11/19/2022, 09.00
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War between peoples or systems

by Stefano Caprio

Ukrainians must not seek “revenge against the Russians”, but rather the triumph of a democratic society, inspiring not the imposition of their own system, but opt for a real interaction between civilisations, something that is in short supply at present.

The Moscow Times recently published a particularly illuminating article by political scientist Abbas Gallyamov. A former speechwriter for President Putin until the start of the wars of the last decade, Gallyamov believes that if victories and defeats are seen through ethnic lenses over a long period of time, “it will sooner or later be transformed into national humiliation,” and resentment will “become the basis for a new war.”

With a mood of depression hanging over Moscow after Russian routs in Ukraine, which vengeful and militarily useless missile attacks have failed to lift, Gallyamov recommends “turning defeat into a proper oppositional emotion so that it does not transform itself into thirst for revenge amid the ruins left by the Kremlin’s failed propaganda.” For him, “It must be made abundantly clear that this is not a defeat of the Russian people by the Ukrainians, but the defeat of authoritarianism in its struggle against democracy.”

What the political scientist said did not go down well in either Ukraine or Russia, where no one is willing to consider the motives of the other in this war, with nationalism in excess in both.

While in Russia the war is meant to reunify “one Russian people", a view repeated by the Russian Orthodox Church, in Ukraine, the emphasis is on pride for a distinct national identity, separate from Russia’s, with both sides making claims about the superiority of one people over the other.

This is exactly what happened to the French and the British in the First World War, during the clash between the Triple Entente and the Triple Alliance in the early 20th century; eventually, it led to a reciprocal sense of ethnic superiority and blame the other. This is largely the cause for excessive nationalist claims of one's uniqueness and purity, nurturing Mussolini's fascism and Hitler’s Nazism, and, ultimately, causing World War II.

If today the aggression against Ukraine is blamed on Russia as a nation and a people rather than on its political regime, the war will not end in peace agreements, but will fuel increasingly confused claims among the many ethnic and political fragments of the former Soviet empire.

Russia’s much trumpeted call for the denazification of Ukraine at the start of the invasion in February could not only lead to the renazification of Russia or Ukraine, but also of Europe and the international community.

Putin's worst imaginable victory would not be limited to challenging globalisation in the name of sovereignty, but would also lead to a fiendish clash of ethnic, cultural and religious identities, in an endless spiral that would destroy coexistence among peoples.

"Democracies do not attack each other," Gallyamov notes, and Ukrainians must not pursue "revenge against the Russians”; instead, they should seek the triumph of democratic society, inspired not to impose their own system, but opt for true interaction among civilisations, something that is increasingly in short supply at present.

If the 20th century saw the struggle of socialism against liberalism and communism against capitalism, today it seems to be Europeans against Russians, Americans against Chinese, peoples against other peoples in every corner of the Earth.

There is no doubt that Putin's Russia has opened the floodgates of ethnic and "ethical" hostilities, starting with his view that liberal democracy is a "dictatorship of minorities", stifling  "traditional values".

For Russia, this continues a long tradition exalting its “original mission” from medieval times, followed by a succession of theories of superiority, charged with ideological, religious, cultural, and literary arguments, sometimes particularly grotesque and totally unrealistic.

The 16th-century dream of the “Third Rome” defending the true faith against all heresy, invasion, and immorality, was succeeded by the intoxicating rise of Peter’s empire, which in the 18th century sought to condense both East and West.

In the 19th century, the tsars, inebriated by the victory over Napoleon and opposed to invasions from Europe, nurtured Slavophile theories of “unity and integral communion” of peoples and cultures, which the Russians were supposed to realise on a world scale.

Dostoevsky, the grand Slavophile, dreamt of conquering Istanbul and Jerusalem. Speaking at the foot of the Pushkin monument, shortly before his death in 1881, he said that “everything that is truly Russian is universally human” (sechelovecheskoye); his young friend, philosopher Vladimir Solovyov, tried to offer a grandiose design to reconstruct every soul, which he developed in a vision of Russia and the universal Church, in which Western and Eastern Christians were finally reunited in a integral “all-one” world (vseyedinoye), ruled by Russia’s tsars and Roman popes.

Inversely, Western-oriented currents imagined increasingly extreme variants designed to redefine the human, described by the intelligentsia (a Russified Latin term) with other Latinising words such as anarkhizm, nihilizm and populizm, all of which passed into Western usage, flowing into the new Russian messianism of the Bolshevik revolution.

In dependence and opposition to these and other claims by Russia then and now, Ukrainians have also developed "strong" and universal ideals, which, as a result of Russifying repressions, they have extended and interpreted in ever more radical forms.

Ukraine is thus seen as a land of “union" with the first Rome against the Moscow patriarchate of the third Rome, a space of freedom for the Cossacks – a Russified Asian word that comes from Kozak, “free man” in Asia and Europe; the "new Europe" of the 19th century society of Cyril and Methodius, sung by their national poet, Taras Shevchenko, the autocephalous Church of Kyiv standing up to Moscow’s arrogance and much more.

Ukraine sees itself as the anti-Russia, even though Russian is the most spoken language in the country, mixed at best with Polish, Slovak, and Hungarian.

Very indicative of the mental confusion about overlapping ethnicity and culture is the outrage expressed by Ukrainians in Italy when La Scala in Milan scheduled as its premiere next month the opera Boris Godunov by Modest Mussorgsky because it was Russian.

It is difficult to find in history a more representative figure of relations between Russians and Ukrainians than Tsar Boris Godunov, who at the turn of the 16th and 17th centuries, found himself managing the transition from the imperial autocracy of Ivan the Terrible amid the invasion of the armies of the Kingdom of Poland-Lithuania.

Godunov promoted the establishment of the Moscow Patriarchate, oversaw the union of Western Orthodox in Kyiv with Rome, and tried to modernise the country amid clashes with internal and external rivals: from the fighting among noble families (from whom rose the Romanov dynasty) to the hope of uniting aristocrats, clerics, merchants, and peasants in the Zemstvo, rural self-government, which in the late 20th century the great writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn saw as a way to rebuild Russia after communism.

Ukraine emerged right after the reign of Boris Godunov, with the rebirth of Kyiv, where the monk and Metropolitan Petro Mohyla set up the first university in the Russian world, the Orthodox and Westernising theological academy, which gave life to all the institutions of higher learning in Moscow and Saint Petersburg.

It is no coincidence that the figure of the transitional tsar who bridged the age of the Rurikids to that of the Romanovs inspired so much literature and art, including Mussorgsky’s music, another crucial figure in the quest for the Russian soul between East and West in the 19th century.

Like Dostoevsky and the murdered Tsar Alexander II, Mussorgsky died in 1881, a year that marks the end of the "golden age" of Russian culture, with his final work, the famous Pictures at an Exhibition, a symbolic visit to the various stages that shaped the Russian soul, which solemnly ends with The Bogatyr Gates (In the Capital in Kyiv).

Europe, America, NATO, and the entire West did not show any real interest in Ukraine, its history and culture, its language and its relations with Big Brother in Moscow, before 2022, or at least before the 2014 Maidan revolution.

Throughout its history, Ukraine has always been a Western version of Russia, and it was convenient to hide it in the Kingdom of Poland, Austria-Hungary, or Nazi and Soviet totalitarianism.

The Polish-born American diplomat and political scientist Zbigniew Brzezinski argued that “Russia can be either an empire or a democracy, [. . .] but with Ukraine suborned and then subordinated, Russia automatically becomes an empire.”

Can Russia be only the “evil empire”? Is the defence of Ukraine the assertion of the superiority of the democratic ideal against the claims of "traditional values" imposed from above? A year of war should force everyone, on both sides, to reflect intensely on such questions.

One thing is certain, if the aim of the war is to defeat Russia, as an empire and as a people, and not the claims of a dictatorial regime, then the Russians will not be winners, but those who will become like them.


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