For many people reading this article, the flag of Russia may seem like a new design crafted after the fall of the Soviet Union. In reality, it is among some of the oldest flag designs.
The true origins of Russia’s white, red, and blue tricolor are a bit of a mystery. The flag was first hoisted in an official capacity on January 20, 1705, when Peter the Great declared the flag be used as Russia’s merchant vessel flag. But there are at least two accounts of the flag’s origin, both occurring in the mid to late 17th century.
The first origin story dates back to 1668, when Russia’s first naval vessel, the frigate Oryol, was being built. Being that this was Russia’s first true warship, Tsar Alexis I hired experienced Dutch sailors and ship engineers to both design and sail the vessel. Being that Russia had no naval flag, Tsar Alexis deferred to the ship’s head designer who made a flag design very similar to the Dutch tricolor – the first flag design to have three horizontal stripes.
Despite this plausible story, some say the flag designed by the Dutch engineer was not the tricolor and instead depicted a blue cross with alternating red and white quarters. The second origin story that fits more into the blue cross flag narrative states that Peter the Great had ordered a frigate from the Netherlands and it arrived in Russia during the early 1690s flying the Dutch flag. Inspired by the Dutch design, Peter rearranged the colors into the order we know today. For a few years in the 1690s, the tricolor defaced with a two-headed eagle became the flag of Russia’s Tsar until it was replaced in 1700 with a similar eagle on a yellow field.
Though never made official, the tricolor was popular enough to be considered the de facto flag of Russia for almost two centuries. It even outlasted attempts by Alexander II to replace the flag with his own standard from 1858 through 1883. The flag would finally be made the official national flag in 1896, right before the coronation of Tsar Nicolas II. However, this would prove to be short lived.
The flag’s first stint as the official Russian flag was cut off in 1918 at the culmination of the Russian Revolution. Russian communists rallied under the color red, as it was not only the de facto color of socialism but a highly revered color in Russian culture. In fact, “red” in Russian etymology relates to “beautiful” and “very good.” Russian revolutionaries would even go so far as ripping the white and blue stripes from their flags, making some of the very first unofficial Soviet flag long pennants.
Though the Russian tricolor was stripped of its official status in 1918, an official Soviet flag would not be approved until December of 1922. The first, short-lived design was a red field defaced by an ornate coat of arms and state seal, featuring the iconic crossed hammer and sickle. These symbols became iconic during the Russian Revolution, standing for industrial laborers (hammer), the peasantry (sickle) and the union between the two. Some sources report that this design was supposed to have an unusual flag ratio of 4:1 but that no variants were ever produced in this size. In less than a year, the highly detailed flag would be replaced by the simpler and more familiar hammer, sickle, and star design.
Though this variant would go through two official redesigns in 1955 and 1980, the overall design remained consistent. In 1955, the hammer was shortened and the shape of the sickle changed while the color of the field was made a brighter red in 1980. One interesting feature on all of the hammer, sickle, and star flags was that they were meant to be a blank red field on the back side. However, few flag makers followed these regulations.
With the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, the tricolor flag again became Russia’s de facto flag and would regain official flag status two years later. Although this meant the official end of the Soviet Union flag, it still lives on in spirit. Since the Soviet Union was the first socialist state, many future socialist countries would use the Soviet flag as inspiration, including China, Vietnam, and the People’s Republic of the Congo (1970-1991).