03/12/2022, 21.02
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The New Middle Ages of Russia and the world

by Stefano Caprio

The grotesque and tragic Russia described by Vladimir Sorokin in his 2006 novel “Day of the Oprichnik” unravels the tormented soul of a country that is always its own first enemy, and for this it needs to feel at war with all the others. It almost seems that the political and religious leaders of present-day Russia feel the duty to turn the nightmares of literature into facts.

I went to Moscow for the first time in 1986, at the start of Gorbachev’s perestroika. I had recently become a priest, and in previous years I had been in Leningrad, where people were slightly freer to meet than in the oppressive capital of a dying empire.

With some friends we ventured to go to Moscow that year because we had been told that we could meet the mythical Father Aleksander Men’, the “chaplain of dissent”, the first who inspired Russia’s religious rebirth, even before the fall of the Berlin Wall.

We settled in for a few days at the Hotel Intourist, an ugly skyscraper within walking distance from the Kremlin, whose demolition came to symbolise the end of totalitarianism, not far from Pushkin Square, the historic location of major events, from Stalin's funeral to dissidents’ rallies, in the centre of a ring of boulevards, where Muscovites go for a stroll downtown.

Here we could have a bite at a huge self-service restaurant, where local dishes were hastily served in summarily cleaned dishes and crockery. I did not trust Russian soups of cabbage, meat and potatoes, which I later learnt to appreciate in the homes of the pious Babushkas who worshipped in the few Orthodox churches that were open, and later in the Catholic churches that we managed to reopen.

I ordered “meat with spaghetti”, the thing closest to my culinary habits on the menu, and I was given some indigestible beef dressed with mushy spaghetti knotted together, sprinkled with strawberry jam. There and then, I saw the gastronomic gap between East and West.

Four years later I was officially living in Moscow as chaplain at the Italian embassy, ​​and I joined the cheering crowd in Pushkin Square happy to see the end of Soviet-style cafeterias and the opening of the first McDonald's. People waited in line for hours to try chips and hamburgers that are not really much better than spaghetti with strawberry jam, but it felt like the start of a new world.

We spent hours with young people at McDonald's discussing religion, culture and sport, and no one fathomed that one day we might go back to the greyness of the previous world.

Today the Mayor of Moscow, Sergey Sobyanin, pledged that within a year the shuttered McDonald's would be replaced by "patriotic catering networks", certainly much tastier than the rations of the past, but standing melancholily apart in the new cold distance between spaghetti and cabbage, between young and old, between believers and secularists: two worlds that shall no longer meet for who knows how many years.

In 2006, a modern Russian writer had guessed how it would end, and described it in the dystopian novel “Day of the Oprichnik” (Rus: День опричника, Den' oprichnika), which has now become very “topical” today.

In this book, Vladimir Sorokin writes about the typical day of Aleksander Komyaga, the guardsman (Rus: опри́чник, Oprichnik) whose task is to ensure that people follow a “moral” and patriotic lifestyle, an early metaphorical reference to today’s “metaphysical” ideology of Putinism, to use a recent turn of phrase by Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill of Moscow.

The Oprichnina (Rus: опри́чнина) was the imperial bodyguard created by Tsar Ivan IV the Terrible in 1560, when, after a period of reforms, he developed a political-military obsession that the whole world was at war with Russia, convinced that the war was also religious because he was the only defender of the true faith.

The similarity is striking with the actions and words of “Putin the Terrible”, who is threatening the world in order to defend the purity of Russia, and to this end attacks Ukraine just as Ivan did when he went to war against the Baltic peoples.

Sorokin describes an imaginary mid-21st century guardsman, serving Gosudar, the new Tsar Nikolai Platonovich who restored the true Russia, erecting new walls in the West and East to “exclude the stranger on the outside, and stifle the devil in the inside”.

As soon as he wakes up in the morning, he must first take care of “crushing the cockroaches,” that is, going after all the malcontents, the lawless and the weirdoes, burn their homes and hang them from some column in the street, for educational purposes.

After this, he has to organise Russian mask exhibits, to delight and distract the masses, so that they don't think about unpleasant things. Then he takes a supersonic plane and flies from Moscow to Tobolsk in Siberia, to consult Praskovya, Gosudar’s clairvoyant and top adviser.

In a single day Komyaga accomplishes other missions, all meant to build up public morality and counter any internal and external threat, before retreating back to Moscow to dine with Gosudar's wife enjoying an all-Russian menu. Finally, he relaxes in the sauna with other Oprichniki, getting drunk and letting off steam by gang raping young women, so that they can remember the superiority of real men.

Sorokin's grotesque and tragic Russia echoes many writers and poets of the past, who presented the tormented soul of a country that is always its own first enemy, and for this it needs to feel at war with everyone else.

It almost seems that the political and religious leaders of present-day Russia feel a duty to turn the nightmares of literature into facts. Indeed, it is almost as if they got their inspiration for the aggressive words and solemn utterances that accompany the terrible “special military operation” in Ukraine, something as incomprehensible to Westerners as to Russians. Nothing appears more like a war against oneself than the invasion of a land where one's own people originated.

Putin's explanations re-write history and turn them into fanciful fables, stressing the shared origins of Russians, Ukrainians and Belarusians as well as the contradictions of the Soviet 20th century, as if they were contemporary and connected events.

Even more absurd are Patriarch Kirill psychotic sermons, his calls for war against “gay marches” the way medieval monks urged the tsar to exterminate sodomites and the Hagarenes, who represented dangers to the true faith and the salvific universal land.

Last Wednesday, 9 March, was the first of day during Lent when the Orthodox Church celebrates the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts, a rite without Mass, to commemorate fasting and the Passion of Christ, communion with the bread of the previous Sunday.

Wearing black vestments, Kirill led the service inviting the faithful to pray “to be freed from the slavery in which we have plunged”. He warned that “there are those who spread lies and distort the facts; from this, men become enemies, and sometimes conflicts explode because of the interference by third-party strangers who want to pit brothers against each other.”

For the patriarch, the devilish “father of lies" is the true instigator of the war between Russians and Ukrainians, someone who “has found a way to divide us, we who are one people, linked by a historical destiny, arising from the baptismal font of Kiev”. For Kirill, “Rus' is bit one country, one people, which neighbours have tried to divide fearful of its strength.”

Among the devil's servants, Kirill includes “certain religious organisations” which have very little religious in them, whose sermons stand on “their shields to fight against the Russian people.”

This is a holy war of religion, in which the Russians lump together Hagarenes and Greek-Catholics, Evangelicals and Mongolian shamans, in an apocalyptic vision of the advent of the Antichrist, which only Holy Russia can resist for the salvation of the world.

Some call Kirill the Z-patriarch, a reference to the Z of Putin's support for the war, the new swastika in the slogan “For victory!” (Rus: для победы! Za pobedu!), and the military operation “Z”, that is, against the West (Rus: запад, Zapad), slave to devil. Before this, this title had been given to Putin's “spiritual father”, Z-Metropolitan Tikhon (Shevkunov), now metropolitan of Pskov.

As usual, Tikhon’s Lenten sermon was entirely centred on describing the geo-political situation (some suggest that the metropolitan is one of Putin's main speechwriters). It ended saying that “even if we are forced to carry out actions that are hard for us, even more than for them, we must in no way fail in our love for our Ukrainian brothers, even if they look at us in a hostile way… Everything will come to fruition, reconciliation and peace.”

The metropolitan also spoke about the shared history of Russians and Ukrainians, "from ancient to Soviet times” until, in 1991, "we", he stressed several times, “freely left our assets and technologies to them, to preserve good relations between neighbours and brothers.”

Yet, for Tikhon, the Ukrainians are the real aggressors, who “allowed the formation of neo-Nazi parties” and begun to “redefine their identity and their history in a completely different way.” But “we didn't object, even when they said they wanted to join the European Union” when outsiders inspired and organised the 2014 coup and “put Nazis in power”.

The metropolitan ended his homily saying that Russia but, above all, Ukrainians deceived by devil must be protected, “not from now, but since the mid-19th century” when the ideal of the Ukrainian nation was born, inspired by poets and writers, also evidently in the pay of the West.

In his address, Tikhon went on to talk about strategic and military issues, as if he were a Kremlin spokesman, noting that “we shall restore God’s justice on earth”.

The words of the patriarch and the metropolitan, together with other statements by members of the Russian clergy, certainly will not encourage Pope Francis to confirm this year’s meeting with Kirill, scheduled for the summer. The Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, was forced to admit that such remarks threaten to make an increasingly serious conflict worse.

Since the historic meeting between Patriarch Kirill and Pope Francis in Havana in 2016, important joint humanitarian, cultural and spiritual projects were undertaken by the Patriarchate of Moscow and the Catholic Church. Now that has become a casualty of this war.

Following the Russian Revolution, many intellectuals were expelled from Russia during the interwar period (1919-1939). In 1922 some boarded so-called philosophers’ ships. One of them was Nikolai Berdyaev, a thinker who embodied his time. For 20 years, he became the main point of reference for intellectuals in Paris.

He was able to show everyone the way to overcome the tragedies of those years, amid wars and revolutions, with a famous lecture in which he spoke about the New Middle Ages, the nostalgia for the past that forces us to rewrite the future.

Today we are at such a point again: Russia is returning to spaghetti with strawberry jam, and the West is unable to know how to prevent a tragedy that could affect the economy, security and the very life of the entire world.

For Berdyaev, “In history, as in nature, there are rhythms, a rhythmic succession of ages and periods, a shift of cultural forms, of arrivals and departures, of rises and falls. Rhythm and periodicity are typical of all ages. We speak of critical and organic ages, of nocturnal and diurnal, sacral and secular ages. We have been given to live in the historical time of change between ages.”

It is up to us, especially the young, to think about the era of the future. The new Middle Ages is upon us: the middle earth between the 20th century of good and bad people and the 21st century of new upheavals. Last century a world war broke a bit earlier, let's not let another one break out now.

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