Russia's other forces
There are more than raving warriors, self-centred schismatic religious leaders, mobs of diversanty, or saboteurs launching explosive drones. There are many men and women, families and children, believers and non-believers who do not care about the borders of nations and peoples, but simply want to live in peace in their own land, with their own faith.
Recent drone attacks against Moscow buildings have given the Russian-Ukrainian conflict a decidedly more feverish and contradictory direction after months of sterile and tragic bombings, with endless repetitions of empty and bombastic propaganda.
One wonders whether the time has come for a counteroffensive, or an internal revolt in Russia, or even the machinations of those in power to turn to total war. As is often the case with the Kremlin, variants overlap and confuse, opening up alternative scenarios that are not necessarily mutually exclusive.
Ukraine is now one step away from fulfilling its destiny as a full member of the international community, the Western alliance, and Europe. The strength and prestige acquired by its institutions, military and popular spirit push it to seek a solution to the war that forces Russia to turn inward, isolated, no longer attacking its neighbours with imperial dreams.
For this reason, the counterattack seems to be on, even if it is unclear where, seeking the weak point to disrupt the enemy, who hitherto seemed to be too strong in numbers and firepower.
At the same time, Russian supporters of Ukraine are getting their act together, organising various actions abroad and in Russia, from guerrilla raids in the Belgorod region to the drones in Moscow and other symbolically relevant cities, trying to unnerve Kremlin political and military elites.
These "partisans" act at the same time to counter the “musicians” employed by private groups, like Prigozhin’s Wagner Group, the main "alternative power" now in Russia. Saboteurs like Ilya Ponomarev, a Russian opposition leader who organises raids from outside Russia, has ruled out any deal with the mercenaries, but their combined work is undermining the credibility of the Putin regime.
There is no shortage of ideas about machinations concocted directly by the Kremlin, or by the security services linked to it, sowing panic in the population to help radicalise the situation, justifying a state of war and a general mobilisation that could otherwise provoke much more negative reactions.
The drones that missed the Kremlin’s dome by a few inches or the roofs of the houses of the powerful in Rublevo, the place outside Moscow that has hosted Russia’s political leaders since Soviet times, and scratched some buildings in the most anonymous hinterland, all suggest a farce organised for ulterior motives.
Putin's rise to power in the late 1990s has been accompanied time and again by real and imagined tragedies, each time justifying a more extensive and decisive use of political, military, and even religious force.
Different scenarios illustrate the contrasts and shifts so typical of ancient and modern Russia, a country that has always been caught between openness and betrayal, self-destruction and rebirth, alliances and exclusions inside and outside its vast territories.
However much the Putin regime may echo the strength of Stalinism, the ideological madness of Nazism or the impenetrability of Maoism, it is still a Russian system, capable of sinking into its own contradictions, as it did during the Soviet years.
One of the main contradictions, often emerging in "murky" periods, is the sudden appearance on the scene of rather unlikely and destabilising figures, known in Russian as samozvantsy (самозванцы), “impostors”, who boast or claim a decisive role outside all institutions, and in the name of all the people.
No one could have predicted that Putin's war in Ukraine, so similar to the "fraternal invasions" of Soviet times of Poland, East Germany, Hungary or Czechoslovakia, would give so much room to an oligarch "chef" with his own army.
Perhaps more predictable was the self-aggrandisement by Chechen leader Kadyrov, another samozvanets produced by the bloody Chechen war more than 20 years ago, which saw the same threatening and indecipherable figure of Putin emerge out of the post-Soviet mists.
Prigozhin has been recently holding a series of conferences across Russia, in Yekaterinburg, Novosibirsk, Nizhny Novgorod and Vladivostok, where he presented his "Wagner. Second front" project, to be included in the patriotic education of youth, but also as the true story of the war, for which, “if we want to win it, we must announce the general mobilisation now", resurrecting the planned economy and reintroducing the death penalty.
It is not clear how much his initiatives follow the Kremlin's script or are an alternative to it; the same goes for the ambiguous statements by Kadyrov, who winks at possible Caucasian independence, while agreeing to send his "exterminators", the Chechen kadyrovtsy (Kadorivite) militia, to replace Prigozhin’s "musicians" at the vacated Bakhmut/Artemovsk area.
One of the main historical figures in this tragicomedy of "populist" power, which is so much in vogue in our times across the world, was Bohdan Khmelnytsky, the first Cossack hetman in the mid-17th century, and Ukraine’s de facto founder.
Son of Polish nobles, he studied with the Jesuits in Lviv who converted him to Catholicism. He later reverted to Orthodoxy, as important Russian ecclesiastical figures often did, and was eventually involved in the wars against the Turks, where he got to know these "free" warriors, the Cossacks, who from the Zaporozhe region defended the homeland, which for them meant staying autonomous from any power.
Along with the Cossacks, Khmelnytsky even participated in the siege of Dunkirk, siding with Cardinal Mazarin in the war between the French and the Spanish. He made a career in the court of the Polish king Władysław IV, and then led the Cossack revolt against him, following betrayals and intrigues that had him ousted from the circles of power. Finally, he turned to the Tsar of Moscow Alexei in order to obtain more land for the Cossacks, called "Ukrainians" because they were "on the borders" of the empire.
Thus, Ukraine was born as a contradiction between Russia and Poland, East and West, and the Cossacks remained an "alternative" force for both sides.
At present, in the Russian-occupied Ukrainian region of Zaporozhe, a private company of soldiers has been formed, descendants of local Cossacks, called Volja aba smert (Воля або смерть), "Freedom or death". Their members, emulating their ancestors as depicted in ancient pictures, wear earrings and smoke long pipes. Starting with makeshift weapons, they now wield automatic weapons and grenades, “for Russia".
The myth of the Cossacks generated the first form of "dissent", another of the traits that today appears to have been stifled in Russia, but which in fact continues to be reborn.
As in Soviet times, there is an important difference between the dissident, the one who openly challenges the existing regime, and the inakomyslyashchiy (инакомыслящий) "otherwise minded", who does not publicly express his ideas, not only to avoid repression, but also “not give satisfaction" to outsiders.
While dissidents like Navalny and Kara-Murza languish in concentration camps, with few supporters at home and many in exile, there is no shortage of feelings and opinions among ordinary people, who want neither the war nor give in to the Americans.
In the mid-17th century, another form of dissent emerged alongside the "free spirit" of the Cossacks, either Ukrainians or Russians, one always present in the Russian world, namely the religious pride of those who feel above and outside official hierarchies.
At the time, Old Believers broke away from the established Orthodox Church, but instead of rising up, they chose self-immolations in open squares and along riverbanks, in order not to submit to the "westernising" liturgical reforms of Patriarch Nikon, who sought to restore the Greek roots of Slavic devotion.
Today, Russian clergy and believers are forced to back the war with prayers and special litanies, even with devotion to icons, but in fact many priests, monks and simple parishioners go to church or on long pilgrimages to the country’s shrines to ask God to restore peace.
In March 2022, 300 Russian Orthodox priests signed a letter against the war. Several of them were suspended or dismissed, some even arrested and convicted. But many continue silently to celebrate as "partisans of the spirit against war", as some of them have said anonymously to press agencies, choosing different litanies or just silence, with the support of their congregations, whose members are often disoriented, but always eager for peace.
Russia and Ukraine are not only inhabited by raving warriors, self-centred schismatic religious leaders, mobs of diversanty, or saboteurs launching explosive drones. There are many men and women, families and children, believers and non-believers who do not care about the borders of nations and peoples, but simply want to live in peace in their own land, with their own faith.
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