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A cardinal in Moscow, the power of the powerless

Stefano Caprio

(ZENIT News – Mondo Rosso (Asia News) / Milan, 07.04.2023).- Card Matteo Maria Zuppi’s peace mission to Moscow sought to inspire feelings of peace and brotherhood in Russia and the entire world in conflict, despite appearing to be ineffective from the point of view of strategies and negotiations to solve the situation.

The fact that the trip was acknowledged, despite the “march of justice” by Yevgeny Prigozhin and his Wagner Group, suggests that Russian President Vladimir Putin himself might have benefitted from a cardinal’s touch, in order to appear less accursed and isolated than he is as a result of the impact on international relations of his mad war.

Instead, the Kremlin’s strongman chose a walkabout, happy and smiling among “his people” crowding around their tsar, dispensing hugs and kisses to children and teens in Dagestan, North Caucasus.

The place chosen to show popular support for the president is a bit mystifying. Traditionally, Putin preferred packed Moscow stadiums wearing fancy clothes over a bulletproof vest.

Why the Caucasus, without protection? Amid irrepressible and uncontrollable enthusiasm? In some ways, it was a response to Prigozhin, the treasonous boss of faithless mercenaries, a way to show the intrepid Dagestani (and their Chechen relatives) as the true servants of the great Russia.

Perhaps it was also meant to reassure Russians that there would be no uprisings among Russia’s many peoples and regions, as some might have thought and hoped for, because only Russians know how to interpret and satisfy the other groups’ desires, as well as those of the Ukrainians and other “traditional” peoples of the empire.

During his visit, Card Matteo Maria Zuppi ended up in an unproductive meeting with a lowly Kremlin official. He also met with Maria Lvova-Belova, Russia’s commissioner for children’s rights, to discuss the 20,000 children abducted and deported from Ukraine; odd, since Ms Lvova-Belova has been accused of aiding the abduction and deportation of Ukrainian children to Russia.

The most solemn and significant meeting took place in the fancy residence of Patriarch Kirill, where the Italian cardinal was accompanied by the Apostolic Nuncio to Russia, Archbishop Giovanni D’Aniello, and one of Italy’s leading Russia specialists, Prof Adriano Roccucci.

If nothing else, the cardinal was able to show the relevance of the Catholic Church, the only one that can interact with Putin’s great religious ideologue, who is now avoided by everyone like he had the plague.

Still, Kirill too showed neither contrition nor reassurance about possible peace breakthroughs; at best, there was a commitment to “avoid a conflict of even greater proportions” (Kirill must have a limited opinion of the ongoing one, still hoping in a metaphysical, Trinitarian, and otherworldly “victory”).

The cardinal was consoled by Our Lady of Vladimir, the Russian Mona Lisa, who inspired many an ancient victory. Zuppi knelt before her in the chapel of the Tretyakov Gallery, the one from where Kirill snatched Rublev’s icon of the Holy Trinity and put it in the Cathedral of the Most Holy Saviour, from which the cardinal wisely kept away.

Instead, he visited the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, the main church of Russian Catholics, to concelebrate with clergy and worshippers a Mass of true hope and witness of peace.

Here the papal envoy was finally able to engage in serious reflections, explaining the real reason for his visit in the homily read in Russian by the young Auxiliary Bishop Nikolay Dubinin, who is the face of the future of the Church in this country.

Zuppi stressed one key point, namely that “unity is not achieved through power, but through service”. Russia’s war and Kirill’s preaching are inspired by the idea of the unity of peoples, the sobornost of Slavophile theology, the Russian version of “catholicity”. The word “catholic” has in fact been replaced with “sobornaya” in the Creed to define the Church as one, holy, sobornaya and apostolic.

Sobor is the synod and the cathedral, sobirat is the verb that indicates the act of reunifying, so that the first grand prince of the Third Rome, Ivan III the Great, was nicknamed the sobiratel because he had extolled Muscovy as the new Rus’, the new Kiev (Kyiv), the new Rome, subjugating all the other cities and regions, if necessary destroying them, like Novgorod, too liberal and western for his taste.

Putin aspires to the same title, through incorporating all of Russia’s neighbouring peoples into the old “unitary state” or sobornic of Soviet memory, as he did with Belarus and the Wagner Group, including, hopefully, pro-China Kazakhstan. Kirill also hopes to get the equivalent ecclesiastical title, making the Russian Church the new Catholic Church-sobornaya, perhaps appointing the Pope as his cardinal vicar.

By contrast, for Zuppi, real power is that of the “powerless” best exemplified by the Czech anti-communist dissident, Vaclav Havel. The future president of Czechoslovakia explained that this powerlessness runs up against the “powerlessness of the powerful” who can repress, but do not generate anything, and are unable to create a new world.

This is the most appropriate way to describe Putin’s 20 years in power; during this period, all attempts to build a new Russia after the Soviet dictatorship came to naught. This also applies to the three decades of Kirill’s all-encompassing rule, first as metropolitan then as patriarch, a time when one of the most spectacular religious revivals in human history was emptied of all meaning.

As Havel put it, the power of the powerless arises from life in truth, echoing what another great dissident, Russia’s Alexander Solzhenitsyn, said: “Live not by lies.”

Zuppi showed the truth of a Church without power, without weapons, nor plans and projects to solve conflicts and overthrow regimes, a Church that has long refused to cosy up to the powerful and act an altar boy for rulers.

Kirill’s Church has polluted Russia’s revival of the faith with nostalgia for power, be it the “Byzantine symphony”, the “tsarist sobornost” or the simple Soviet servitude, to which his patriarchate now appears reduced.

Card Zuppi – the Roman-born archbishop of Bologna and parish priest of Italy close to the poor, open to dialogue with everyone without ever fearing criticism and intrigue – is the Catholic response, the true spiritual sobornost, to which many Russian priests and faithful really turn to in their hearts and prayers.

Havel did not only criticise the communist regime, but also prophesied the lies of post-totalitarianism, stating that, “Between the aims of the post-totalitarian system and the aims of life there is a yawning abyss: while life, in its essence, moves toward plurality, diversity, independent self-constitution, and self-organization, in short, toward the fulfillment of its own freedom, the post-totalitarian system demands conformity, uniformity, and discipline.”

The warning does not only apply to Russians, Americans, Chinese or Turks or all those who aspire to rebuild empires; it is an accurate description of the whole globalised world, of minds  increasingly clouded by mass conformism.

This applies to tsars and patriarchs, but also to those who do not deal in politics or religion, money or weapons; It applies to influencers and the influenced, automatons of a world that loses its soul through artificial intelligence.

The patriarchal sobornost was also the inspiration of the Wagner Group, today dissolved in metaphysical Belarus. It is no coincidence that its founders turned to the great German composer who died 140 years ago.

Richard Wagner wanted to transform musical thought through his idea of Gesamtkunstwerk, “total artwork”, a synthesis of poetic, visual, musical and dramatic arts.

The prophet of post-modernity, the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, considered the music of his friend Richard as the renaissance of tragic art in Europe, the greatest example of the Dionysian spirit in the history of music itself, only to change his mind, and define it as an expression of a decadent civilisation.

Indeed, the last painting of the Ring of the Nibelung is entitled The Twilight of the Gods. The brothers plot the murder of Siegfried, who put the ring on his finger. Despite being invulnerable thanks to magic, he can be struck in the back, where Hagen pierces him with the spear, starting the final tragedy.

The Rhine overflows, carrying the ring away, like the Kakhovka dam that flooded someone’s war plans. Walhalla populated by the gods burns in a fire that destroys it, which could happen to the Kremlin, except that Wagnerian tragedies are nowadays reduced to comedies about the powerlessness of the powerful.