A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

Why are Communists so fond of the color red?

January 12, 1990

Dear Cecil:

Why are Communists so attached to the color red? Why did the anti-Communists call themselves "whites"?

Cecil replies:

You want the facts on a question like this, Robert, you have to go straight to the source, in this case the Great Soviet Encyclopedia. From this formidable work we learn that "popular uprisings occurred under red banners as early as the eighth century (the Red Banner rebellion in Iran) and in the 16th (the Great Peasant War in Germany) and 17th centuries." The Iranian thing is reaching a bit, but let us be kind.

The encyclopedia goes on: "The people of France fought under red banners against the king's rule in July 1792. With the revolt of June 5-6, 1832, in Paris, the red banner became a symbol of the blood spilled by the people and thus the banner of revolution, and after the Paris Commune of 1871 it became the banner of [specifically] proletarian revolution." The red banner was first flown in Russia in 1861 and became the Soviet flag in 1918.

The Whites, counterrevolutionaries who fought the Reds in the period 1918-1920, took their name from the White Guards, a Finnish police force organized in 1906 to fight subversives. "The origin of the term `White Guards' is connected with the traditional symbolism of the color white as the color of the supporters of `legitimate' law and order," the GSE notes. One gathers it wasn't just in the old west that the alleged good guys (or perhaps more accurately the forces of the establishment) wore white hats.

The East is red

Dear Cecil:

Regarding why the Russians like the color red: the Russian words for "red" and "beautiful" are almost identical. They both stem from the same concept in archaic Russian. To the pre-12th-century savages who settled in what is now Great Russia (around the Volga, between White Russia and the Ural Mountains), redness and beauty were one; red was a kind of superlative ideal. Modern Russian retains the idea of red being beautiful. The site we know in English as Red Square, a focal point in Moscow, is literally translated as "beautiful place." I'm not sure if this is why the Bolsheviks adopted red as their official color, but subconsciously it may have had something to do with it.

Cecil replies:

Could be; I'll ask Boris next time he drops by. The word for "red" is krasnaia (or some reasonable phonetic equivalent); that for "beautiful," kracivaya.

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