12/10/2022, 09.23
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The many souls of the Russian diaspora

by Stefano Caprio

Composed of life time expatriots and recent fugitives, the Russian diaspora presents a variegated and fractured picture, even if it is rich in leading figures from the world of culture, politics and economics. Moreover, division is a classic characteristic not only of Russian politics abroad, but also of its religiosity and church structures, as revealed by the Russian-Ukrainian war. 

Sincethe eras of the Tsars and Soviet Empire, the Russian diaspora has been notorious for never being able to express a unified position, or to compact itself as is the case with most emigrant peoples, such as the Ukrainians themselves.

There are various structures representing them, and in these times of the exclusion of militant Putinist Russia from every international forum, they are stuggling by all available means to represent the interests of the 'real Russians', those who reject war and wish to live in dialogue. This is certainly nothing new in Russian history.

After the much-praised performance of 'Boris Godunov' at La Scala in Milan, one may recall the three 'fake Dmitry' of the early 17th century, the self-proclaimed heirs to the throne who claimed to be the son of the Tsar, who escaped the assassination attributed to Boris, dragging half of Europe to the conquest of Moscow.

They all came to a bad end: the most famous traitor, Griša Otrepev, after settling in the Kremlin for a fortnight with his Polish wife and Jesuits in tow, was shot out of a cannon in the direction of the hated West.

In the 18th century, the Russians were enthusiastically touring Europe, completing the grand tour of the most important and attractive cities, each in their own way recounting the impressions they had gained from Paris, London, Amsterdam, Vienna, Rome and Naples.

The capital of the southern Bourbon kingdom was then part of the continental 'top destinations', and divided the most famous travellers, such as Denis Fonvizin who despised it for its excessive dirtiness, or Nikolai Karamzin who considered it the place of Europe's true cultural synthesis.

All the 'travelling writers' of Russia, however, adored the excavations of Pompeii, also portrayed in famous paintings by Russian painters, seen as the sign of the Apocalypse in history, with which Russia loved to identify.

The following century saw Russia split in the great debate between Slavophiles and Westernists, which often took place abroad to escape the censorship of the Okhrana, the political police of the Tsars, mother of the Soviet KGB and grandmother of the Putinist FSB. Gogol and Dostoevsky wrote their most intense and most 'Russian' novels, from Dead Souls to Demons and the Idiot, between the thermal waters of Baden-Baden and Palazzo Pitti in Florence, or Trinità dei Monti in Rome.

Revolutionaries, from Herzen to Lenin, inspired and led subversive actions from Switzerland and Paris, dividing themselves into congresses and fiery assemblies of Mensheviks, the losing majorities, and Bolsheviks, the minorities who gained the upper hand.

Even in Soviet times, a cohesive community could not be united abroad, between 'secular' and 'religious' dissidents, nationalists and liberals, independent poets such as Nobel laureate Iosif Brodsky or the hero of the square lyrics Andrei Sinjavskij, the other Nobel laureate Slavophile Aleksandr Solženitsyn or the Westernist politician Vladimir Bukovskij.

When the communist regime collapsed, no party at home or abroad was able to express a common idea on the new Russia to be built, left in the hands of the oligarchs and the siloviki, the 'men of strength' led by Putin, who always claimed to be inspired by 'patriotic' dissidents such as the philosopher Ivan Il'in, or Solženitsyn himself.

So even today, between long-time emigrants and recent fugitives, the Russian diaspora presents a variegated and very unified picture, even if it is full of prominent personalities in culture, politics and economics.

There is the Secretariat of European Russians, which brings together many supporters of Aleksej Naval'nyj's anti-corruption struggle, from chess champion Garri Kasparov to actor and humorist Aleksandr Gudkov, along with members of the Free Russia Foundation.

Then there are the anti-Putin separatists of the League of Free Nations, who call for recognition of the autonomy of the various nationalities that make up the Russian Federation, and often meet in various locations, each time trying not to offend any of the many ethnic groups they are supposed to represent. Several former deputies of the Duma and Russian regional councils, also recently gathered in Poland for the First Congress of People's Deputies, also speak, most focused on the possible regime change in Moscow.

One of the most active among the deputies abroad is Ilja Ponomarev, 47-year-old former Duma deputy for the 'Just Russia' group, for two terms from 2007 to 2014, then emigrated to the USA after the annexation of Crimea, and now very active in America and Europe.

In various interviews and conferences, he repeats that he does not want to criticise any of the other organised entities of his compatriots abroad, 'every ray of light serves us to illuminate the darkness of today's Russia', but he nevertheless distinguishes between those who seek to intervene in Russian politics, and those who defend the interests of Russians abroad, considering them two radically different and separate goals.

Ilya also points out the considerable distance between those who aim to oust Putin, and replace him with more worthy politicians, and 'regionalists' such as those in the League of Nations, who work for the break-up of the empire and the formation of Eurasian societies separate from Russia itself.

The debate is certainly interesting and will continue for a long time, regardless of the outcome of the war and the uncertainties of Putinism's political future.

After all, the division into parallel or even conflicting fractions is a classic not only of Russian politics abroad (at home, dictatorships and totalitarianisms usually win), but also of its religiosity and church structures, as the Russian-Ukrainian war has resoundingly uncovered before the whole world.

The patriarchal and imperial Church of Moscow has generated abroad (even at home, actually) a very varied series of jurisdictions in the distant and recent past, so much so that not only commentators and experts all over the world, but also its own faithful, have had their heads turned.

In Ukraine, the variants of the Orthodox Church linked to Moscow, Kiev, Constantinople and Rome are ceaselessly dismembering and recomposing themselves, often one against the other armed, as in these days, when Zelenskyj's government is trying in every way to cleanse the tormented Ukraine of religious 'collaborationists' linked to the Moscow Patriarchate.

A pro-Moscow priest was even sentenced to 12 years in prison for revealing the position of Ukrainian troops to the Russians. The difficulty also stems from the fact that the 'patriarchal Upz' Church (Ukrainskaja Pravoslavnaja Zerkov) formally distanced itself from Moscow several months ago, and it is impossible to know which priests, bishops or various representatives are loyal to one or the other of the two sides of the Russianness.

This division, moreover, derives from the very nature of the Moscow Patriarchate, created in 1589 to "save the whole world" thanks to the resistance in the true faith of the Moscow Third Rome, in the face of the deviations and weaknesses of all the other Churches, whether Orthodox or heterodox.

This was in fact a break with apostolic traditions, which reserved the title of patriarchate for the 'pentarchy' of the original Churches of East and West (Rome and Constantinople, the 'first and second Rome' together with Jerusalem, Antioch and Alexandria).

The reaction of the Russians of Poland, the future Ukrainians, was the union with the first Rome decided a few years later, in 1596 in Brest-Litovsk, on the border of the two kingdoms. This ancient ecclesiastical division marked the beginning of the open confrontation between the two souls of Russia, which continues with today's war also in the religious sphere, and the very beginning of Ukraine's history.

The Orthodox diaspora that followed the Bolshevik revolution fragmented into separate branches, with the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad "Zarubežnaja", the most openly tsarist, founded in Serbia in Sremski Karlovcy in 1921 (hence also called the "Karlovčans") and then established in America with its seat in Jordanville, a "metropolia abroad" for the Russians who had proclaimed the last tsar, Nicholas II, a saint since the 1960s.

A part of the emigrated Russian Orthodox, however, had been left hanging between Moscow and the foreign split, and relied on the Patriarch of Constantinople to form the Russian-Greek Exarchate in Western Europe, suppressed by Bartholomew I in 2018 to free itself from all ties with the Russians, then reunited with Patriarch Kirill and today in serious discomfort, being formed by Western European Russians, decidedly opposed to the war blessed by the Patriarch himself.

Many churches abroad remained directly under Moscow even during the Soviet period, and even they today position themselves in unpredictable ways, depending on the orientation of the priests or the faithful.

For years, the Church in England led by the Metropolitan of Surož, Antonij, known in English as Anthony Bloom, a great master of spirituality, capable of fusing the Russian-Byzantine tradition with the religious culture of the West, shone in the panorama of Russian Orthodoxy.

After his death in 2003, Patriarch Kirill sent his faithful collaborator, the young Metropolitan Ilarion (Alfeev), who had been Bloom's pupil, to London, and who in a few months destroyed all his work, imposing the Russian 'patriotic' variant. Last summer, Ilarion himself was exiled by Kirill to Budapest for 'lack of patriotism'.

With the Russians, in short, there is no danger of getting bored or sleeping soundly, amidst the endless discussions and incessant rain of bombs on the material targets of Ukraine, and the virtual ones of the West, fuelled by the massive ideological propaganda abroad, or clouded by the contradictions of the diaspora in exile, or even just on holiday for work and pleasure.

Russia is a mirror of other worlds and cultures, Churches and political ideologies, reflecting in a twisted and paradoxical way what runs in the blood of Europeans and Americans, Catholics and Anglicans, men and women in search of their future, in the permanent diaspora of humanity in history, after the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden, to which they all dream of returning.


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