War over ways of life
by Stefano Caprio

The ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine has stirred up two ghosts, awaken two unfinished identities, whose actual legacy in people's lives will long be difficult to define.

Ukrainian President Zelensky's triumphant European tour is a very clear and firm response to Russian threats, and not only in terms of military assets like planes and tanks.

After becoming the embodiment of the national spirit in a country that thanks to Putin's war has finally found its own identity, the hero of Kyiv’s resistance to the invasion has sought to give himself a broader, European and global character, explaining that Sláva Ukrayíni! –  “Glory to Ukraine", which he repeated before the European Parliament, also means "long live Europe" and the West, long live its “way of life”.

Such an expression highlights the difference with the much vaunted "traditional values” that Putin's Russia felt compelled to defend with its “special military operation”. Now it is clearer that the "special" does not refer so much to "military", but to ideology and "metaphysics", to quote Patriarch Kirill, who now turns out to be a former KGB agent during the Soviet era.

This is certainly nothing exceptional. Russian Church leaders have always been politically submissive to the state, whether under Tsarist or Bolshevik rule. This is a well-known fact. Now documents found in Switzerland – who knows why only at this time – show that the Russian president and the Russian Orthodox patriarch have a similar profile, a clear sign of the way the Soviet way of life really was.

When Putin speaks about traditional values, he paradoxically mixes the principles of Orthodox Christianity with those of socialist atheism, with a decidedly disorienting effect, without fully clarifying what he is talking about.

Conversely, Ukrainian nationalism represents a set of traits that include the separatism of former Soviet peoples, nations and regions to Europeanness. The latter has never really asserted itself, except in the "special financial operations" of the common currency and the common market rules.

The ongoing war actually stirs up two spectres, awakes two unfinished identities, whose actual legacy in people's lives will long be difficult to define.

It is easy to simplify everything as an opposition between East and West, with Ukraine’s Dnipro River as the dividing line, the right and left banks as the border of two worlds. As in more ancient times, such a geographical division reflects the obviously senseless and misleading idea that Europe is but a colony of the United States while Russia is but the front gate of great Asian, Indian or Chinese masses.

If this were the case, it would be more logical to limit ourselves to celebrating the new world order split between Washington and Beijing, with the rest of the world as a mere background. In reality, China and the United States are not (yet) at war, and Russia's war is fought just to avoid being relegated to the sidelines.

Russia wants to count in the world, and recover its lost role of superpower; Ukraine wants to count in Europe, and find a new definition of its own national identity in a community of united peoples that does not suppress their own individual differences. Both goals are far from being realised, and the outcome of the war in Donbass will not settle the matter. So what is really behind this clash?

One of the great issues at stake is freedom, understood by Westerners as "individual rights", and by Russians as an "affirmation of mutual union". Russia rejects the defence of minorities, whether ethnic, ethical, ideological, or materialistic; in this sense, it combines social "communism" with spiritual "communion" into the Slavophile notion of Sobornost.

According to the latter, a people is free if it does not allow itself to be warped by secondary or "foreign" elements, by much disliked "foreign agents” who have become the core of Russia’s domestic politics in recent years, a reflection of its warlike foreign policy.

The traditional idea of unity does not admit freedom of expression, not only in the media, but also in facial and body expressions. Putin's repression, in this sense, is more radical and brutal than even during the Revolution’s "red terror" or Stalin’s purges, when “ideological deviations" were abhorred; today, in Russia, it is enough not to smile during official events to be deemed a traitor. This way, Russia looks a lot more “Asiatic”, like Turkmenistan, where people are chosen for their ability to smile and bear themselves during parades.

If there is one thing that terribly infuriates Putin is Alexei Navalny’s ironic and insolent smirk when he talks about him. The Russian president is now incapable of smiling, either because of too much Botox or due to the necessary inexpressiveness of the doppelgängers who often have to stand in for him in public.

The Western response to totalitarian oppression is to exalt freedom of thought and conscience, but nowadays that is less convincing than in the days of the Cold War. Back then, support was provided to every form of communication that tried to escape the ambient conformism; today it is hard to contain the flood of digital communication that empties every thought of its meaning.

Russia’s invective, often provocatively limited to "LGBT propaganda", is directed at the elusiveness and fluidity of the “way of life” of today’s world, whether Western or Eastern. It is no longer enough to raise the flag of rights and freedoms, with the risk of falling into the mutual misunderstanding of "untruth" that swamps all content, not only of morality or religion, but even of science and culture.

Even less comprehensible is the dialectic between unbridled consumerism and happy degrowth, which mixes up environmental issues and social concerns, and appears more ludicrous than ever in the context of the ongoing world war.

Russia sees Western sanctions as a way to convert to a more virtuous, sober and autarkic way of life, leading to a farcical conversion of its technological, farming and service sectors that evoke the falsely communitarian aspects of Soviet society, where corruption and privilege mattered most of all.

If only in the making other people's consumer goods, China has one or two things to teach the rest of the world, and if this is the future path of Russia’s economy, there will be no escape from Chinese colonisation.

Russians more than others have exploited turbo-capitalism, giving rise to an oligarchic class that has turned energy riches into unbridled luxury, as evinced by the spaceship-like yachts seized in European ports from Putin's billionaires.

In Russia, social equality is based on the rich giving to the poor: the more the oligarch asserts himself, the larger the class of beneficiaries and cronies is created around him, but this type of society can be best described as a Russian form of neo-feudalism.

At this level, there really is very little difference from the rest of the world since globalisation has appallingly increased social inequalities in every country and continent. Certainly, there will be no joint degrowth, nor any happiness to share.

Russians will have to adapt to be among the marginalised “rogue countries” like Iran and North Korea, eating and drinking what’s on the Kremlin’s menu, while Europeans will enjoy the few goods that an increasingly trimmed purchasing power will allow, looking from afar at the very rich masters of those digital applications that will be left to them to play with, waiting for a job, and an increasingly uncertain and diminished pension.

This clash will be no less ominous as populations shrink and social institutions decline, from the family to school and religion, not to mention the health issues that the Covid years were but a disquieting harbinger.

Turning to lighter things, the competition over “ways of life” is now also found on stage and in entertainment as epitomised by the “Zelensky Festival”.

In Soviet times, Russians madly loved the songs and singers who took part in Italy’s Sanremo Music Festival, artists like Celentano, the Ricchi e Poveri, and Al Bano; two years ago, the latter sang at Putin's birthday; now, on the eve of his eightieth birthday, he denounced him, doing push-ups on stage, not knowing whom to kneel to anymore.

All Russians over 50 know by heart the lyrics to “Un Vero Italiano” (A true Italian) by Toto Cutugno, but nowadays they will seek comfort in the "Putin concert", lionising the “True Russian" at Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium on 22 February; there, in lieu of the traditional press conference and State of Nation address, Putin will mark the first anniversary of the Ukraine invasion and Russia’s superiority over Sanremo.

The last time the Russian president showed up at a stadium, he did so wearing a very expensive, Western-made jacket, to extol the way of life of the new world under construction: the war of all against all, and above all against oneself.