UK and the draping of the flag over the coffin at state funerals – as well as being embedded in the informal lives of citizens: visitors to the USA and Canada will be struck by how often one sees flags being flown outside private houses.

In places such as Quebec, the choice of flag is deeply political – if you fly the flag of Quebec province, it implies that you’re a French-speaking Quebecois, but if you fly the Canadian flag, it implies that you’re an English-speaking Canadian. Hence flags can be intimately tied to citizenship and identity politics, either through association (for example, wanting to be identified as belonging to a particular political group) or rejection (for example, by burning the US flag to protest against US foreign policy).

Several years ago, the social scientist Michael Billig highlighted the complex, multi-faceted nature of nationalism and nationalist politics. Although we’re quick to notice ‘hot’ forms of nationalism, such as those that are manifested during times of war and crisis, we ignore at our peril more banal and mundane forms of nationalism.

Billig drew attention to the forms that we generally don’t notice, such as the flags hanging from private houses or the everyday representations of flags on merchandise such as mugs, T-shirts and tea towels. It’s often these objects and sites of representation that matter more in our everyday lives, reminding us about the geographies of the nation state and the bio-politics of belonging. In short, the flag is an integral part of national identity.

After the incident in Odessa, Russia’s culture minister, Vladimir Medinsky, described Bloodhound Gang as ‘idiots’ on Twitter, and there was also a suggestion that they might face criminal charges. Hasselhoff later issued an apology, adding that the passing of items of all kinds through his pants is a band tradition. However, as the band left the village of Anapa, where the festival was due to take place, its van was pelted with eggs and tomatoes.

After the two flag incidents it would appear that Bloodhound Gang aren’t welcome in two former Communist countries, where the ‘desecration of the flag’ is seen to be a very serious public order matter. News reports suggested that the band was later attacked at a local Russian airport by ultra-nationalist Cossacks, one of whom was said to have attempted to smother a band member with a US flag.

The Russian flag wasn’t the only object of controversy. Video has also emerged of Hasselhoff apparently urinating on the Ukrainian flag at a concert in Kiev the day before the Russian flag incident took place. He has since been banned from returning to Ukraine for at least five years.

The timing of the incident was unfortunate given US–Russian tension over the fate of the intelligence whistle-blower Edward Snowden, who has been granted temporary asylum by Russia. Unsurprisingly, the US ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul, issued a statement condemning the actions of the rock group as well as those who allegedly attacked them at the airport.

It remains to be seen what the Russian and Ukrainian authorities can actually do to the Bloodhound Gang members apart from banning them from re-entering their respective countries. Nevertheless, the incident reminds us that national flags are invested with huge symbolic importance. Even if we acknowledge the fact that cultural freedoms in Russia and Ukraine aren’t without their societal and legal limits, it’s worth asking what the reaction might have been had a Russian musician stuffed the US flag down their underpants while performing in the USA.

Klaus Dodds is a Professor of Geopolitics at Royal Holloway, University of London.

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