03/30/2024, 11.38
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Russia’s cross in the collapsed temple

by Stefano Caprio

Gutted by last week’s terrorist attack, the concert venue inside a Moscow mall was a symbol of the city’s post-Soviet “reconstruction”. Russians now fear leaving their homes and getting into a taxi driven by a Tajik. In the meantime, state-sponsored public events have been halted while “different” ones have been banned.


The Crocus City Hall, a music venue located on the outskirts of Moscow, collapsed following an attack by Islamic terrorists from Central Asia, a tragedy facilitated by the failure of Russian authorities to protect the site.

The hall became a temple to Russian renaissance after the end of Soviet communism, and the subsequent conflicts among money-hungry oligarchs and crowds of peoples eager for independence from the empire.

Both groups fell silent in the 2000s under the new yet old regime established Vladimir Putin, as grey and self-celebratory as the old Soviet system and as majestic in its display of a rediscovered grandeur, visible above all in the urban and architectural redevelopment of the capital, which has always been the centre of “all the Russias” in their various expressions.

In the 1990s Mikhail Gorbachev dreamt up a first perestroika, a "reconstruction" of Russia, but his plans failed miserably, carried out in a rather chaotic way by the first post-Soviet president, Boris Yeltsin.

Gorbachev's reforms remained embryonic, as they lacked a precise idea of how Russia should change after more than half a century of planned state economy; as the latter came to a grinding halt, Russians plunged into a full-blown depression with shortages of all sorts of goods.

In the late 1980s, the Univermag department stores, the grandiose Soviet-style supermarkets, were full of empty shelves. If all went well, once a day a skimpy batch of chicken wings were available.

Above all, vodka was in short supply as a result of Gorbachev’s decision to halt production in a pathetic attempt to rescue the country from widespread alcoholism.

Those years have remained in Russians’ collective memory as the years of shame, coming after 20 years under Brezhnev, with their regular supplies at fixed prices. It was no time of abundance, but the system seemed perfect for Russians, who wished they did not have to think about tomorrow.

The abrupt transition to a market economy, with the liberalisations in 1992 under Yeltsin, was a major shock because scarcity was replaced by the mirage of plenty, with every possible material good suddenly appearing on the stalls of every street.

Food, drink, clothing, and utensils were offered but at exorbitant prices, with Western brands never seen before either in Russia or in the West, or local improvised products, forcing everyone to give up their honourable qualified jobs to become peddlers and sellers of everything and nothing.

The free market appeared as a monster that wiped out every identity and ideology, instiling a feeling of humiliation in the soul of Russians deeper than that caused by the collapse of the previous regime.

Once again, as in its origins during the Tatar yoke, it was Moscow the Great that showed the way to rediscover Russia. The revival was not led by President Yeltsin, but by the capital’s mayor, Yuri Luzhkov.

After the first years of total bewilderment, he was able to bring together those who wanted a slice of the pie that was being baked, without the need to kill and destroy each other as was the case hitherto on an almost daily basis, achieving a Pax Oligarchica that he was able to rule over for several years, before he was finally retired by Putin in 2010.

Mayor Luzhkov launched great works designed to remake the big city, its buildings and streets, taking advantage of the capital that found its way into the thousand banks of the "new Russians", above all thanks to generous financing coming from Western countries, seen as the models to draw inspiration.

The term most used at the time to define the change underway was Evroremont (Евроремонт), Euro-renovation, to make Russia a "civilised and modern" country like Germany or the United States.

Several symbolic changes were made, like the demolition of the gloomy Intourist Hotel (гости́ница Интурист), which overwhelmed Gorky Street, Ulitsa Gorkovo (улица Горького), the broad avenue named after the Stalinist-era poet Maxim Gorky that starts at the Kremlin and head towards Leningrad.

Gorky Street went back to its original name of Tverskaya Prospekt (Тверской проспект), the road to Tver, Moscow's ancient rival on the northern route during Tatar rule, subdued by the first great prince who dreamt of Moscow as the Third Rome, Ivan the Great, Grandfather to Ivan the Terrible.

Leningrad too reversed to its Western-sounding name of Sankt-Petersburg, the "city of St. Peter", chosen by its founder, Peter the Great, who saw it as a new Rome and a "window onto Europe".

The large Manege Square, Manezhnaya Ploshchad (Манежная площадь), which runs from the end of Tverskaya Prospekt to the Red Square near the Kremlin, was dug up to build a grandiose, North American-style shopping mall, where people can have fun and shop even in cold weather.

The main symbol of the renaissance was, however, another building, on the other side of the Kremlin, on the banks of the Moskva River.

The river and city have the same name in Russian, Moskva (Москва), or rather it is the city that takes its name from the river. Moscow was a junction (this is the meaning of the name) between waterways for trade that extended from north to south, the ancient route “from the Varangians to the Greeks”, the real economic reason behind the birth of Kievan Rus'.

The name of the first capital means Kyi’s bridge, after the eponymous Varangian merchant who thought of uniting the two banks of the Dnieper, creating the first great link between Europe, Scandinavia, and northern Asia.

Next to the Kremlin, the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour was reborn. The great church was built over the decades following the victory over Napoleon to celebrate the greatness of imperial Russia.

Stalin had it blown up to show the superiority of communism over the obscurantism of Orthodox Christianity, to be replaced by the Palace of the Soviets, with a supreme statue of Lenin, the new god of atheistic Russia, perched on top.

The problem was that the foundations could not hold up such a structure next to the river, and so in lieu of the church, a large outdoor swimming pool, named Moskva, was built so that people could go swimming in 20 degrees below zero in the air and 20 above zero in the water.

It was the place to be to enjoy a carefree Soviet lifestyle, but, in the end, the austere cathedral was finally rebuilt to impose submission to patriarchal power.

During the Luzhkov years, Orthodox Patriarch Alexis II was a hieratic yet very unimposing figure, since the Orthodox Church was still in the doldrums after losing its main sponsor, the Communist Party.

And so, the consecration of the church was done by the city’s mayor and the country’s president, who professed to be "Orthodox atheists” at the inauguration in 1997, the year of the solemn jubilee marking the 850th anniversary of Moscow’s foundation.

In the year 1147, one of the princes of Kyiv and Vladimir, Yuri Dolgorukiy (George of the Long Arm) opened a post house at the junction of the rivers, which could never have become the "mother city" of Russia without the flourishing trade supported by agreements with the Tatar-Mongol Khans, the true founding fathers of the capital of the Eurasian Empire.

When the Leningrad-born Vladimir Putin came to power, the desire for glory was transferred to the capital of the north, and Putin's first years were dedicated to Evroremont in St Petersburg, celebrated in 2003, 300 years after its foundation.

Except that Piter (as the Russians call the city, after Sankt-Piter-Boerch (Санкт-Питер-Бурхъ), an imitation of the Dutch Sint-Pietersburg) is already by its nature very Western, and could not worthily rival Moscow the Great, a hybrid of East and West.

And so, in 2010, when he was already dropping the first bombs on Georgia, Putin decided to change his style: the name of the game was no longer "imitation" of the West, but overcoming and "beating" the West, like in Stalin’s glorious days, the great dictator who oversaw the construction of the tallest, most menacing, and most unpleasant buildings in the history of architecture.

In replacement of the king of the mafias Luzhkov, no longer needed since the takeover by Putin's own mafia, the trusted Sergey Sobyanin was brought from the Far East, re-elected mayor serially in the single competition in which the last hero of dissent, Alexei Navalny, was allowed to run.

Mayor Sobyanin fulfilled Putin's dream of a shining Moscow, clean at every corner, with immensely larger and more lavish (and quite grotesque) shopping malls and concert halls, where Russians could feel happy to live in the most extraordinary country in the world, the Russian World.

With the war in Ukraine and international sanctions, all foreign companies have abandoned those centres; McDonald's has been replaced by its pathetic Russian imitation Vkusno i tochka, 'Tasty and that's it' (Вкусно – и точка), named after the street food stalls of Soviet years.

Despite competitions and uninterrupted "patriotic" parties, the large spaces of the new Russia in the last two years have already become bare and melancholic, now used for people to come and applaud on command singers who shout: “I am Russian and I push to the end!” (Я русский, я иду до конца).

Crocus, one of the most sumptuous and redundant sites, was pushed to the end; in lieu of glory, the cross remained.

Russians are now afraid of leaving their homes and getting into a taxi driven by a Tajik (almost all taxi drivers in Moscow are Tajiks); government-sponsored public events have been halted while “different” ones have been banned.

In the capital, Catholics were not able to celebrate the Way of the Cross on 23 March, the day after the terrorist attack, not even in the courtyard of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, forced by the police to stay inside.

Patriarch Kirill of Moscow began Lent by convening an extraordinary session of the All-Russian Universal Council, the theological-political association he founded in the 1990s that inspired the ideology of the Russkij Mir (русский мир), the Russian World, to proclaim that "Russian nationalism does not exist in nature" and that we must not blame all Tajiks, but persuade every people that it is better to join the Russians, perhaps reciting more litany prayers for victory in the war.

Except that Christ promised a different victory, on the cross, destroying the Temple, and rising again in the garden where Mary Magdalene desperately sought him, where humanity seeks the face of the Lord of peace, and true life.


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