06/11/2022, 09.52
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A nation of resentment

by Stefano Caprio

Max Scheler argued that the best demonstration of the Russian culture of resentment are the 'humiliated and offended' heroes of Gogol, Dostoevsky and Tolstoy. Today, the Russians think they have done their part after the end of the Cold War, while 'the others' have taken advantage of it. This anger has exploded in Ukraine, showing the whole world how little has been understood about a people not only proud of their traditions, but able to expose the hypocrisies and weaknesses of others.

The recent statements by former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, who confessed that he hates Westerners because they are 'bastards and degenerates, who want the end of Russia... as long as I am alive, I will do everything to make them disappear', has caused a stir. In Russia, the words of Medvedev, who has been struggling with severe alcohol addiction for years, have not been given much weight for some time, and even his statement about the 'horsemen of the Apocalypse approaching' is being read as the feeling of the 'horsemen of the Alkoholiss'.

Nevertheless, the bewilderment remains at the transformation of one of the most moderate political figures of the twenty-year Putin period, expressing a deep resentment towards an undefined West. Medvedev, after all, had been mocked by Naval'nyj's investigations, which had revealed his passion for unbridled luxury in a very 'Western' style. The denunciation of him had given rise to the 'Sneakers' campaign, due to the scandal of his habit of jogging every day in a new pair of expensive sneakers, which he compulsively bought on Amazon at the rate of about twenty a month. The young Russians had taken to the streets chanting the slogan 'He is not our Dimon', a childish diminutive of 'Vovan' aimed at President Putin, his protector since his university days.

In the same days as Medvedev's scalmane, the sudden decision of Moscow Patriarch Kirill to replace his closest collaborator, Metropolitan Ilarion, and exile him to the foreign see of Budapest, while replacing him with loyalist and young Metropolitan Antonij, has caused astonishment. Even these rather abrupt moves by Kirill towards other members of the hierarchy do not come as much of a surprise to Russians, as they have always been a characteristic of his impulsive character and authoritarian management of the ecclesiastical machine. In this case, however, the resonance towards the West, which Ilarion tried to blandish with his continuous initiatives for dialogue and meetings with high representatives of the Western Christian confessions, such as his last visit to the Hungarian Cardinal Peter Erdo, who also frequently recurs among the names of the papacies in a future conclave, resonates again.

Ilarion had avoided at all costs the controversy over patriarchal support for Putin's war, which has instead characterised Kirill's magisterium over the last three months, with the hammering accusation of Western meddling in the lives of the Orthodox faithful in Ukraine and in Russia itself, seeking to impose a degenerate vision of morality and of Christianity itself, reduced to support for "gay parades". In this context, the expulsion of Ilarion appears to be a further demonstration of the ability of the 'real Russians' to defend themselves against the encroachments of the enemies of the faith.

And yet Kirill himself, like the 'apocalyptic' ex-president, has a past of great familiarity with the ecumenical world outside Russia, in particular with the Catholic Church, so much so that he himself instilled it in his faithful servant Ilarion, now replaced by an even more faithful prelate, Antonij, whom he himself had installed as bishop in Rome and then in Paris in his thirties, raising him to the dignity of Russian Metropolitan for all of Western Europe. The disconcertment is such that some commentators believe that the transfer of Ilarion to an EU territory as pro-Putin as Viktor Orban's Hungary is actually a shrewd move to have an influential Russian mediator between Russia and the West, because one never knows how everything will turn out.

Beyond hypotheses and interpretations, the question remains: from where does this deep-seated hostility of the Russians, at least of those in power today, towards a mythological West that they themselves have coveted and blandished for so many years? It is not a question of Russia's real 'eastern diversity' or Asian diversity, even in the context of a re-proposition of the Eurasian ideology that describes the Russians as the descendants of the Scythians, the bogeyman of the civilised world since the time of the Roman Empire. Russia is not China or India, or even Turkey, with their ancient civilisations and religions, making it truly another world compared to Europe or America, which asserts itself without the need to shout hatred and resentment. Between the 'Anglo-Saxon' West and Xi Jinping's 'neo-Confucian' China, there is a very strong economic and geopolitical competition, hoping that it will not degenerate into a military conflict for Beijing's reconquest of Taiwan, an eventuality for which the Russians are already sharpening their weapons, dreaming of fighting the West from the West. But Beijing is showing itself to be superior, claiming even moral and cultural superiority, without the need to stoop to the hysteria of Russian hatred.

Various intellectuals have spoken of Russia as the 'country of resentment', such as the philosopher Mikhail Jampolsky, the political scientist Sergei Medvedev, the philologist Mikhail Edelštein, or the historian Ivan Kurilla, all of whom are mentioned in the excellent international column Signal on the Meduza information site, which is heavily censored within Russia. According to these comments, Russia today is prey to a deep feeling of offence, which is precisely the meaning of the French ressentiment. Søren Kierkegaard defined it as 'the resentment of the mediocre towards those who dare to rise above the masses', as the Danish philosopher himself was; for Friedrich Nietzsche it was 'the hatred of servants towards their masters', in his opinion inspired by Christianity itself. In any case, it is a feeling of envy and hostility towards the one who is in possession of something that you will never have.

Another German philosopher, Max Scheler, wrote a text in 1913 on resentment as a political emotion, in which he considered that social inequality inevitably generates the anger of the 'lower classes' towards the higher ones. This feeling has to be satisfied from time to time, Scheler argued, at least at the level of political discussions or campaigns in public opinion, by getting the 'upper classes' to concede something, by increasing workers' salaries or by not always showing off their diamond necklaces. If the great masses 'from below' lose hope that they can achieve something, envy will turn into resentment, with the risk of overwhelming everything. According to Scheler, the best demonstration of the Russian culture of resentment are the 'humiliated and offended' heroes of Gogol, Dostoevsky and Tolstoy.

Today, resentment really seems to be the main characteristic of Putin and Kirill's Russia. One of the Russian president's most frequently used arguments to justify the 'necessary operation' in Ukraine is the offence at Nato's eastward enlargement: they had been promised they would never do it, and instead it was a deception, hence a lack of respect. Ever since the famous 'Munich speech' in 2007, Putin has repeatedly accused the West of wanting to 'teach Russians democracy', an accusation that in recent times has evolved into that of 'wanting to impose values on us that are foreign to us'.

From the point of view of Putin and his hierarchs, the 'first world' did not want to recognise Russia as part of itself. No American president would dream of talking about the importance of democracy, for example, to his French or German colleague. 'They' feel that 'they' are 'ours', while 'we' are strangers to them, as perceived by the Russians, and have remained so even after the end of the USSR. Hence the hostile definition of the 'collective West', or even more derogatory 'the Anglosaksy', who have 'decided to abandon us'. It is a feeling that unites representatives of the Russian elite and vast social groups, including official members of Orthodoxy, who are hostile towards ecumenism that leaves the Russian Church on the sidelines and exalts the Constantinopolitan primacy, also sponsored by the West, and with which Moscow has now severed all ties.

The Russians think they have done their part after the end of the Cold War, while 'the others' have taken advantage of it. One is reminded of the slogan spread in Russia in the 1990s, when every reform was proposed to 'live like in all civilised states', even renovations of private houses were called evroremont. What was meant then was material prosperity, capitalist consumerism, but even when Russia had now reached the level 'of the civilised', it continued to feel insulted and humiliated.




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