05/27/2023, 09.43
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The post-Russia devastated by war

by Stefano Caprio

Prigožin has left Bakhmut, reduced to a pile of rubble, giving rapid-fire interviews that look more like an acknowledgement of defeat than a proclamation of victory. If Ukraine has a clear future as a member of the Western and European communities, if Central Asia now discusses all its affairs with the great power of Beijing, Moscow must try not to resign itself to its own insignificance.

The epic "Battle of Bakhmut," which held peoples and nations in suspense for six months, seems to have finally ended. It has concentrated supersonic weapons and bombs and gigantic armies around a country that until last year had a population of 70,000 and now has at least 50,000 war dead.

The Russians call it "Artemovsk," the name assigned in 1924 in honor of Soviet politician Sergeev, who used the pseudonym "Artem" during the revolution, while the Ukrainians in 2015 had restored the ancient name of the Bakhmut fortress, built in the 16th century in front of the river of the same name. Everything about this war, in fact, recalls events from the time of Ivan the Terrible, at the end of the Middle Ages.

The conquest of Artemovsk, after all, is a modern version of the ancient "victory of Pyrrhus," the king of Epirus who defeated the Romans three centuries before Christ, but sustaining such high losses that he eventually succumbed to the enemy.

The decimated conquering army, in the current case, is Prigožin's Wagner Company, which has complained of losing more than 20,000 men, more than half of them ex-prisoners, after protesting at length, and increasingly explicitly and brazenly, against the inability of Russian generals and Defense Minister Šojgu, the "scapegoat" whom Putin does not dare to change, despite the spin of the generals themselves.

Prigožin has abandoned the fortress, reduced to a pile of rubble, issuing a barrage of interviews and statements that look much more like an acknowledgement of defeat than a proclamation of victory.

Or at least they bear a strong resemblance to the truth, which is usually little attended by the Kremlin's official information. Putin's "cook" even acknowledged that he is not a cook: "I don't even know how to cook, at most you can call me Putin's butcher," the one who is sent to destroy and gut. Above all, he said that "this absurd war leads nowhere"; a phrase that, instead, would lead any other Russian citizen straight to the lager.

The great truth, obvious to anyone, is that Putin's war "created a great Ukrainian army, today one of the best in the world," Prigožin assures, "second only to Wagner Company." Behind the military glories, the underlying truth is that the war revived battered Ukraine, and instead destroyed imperial Russia.

Thus, the post-Soviet phase of the empire's dissolution, the 30 years in which Ukraine oscillated for a long time between nostalgia for Moscow's big brother, and the attraction of the liberal West, has come to an end. Today, the president of Kiev tours the capitals of the world -- not just Western ones -- even sitting among the G-7 powers, while the czar of Russia is even excluded from trade routes between China and Central Asia.

Ukraine has finally become a nation thanks to Russian aggression, and the other former Soviet countries also claim their own identity, except for Belarus oppressed by the eternal president Lukašenko, who went from agricultural kolkhoz to government in Minsk, never changing jobs, as a servant of the Kremlin.

A new, post-post-imperial phase opens, in which it is only Russia, having resurrected Ukraine and NATO, and almost Europe, the quintessential comatose giant of world politics, that risks dissolution.

The pathetic figure of Putin is increasingly overshadowed by his former boss, who does not attack him directly; he only alludes to the "senile grandpa who thinks he won the war," and perhaps prepares to replace him.

One joke among many well describes the current perceived lack of credibility and lucidity of the bunker master, who wants to make himself master of the world. In one photo, a general can be seen showing Putin a world map, lying on the table, and the president has a speech bubble with the phrase, "Why don't we attack the blue countries, that are bigger than everyone else? Then we would have everything in our hands." "Those are the oceans, sire," the general replies resignedly.

Russia's hopes, more than in the nuclear weapons stockpiles stowed under Lukasenko's chair, are pinned on the Vatican mission of Cardinal Zuppi, who, according to Pope Francis's wishes, will try to persuade the contenders to lower their weapons, stopping the slaughter.

This would allow Putin to boast that he has liberated Crimea, Donbass and Zaporižja, the equivalent of the area of Ascoli Satriano conquered by Pyrrhus, without having to admit defeat. It would conclude the medieval crusade of the 21st century, and for Russia it would indeed open a jump back a few centuries.

Some Duma deputies would like to further amend the Constitution, taking Putin's ideological operation to the extreme in 2020, when he included the name of God and "traditional values" in the Basic Law. Now they would like to rewrite Article 17, the one wanted by Yeltsyn that excludes a "state ideology," to avoid falling back into the mists of Soviet communism.

The new Putinian ideology would be a reissue of the many formulations of imperial Russia, capable of rallying peoples in the name of sacred religious or atheistic orthodoxy, but for the time being the discussion has been postponed, lest it fall too far into the grotesque.

Even Kazakhstan's Tokaev disputes Russia's "unitary" vision when he made it clear at the meeting of Eurasian economies in Moscow in recent days that Kazakhstan or Kyrgyzstan have no intention of joining a "unitary state" such as that presented by the Moscow-Minsk union.

And the other member of the group, Armenia, also discusses with Moscow possible peace agreements with Azerbaijan, but insists on the need to obtain "international guarantees": the Kremlin's shadow, now grown too short for everyone, is certainly no longer enough.

What Russia will emerge after the darkness of war? If Ukraine, though devastated, has a clear future as a member of the Western and European communities, if Central Asia now discusses all its affairs with the great power of Beijing, Moscow will try not to resign itself to its own insignificance.

Metropolitan Tikhon of Pskov, known as Putin's "spiritual father" (but even he, like Prigožin, now rejects that definition), insists in public statements on Russia's "imperial identity," which can only assert itself as the "reuniting people" of East and West, on pain of its own demise.

The Muscovy of Ivan III the Great became an empire with his grandson, Ivan IV the Terrible, who ruined everything with wars and repressions, just like today's Putin I the Terrible. Moreover, it opened the convulsive phases of the "Turbids" that shook Russia throughout the seventeenth century, until the proclamation of the new empire of St. Petersburg, envisioned by Peter the Great as the ruler of Europe.

The new Torbids may involve the ethnic claims of the Federation's many peoples, with the armed gangs of oligarchs imposing themselves even on state and regional institutions, and the vast Siberian areas increasingly willing to invest in yuan.

Or they will lead to new religious schisms, such as that of the seventeenth-century "Old-Believers," who claimed the superiority of Slavic prayers over Greek ones; the break with Constantinople, and with much of the rest of the Orthodox world, retraces the contradictions of a Christianity rooted in the Fathers of the early Church, and then made their own by the new starets of the Imperial Church.

The Church reclaims icons, relics and symbols long since stowed away in museums, to revive a religion annihilated by a century of atheism; and only because of what little healthy atheism still remains in institutions, perhaps not all these monuments of faith, art and culture will be disintegrated.

Throughout the rest of the Christian world litanies of support should be raised for the curators of the Tretyakov Gallery, who are willing to sacrifice their own bodies in order not to hand over Rublev's icon of the Trinity to Patriarch Kirill.

Even Putin's political opponents, almost all of whom are in exile abroad or in the lager, are struggling to shed their "imperial" and "Moscow-centric robes," as the many activists of the non-Russian peoples of the Federation accuse them.

The Berlin Declaration of early May, circulated by all Russian "democratic forces" abroad, calls for the emergence of a new "free, just and federal Russia," because "there is no other," inogo ne dano, a symbolic phrase of those who want to do away with Putinism but cannot give up the great Russia.

Between the imperialism of the "Russian world" and the new federalism of the "liberal democracy" desired by opponents there is less difference than it seems, so much so that the "democrats" rule out that, once Putin is removed, elections can be immediatley called, because "the supporters of the past regime would win."

They assume a period of "interim administration," perpetuating total ignorance of democracy in Russia. Even the separatists, representatives of the future "post-Russian" peoples, rule out the possibility of new states coming into being on their own with free elections, and in this case call for an "external administration" to overcome the uncertainties of the present. The problem, after all, is not the waning overlord, but uncertainty about the sunrise in an overgrown country like Russia, which never knows which way to turn.


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