What will remain of Putin’s regime after this war no longer matters that much. It has achieved its goal, which was not Kyiv’s conquest, but the disintegration of the hated world order called “globalisation”. Ukraine also marks a point of no return for Orthodoxy, which will now be tested by the military imposition of Putin's dogma.
Alarm bells are sounding in Kyiv as catastrophe sweeps across Ukraine, a land that lays on the border between East and West.
The Russians have come and invaded Ukraine, and now stand in front of Kyiv’s Great Gate, which 19th century composer Modest Mussorgsky lionised in the final piece of his Pictures at an Exhibition suite, based on a baptismal hymn from the repertory of Russian Orthodox chants.
This represents the rebirth of Orthodox Russia, at least in the intentions of Tsar Putin the “Terrible” who aspires to the glory of his predecessors, from the baptising prince Vladimir the Great to Stalin, the “Father of Nations” and the Soviet Gulag.
Vladimir Putin has dropped his last card, the final one, in the pursuit of his historic mission of rebuilding Russia’s greatness, worthy of Empire and the Revolution.
He did this after he invaded Georgia and annexed Crimea, rescued the Kazakhs, protected the Armenians, split the Caucasus with Turkey, quarrelled with the Japanese, embraced China, to which he gave Siberia, crushed terrorists in Syria, supported guerrillas of Libya, stood by the dictators of Africa and Venezuela, retaken Belarus and carved up Moldova.
He also did it after he inspired world sovereigntists in Europe, Americas and Asia, meddled in Western elections with teams of hackers, poisoned spies that went over to the enemy, shipped dissidents to camps, protected Orthodoxy and Islam from Catholic and Protestant proselytising, defended the family from all gender diversity and information from diversity of news and views.
In the end, Putin went back to his origin, closing the circle of history, spending all his political, military and ideological energy. After 23 years of absolute power, he got tired of hesitating, and realised that he had nothing more to lose. In Kyiv, the glory of Putinism makes its last call.
Putin's first two presidential terms (2000-2008), after a year as prime minister, were dedicated to licking the wounds of post-communism and the savage liberalisation of the Yeltsyn years, which had led to financial default and the devaluation of the ruble in the late 1990s. Since then, Russia’s currency has remained subordinate to the dollar (and the euro).
By repaying its debts thanks to its oil, Russia went through a new economic boom during Putin’s first years of power. During this phase, basically only the president's friends and relatives benefitted, the “oligarchs” who form the backbone of the regime. Putin handed the presidency over to a trustworthy Dmitry Medvedev, who was mocked by Navalny’s kids as “clumsy Dimon” swimming in gold.
As prime minister Putin began to imagine a plan of economic, political and international restoration that began with the “trial war” in Georgia, limiting himself to the two separatist republics (Abkhazia and Ossetia) staying clear of Tbilisi, the city of Stalin, not Russian enough for his quest of glory.
Since then, the confrontation has grown year by year, fuelled by resentment against NATO troops deployed in Poland and Lithuania, the two countries with whom Russia has been in historical competition in Central and Eastern Europe since the Middle Ages.
Ukraine has always wavered between the two camps as it is in its nature, reflected in changes in power and street protests after communism. The final climax began in Maidan Square, followed by Crimea’s annexation in 2014, which, regardless of the outcome, now ends in Kyiv. Now for Putin's Russia, there is nowhere else to go, no other border to cross; it’s the end of the tracks.
What will remain of Putin’s regime after this war is no longer of great relevance now. Putin himself is described as obsessed and isolated, locked up for the past two years in an anti-pandemic bunker with little or no more physical relations with the outside world, like Stalin during the Nazi invasion in his small windowless room.
He might be able to hang on to power for another 20 years, embalmed like Brezhnev in the 1980s, or give up power to any subordinate in order to enjoy the billions accumulated in one of the mansions reported by Navalny.
After stifling all opposition, he is not likely to be ousted by an election defeat or popular uprising. If that should happen, his successors would rule a proud but isolated Russia, at war with the whole world, unable to easily come out of its shell.
The end of globalisation
Putinism di achieve one goal, which was not the conquest of Ukraine, but the disintegration of the hated world order based on "globalisation”. In Putin's latest war speeches, his anger is centred on the “foolish euphoria" that the Americans and the entire West showed at the end of Soviet communism, thinking that they could dominate the whole world.
No one can deny that the Russian invader has not touched a very sensitive nerve in the international community. Ever since he replaced Yeltsyn, the new tsar has challenged by every means the vision of a world without economic, political and cultural boundaries, in which everything mixes and taints, erasing the identities of peoples, families, human nature itself as defined by traditional concepts.
In lieu of Pax Americana, which thought of imposing an updated version of Pax Romana, a civilisation of laws shared by all nations, Putin raised the flag of Pax Ruthena, the ambivalent translation of Русский мир (Russkiy Mir), a Russian expression that means both Russian World and Russian Peace.
Against a homogenising universalism, Putin came to the defence of traditions and “moral values”, leaving each to their own. It is no coincidence that the Ukrainian offensive came at the moment of maximum weakness of the American enemy, the “Empire of Lies”, as Putin likes to describe the US, after its shameful flight from Afghanistan that brought back memories to before 2001, or even before 1979, when the Soviets drove into Kabul.
Russians do not like the world of the internet, a devilish invention of the damned 1990s, a tool that allows everyone to know everyone, without really knowing themselves anymore. The world of Facebook and Twitter, in which everyone shows off without restraint, and remembering is limited to a few seconds of the message, leaving no trace of the past, the merits and faults of history.
Putin instead brought back insults and victories, but it is not a return to the previous state and order. It is a new world, in which everything is regained from scratch, everything must be redefined. Few veterans in their 90 remember the Great Patriotic War, as the Russians call World War II, and the ensuing division of the world.
No one understands the significance of turning points in previous centuries, so much so that the reason for Russia’s National Unity Day on 4 November, which celebrates the victory over the Poles in 1612, escapes ordinary Russians, despite the fact that events back then explain well the events of today.
Russia has defended itself against the world's assault on its borders since its origins, and many past centuries have had their own Putin. Prince Andrey Bogolyubsky attacked Kyiv in 1159, and moved the capital to Vladimir, Moscow followed, to defend himself from Bulgars and Pechenegs.
In 1238 the other great prince Alexander Nevsky defended the Russians on the Baltic from the Swedes and Teutonic Knights, and then struck a deal with the Mongols to save Orthodox Russia. The Prince of Moscow Dmitry Donskoy (from the Don – Donbass) beat the Mongols for the first time in 1380, his armies blessed by the holy monk Sergius (Sergey) of Radonezh, the most revered saint in the Russian Orthodox Church.
In 1557 Ivan the Terrible crushed the Tatars of Kazan and stifled uprisings in Novgorod, while the Romanov dynasty asserted itself in the early 17th century invoking Our Lady of Kazan against their enemies, and then welcomed in the Russian bosom the “Ukrainian” Cossacks who had turned against the Polish kingdom.
Peter the Great built St Petersburg and his Empire after crushing a Swedish army in 1709 and holding back the Turks. Russia saved Europe from Napoleon's Grande Armée in 1812, and Stalin triumphed in 1945 over Hitler’s aggression, which devastated the Ukraine.
These are but a few footnotes in the story of anti-globalisation, which seeks a unitary state that absorbs smaller peoples, but does not submit to the masters of the world. Such rhetoric justifies “illiberal ideologies’ whereby there is no equality and levelling of values and rights, there are strong identities that take precedence over weaker ones, such as Russia over Ukraine, or the Church over heresy.
A militant Church
The justification for Russia’s invasion is not even historical, economic or political, but is rooted in religion. It is the defence of the “Orthodox world”, universal Christianity in its Russian interpretation, which goes even beyond that of the official Church herself.
Putin's religion is not limited to canonical dogmas and liturgies, however solemn and showy they may be, like those of Patriarch Kirill. It is a faith that dates back to the patriotic passion of the old schismatic believer who in the 17th century professed that Russia’s customs are even “more authentic” than those of Greece, a claim paid with expulsions and persecutions down the centuries.
It is the Christianity of Kyiv, that of the “new people” who must fight against all internal and external enemies because every other Church has failed, lost in heresy and immorality, conquered by the enemies of the true faith.
It is a religion that is both pagan and Christian, the typically Russian “double faith” that celebrates Mother Earth along with the suffering Christ wandering in the snow-covered steppes.
The Patriarch of Moscow Kirill and his helpers (such as the "foreign" Metropolitan Hilarion and the "internal" Tikhon, Putin’s former spiritual father) inspired the supernationalist ideology of Sobornost, the idea of bringing under the Russian roof all related peoples in accordance with the Slavophile dreams of the 9th century.
Since Putin rushed into his “Orthodox crusade” against the whole world, the Orthodox Church herself has been in difficulty, so much so that the patriarch is unable to bless the reconquest of Ukraine, for fear of becoming isolated from the entire Christian world.
Only the most radical monks and the most extremist lay movements, who often deem Putin too moderate, support a “militant Church” and now rejoice at Kyiv's return into the fold of Greater Russia.
It will not be easy to reconcile the political-military use of religion with the true renaissance of the faith. Since the 1990s, this has been characterised by competition among the Churches over jurisdictions and institutional dominance rather true spirituality.
Ukraine also marks a point of no return within Orthodoxy, which has split over Constantinople’s decision to grant autocephaly to the local Church, and will now be tested by the military imposition of Putin's dogma.
One of the prophets of 19th century Slavophilism, the great writer Fyodor Dostoevsky, wrote articles on war and politics in addition to his famous novels, dreaming of Russia’s assertiveness in the world. In one of his Notebooks dated 1876, when Mussorgsky was composing his symphonies, the author of Crime and Punishment wrote about the wars of that time, almost anticipating the tragedies of today:
Mankind cannot live without a great idea, like the one that such means of destruction will be invented that it will be impossible to make war. Nonsense. In war you don't hate, you even love the enemy. There is no reason to hate him. The enemy is respected. You meet him and make friends. One is not at all thirsty for blood, but first of all one sacrifices one's own blood. And so, they sacrifice their blood. The world always restarts to live more and more, to live more vividly, after a war.
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