The two shores of the soul
by Stefano Caprio

After the withdrawal from Kherson, the war on the ground would appear an entrenched standoff between the two banks of the Dnepr, returning to a condition similar to that experienced in 1480 in the so-called 'Confrontation on the Ugra'. At that time, the two forces of East and West chose not to continue the fight, instigating a period of revival in Russia to the point of its dream of becoming the 'third Rome'.


The withdrawal of the Russian troops from the western part of Kherson, the left bank of the Dnepr, is a crucial episode in the development of the 'military operation' by which Moscow intended to mend relations with its neighbours and distant neighbours, starting from the now distant 24 February invasion, which was directed mainly towards the town of Kherson.

This is undoubtedly a strategic junction for the control of the southern areas and access to Crimea, and it is no coincidence that the Ukrainian counter-offensive was concentrated on this side.

Beyond the military and political considerations, which are certainly very significant in the abandonment of a city occupied and 'annexed' by Russia, the circumstance also emphasises not indifferent symbolic dimensions, in a war that emphasises symbolism even more than territorial conquests.

Kherson is an important city of over two hundred thousand inhabitants, but its significance transcends its size or civil and geographical density. Its very name is highly symbolic, in a significant contradiction whereby 'kherson' is derived from the ancient Greek word 'khersones', meaning 'peninsula'.

The city, heretofore a mere outpost, was renamed by Tsarina Catherine II following her conquest of these areas in the late 18th century, a fact that has been frequently referenced by Putin. The German-Russian descendant of Peter the Great, the Westernized Tsar, wished, on the contrary, to 'return to the East', according to images deformed by the Enlightenment utopias of which she was a fervent devotee.

The southern Ukrainian areas thus received 'Greekising' titles, such as Mariupol, the city of salvation of the Crimean Greeks from the Tatar oppressors. And so Kherson was to pay homage to Khersones, the ancient Chersoneso of Tauride, the capital of the peninsula where the founder of Rus', Prince Vladimir, had first received Christian baptism, imposing economic and military agreement on the Byzantines through imperial marriage.

Today Khersones is a suburb of the new capital Sevastopol, another name chosen in honour of 'Greekness' by Catherine's lover and commander, Grigory Potemkin. It is home to the archaeological park of the ancient one, which the Russians later renamed Korsun, precisely to distinguish it from the Greeks and the many other peoples who had passed through or ruled the Crimea.

Today's Kherson on the Dnepr estuary is therefore an evocative city, awarding its masters the licence of 'ideal citizenship' of this always disputed land. Yet this is not the only symbolic value it expresses, as it is also the meeting place of East and West, which constitutes the nature of the country we call Ukraine.

Before becoming a modern, independent nation only thirty years ago, and before being a Soviet republic as it was called after the Bolshevik revolution, Ukraine was simply 'the border', as the meaning of its name goes.

Moreoverm the border was marked by the waters of the river that runs through its entire territory, the Dnepr for the Russians and Dnipro for the Ukrainians, whose bridges in Kherson are being blown up by the retreating Russians, starting with the great Antonovsky Bridge, a Soviet pride built in 1977 in the Antonovka district, where the staff of the Nazi occupation forces resided in 1941. Before the revolution, this centre was called 'Širokoe', 'the Largo', indicating precisely the wide space where the two banks meet.

The term 'Ukrainian' originates from this land, referring to the left and right banks of the river. When the Don Cossacks defeated the armies of the Polish king in the mid-seventeenth century, the Russian tsar welcomed them by assigning them 'the right border', pravobere┼żnaja ukraina, while the part that remained under the control of the Polish-Lithuanian kingdom was called 'the left border', levobere┼żnaja ukraina, and this subdivision remained in force until the time of Catherine the Great, who also imposed herself on the West, defining the entire conquered territory as 'Ukraina'.

In the reign of the Tsars of Russia, although the term appears in several documents as a geographical-administrative definition, Ukraine was however given the state name of Malorossija, 'Little Russia', to reinforce the identity pressure so much reiterated in the war by Putin and Patriarch Kirill, that 'we are the same people'.

Now it is back to the seventeenth century and the two opposing banks, the true border of the Russian soul, which is never able to fully explain its part in history, culture and spirituality, and now not even in war. The withdrawal from the 'left bank' is a snub above all to the claims of annexation with which Putin intended to exalt victory, both military and moral.

All the objectives announced in February with the 'defensive' and liberating invasion are missing: de-Nazification envisaged the overthrow of the government in Kiev, to put an end to the uprising that began with the Maidan in 2014, de-militarisation intended to curb the encirclement and NATO threats, annexation affirmed the return to the original homeland, and all this has tragically failed, leaving hundreds of thousands of lives on the field.

Volodymyr Zelenskyj has gone from puppet of the oligarchs to president of a people proud of its history, NATO has expanded as never before, and its member countries are supplying Ukraine with weapons in endless spurts, and now a newly annexed city is being abandoned 'to avoid unnecessary massacres', as the Russian commander, General Surovikin, put it.

This is why Russian war rhetoric and propaganda, starting with Putin's delirious proclamations, has now abandoned the terms that have been rendered meaningless by the war's unsuccessful course, to focus on the symbolic purpose of the 'de-satanisation' of Ukraine and the world as a whole.

As the spirited ex-president Medvedev wrote on Telegram, "Russia's purpose in this operation is to stop the assault of the supreme despot of Hades, whatever we want to call him, Satan, Lucifer, Šaitan, Iblis or whatever", juxtaposing biblical and Koranic terminology.

It is no coincidence that the main instigator of Russia's absolute war, Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov, defines the goal as dešaitanizatsia, a joint 'Jihad' of Christians and Muslims. Another Kremlin 'hawk', Security Council deputy secretary Aleksej Pavlov, has recently written an article for Argumenty i Fakty in which he defines Ukraine as a 'totalitarian hyper-sect', where only Satanists, pagans and sectarians of all kinds roam, including autocephalous Orthodox and Greek Catholics, who prepare 'dirty bombs' not only as explosive weapons, but also as poisons of the spirit.

The war on the ground thus seems to have stalled in the trench confrontation between the two banks of the Dnepr, returning to a condition similar to that experienced in 1480 in the so-called 'Confrontation on the Ugra', a deployment of Russians and Tatars on opposite banks of the Ugra river, near the present-day Russian-Ukrainian border, which put an end to the two-century-old 'Tatar yoke'.

At that time, the two forces of East and West finally chose not to continue the struggle, and Russia began its rebirth to the point of dreaming of becoming the 'third Rome', the bearer of salvation throughout the world, as Vladimir Putin's Russia would like to replicate today.

Almost coinciding with the retreat to the East, the Russian president solemnly approved the document of the 'Foundations of State Policy for the Preservation and Strengthening of Traditional Russian Moral and Spiritual Values', which came into force on 9 November, after the 'November bank holiday' of patriotic holidays.

In the repetitiveness of these proclamations in defence of tradition, one notices an accentuation of the messianic tones that spring from the patriotic dimensions, to the detriment even of the Christian Orthodox characteristics of these 'moral and spiritual values', which are only included to complement the principles 'that guarantee the unity of our multinational and multi-faith country, support the progress of the life of the people and the development of its human potential', according to the Putin decree.

Thanks to these foundations 'it is possible to face new challenges and threats, reacting and asserting itself in the sphere of geopolitics, social, cultural and technological processes' by exalting 'civil identity' before religious identity, to which the importance of 'faith in the one God' and the 'dogmatic truth of Orthodoxy' is conceded second place.

It is not a political or religious ideology that drives Russia into wars, it is a self-celebratory 'vocation', an instinct to re-define the foundations of life itself, an exasperated and never-ending search for the synthesis between the two shores of the inner geography, between the two surfaces of the mirror that reflects the image of oneself in an increasingly distorted manner. 

It is a dreamlike dimension, which destroys real life with the affirmation of a virtual world: after all, it is the prophecy of post-modern civilisation, on both sides of the river.

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