07/15/2023, 09.00
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Russian psycho-spiritual warfare

by Stefano Caprio

Former Prime Minister Sergey Kiriyenko – once Yeltsin's heir apparent and a pro-Western liberal now a convert to Putinism – explained to young Russian political scientists that today it is not just a question of conquering land or defending one's own, but of fighting for the "meaning of the world". Meanwhile, Kirill never misses an opportunity to celebrate Alexander Nevsky, the great saint of victories on the Neva.


NATO’s recent summit in Lithuania unequivocally marked the defeat of Russia's special military operation, which was supposed to demilitarise and de-Nazify Ukraine. Instead, Volodymyr Zelensky, the “Nazi Jew” as the Kremlin likes to call the Ukrainian president, received the solemn pledge that Ukraine could join NATO. The summit also saw the alliance boost its military efforts, as well as Finland’s and Sweden’s final entry, after overcoming the objections of Turkey’s Erdogan, the "mediator", Putin’s friend who switched to Kyiv and repatriated the Azov battalion commanders, seen as the foremost "Nazi" in this neck of the woods.

Putin has achieved the exact opposite of what he set out to do, mobilising the entire country, with tens of thousands of battle casualties, and hundreds of thousands of Russians, the youngest, the best and brightest fleeing abroad, with a population resigned, impoverished and disoriented, especially after the psychodrama of the "Prigozhin uprising".

Beyond the tired and static battles of position, and the ongoing strikes against Ukrainian cities, it will be a miracle if Russia manages to hold on to the territories it occupied and annexed, including Crimea where it all started.

The war now transcends the fighting on the ground and has come to cover aspects that still need to be explored and defined. This is what is clear from a minor event, linked to the "propaganda schooling" that inevitably accompanies wars.

Recently, the forum of young political scientists, named Digoria, the ancient name of Ossetia, was held in Nizhny Novgorod, a large city on the Volga, some 500 kilometres from Moscow, where weapons, soldiers and heavy industry were kept during the Second World War for fear of the Nazi invasion,

Nowadays the name also evokes the war against Georgia 15 years ago, when Putinism took a decidedly militarist turn, starting to image the possibility of creating a "Russian space" even beyond the official borders of the Russian Federation.

Sergey Kiriyenko opened the forum. Once the pro-western, liberal prime minister of Russia and President Boris Yeltsin’s heir apparent, he now serves as first deputy chief of staff of the Presidential Administration of Russia under President Putin, a leading figure in the quest for proper motives for the war.

In his address, Kiriyenko told his audience to look ahead, warning "young political scientists" that "those who sit on the sidelines today should not complain if they have no place in the future". He explained that the current war has three, concurrent yet successive levels: the "red-hot" one of weapons, the economic one that is forcing Russia to “turn towards the East", and the "ideological, or rather informational-psychological, semantic war.”

If the first two have rather defined outlines, of borders to be defended and sanctions to be circumvented, the great "semantic battle", the smyslovaja bitva (смысловая битва), will engage young political scientists well into their old age.

For Putin’s first deputy chief of staff, the first battle line will be the juxtaposition of the "meanings" imposed by western countries to “ours, which are based on Russian values”.

As strange as it might seem, the forum was held at the Andrei Sakharov Cultural Centre, formerly known as the Mayak Academy, renamed after the Nobel Prize laurate and leading anti-Soviet dissident, not to mention the father of the Soviet hydrogen bomb and prophet of Russian liberalism, who lived in the city (then called Gorky) in internal exile during the Brezhnev era.

The choice, though, is not an accident. One of the battleground "meanings", according to the Kremlin, is that of "freedom" vs "liberalism", freedom not based on individualism, but on the communion of shared traditional values.

During the euphoria sparked by last year’s invasion, the annual forum called on participants to support the feelings of pride in the population for Russia’s successes on the battlefield and in politics. This year, things are very different.

“The West attacks Russian values, so that Russian might give up their own history and fall back on the stereotypes that people in Russia are lazy and passively accept Western civilisation,” Kiriyenko said.

Instead, we must react. “To win this war, meet this challenge, we cannot accept anything from them, we must recover our tradition, our history, our culture ... This is the true battleground, where political scientists, writers and artists, all sociocultural workers, must take sides.”

The former prime minister went on to say that while Russia once needed “political technologists", experts in electoral and political campaigns, now they are superfluous, because political science today means “being able to think with the categories of the global war of meanings, to project meanings and ideas into the global competition of a rapidly changing world.”

It is thus not about conquering land or defending one's own borders, but of fighting for the “meaning of the world”; this explains the whole process of the "special operation", which is not limited to the war, technology or economics.

Kiriyenko cited the constitutional changes of 2020, which ideologically reflect great "meanings" like "family values". The Russian notion of the family is very original: to defend at all costs an institution in which very few believe, since the Soviet regime had totally disrupted the very notion of family (the real family being the State, or at most the Party).

Even the Orthodox Church allows a second or a third marriage, like "soothing blessings" after the failure of the first unions.

The country with the highest abortion rate in the world now hides behind phoney anti-abortion decrees, pretending that the practice is no longer available in the public health system, when everyone knows that the only Russian health care that works requires payment upfront, even in state clinics, or in brown envelopes.

The "family" is the bastion against "homosexual propaganda", this in a country where gay communities have always been present and active, with regular hangouts in every city (behind the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow’s case).

In reality, "moral values" are just smoke and mirrors, in a Russia dominated by oligarchs champions of immorality, starting with the leaders in the Kremlin.

In fact, Kiriyenko noted the real sense of the war narrative, that is the "true interpretation of history", where morality has very little to do with it, and where everything is explained through the ideology of reference.

"We have to make sure that they don't talk to us about Alexander Nevsky as a street bandit, robbing honest Swedish merchants," said Andrey Shutov, dean of Moscow State University's Faculty of Political Science.

The story of the 13th century saintly prince is a particularly heartfelt fixation, turning a minor figure into a national hero. From his city of Novgorod, he won a couple of skirmishes with the Swedes and the Teutonic Knights, later described as "epic battles" (hence the centuries-old row with the Baltics).

He later pulled off an ingratiating compromise with the invading Mongols, who rewarded him with the title of Prince of Kyiv, except that Kyiv had been razed to the ground, and Alexander moved to Vladimir, from where Moscow was founded; thus, the "little prince" has become the "great saviour", who humiliates the West and stands with the East.

Among other things, he drove back a couple of cardinals sent from Rome with the offer of a "holy alliance" between Orthodox and Catholics to help Russia not succumb to the Tatars; Nevsky replied that "we have the true faith, you are heretics, and we don't need you."

Even Moscow Patriarch Kirill, the supreme champion of Russian "political theology", does not miss an opportunity to celebrate the great saint of victories on the Neva River, as he did recently in his message for the inauguration of a monument to Nevsky in the Kazakh city of Almaty, especially significant since Kazakhstan could be the next Ukraine.

The patriarch said that the prince’s name is associated with particularly decisive pages of Russian history.

"With his diplomatic skills, he allowed the formation of a unique model of interreligious and interethnic world in the Eurasian space;” thus, “his worthy ideas today fit with the policy of the leaders of the Republic of Kazakhstan in order to strengthen multicultural and multireligious unity.”

Kirill never fails to emphasise that "his heroic deeds inspired many people in the terrible years of the Great Patriotic War, to defend with courage and firmness the country’s sovereignty, spiritual freedom and moral ideals".

Hence, thanks to the celebration it is possible to "raise prayers to Alexander Nevsky, so that even today, standing before the Lord, he may defend us from every evil and foreign hostility, and from all possible deviations of the spirit.”

Right after he glorified the prince, the patriarch greeted participants in another ceremony, the one marking the 80th anniversary of the battle of Prokhorovka, the largest clash between Nazi and Soviet tanks during the Second World War in the Belgorod region, involved again in a war, this time against Ukraine.

On 12 July 1943, after falling back from Moscow and Stalingrad, the Germans pulled back from the invasion, “trying to destroy our armies", said the patriarch. “The enemy was dying to take revenge, but the ardour of our soldiers was stronger, because they were ready to die for the Fatherland, to give their lives for their friends,  with an unshakeable strength of spirit and the unstoppable desire for Victory.”

The patriarch ended his reflections by talking about the past, but also looking to the future. “Historical events have taken place. Today we are witnesses of how the country lives in a new time, in a new era. The Church’s sacred symbols, the treasures of our culture and the greatness of our history are restored to her.”

Kirill expressed his thanks for the return of Andrei Rublev’s Trinity icon, solemnly sanctioned by the Ministry of Culture, as well as the sarcophagus with Alexander Nevsky’s relics, hoping that the medieval saint will stop even today the West’s “desire for revenge” against Russia.


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