Russia seeks new generation of 'heroes'

Image caption,
A statue of Vladimir Lenin still presides over the Lenin State Farm

Russian President Vladimir Putin is reviving Soviet-style "Heroes of Labour" awards - part of a broader search by the Kremlin for new national role models, the BBC's Moscow correspondent Steven Rosenberg reports.

Legend has it that 95 years ago, Vladimir Lenin was being driven from the Kremlin to his country house outside Moscow when he spotted a group of peasants working separately on their own little patches of land.

Appalled by this display of individualism, the Russian revolutionary stopped the car, got out and angrily told the men that they would get more done by working together.

So the farmers formed a commune that later became the Lenin State Farm.

When I visited the farm it was milking time for 390 cows.

Through the years of communism, and more recently capitalism, as well as milk, this farm has produced fruits and vegetables - and heroes.

Lidiya Gadalova, 83, is a hero.

To prove it, in her house near the farm, she shows me all the jingly jangly Soviet medals on her jacket.

For 41 years, Lidiya worked as a milkmaid. She was honoured as a Hero of Socialist Labour for squeezing more milk from one cow than any other milkmaid in the district.

"The other milkmaids at the farm got angry with me, they were a bit jealous," Lidiya says. "But my older brother, he was so proud of me."

The award "Hero of Socialist Labour" wasn't limited to heroic deeds in the dairy world.

Image caption,
Veteran milkmaid Lidiya Gadalova is the proud owner of medals from the Soviet era

Coal miners, combine harvester drivers, nuclear scientists - anyone could earn this prestigious medal for going that extra mile for the Soviet Union. Of course, when the USSR ceased to exist, so did the award. But it is making a comeback.

One month ago, live on Russian TV, a factory worker asked Vladimir Putin if he would consider resurrecting the Hero of Labour award.

"I agree," said President Putin. "I'll sort it by the end of the day."

And he did. The Kremlin leader signed a decree and Hero of Labour was back.

The new medal will honour Russians who have achieved great things in the economy, public life or in their work for the state.

In St Petersburg on Wednesday President Putin handed out the first batch of golden medals. Among the recipients: a coal miner, a mechanic and an engineer. A neurosurgeon and a theatre director also received the award.

In a speech at the ceremony, Mr Putin said that Russia was "obliged to restore a respectful attitude to labour and raise the prestige of those professions on which Russia depends: engineers, designers, factory workers, farmers, teachers, and doctors".

Different heroes

But there is more to this medal than just honouring the workers. It is part of a broader search by the Kremlin for a whole new set of Russian heroes, including figures from the Tsarist past - an attempt, post-communism, to give the country a common identity.

Media caption,
Kommersant FM's Konstantin von Eggert: New heroes are either controversial or non existent

"The search for new heroes will end in some dead-end street," believes Konstantin Eggert, chief editor of the Moscow radio station Kommersant FM.

"As opposed to the Soviet Union, today's Russia doesn't have an ideology, an overarching narrative. Moreover, Russia doesn't have a national identity. This is a huge problem. Heroes of the old do not fit; new heroes are either controversial or non-existent."

A short drive from milkmaid Lidiya's house, I ask people on the street who their heroes are.

Their answers paint a confusing picture - Stalin, Jesus Christ, Justin Bieber, World War II veterans, parents. A construction worker tells me Russia has no heroes at all.

The director of the Lenin State Farm, Pavel Grudinin, disagrees.

"Is it not an act of heroism to get up every day at 5am to milk the cows, and come back home at 10 at night?" Pavel asks.

"Or what about village doctors, on call 24 hours a day - are they not heroes? Today young people only seem to respect tycoons and TV stars. It's time to honour individuals who make a real contribution to our country."