09/17/2022, 10.01
RUSSIAN WORLD
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The end of an era

by Stefano Caprio

The death of Gorbachev and Queen Elizabeth, the Pope in Central Asia, the war in the Caucasus and the Ukrainian counteroffensive, Xi Jinping's trip: all events that evoke the end of a era, to make way for a world as yet to be described.

The last few days have seen a series of events, some of great international resonance, others more local or minor, but all traversed by a very relevant common thread, because they help to form the impression that a historical era is indeed ending, to make way for a world yet to be described. It is difficult now to apply comprehensive and agreed definitions to the transition we are experiencing; after all, historians know well that any definition is purely formal and didactic, and rarely corresponds to the reality of the facts: the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the Short Century, and so on, are all high school textbook titles. The world of human beings is far more complex and varied.

The death of Gorbachev and the Queen

Within a week of each other two of the most symbolic heads of state of the twentieth century, who represented the two empires of East and West, the Eurasian-collectivist and the Atlantic-liberal, have passed away, summing up in themselves the hopes and contradictions of both sides that have oriented the consciences of generations up to the present in a binary pattern. Right and left, communism and capitalism, Christianity and atheism, dictatorship and democracy, reform and stagnation, and many other simplistic categories have made it possible to live in an understandable way, making consequential and predefined field choices, without the anguish of not having one's own specific identity and community of belonging, as is happening for those born in the 21st century.

Queen Elizabeth had to deal with a delicate family situation, that of the marriage of her son, the current King Charles III, to the "people's princess" Diana Spencer, which lasted from 1981 to 1996, with the woman's resounding death the following year having somehow marked the end of the sacred nature of the British monarchy. There had certainly been no shortage of family and court scandals in the royal past, but they concerned the internal balances of the sacred caste of power. The affair of Charles and Diana, on the other hand, inaugurated the public appropriation of the affairs of the House of Windsor, nullifying the chasm between the throne and the people, the "disintermediation" now customary in anyone's life, which allows with a click of a mouse to feel equal to any monarch or star in the firmament.

Elizabeth had somehow managed that transition, engaging her iconic figure to keep alive the memory of a world now dissolved, and which the day after tomorrow will be permanently buried. Gorbachev came to power in 1985, flanking in the collective imagination Diana and the other great interpreter of the end of that world, the sainted Pope John Paul II. The informational opening of glasnost, which lifted the iron curtain on the Soviet world, was his only real reform, given the total economic-political failure of perestroika. The Polish pope also toppled many barriers that still kept the figure of the Roman pontiff in an unattainable empyrean, becoming the first true "media pope," picking up the inspiration of John XXIII and the Second Vatican Council, the Catholic Church's openness to the world, now irreversibly exalted by his Argentine successor.

Pope Francis' trip to Asia

If Wojtyla came "from a distant country," Bergoglio came to the Vatican "from the end of the world," the first non-European and non-Mediterranean pope, the great revolution in contemporary Catholicism. And the current decade of Francis' pontificate increasingly turns the Church "outward" toward the peripheries of the world, freeing itself from the burden of earthly compromise and taking to extremes the end of its temporal power, which formally occurred only a century and a half ago. An important time, but not yet decisive for universal history. The trip to Kazakhstan was undoubtedly among the most symbolic of this epochal passage, reflecting and redefining the concluding phase of the triumphant Wojtylian papacy, which had visited the ex-Soviet countries most closely linked to Russia to demonstrate the victory of faith over atheism, after having had to give up setting foot in the strongholds of Moscow and Minsk.

Between 2000 and 2001 John Paul II had gone to Georgia, Ukraine, Armenia and Kazakhstan, the very lands now claimed by Putin's neo-imperialism to defend itself against the "invasion of the West," of which the Polish pope was the charismatic leader. Pope Bergoglio appeared anything but an "invader," traipsing through the ultra-modern palaces of Astana as Wojtyla himself had done 20 years ago, both fatigued by age and the physical ailments of the final phase of their respective pontificates, thus accentuating the "fading" effect of these historical transitions. No more domination of religion, but dialogue with peoples and cultures, in Asia where Christians have never laid down the law. No more war of the West against atheist devils and then fundamentalist devils, as in John Paul's 2001, but invocation of peace for Ukraine and the whole world in Francis' new "welded pieces" world war of 2022.

Between triumphalism and pleas for forgiveness, revival of mission and ecumenical openings, from the Assisi prayer of 1986 to the Nur-Sultan Congress of 2022, the figures of the two most media-savvy popes in history seem to be much more closely juxtaposed than a "twentieth-century" vulgate that pits the traditionalist against the progressive tells us. Yet another factor intersects in this double Eurasian prophecy: the Polish pope then experienced the pain of the closure to dialogue of the most important and influential Church after Rome, the Moscow Patriarchate, and the Argentinean, who had reconnected with it, had to note with dismay the re-emergence of "militant Orthodoxy" in tones worthy of the Crusades, he too disappointed by the impossibility of traveling to Moscow and embracing again his "hermano" Kirill, as in the days of the Cuban illusion.

The Kazakh Congress of Religious Leaders presented a further paradox: the frostiness and hostility of the Moscow representatives, with the absence of the Patriarch and the Soviet ritualism of the delegation led by Metropolitan Antonij, was counterbalanced by the great affability and fraternal spirit of the representatives of Islam, with whom Francis is achieving great results in interreligious dialogue. Thus, the great war with Islamic terrorism seems to be over, giving way to that of Orthodox imperialism. An anecdote that underscores the grotesque dimension of the situation that has been created was the question from the Kazakh foreign minister during the preparatory meetings for Francis' trip, "Will the pope celebrate Mass in the square in the Christian rite, or in the Muslim rite?"

The war in the Caucasus and the Ukrainian counteroffensive

While the Pope was present in Kazakhstan, two events of war have in turn provoked mixed reactions and opposing emotions. The eternal conflict between Azerbaijanis and Armenians over the mountainous Nagorno Karabakh area resumed violently, just when a final peace agreement seemed close. At the same time, the Ukrainian army astonishingly deceived the Russian invader by attacking it where it did not expect, and regaining in a few days much of the land it had occupied in six months.

The Caucasus is symbolic border land between Europe and Asia, as indeed are the disputed parts of Ukraine around the Black Sea. In addition, Azerbaijanis and Armenians have represented the conflict between Christians and Muslims since ancient centuries, but today they also represent opposing inverse sides: Yerevan is pro-Russian, while Baku is the main alternative for Russian gas supplies to Europe. So too, it is difficult to assess the Ukrainian rematch, which seemed impossible and inadequate, while most were only waiting for Kiev's surrender so that world peace could be celebrated again, and now instead there are fears for Russia's future, as Putin's collapse and demise would open unpredictable and perhaps even more catastrophic scenarios than the current ones.

XI Jinping's trip

Against this backdrop, the Chinese president made his first trip abroad since the two-year Covid period, setting foot in Nur-Sultan just as the pope was celebrating (in Latin) the Mass of Central Asian Catholics. XI Jinping then triumphantly traveled to Samarkand, placing great emphasis on the Shanghai Cooperation meeting, one of many Asian acronyms that had so far produced little effect on geopolitics and the world economy. Now China seems to want to take over the imperial legacy that America is renouncing, especially after its withdrawal from Afghanistan a year ago, and that Russia is failing to reaffirm, as was evident from Putin's mournful expression in the ritual photos with China's big brother.

Will China dominate the world in the coming era? Will Europe be able to reassert its historical centrality as conservative parties seem to rise to power from Scandinavia to the Mediterranean? Many other questions arise, and just as the Kazakh capital seemed to be the center of the world, in Brussels President Ursula von der Leyen again condemned the war in Ukraine, "a war against our energy, our economies, our values." A war to be fought with the weapons of faith, as Pope Francis preaches, to become "messengers of peace."

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