The Stories Behind Some of Russia’s Greatest Flags

It sometimes feels like Russia has “celebration days” for pretty much everything. Just look at the military: there is of course a day celebrating the armed forces as a whole, but also one for the airborne troops, for the Special Forces, for the artillery units or for radio operators. Outside of the military, sociologists, archivists, programmers and emergency services workers all have, among others, their own days. And it’s not just people: Russia has its own day of course, but also several inner republics like Ingushetia, Tatarstan or Karelia.

It should come as no surprise then that, on the 22d of August, Russia celebrates… its flag. The “tricolor”, as it’s called, has been used since 1693, with two majors interruptions between 1858 to 1883 (it was replaced by the black-yellow-white imperial flag) and then between 1918 to 1991 (with the arrival of the “sickle and hammer” communist flag).

Russia’s flag does the job, but isn’t particularly stunning. However, Russia has lots of flags. With 80 “federal subjects”, about a thousand cities of more than 50 000 people and several more thousands villages and settlements, there are lots of places in the country with their own emblems.

Some are unremarkable, some are weird, and some are downright ugly. A few of them are absolutely stunning, and feel more like work of arts than just emblems. Despite their differences, most of them are, however, very good at one thing: telling stories.

The Industrial Cities

Flag of Shuya

You could believe that this flag represents a chunk of butter. It doesn’t, of course. That would be ridiculous.

No, it’s actually a bar of soap.

This is the flag of Shuya, a small city (about 60 000 people) located 300 km east of Moscow. It used to be a major soap-making center, hence the design of the flag.

Yes, used to be, because that is the second surprise about this emblem: despite its post-modern look that would make it not so out of place in a contemporary art gallery, the “bar of soap” design actually dates back from 1781. Sure, the first version had another symbol on top of it but overall, it hasn’t changed that much:

Shuya may be one of the oldest examples of a city using the symbol of a local industry on a flag (Another good –but less amusing– illustration of this is the flag of Tula, which was one of the main arms factory center in the Russian Empire).

The arrival of the Soviet Union and its planned economy meant that hundreds of Russian cities became “monotown”, places revolving entirely around a single industry. Nearly two decades after the fall of the USSR, monotowns still exist in Russia, a good part of them having experienced constant worsening of their situation. When the local involves the extraction of a specific natural resource, this resource is sometimes used as a symbol on the official flag. The greatest illustration of this is the fantastic and yet depressing flag of Magnitogorsk, an industrial city in the Ural:

Flag of Magnitogorsk

The black triangle doesn’t represent the futility of love and the inevitability of death, nor is it the logo of a cyberpunk evil corporation. It is actually a minimalistic representation of the Magnitnaya mountain, a geological formation which used to be an incredible source of ore. Most of it has now been mined, but Magnitorosk remains a city entirely devoted to the metallurgy industry.

Leninsk-Kuznetsky, located in the oblast of Keremevo (a region about 300 km north of Mongolia) is less subtle about its links to the extractive business. According to its flag, Leninsk-Kuznetsky is about two things: coal mining, and communism

Flag of Leninsk-Kuznetsky

But it’s not always about resources. The settlement of Linyov, in the region of Novosibirsk, was built for the express purpose of housing the workers of an electrode factory, which began operating in 1974 and is still functioning today. Its flag, representing two electrodes making a spark, is then a fairly clear reminder of the city’s reason to exist:

Flag of Linyov

In the same fashion, Severny, a small village in the Moscow region, developed thanks to the installation in 1949 of a radio center. It therefore made perfect the sense for its flag to depict a radio tower:

Flag of Severny

The Closed Cities

The Soviet Union created another kind of special towns, which also left its mark on the local flags: closed towns. Those places can be considered as another kind of monotown: it’s just that the industry in which they were specializing was highly sensitive and often military-related. Those cities would be forbidden to foreigners, but also to Russians without the proper documents. Just like other monotowns, closed cities remain a reality of modern Russia: more than 40 cities still have the official denomination of “closed administrative-territorial formations”, with a dozen more believed to be secret closed towns.

It is from such a closed city that comes what is probably the most well-known Russian regional flag, the infamous “bear splitting an atom” emblem.

Flag of Zheleznogorsk

Created in 1950, the city of Zheleznogorsk was devoted to the extraction of plutonium. The town used to be known as “Krasnoyarsk-26”. In the case of closed cities, the number was supposed to indicate the distance between the facility and the city itself, but the information was sometimes considered too sensitive, leading soviet officials to change that number randomly, to make the city harder to find (though Zheleznogorsk is indeed located about 26 kilometers from Krasnoyarsk). The last reactor dedicated to the production of plutonium was shut down in 2010, but Zheleznogorsk remains an important city for the defense industrial complex.

Zheleznogorsk is not the only town in Russia showing off its “nuclear status” on its flag. The closed city of Seversk, in Siberia, is home to the Siberian Chemical Plant, a part of the state-controlled Rosatom complex which specializes in the creation of components for nuclear missiles.

Flag of Seversk

Compare to the rather aggressive undertone of Zheleznogorsk’s flag, the design of Seversk’s emblem feels more like a United Nations’ flag, with its olive branches and soft blue tone. And indeed, it looks suspiciously like the logo of the International Atomic Energy Agency. Oh well.

Not all closed cities are about nuclear energy though. With its unusual design, the flag of Mirny makes it a bit difficult to guess what exactly this town is about.

Flag of Mirny

Mirny started in 1957 as a launch site for intercontinental ballistic missiles, but it only became a closed town 10 years later, with the creation of the Plesetsk Cosmodrome. With its 12 launching pads, the spaceport was mainly used to put military satellites in orbit. The secrecy of the place is illustrated by the fact that its existence was never acknowledged by soviet officials until 1983. Interestingly, whereas many closed cities have seen their activities be reduced since the fall of the USSR, the Plesetsk Cosmodrome has been used to a much greater extent in the last decade. Despite the issue of its location (400 km north of Saint Petersburg, which prevent it from launching the biggest Russian rockets and makes it unpractical for geostationary launches), it has the advantage of being located inside Russia.

If you find the symbols of the flags a bit unclear, you will be delighted to learn that the golden arrow is a stylized spacecraft, the white bands are meant to represent the aurora borealis and therefore the northern location of the city and the golden octagonal shape is the representation of a monument to the memory of the founder of the city.

The Other Cities

And then you have the other flags. There are too many to count and though most of the flags shown above are of the minimalistic type, it mostly reflects my personal taste. Depiction of animals (bears of course, but also lions, fishes, camels and even bees) and landscapes are also extremely popular in local flags. You can even find some mutant animals, thanks to the joys of language evolution.

Flag of Irkutsk

The flag of the Irkutsk region seems to be depicting a small animal, like a beaver, holding another dead animal in its mouth. The thing is, this is supposed to be a tiger, or more precisely a babr (Бабр), an old Siberian name for the Amur tiger. And indeed, a look at the coat of arms of Irkutsk in the XVIIIth century clearly shows a tiger:

So, how did Irkutsk go from a proud tiger to a weird-looking beaver? The explanation will rejoice all lovers of Russian bureaucracy. In 1878, the tsar regime decided to change the emblems of 46 regions of Russia. When came the time of writing the new description for the Irkutsk coat of arms, someone changed the then unfamiliar word “babr” to “bobr” (бобр), which means… beaver. A one-letter mistake was enough to downgrade Irkustk from tiger to beaver, as the 1880 emblem shows:

The mistake was never really corrected and eventually, everyone shrugged their shoulders and thought “Well, this will have to do”.

The Horror(s)

By mistake or by design, some flags turn out to be not so great. Most of Russian regional flags are actually quite decent, but given the sheer number of localities in the country, you are bound to find a few horrors. Therefore, in the name of fairness and objectivity, here is the ugliest flag I have come across:

Flag of Partizansk

This “thing” is the flag of Partizansk, a small city near Vladivostock. Hilariously enough, the Wikipedia page of the flag (yep, that exists) tells us that the federal institution charged with entering flags into the state registry actually first refused to register this one. They claimed that the flag “doesn’t meet certain heraldic requirements”, which is the closest they can get to saying that turning what is basically a Windows 98 screensaver into an official emblem would be infamy. In case you wonder, the shape drawn on the flag depicts ginseng, a plant largely found in the region. The stone at the bottom used to be black, to represent a piece of coal, but the state register forced the local officials to make it gold, because apparently that makes the flag better? I don’t know. This is weird.