I am sure many of you have seen the black and orange striped ribbons that have been attached to Russian military uniforms during the invasion. While it can be considered a method to differentiate friend from foe, the colors have a long historical meaning that stretches back hundreds of years.
To start, we need to look at its origins. George of Lydda was a venerated Cappadocian Greek who served in the Roman military under Emperor Diocletian during the third century. He refused to renounce his Christian faith during the Great Persecution and was executed in 303 AD. Canonized and revered as a patron saint of soldiers, Saint George has a rich history in both European and Middle Eastern religion and legend, most notably his immortalization in the legend of Saint George and the Dragon. Long story short, the tale goes on to say that Saint George came across a city that was being terrorized by a dragon. To stop it, he offered it sheep, but then the dragon demanded human sacrifices instead. At this point people in the city were elected to be sacrificed, but when the King’s daughter was chosen, Saint George slayed the dragon to save her. The tale then says how everyone was so amazed and thankful for his actions that they all immediately became Christians. The story has changed over the centuries to fit various cultures. The icon of Saint George and the Dragon was used widely on coats of arms in eastern Europe since 1000 AD. Ivan II, the first ruler of Moscow, adopted the emblem in the 1300s for the Moscow coat of arms, which has remained to this day. Saint George and the Dragon was later incorporated in the Russian Empire’s coat of arms, as well as the current Russian Federation’s.
Fast forwarding to 1769 on November 26 (The Russian Orthodox dedication day for the Church of St. George), the Order of Saint George was created by Empress Catherine the Great as the highest military decoration for officers in the Russian Empire, awarded for exemplary military action and distinction. The medal is made up of a white cross with Saint George and the Dragon in the middle with a black and orange striped ribbon, which is unsurprisingly called “George’s Ribbon.” The Russian Revolution and creation of the Soviet Union saw the abolishment of any Russian Imperial symbols being used and thus saw the Order of Saint George no longer be given out. However, the ribbon was still used in Soviet military awards and medals, such as the “Order of Glory” for bravery and the “For the Victory over Germany” medal given to all soldiers who fought along the Eastern Front. The use of the ribbon in the latter medal made it a prominent symbol amongst soviet veterans of the Second World War.
The ribbon emerged again in 2005 during the 60th anniversary of V-Day, in which they were widely distributed to commemorate veterans and remember those who fought against Nazi Germany. Since then, the ribbon has been used every year and has significant public recognition. With that, the ribbon has also been adopted by Russian nationalist and loyalist groups. The outbreak of the Euromaidan movement in Ukraine in 2013 saw mass civil unrest in response to the government abandoning the European Union–Ukraine Association Agreement and rather further aligning itself to Russia. The protests eventually resulted in the removal of President Viktor Yanukovych from office, the creation of an interim government, and the election of Petro Poroshenko. By this time, Anti-Maidan movements began gaining ground largely in Donetsk and Luhansk, which turned into separatist and pro-Russian sentiment. George’s Ribbon was soon adopted to symbolize loyalty to Russia. Protests devolved into armed conflict, igniting the Ukraine Civil War in Donbass in which the Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic were formed and declared independence from Ukraine in 2014. The ribbon, by now, was used widely amongst separatist forces, as well as being seen on Russian soldiers and mercenaries during the annexation of Crimea. The ribbon was ultimately outlawed by Ukraine in 2017 as they considered it a symbol of Russian occupation and separatism.
Now with the ongoing Russian invasion, George’s Ribbon can be seen regularly on Russian uniforms, whether it be standard ground forces, Spetsnaz, Chechens, etc. The ribbon has also been incorporated with the now notorious “Z” symbol, which was primarily used as an identifying marking for Russian forces, but has now become a popularized symbol of war in Russia. With everything being said, the ribbon has deep historical and religious meaning that has been engrained in Russian symbolism for centuries. It harkens back to Russia’s beginnings and has been a symbol of military prowess since the Russian empire. It also plays into the Russian narrative that they are trying to “denazify” Ukraine, which relates back to its Soviet meaning. George’s Ribbon has a long history in general, but in regards to Ukraine it has been a prominent symbol since Euromaidan.