Saturday 1 March 2003

The Symbolism of the Soviet Coat of Arms (2003

From The Philosopher, Volume LXXXXI No. 2 Autumn 2003


By Eugene Vasiliev

The passing of the Soviet Union into history affords us an opportunity to look from a different angle at the realities of the Soviet era. It seems now a weird world, glimpsed, indeed, peeped at, through a keyhole. Amongst these realities we can point out the symbols of Communism, which are still easily remembered. Yet devoid of their original magic, they still emit the quaintest odour. And a very peculiar place in the panoply of Soviet symbolism belongs to the Soviet State Coat of Arms.

Everyone in Russia has a very good idea of the canonical interpretation of its symbolism. Yet, for all the grandeur of this sign, many will also notice that the Coat of Arms seems somehow scrappy and incomplete. It lacks integrity. Let us consider: what subtexts are lurking behind the scenes ?

The details of the Soviet Coat of Arms create a special space that unfolds into the depth and resembles an assemblage, where the different images are consolidated into the whole unity. It looks like a primitive surreal landscape with wheat-ears, viewed at arms length, paradoxically combined with the terrestrial Globe, viewed from outer space. Circular eclectic composition arrests attention, producing an effect of an unreal animal, made of wheat-ears and ribbons. This beast looks like a red hole, opposed to the black square or the centralizing imperial vagina, from where the terrestrial Globe emerges. And in fact a more unbiased observer will say that the shape of the Coat of Arms is akin to the contoured vagina natans, hidden behind the symbolic composition 'wheat-ears-ribbons.'

History knows loads of examples when genitals were used as symbols. The most famous are: Indian Tantric images of sacred Yoni and Lingam that regard copulation as a supreme form of human activity. Sex was considered as the most profound type of dialogue between 'ego' and the nature. It reproduced the cosmogonic act of creation. In precisely the same way as with our Coat of Arms here, the images of Yoni were often metaphoric, being represented by lotus flower, monster jaws or rocky gorge. In the present case the similarity of the Coat of Arms to the female sexual organs is by no means accidental. For sexuality - a taboo during the Soviet era - could not but be the one of the basic constants of collective psyche. Without any opportunity to express itself sexuality was displaced to the realm of ideology as a coded Tantric symbol. This symbol in its turn emitted streams of temptation, secretly opposed the emasculated regime and signified the social aspiration for promiscuity.

Let us now dwell on the details of the Coat of Arms. The sun as an inner lower part of the Coat of Arms represents a traditional symbol of fertility, which refers us in turn to the ancient agricultural cults. In this case it substantiates the Earth birth.

The Earth is anticipated by its symbolic precursor , the crossed structure of 'Sickle-Hammer.' The dual 'Sickle-Hammer' is located in the centre of the Coat of Arms. This structure meets our eyes and overshadows Eurasia and Africa as a two-headed centaur of Soviet ideology. It would be proper here to recall Joseph Brodsky's idea, suggested by him in his 'Journey to Istanbul'. On the basis of historical and cultural materials he considers in this essay an issue of difference between the Muslim East and the Christian West. As a result of his reasoning Brodsky comes to the conclusion that the USSR is the Ottoman Empire of the 20th century, a bulwark of Christianity 'that became eastern beyond recognition.'

The crescent and the cross have turned into an official symbol of the country of the Soviets: a hammer and a sickle, where the hammer is a headless cross and the sickle is a crescent with a handle, attached in order to use it in ritual practice. As a proof of that we can see that the Sickle covers mainly the Moslem regions the North Africa, Arabia and the Central Asia. Then it goes through the Middle Asia into the 'non-moslem' Western Siberia and finally finishes on the borders of the North Pole. Thus it expresses both a 'real' and an 'ideal' expansion of the Islam World.

It will be apt to cite a quotation of a researcher of symbolism, M. Gimbutas, who regarded the ancient swastika as 'cross with rounded ends, which represent four crescents.' Such a statement supplements Brodsky's idea and enables us to surmise that all symbols are interrelated and come from the common primary symbol.

It is very illustrative that the peaks of the 'Sickle Hammer' structural elements are situated over the Indian, Atlantic and Arctic oceans, as if they were broken off and drowned in the deep waters, rather than over the mainland. The Atlantic Ocean is the most important ocean, ever since Columbus, and the most significant arena of conflict between the East and the West in the second half of the 20th century. Most of ideology is concentrated here. This allows us to regard the Coat of Arms as an adapted and updated image of an archaic ritual tool, a magic TV saucer, enabling one to see any place of the Globe. 'The Kremlin shamans' used this 'ideological compass' as an effective gadget for their geographic magic. The pointers of the gadget showed the qualitative distinction between continents through dividing them into confronting parts. Orienting ourselves with Karl Jaspers' assumption, where he distinguished a turning point in the history of Eurasian civilizations and called it 'the Pivotal Time', we can use our 'ideological compass' and imagine a space axis. This will divide the Earth's surface into a kind of invisible optic lens of relatively incomplete parts, which sometimes coincide with outlines of the states. Such a lens can be represented by the natural heights or 'curves of the Earth' that refract and adjust economic, political and cultural life on both sides of themselves. The reflections and refractions of translucent mirrors of mountains are expressed in the structure of the country borders on the world map.

Returning to what has been said above, it is necessary to note that the walls of the Coat of Arms are made up of arched wheat-ears, symbolising the peasantry, which according to Jaspers, is always dependant and ahistoric. It is bound, restrained and shackled by ribbons-testimonies, on which a magic incantation-mantra is inscribed. The incantation mesmerises the peasantry, doomed to failure in its fight against the State.

And in view of this, one can maintain that structure 'wheat-ears-ribbons' is a symbol of confrontation between the Animate and the Inanimate, made of the Vitality (the ribbon). The confrontation is shown in the apex the 20th century the time of the biggest invasion of the Artificial in the Animate. The ribbons cover about two-thirds of the wheat-ears that stretch up, trying to get free, to the symbolic star - 'vagina-within-vagina' that promises salvation in the Natural World. But in reality the only thing it can give is the death after a delay, required to cover the insurmountable distance. Thus it substitutes the instant death, imposed on the wheat-ears by the Artificial World. This is borne out by that the colour of the star and the ribbons, a symbol of violence, inflicted by the Real Scourge (ribbons) and the Ideal Scourge (star), is the same.

As we have seen, the Coat of Arms can be regarded as childbirth, described in the climax when uterus cervix is open, walls-wheat-ears are coloured in blood of ribbons and stretched as much as possible, giving vent to a metamorphic infant - the Globe. It is true that in contrast to a real confinement the geogonic childbirth goes easy. The new-born baby flits lightly forward in an idealistic way. It breaks away from umbilical cord and hardly touches the walls. The internal sun warms up the baby, symbolising the Warmth of the Uterus and the Warmed Fetus. By making an icon of the most vital moment of childbirth opening of the uterus the author of the Coat of Arms imprinted his own coming into being, which is regarded as emergence of a new planet. Stanislav Grof has described this phase of childbirth to be a 'Struggle of the Death-Resurrection.' This struggle, as symbolic equivalent of turbulent forces of nature, violent wars and revolutions, is transition to a qualitatively new condition.

Accordingly, the Coat of Arms is one of the fruits. The new-born entity experiences a sophisticated combination of feelings, described by Grof as 'volcanic ecstasy.' In that light the Soviet Coat of Arms can be interpreted as an erupting volcano crater, where 'sickle-hammer' symbolises eruption, the terrestrial Globe ashes and glowing stones, and the bottom Sun volcanic lava. 'Disney' character of that eruption brings the reader back to ritual Soviet childhood. Thus it allows him to peep through the keyhole the Coat of Arms its own birth.

To conclude then. It is evident that all components of the Coat of Arms are intertwined and interlocked. All of them, except the chasing Star, lean on and support each other. And the only exception is the Red Star that crowns the Coat of Arms. Yet in fact the Red Star, far from bridging the space, creates the first crack. And in so doing, it expresses the craving of the Coat of Arms for its own eventual collapse.

Address for correspondence:

Dr Eugene Vasiliev,
Chair of Philosophy and Social Studies,
Nizhnevartovsk Educational College,
Russia, Tumen Region, Nizhnevartovsk

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