On Chechens and Buryats, Francis is not speaking without a script
When he refers to the cruelty associated with the aggression against Ukraine raising questions about some ethnic minorities, the pope uses with great precision the keys to interpreting aspects of the Russian world, namely Russia, the Russian state, and non-Russian ethnic groups, three different parts of a single and complex reality.
Pope Francis has caused quite a stir. In an interview with America, a magazine published by the Jesuits of the United States, on who is the source of cruelty in the aggression against Ukraine, the pontiff raised questions about ethnic minorities and “traditions” that are different from those of ethnic Russians.
Many criticised Francis for the words almost racist slant, and Russia took advantage of the situation to label the pope’s remarks as part of the much hated "Western Russophobia," which – according to Maria Zakharova, the strange spokeswoman for Russia’s Foreign Ministry – reached the level of “perversion”. Her thundering anathema against the successor of Saint Peter unleashed Russian hackers against Vatican sites.
While it is true that Argentinian pope likes to speak somewhat freely, especially when he is in the company of his Jesuit confreres, it is also hard to imagine that such provocative expressions could be lightheartedly dismissed in an interview with an authoritative publication.
For some time, even before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, all of the world's diplomacies have been tested in extremely tragic ways; sometimes words really seem to escape the control of the great of this world, escalating tensions.
Remember Joe Biden? In March 2021, after the arrest of Aleksey Navalny, the US president spoke about Russian interference in the 2020 presidential election. When asked if he believed Putin was a killer, the US president replied, “I do”. And that “he will pay a price.”
The Ukraine War cannot be blamed on the excessive frankness of the US president, who is also known for his often freewheeling expressions, which fit consistently with the highly competitive spirit of US foreign policy.
Even Pope Francis’s words correspond to a historical diplomatic approach, that of the Vatican’s Ostpolitik, much more than to the spirit of South American improvisation, which partly characterises the current pontificate.
Bergoglio’s spontaneity, in reality, is a necessary cure chosen by the Catholic Church to heal the ancient scourge of subdued curial hypocrisy, which often hides very human weaknesses and abuse under the cloak of sacred palaces and liturgies.
The decade-old Argentine pontificate has uncovered and secularised what in the Vatican did not deserve to be preserved and perpetuated. While the work of purification seems far from a satisfactory outcome, in the case of Russia and the war, the meaning of the provocation appears decidedly different.
In fact, the pope demonstrates that he is a fine connoisseur of the “Russian world”, understood both in the ideological version that justifies Putin's war as a "universal mission," and in its variegated historical-geographical version, made up of the many ethnic groups and cultures that live across Russia’s vast Eurasian landmass. For the first time, after all these months, Francis explicitly says that Russia, indeed the "Russian state", is guilty of invasion and slams the "cruelty" that is brutalising Ukraine, thus hinting at possible accusations of war crimes, a possible second Nuremberg against Putin and his gang.
“I have much information about the cruelty of the troops that come in,” Francis says in the interview with the Jesuit magazine, noting that ‘the Chechens, the Buryats and so on” are from Russia but “are not of the Russian tradition,” using very precisely the keys of interpretation of the components of the Russian world, namely Russia, the Russian state, and non-Russian ethnicities, three different dimensions of a single and complex reality.
The current “Russian state” came into being after the end of the Soviet Union; it is a Putinite state, which does not correspond at all to the broader and more original concept that we call “Russia”.
The post-Soviet Russian Federation was preceded by the Soviet Union, the empire of the tsars, the principalities, and the original Kievan "Rus", which never conceived itself as a state, not only because of the different meanings associated with modernity compared to ancient polities, but also as an expression of self-awareness. Russia has always sought to be much more than itself; Putinism, on the other hand, has generated a "state" that reduces its spirit to the lust for power and grudges of narrow and degrading measure.
In all of this year’s papal statements, one can clearly perceive the different consideration that the Catholic Church has vis-à-vis Russia and the Russian State, reflecting the greatness of a truly universal tradition and culture, compared to a disappointingly faux-moralistic and pretentious movement that destroys rather than build, that debases rather than exalt, that silences rather than engage in dialogue.
This is why, Francis refers to “non-Russian ethnic groups”, even at the risk of appearing disrespectful towards such minorities, one of the "mortal sins” in today’s secular catechism, which is not as well outlined as the ancient canons of Catholic doctrine.
Certainly, the poor and marginalised must be defended, and in this case, it is clear that Chechens, Buryats, but also Tatars and Bashkirs, Dagestani and Chuvash, Ingush and Kalmyks and other nationalities scattered across Russia are victims of state violence that used them as "cannon fodder" in the early stages of the war; later causing even worse tragedies, like those in spring and summer in Bucha, Mariupol, and many other cities and tormented regions of Ukraine.
Today, in reality, tragedy and “cruelty” concern Russians mobilised by force, while ethnic troops volunteered, driven by the illusion of material gain.
The mention of Chechens and Buryats does not seem to insist on ethnic or "genetic" difference between Russians and non-Russians, but rather points to other considerations.
If one accuses the Russian state of cruelty in its aggression, bringing up the troops that everyone knows are the result of cynical exploitation from above, this means condemning precisely those who have exploited the misery and desperation of marginalised populations:
While it is true that Chechen Kadyrovites are famous for their ruthlessness, already seen at work in Syria, there is no doubt that this is a strategy developed directly from the Kremlin.
After all, Chechen President Kadyrov is known to be Putin's "black soul", his alter ego on the ground, and if the Buryats loot Ukrainian homes to take televisions and refrigerators, it is also because the bourgeois comforts of Moscow living have never been shared with those who live beyond the Siberian taiga.
Among the many ethnic groups that could be mentioned, the Buryats have rather evocative historical-geographical characteristics. They proudly claim to be the descendants of the Huns, the "barbarians of the steppe" who took part in the invasions of the 5th century, fighting the Romans, but also the Visigoths, the Angles and other peoples.
They symbolise universal invasion, like that of the 13th century Mongolic hordes, to whom the Buryats are closely related: the ancient seat of the Great Khan of Karakorum is not far from Ulan-Ude, the capital of the existing republic of Buryatia.
Although Pope Francis chose to live in relatively spartan quarters of Casa Santa Marta, he certainly has had many opportunities to visit the most solemn Vatican rooms, including the Room of Heliodorus with Raphael's fresco that describes the legendary meeting in 452 AD between Pope Leo the Great with Attila, king of the Huns, when the Church saved ancient Roman civilisation from complete destruction. Like Leo I, Francis I faces the new Attila-Genghis Khan in the Kremlin.
If the Buryats cast on Putin the shadow of the barbarian invasions from the East, this is all the more the case for the sinister image raised by the reference to the Chechens, main players in a brutal civil war that broke out after the end of the Soviet Union.
Without going into all the details of the massacres in Grozny and Gudermes, which lasted from 1993 to 2009, with hundreds of thousands of victims, cities and towns razed to the ground, suffice it to say, the coming to power of Putin is linked precisely to the Chechen War, when in 1999 he was called by Yeltsin to lead the government to put an end to the massacres.
Everyone in Russia remembers Putin’s first words soon after he took over: “We will pursue the terrorists everywhere. You will forgive me, but if we catch them on the toilet, we will wipe them out in the outhouse,” words that set the tone for his style of government, one that is certainly not conducive to dialogue.
Other issues are raised by the pope’s aforementioned words, including purely religious ones. The Chechens are Muslims and the Buryats are Buddhist, and certainly Francis did not intend to condemn non-Christian religions over any brutality; on the contrary, he is warning against the instrumental use of religion in war and in the claims of those in power.
Kadyrov understands this very well, as he defended "with a sword" the divine right of jihad in Ukraine, claiming the superiority of Islam and his own interpretation of the Qur‘an even over the papal magisterium.
Post-Soviet religiosity is often very artificial, whether it is Islamic fasts or shamanic propitiations, up to the Orthodox liturgies themselves. The pope of Rome suggests that people who grew up until yesterday in atheism and in the denial of religious values, who today stand as universal defenders of "traditional values", are perhaps not very credible.
In the pontiff’s words, the decisive fact certainly concerns the “Russian tradition" to which cruel ethnic groups do not refer. The real Russia, Francis tells us, is not that of Putin and Kadyrov, and perhaps not even that of Patriarch Kirill, when he manipulates history and religion to justify invasions and massacres.
The pope’s Russia is not only ancient Rus' with its holy monks and iconographers, nor the devastated and martyred Ukraine; it is instead, the soul of a world that has forgotten its true nature, the world that God has entrusted to men, women and peoples of every latitude, in which to build a fraternity of peace, not empires of war.
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