Where has Russia gone?
The whole incredible affair of the last days, the march and escape of Prigožin, the return home and the shaming of the generals and officials, is really a retelling of so many pages of Russian literature. Starting with the Russia of grotesque dimensions described in the characters of the most Russian novel in history, the Dead Souls of Ukrainian-born Nikolai Gogol'
Two weeks have passed since the "justice march" of Evgenij Prigožin's Wagner Company, which traveled nearly 800 kilometers from Rostov to Tula, near Moscow, with 25,000 men, armed mercenaries ready to put the Kremlin to the sword, only to make a nice U-turn and disappear into thin air.
Since then there has been anguish in Russia and around the world with questions that manifest total geo-psychic, political and moral bewilderment: where did Prigožin go? And where are the 25,000? And the generals commanding the big armies, from Gerasimov to Surovikin?
Before that: where was Putin while the march on Moscow was underway? Was he in the bunker, in a St. Petersburg villa, in the castle by the sea, on a yacht of an oligarch friend?
These are just some of the existential questions and metaphysical hypotheses over which politicians, pundits and various commentators are pondering, and so far few credible answers have been heard, especially with respect to the underlying question: where did Russia go?
It is not just a rhetorical question, given the bewilderment that the "Wagnerian murders" have caused in the souls of Russians and all people exhausted by more than 500 days of senseless war. It is a classic question of the Russian soul, its history and culture.
The events of recent years are increasingly bringing Russia back to the grotesque dimensions described in the characters of the most Russian novel in history, the Dead Souls of Ukrainian-born Nikolai Gogol' in the mid-nineteenth century. In them is told the story of the swindler Pavel Čičikov, who even then was trying to put together his "Wagner Company" of 25,000 actually nonexistent souls to enlist with the various landowners, the oligarchs of the time.
The gruesome description of these landowners is really a prophecy of the ruling class not only of Russia, but of every country that lives by lies and false pretenses.
The striking correspondence lies in the description of the famous troika, the three-horse carriage that transports Čičikov from place to place in Russia. The troika is a small Trinity (Troitsa), doubly reflected in the protagonist along with the two servants and the three horses around Russia, evoking the sacred image that still towers for ten days in Moscow's Cathedral of the Savior, to the glory of the patriarch and the tsar.
In the excerpt of the final escape, after Čičikov's deception has been discovered, Gogol' describes Russian nature, the land, the landscape, those always undefined geographical and spiritual coordinates that open new horizons and arouse continuous ambitions, thus describing the Russian soul:
And what Russian does not like fast driving? Does his soul, striving to spin, take a walk, sometimes say:" Damn it all! "- whether his soul does not love her? Seemingly, an unknown force grabbed you on the wing to itself, and you yourself fly, and everything flies ... " it seems as if some unknown force has seized you and rested you on its wings, and you fly, and everything flies; the milestones fly, the merchants in their covered wagons fly toward you, the forest with the somber rows of pine and fir trees, with the resounding of axe blows and the cawing of crows, flies on either side; flies all the way lost in the distance, no one knows where, and a something of fearfulness emanates from this rapid flashing that leaves you barely catching a glimpse of the object fleeing away; only the sky above your head, and the light clouds, among which the moon shines through, seem motionless. Ah, trojka, you are like a bird! Who created you? Of course you could only be born among a bold people, in a land that doesn't like to joke, that has lain like an immense plain for half the world, and you can count miles (... ) He doesn't wear German-style boots the coachman; he's got a beard and gloves and sits the devil knows what on; but he barely lifts himself up, raises his whip, sings a song, and the horses jerk, the spokes of the wheels seem to merge into one smooth circle, the road trembles, the pedestrian who stops frightened shouts, and the winged troika flies, flies! And by now, in the distance, all you can see is something raising dust and piercing the air ...
Is it not so, you, Russia, that a brisk, unattainable troika is rushing? The road is smoking under you, bridges are thundering, everything lags behind and remains behind. The beholder, struck by God's miracle, stopped: is it not lightning, thrown down from the sky? what does it mean terrifying motion? and what kind of unknown power is contained in these horses unknown to the light? Oh, horses, horses, what horses! Are there whirlwinds in your manes? Does a sensitive ear burn in every vein of yours? We heard a familiar song from above, together and at once strained their copper breasts and, almost without touching the ground with their hooves, turned into only elongated lines flying through the air, and all inspired by God rushes! .. Russia, where are you rushing? Give an answer. Doesn't give an answer. The bell is filled with a wonderful ringing; air ripped into pieces thunders and becomes the wind; everything that flies past ...
No page describes the Russian soul more intensely, an unbridled troika devouring the world. This is only a literary inspiration, but certainly a very high one: Russia is the novelty that arouses the wonder or terror of the world, depending on the road it takes, from East to West.
Gogol' himself, after all, represents this contradiction in his own person: he wanted to write the history of Malorossiya-Ukraine, dedicated a cycle of short stories and novels to it such as the well-known Taras Bul'ba, and then exalted himself to the idea of Russia's "universal saving mission."
The Dead Souls was intended to be a Russian Divine Comedy, narrated in three parts: damnation, redemption, sanctification. At the end of the writing of the first "hellish" part, his mentor Aleksandr Pushkin told him that he had described Russia as it really was, making the young writer the arbiter of the great diatribes between "Slavophiles" and "Westernists," which are renewed today in the clashes between Russians and Ukrainians; but Gogol' despaired, for the Russia he had in mind must have been much higher, and he sought solace in Orthodox religion and liturgy, which he described better than many theologians and patriarchs.
To return to current events, Prigožin's Gogolian macchietta has been "redeemed" from his deception thanks to the tsar's magnanimity, and he has even been given back the money and weapons they had seized from him. It seems he has quietly returned to his hometown princely residence in St. Petersburg, but he may be on the run again for Russia and the world in his private troika-plane.
And the whole country sinks back into uncertainty about its fate, the war and the economy, as the dollar breaks through the 100 ruble barrier again, as it has not since before Putin's advent.
This is indeed the result of the flaunted "special operation" that was supposed to put Russia back at the center of the world: a return to the nothingness of the past, to the scattering and shattering of every imperial dream. Russia is lost, dissolved in the waters of the Donbass dam.
The whole incredible affair of the last few days, the march and the escape, the return home and the shaming of the generals and officials, is really a retelling of so many pages of Russian literature, from Gogol' to Dostoevsky and many others.
This was intuited years ago by one of the protagonists of this tragicomedy, Defense Minister Sergey Šojgu, when in Syria in 2016 he refused to award Prigožin and his friend Sergey Surovikin, the "butcher of Aleppo" general, saying that "gopniki cannot enter history."
The gopnik is a Soviet term for the "disgrace of city society" embodied in the characters who roam the urban streets doing damage, theft and violence, often escaping from prisons, with vulgar language and brazen attitudes.
Prigožin is the quintessential gopnik, and Surovikin, who has also disappeared into the mists of recent days, had become his great partner in Russian raids against Isis.
After losing and retaking several times the ancient city of Palmyra, the Bakhmut of the time, the two devoted themselves to what in fact became Wagner's specialty, using war to make money: Prigožin bought his "dead souls" and Surovikin protected him, so much so that he was granted honorary membership in the company under the number M-3744, extolling the pair of the "cook" and the "butcher."
Šojgu then granted honors for the taking of Palmyra to two other generals, Valery Gerasimov and Aleksandr Dvornikov, themselves currently missing.
Later, thanks in part to successful and lucrative campaigns in Africa, Prigožin nonetheless received an award from Šojgu, who presented him with a Glock pistol as a token of respect for his ability to "shoot while aiming," a slogan some want to use to pitch the "redeemed" leader in next year's presidential election as an alternative to the Kremlin's increasingly dilapidated gopnik.
The Glock has returned with the other weapons, and it really feels like a return to the early post-Soviet years, with the gang warfare to share the pie of the collapsed empire, which Putin had ended by restoring Stalin's Russia in his own way.
Immediately after the Georgian dictator's death, in the five years leading up to the 20th Congress of the Pcus in 1957 and the Ukrainian Khruščev's disavowal of Stalin, a kind of hippy movement had sprung up in the Soviet Union, the stiljagi for the American-style "style," who began to play new music, spreading jazz even this side of the Iron Curtain. And now the sounds of the music of the future, entrusted once again to improvisation, are awaited.
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