02/19/2022, 08.34
Send to a friend

The Great War of Little Russia

by Stefano Caprio

The conflict between Moscow and Kiev reignites every century in a 'family fight', as the young Nikolai Gogol described it in the extraordinary novella 'Taras Bulba', coming from the Ukrainian countryside and taken under the protective wing of the great imperial poets in St Petersburg. The dream of Christians and all men of good will is that it is the pacifying embrace between Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill will avert conflict.



Rome (AsiaNews) - It has been years since Russia and its neighbouring countries, the former Soviet Union of 15 republics stretching from the Baltic Sea to the Pacific Ocean have bee under such scrutiny. At the time of the Cold War, there was a quasi-science of politics that studied these lands and peoples: it was 'Sovietology', which was supposed to prepare the Western world for the aggressions and deceptions that came from the Central Committee, that mysterious summit of often quasi dehumanised powerful people who met in the Kremlin palaces.

Today, all the world's newspapers, magazines, websites and blogs are full of analyses and forecasts of the terrible danger of a border war that could turn into a universal catastrophe without remedy. We were no longer used to fearing the end of the world, the warning of medieval preachers and the threat of contemporary dictatorships. Nor did we remember the deployments of troops, tanks and armaments that were the daily topic of the two world wars and which today can only be recalled in books and films, likening them to Spartan Thermopylae or the Crusades of the Templars and Saracens.

The Russian-Ukrainian confrontation also recalls the deployment of Tatars and Russians on both sides of the Ugra River, near the present-day Ukrainian border, which in 1480 engaged all the forces on the eastern borders of Europe. The two armies chased and glared at each other for a whole year, from January to November, when the Khan's troops withdrew, giving rise to the dream of Holy Russia, the Third Rome of Moscow, called by God to save the whole world.

Predictions about Putin's invasion of Ukraine have been chasing each other since December: some said on the eve of the Catholic Christmas and others during the Orthodox one, then after the Olympics so as not to irritate the emperor of Beijing, then on 16 February because the manoeuvres in Belarus were over, and these days because of the skirmishes and provocations in the Donbass. One could cite hundreds of further hypothesised strategies and intertwined motivations, many of them absolutely documented, others decidedly fanciful.

The incipient war has actually been going on for some time now, at least since 2014, when Ukraine rebelled against its dependence on Russia in the Maidan riots, and Moscow responded by annexing Crimea. The two countries have been in constant tension ever since, in what has been called the "hybrid war", made up of partial military confrontations and total cyber aggression, without exposing their main arsenals.

The industrial region of Donbass has been disputed for eight years without any real solution, on the one hand proclaiming independence and friendship with the motherland, and on the other claiming sovereignty and a mixture of ethnicities and cultures. The shift from hybrid to traditional warfare does not change the terms of the local question, but projects them into an international dimension.

The deployment of Russian troops is not only the final outcome of the long confrontation with Ukraine, but also a consequence of the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan. The physical disappearance of the historical enemy has been compensated for by the physical presence of the former master: tens, hundreds of thousands of soldiers, joint exercises, tanks and ships, planes and the latest generation of cannons, to say "we are here", these lands are ours. Those who wanted to dominate the world must withdraw, while the space of the Eurasian East must be garrisoned, regardless of the outcome: Crimea and Ukraine, Moldova and Transnistria, Georgia and the Black Sea, Syria, Libya, Kazakhstan... the Russians are back, the great post-Soviet desolation is over.

When asked about Russia's plans for the coming days, he replied: "We will act according to our plans, which will develop from the real situations on the ground, and who can say how these will evolve? For now, no one. In other words, we're here and we're not going to leave, no more 'de-escalation' or troop withdrawals, just show us what you're made of. There are those who think Putin is just bluffing, those who claim he was frightened by the American threats and the steadfastness of the NATO allies, and those who even believe that the announced attack was just a diversion to divert attention from the umpteenth trial of the opponent Aleksej Naval'nyj.

The aims are confused, yet also very clear: Russia wants to reaffirm its role in the world, starting from the traditional territory of its empire. Ukraine is trying to extricate itself and is appealing to the West, as has always been its nature, but it cannot completely detach itself from its elder brother, with whom it shares its entire millenary history. Kiev was wiped out by the Mongols and disappeared from history for four centuries, just as Moscow took advantage of it to take everything, compromising with the Asians, and we are back to that point.

It is an old and new war, which starts all over again every century, with new offences and old claims. It is a world war and an internal conflict, even a family quarrel, because Russians and Ukrainians are relatives fighting for the inheritance. One period of great tension, among others, was the first half of the 19th century, when the St Petersburg empire was in fact the leading power in Europe after its victory over Napoleon, a greatness that then crumbled in the Crimean War, which was the prelude to all subsequent world wars. Tsar Nicholas I, known as the "gendarme of Europe", tried to suppress every internal and external revolt, from the romantic decabrist revolutionaries to the eternal Turkish adversaries, and of course he took it out on the Ukrainians, who inserted themselves in every uprising and claim.

Among the Ukrainians of those years was a young writer from the countryside, Nikolai Gogol, who was taken under the wing of the great imperial poets of St. Petersburg , from Pushkin to Thyutchev and Zukovsky, to whom he turned for guidance in achieving the 'reconciliation of everything on our earth'. Gogol was seriously concerned about the tension between the two brotherly peoples, and thought he would devote himself to reconstructing their common history.

In 1833, he published an article in an official journal entitled "A Look at the Condition of Malorossiya", the "Little Russia" as the land was called, which the writer himself timidly began to call "Ukraine", an almost derogatory term compared to the traditional one. He even planned to write an extensive "History of Malorossiya", but it never saw the light of day and neither notes nor manuscripts have been found. Gogol probably burned them, as he did the second part of "Dead Souls", the great novel about Russia in search of itself, which led him to despair because he could not imagine the way forward.

The great writer then turned to minimal stories, composing the extraordinary novella of "Taras Bulba", the story of the old and heroic Cossack chief who has to witness the tragedy of his sons, divided between love and hate in Polish and Russian lands. Gogol's mystical and grotesque prose thus produced a metaphor of the "family fight", involving Latin priests and Orthodox liturgies, betrayals and secret passages from one camp to another, heinous murders and massacres, nature and the city, without being able to give an answer to the dilemma: why fight each other if we are brothers?

When Taras Bulba welcomes his two sons back from their studies at the Polish seminary, he teases them about the robes they are wearing, and the eldest threatens him: "Even though you are my father, if they offend me, I pay no attention and respect no one". The two brawled under the disconsolate gaze of the mother and relatives, "and the father and son, instead of celebrating after a long absence, began to deliver blows to each other, in the kidneys, in the chest, now moving backwards and taking aim, now advancing again".

At a certain point Taras stopped and exclaimed with admiration: "But he fights beautifully!". "Well, by God!" he went on, reassuring himself a little: "Perhaps it was better not to try. He'll make a good Cossack! Congratulations, son! Let us embrace!" And father and son kissed each other. "Well, boy! Give them to everyone as you gave them to me: spare no one!"

Gogol lived several years in Rome, near the Spanish Steps, looking for inspiration to compose the Russian "Divine Comedy" and point the way to redemption, which at one point he thought he would find in religion, also writing the wonderful "Meditations on the Divine Liturgy". Today, Russians and Ukrainians also quarrel over Gogol, whom each wants to attribute exclusively to his own culture. In Kiev, on the other hand, there are still disputes over clerical skirts and patriarchal jurisdictions, and if there is an attack by the Russians, the people will be warned by "hammer bells", as in the novel by Taras Bulba.

The Catholics prayed together with Pope Francis for peace in Ukraine, and the head of the Greek Catholics, Major Archbishop Svjatoslav Sevchuk, assures that "if the Pope were to set even one foot in Ukraine, all conflict would end". The Orthodox faithful in Moscow gathered to pray on February 16, the day of the invasion, which had become a "day of reconciliation", and through the words of Metropolitan Onufryj (Berezovskij) they recalled that "we are all Ukrainians, there are no better or worse, we are different, but we are all equal".

The pro-Russian bishops, faced with the threat of invasion, have sided with the government in Kiev, along with the autocephalous and Greek Catholics. It is no coincidence that the patriarch of Moscow, Kirill (Gundjaev), has maintained an eloquent silence on the matter throughout this time, avoiding in any way to bless Putin's shock troops. Kirill's meeting with Pope Francis is also expected to take place this year, possibly in June, although it is not yet known where. The dream of Christians and all men of good will, in the East and in the West, is that they might meet in Kiev, drawing the Churches and peoples of Europe into a great pacifying embrace.




Send to a friend
Printable version
See also
Wars, world order, synodality: Putin's friends and the 'just multipolarity'
07/10/2023 08:48
Israel, the Jews and the 'real Russians'
11/11/2023 19:54
Putin's programme to rewrite history
18/05/2024 09:47
Easter of Victory
04/05/2024 11:24
The de-colonisation of Russia
20/04/2024 10:24


Subscribe to Asia News updates or change your preferences

Subscribe now
“L’Asia: ecco il nostro comune compito per il terzo millennio!” - Giovanni Paolo II, da “Alzatevi, andiamo”