04/30/2022, 09.15
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The Russian myth of populism

by Stefano Caprio

It was the members of the nineteenth-century intelligentsia who gave rise to it with the call to "go to the people" after the abolition of serfdom. But today the dictatorship of the "simple man" is destroying Russia even more than the tormented Ukraine, much more than militant Soviet atheism has done in seventy years.


After two long months of war without respite, not even for Easter services, the "sacred" dates of May are approaching, during which Russia would like to celebrate Victory, annihilating the so-called "uchronazism", the Ukrainian neo-Nazism cursed by Putin, in memory of the solemn entry into Berlin of the Soviet armies of Marshal Georgij Žukov, whom Patriarch Kirill compared to Saint George slaying  the dragon, symbol of Moscow, mother city of all the Russias.

The long-awaited victory over the Western invaders, corrupters of the pure spirit of the Russians, still seems very much in doubt, beyond the laborious conquest of the Black Sea coasts and the threats to launch "unseen bombs" directly against Europe and America. The "de-Nazification", i.e. the replacement of the entire Ukrainian ruling class starting from the "drug addict" Zelenskyj and the cancellation of the very national title of "Ukraine" to return to that of "Little Russia", will hardly succeed.

The "de-militarisation" is equally improbable, given the exorbitant number of weapons of all kinds supplied to the Ukrainians by all the Western countries,  devoid of any timid scruples of conscience and the anguished call of Pope Francis not to exaggerate. Above all, the total "purification" of the faithful people, increasingly exasperated by the patriotic war, seems impossible.

On the eve of May Day, the classic slogan "Workers of the world, unite!" is now replaced by "Russians of the world, unite!", according to the nebulous and mythological perspectives of the idea of the Russkij Mir, which calls everyone to gather around the one true Church of "just moral values". It is the apocalyptic proclamation of the dogma of populism, a term that has come back into vogue in the last decade, and which had its origin in Russia.

It was the members of the nineteenth-century intelligentsia who called for "going to the people" after the abolition of serfdom in 1861, to educate the peasants to live as free men, hence the definition of "populism" as the mission of the upper classes towards the "simple people" described in decades of stories and novels by Gogol' and Dostoevsky, the author of "Poor People".

In Dostoyevsky's story, a mature civil servant from St Petersburg, Makar, opens his heart to the young Varvara in an epistolary dialogue between different generations and social aspirations, and at a certain point explains to her that "poor people are like that by nature; they have their whims. I had already experienced this. The poor, you see, are meticulous, sensitive; they see things in their own way, they look around with apprehension, they peek at everyone who passes them by, they try to catch every word... Could it be that they don't talk about him at all down there? Certainly they say: why is he in such bad shape? And what is he thinking? And what does he hear? They turn him this way and that; what is he like on this side, what is he like on that side? And everyone knows, Varvara, that a poor man is worse than a dishcloth, and cannot expect any consideration from anyone, in spite of what they print in their books. Some scribblers have a lot to do: the poor man of tomorrow will always be the same poor man of today! And to think that Dostoevsky did not know the world of today's social networks.

Makar's scepticism today is a perfect description of the mood of the Russians, who are forced, like it or not, to support the patriotic war against the whole world, but have few illusions about the future that awaits them. As the Russian philosopher Vadim Kalinin recently observed, 'we are observing the collapse of a myth that is very important for the whole of contemporary history, that of the wonderful simple man'. It is precisely on this Russovian idea of the "good savage" that the images of the "people" are built, carrying on their shoulders the values of national culture, religious and moral identity, which some enlightened people take it upon themselves to correct from time to time, and sometimes to restore by acts of force.

According to Kalinin, "the Putin regime has tried to build the paradise of the simple man, with the assistance of the Orthodox Church. They gave the Russian man everything he needed, a conservative and anti-extravagance fashion, cheap and tasty alcoholic beverages, allowed domestic violence [effectively decreeing its non-punishability, at the suggestion of the patriarch] and aggression against sexual minorities. The religious revival has been codified in an elementary and superficial religiosity, supported by a prehistoric television culture, which leaves no room for doubt and imagination'.

The places of production of creative and alternative culture have all been silenced and removed, as has happened in so many circumstances in the past: Pushkin was confined, Dostoevsky spent ten years in a concentration camp, Tolstoy was excommunicated by the Orthodox Church. The 'simple' Russian man has been guaranteed a comfortable and smooth life, far more comfortable than that of the proletariat in Soviet times, which at best could count on marble-hard salami, cheap vodka and a thirty-square-metre flat. It is what Kalinin calls "a mass social experiment, which instead of the dictatorship of the workers proclaims the dictatorship of simple men" of which the president himself wants to be the image, even in street language and in the grotesque reinterpretations of history that he has been proposing for the last twenty years to justify the growing aggression, which resulted in the Ukrainian invasion.

It is precisely these 'simple men' who vented their anger in the massacres of Buča and Mariupol, and precisely against the defenceless population, shouting at the Western world "who allowed you to live in luxury and degradation?". This man who is supposed to bring 'moral values' to the world shows his monstrous face, with all the possible variants of lies, cruelty and absolute lack of control. The dictatorship of the simple man is destroying Russia even more than the martyred Ukraine, far more than militant Soviet atheism has done in seventy years. In order to remove the cancel-culture, they have erased Russian culture.

The masses of the population in Russia watch this spectacle helplessly and in dismay, without having either the will or the possibility to react, with the resigned spirit of a people who have seen self-destruction as the outcome of their claims to universal domination so many times. This was the case for the Soviet Union, for the Russia of the tsars, for the Petersburg court of the tsarinas and their lovers, for the madness of Ivan the Terrible's Third Rome, all the way back to the mythological Rus', handed over unopposed to the Asian invasion because of the divisions within it.

Economists predict a long winter of deep crisis, in which Ukraine, if it survives, will be able to rebuild its economy in five years with Western aid, while Russia will need at least ten years, having destroyed everything built in the last thirty years: if in the Soviet Union the Volga and Ziguli were produced, now without Western companies even cars will be difficult to build. The Putin regime is now presenting the crisis as a 'necessary sacrifice' for the purification of the economy and social life from all external influences, but the prospect is one of absolute dependence on the Asian giants, and the renunciation of any leading role at world level.

How can we explain this masochistic populism, which at least has the merit of alerting the whole world to the possible consequences of trusting the prophets of morality, widespread in so many countries in the East and West? Once again, we can turn to a true prophet, Dostoevsky, who in his novel "The Idiot" (written in 1869) gives a heartfelt speech to the symbol par excellence of the "pure" man, Prince Myškin:

"To resist the West, we have to oppose Western values with something that the West has never known: the purity of our Christ. We must oppose the influence of the Jesuits, avoiding falling into their traps and trying to bring to them what is Russian civilisation. And let us stop saying that their preaching is elegant and original, as someone did just now...We Russians, as soon as we discover something, we don't wait a single moment and immediately run like madmen to its extreme limits... Here, for example, you are astonished by Pavliščev and you attribute the case to his madness or goodness; but it is not like that. Russian passion doesn't just amaze us, but the whole of Europe. In Russia, it is enough to become a Catholic and immediately become a Jesuit; it is enough to become an atheist and demand the immediate eradication of faith in God by violence, that is, by the sword. And why does this happen? Don't you know? Because the Russian, in these ideas, is able to find the homeland that he has never been able to appreciate on his own soil, and that is why he takes possession of it so willingly.

And we, not only become atheists, but we believe in atheism as if it were a new faith, without realising that this faith is faith in nothingness. This is our anxiety, this is our malaise. He who has no earth under his feet has no God!

Show the Russian the Russian world, let him find that gold, that treasure that his land hides from him. Show him in the distant future the renewal of the whole human race, indeed, its resurrection by virtue of the one Russian idea, of the Russian God, of the Russian Christ, and you will see what a mighty giant of justice, wisdom and love he will present to the astonished and terrified world. Astonished and terrified because the world expects iron and fire from us... it expects violence because, using its own yardstick of judgement, it cannot describe us except by imagining us similar to barbarians. This is how it has always been and this is how it will be again tomorrow, to an ever greater extent.

Dostoevsky foresaw nihilism, atheism, revolution and universal war, trying to show hope in the true God through evil. The madness of the Russian Idiot is a warning to all peoples to seek the true face of God, the true face of themselves. 

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