The days of memory
As they celebrate the ominous 17th century on 4 November, Russians find reasons to continue their great defensive war, now effectively mired in the late autumn mud of the annexed territories. Instead of selecting events from a past of imperial glory, it would be better not to suppress another symbolically charged date, 30 October, the day dedicated to the memory of Soviet dissidents, now wiped away by government order.
Yesterday, 4 November, Russia celebrated its main national holiday, People’s Unity Day (Den' narodnogo yedinstva), which commemorates events dating back to 1612, when Polish invaders were defeated and the Romanovs replaced the ancient Rurikids as the reigning dynasty of the Tsardom of Muscovy.
Today’s warlike rhetoric plays up this dark and controversial page of history, which ostensibly marked the end of the “Times of Troubles”, between the late 16th and the early 17th centuries.
That epochal transition put an end to the dream of the “Third Rome” under the first tsar, Ivan the Terrible, whose 50-year reign left a legacy of ruins everywhere his autocratic and repressive madness reached, with senseless war campaigns in the Baltic lands.
In many respects, that period is not so dissimilar from the one we are living at present, which followed the 20th century Soviet empire and the 30 years of “troubles” of the new Russia of Yeltsin and Putin, who are similar to several personages from that period.
The Times of troubles stem from the contradictions of Boris Godunov, who was first regent, then tsar, connected to the Oprichnina, Ivan's imperial guard, mother of all of Russia’s political police, up to Putin's KGB/FSB.
Godunov is a crucial figure in Russian history. He was the source of inspiration for poems and other artistic and musical works of primary importance: dictator and reformer, visionary and city builder, but also accused of infamous betrayals and abandoned by everyone, to the point of dying of excess food and alcohol on the terraces of the Kremlin, a bit of Yeltsin and a bit of Putin.
Godunov had a stroke of genius when he had the Muscovite ecclesiastical see elevated to the rank of the patriarchate, by forcing the Patriarch of Constantinople Jeremias II to sign in 1589 the decree establishing the "Third Rome", after holding him hostage for several months in a golden cage in the Kremlin.
As a result, the 17th century was a time of symbiosis between secular and clerical power in Russia, between throne and altar, between politics and religion, not unlike what exists today in Putin's Russia.
Peter the Great suppressed the patriarchate at the start of the 18th century, and the Church remained subservient to the empire in the following centuries, under both Tsarist and Soviet rule. The Soviets formally restored the institution but not its freedom of action, reducing the patriarchs to play the role of "altar boys" for Stalin and Brezhnev.
During the Times of Troubles, however, praise was heaped on the figure of martyred Patriarch Hermogenes who was starved to death in a fortress by the invading Poles, then on the founder of the new tsarist dynasty, Feodor Romanov. Forced to become a monk, his wife locked in a cell, he took his revenge as Patriarch Filaret, and imposed his son Mikhail on the throne, the first tsar of the new era.
For about 20 years, the son remained under his father’s thumb, a situation echoed throughout this century, in particular with Patriarch Nikon who demanded that he be referred to as “lord and sovereign” of Russia before he was driven out by Tsar Alexius, Filaret’s grandson. Patriarch Kirill has an uncanny resembles with his predecessor Nikon.
Before his death, Nikon tried to return to Moscow to proclaim himself "universal pope", transferring the ancient patriarchates to the provinces near Moscow, supported in this by some Eastern patriarchs in exile from the Ottoman Empire.
These and other complex and outrageous events are being celebrated in today's militant Russia, thirsty for revenge against the Poles and the West, who since then, according to Muscovite leaders, have been trying in every way to obliterate Russia.
Against the invaders, inspired by the Jesuits of Krakow, stood the “popular armies" of the merchant Kuzma Minin and Prince Dmitry Pozharsky, whose features are immortalised in the monument in front of the entrance to the Kremlin, showing with their arms the way back to the invaders.
The latter are prophets of Russia’s resistance to every foreign attempt at occupation, be they 18th century’s Swedes, 19th century’s Napoleon, or Hitler's armies, repeatedly mentioned in recent months.
By remembering the ominous 17th century, Russians can find cause to continue their great defensive war, now mired in the late autumn mud of the annexed territories, standing firm with the sacrifice of “mobilised” soldiers against the attempts at reconquest by the corrupt Ukrainians, heirs of the Poles and Jesuits of the past.
This said, picking 4 November was fortuitous. It just happens to fall very close 7 November, the anniversary of the October Revolution, which, after the end of the Soviet Union, was suppressed. Another example of how moments in Russian history overlap, in a highly charged symbolism.
The proximity of the two dates made it possible to have a long weekend in early November, which even post-Soviet Russians did not want to give up.
In November, the weather turns frosty and the first snow falls. For Russians, this first taste of the coming cold is also a time when death and resurrection play hide and seek: winter covers and conceals, forcing people indoor, but also catches them in the streets, merciless with travellers or wanderers in the grip of alcoholic excesses.
The November festival is a time of farewell, until the arrival of spring in May, the time of renewed birth, with greetings for those who return from the dead, but never as this year does the traditional timing coincide with the fears and hopes of reality, amid threats of nuclear catastrophe or never-ending war.
The date, 4 November, was first suggested in the 1990s by the leaders of the Orthodox Church, the then Patriarch Alexy, and Metropolitan Kirill, as if they were once again the ones who could claim for themselves the right to bless and curse every form of social and political life.
Eventually, the festival took over the imperial pretensions of the "tsar of the people", as the Romanov monarchs wanted to be known, and those of the "dictatorship of the proletariat", in which the people were educated and "mobilised" by the party.
Now Patriarch Kirill thunders against Western moral decadence, which only true Russian Orthodoxy can resist. And just as the miraculous icon of Our Lady of Kazan was raised against the Poles, today the icon of the Trinity is shown to the people, taken from Moscow’s Tretyakov Gallery, to evoke the "divine unity" of throne, altar, and army.
Yet, remembrance is also a path to redemption and peace, as suggested by the Catholic celebrations of All Saints’ and All Souls’. Instead of selecting events that commemorate past imperial glory, it would be better not to forget another symbolic date, 30 October, the Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Political Repressions, established by President Boris Yeltsin in 1991.
It commemorated Soviet dissidents, now obliterated by Russia’s new dictatorial regime, which, in addition to its war in Ukraine, shut down all alternative voices, suppressing even Memorial, the association that was their instrument and voice.
Foremost Soviet dissident and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Andrei Sakharov was Memorial’s inspiration, after he organised a press conference on 30 October 1974 in his Moscow apartment, to support the hunger strike of political prisoners locked up in gulag camps in Mordovia and Perm region.
Since then, 30 October had become a time for human rights activists to meet, during the years of persecution and even now, when we are back to erasing the past.
This year too, “Returning the Names" took place in almost all of Russia, except in Moscow, where Archbishop Pavel (Paolo) Pezzi did not allow the recitation of the names of Catholic victims of Soviet repression, which appear on the walls of the Catholic Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception.
Memorial was founded on 30 October 1988. And the following year, thousands of people gathered on the same day forming a human chain around KGB headquarters at the Lubyanka, calling for Chekist executioners, the Soviet political police, to be put on trial.
The Returning the Names event began in 2007 at Moscow’s Solovetsky Stone, a monument that commemorates the victims of the Solovki prison camp, the first permanent camp to open under Lenin at the site of an old monastery in Russia’s far north.
That year, some 420 names were “returned”, recited, then more each year as Memorial published more documents, that is until Putin had the archives shut down and memory turned off.
Memorial’s last major public act was the inauguration of the "Wall of Affliction" (Stena Skorbi) on Moscow's Sakharov Prospekt (Avenue) on 30 October 2017, 80 years after the start of Stalin’s terror campaign in 1937.
Putin himself spoke at the event, saying that repression was a tragedy and a crime that cannot be justified. Then, evidently, he lost his memory.