Two weeks have passed since the “march of justice” by Yevgeny Prigozhin’s Wagner Group, which traveled almost 800 kilometers from Rostov to Tula, near Moscow, with 25,000 armed mercenaries ready to burn down the Kremlin, and then made a nice turn in U and disappeared into thin air. Since then, in Russia and around the world, people have been asking themselves anxious questions that show complete geo-psychic, political and moral bewilderment: where did Prigozhin end up? And where are the 25 thousand men? And the generals who command the great armies, from Gerasimov to Surovikin? And before that: where was Putin while the march on Moscow was taking place? Was he in his bunker, in a St. Petersburg villa, in the castle by the sea, or on the yacht of an oligarch friend? These are just some of the existential questions and metaphysical hypotheses that politicians, pundits, and various commentators rack their brains over. And so far few credible answers have been heard, especially to the underlying question: where has Russia gone?
It is not just a rhetorical question, given the bewilderment that the “Wagnerian turbulences” have provoked in the souls of the Russians and of all people, exhausted by more than 500 days of senseless war. It is a classic question of the Russian soul, its history and its culture. What has happened in recent years is increasingly returning Russia to the grotesque dimensions depicted in the characters of the most Russian novel in history, Dead Souls, by the Ukrainian-born Nikolai Gogol, in the mid-19th century. There the story of the swindler Pavel Chichikov is told, who even then was trying to form his “Wagner group” with 25 thousand souls that actually did not exist, whom he had to recruit by buying them from the landowners, the oligarchs of that time. The caricatured description of these landlords is really a prophecy of the ruling class, not only in Russia but in all countries that live on lies and false appearances.
The impressive correspondence lies in the description of the famous troika, the three-horse carriage that transports Chichikov from one part of Russia to another. The troika is a small Trinity (Troitsa), doubly reflected in the protagonist accompanied by the two servants, and in the three horses, which go around the country, evoking the sacred image that is still presiding, for ten more days, the Cathedral of the Savior in Moscow, to the glory of the Patriarch and the Tsar. In the passage of the final fugue, when Chichikov’s deception has already been discovered, Gogol describes Russian nature, the land and the landscape, those always indefinite geographical and spiritual coordinates, which open up new horizons and arouse continuous ambitions, thus describing the russian soul:
What Russian doesn’t love speed? How can his soul not like it, that soul that yearns for vertigo, the frenzy of joy, and that sometimes exclaims “Let everything go to hell!”? So how could he not love her, when she provides a feeling of exhilaration and wonder? It is as if an unknown force were dragging you and placing you on its wings, as if you were flying yourself and everything was flying around you: the poles fly, the merchants seated on the box of their covered wagons fly to meet you, the forests fly by on both sides. sides of the road, with its dark rows of pines and firs, with the crash of the ax and the cawing of crows; it flies all the way, fading into the distance to no one knows where, and there is something strange and scary about that swift parade that barely gives you time to see things before they disappear; only the sky overhead and the light clouds where the moon rises seem motionless. Oh, troika, you are like a bird! Who invented you? You could only be born in a daring people, in a land that does not like jokes, which has spread like an immense plain across half the world (…) The coachman does not wear large German boots; he has a beard and thick gloves and is sitting on the devil knows what; but he barely gets up, cracks his whip, sings a song and the horses run madly, the spokes of the wheels merge to form a single compact circle, the road trembles, the walker screams, stopping in fear, and the winged troika flies , Flying! And now you can only see, in the distance, something that raises dust and pierces the air…
Is it not true, O Russia, that you too run like a troika that no one can catch up with? Clouds of dust rise up in your path, the bridges tremble, everything is left behind and seems to remain motionless. The one who sees you pass stops, stupefied by this divine miracle: is it a bolt of lightning thrown from heaven? What does that sweeping race mean? And what force unknown to the world drives those horses? Ah, horses, horses… what horses are you! Is a whirlwind hidden in your mane? Does a sensitive ear burn in each of your fibers? You have heard the well-known song coming from on high, and all together, in perfect harmony, you have tensed your bronze chests, and barely touching the ground with your hooves, you fly through the air turned into a tense line, and the troika seems to be launched into space by a divine breath! RUSSIA, WHERE ARE YOU HEADING RUNNING LIKE THAT? ANSWER!
He doesn’t answer. The prodigious sound of the bells is heard, the air shudders in its wake and becomes wind; he blows back everything on earth and, looking in fear, all other peoples and nations make way for him.
No other page describes with such intensity the Russian soul, an unbridled troika that devours the world. This is only a literary image, but certainly a very lofty one: Russia is the novelty that arouses the wonder or terror of the world, depending on which path it takes, from East to West. Gogol himself, on the other hand, embodies this contradiction in his own person: he wanted to write the history of Malorossija-Ukraine, he dedicated a cycle of stories and novels to it, such as the well-known “Taras Bul’ba”, and later ended up exulting at the idea of the “universal saving mission” of Russia. Dead Souls was intended to be a Russian Divine Comedy, narrated in three parts: damnation, redemption, and sanctification. When he finished writing 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 disputes between “Slavophiles” and “Westernists” that are renewed today in the clashes between Russians and Ukrainians. But Gogol despaired, because the Russia he had in mind must be much higher, and he sought solace in Orthodox religion and liturgy, which he described better than many theologians and patriarchs.
Returning to the present day, the Gogolian caricature of Prigozhin has been “redeemed” from his deception thanks to the magnanimity of the tsar, and even the money and weapons that had been confiscated were returned to him. He apparently has calmly returned to the princely residence of St. Petersburg, his hometown, but perhaps he is once again fleeing across Russia and the world in his private troika-plane. And the whole country is once again plunged into uncertainty about its own destiny, about the war and about the economy, while the dollar once again breaks the 100 ruble barrier, as it has not happened since before Putin’s arrival. This is, in fact, the result of the much-vaunted “special operation” that was supposed to put Russia back at the center of the world: the return to the nothingness of the past, to the dispersion and collapse of all imperial dreams. Russia has been lost, dissolved in the waters of the Donbass dam.
The whole incredible story of the last days – Prigozhin’s march and flight, the return home and the shame of the generals and officers – is really a replica of so many pages of Russian literature – from Gogol to Dostoevsky and many others. One of the protagonists of this tragicomedy, Defense Minister Sergej Shoigu, had intuited it years ago when in 2016 he refused to reward Prigozhin and his friend Sergej Surovikin, the general “butcher of Aleppo”, in Syria because, he said, ” the gopniki cannot enter history.” “Gopnik is a Soviet term to refer to “the people who are the shame of the city embodied in those subjects who roam the streets causing destruction, robberies and violence, who have often been in prison and who have vulgar language and cheeky attitudes.
Prigozhin is the quintessential gopnik, and Surovikin, who has also disappeared in the fog of recent days, had become his great comrade in the Russian raids against Isis. Having lost and recaptured the ancient city of Palmyra – the Bakhmut of that time – several times, the two devoted themselves to what has in fact become Wagner’s specialty: using war to make money. Prigozhin bought his “dead souls” and Surovikin protected him, so much so that he was registered as an honorary member of the Group with the number M-3744, promoting the association of the “cook” and the “butcher”. Shoigu later awarded recognition for the capture of Palmyra to two other generals, Valery Gerasimov and Alexander Dvornikov, who are also currently missing.
Later, thanks also to successful and lucrative campaigns in Africa, Prigozhin still received an award from Shoigu, who presented him with a Glock pistol as a mark of respect for his ability to “shoot with aim,” a catchphrase some want to use to launch the candidacy of the “redeemed” leader in next year’s presidential elections, as an alternative to the increasingly deteriorated gopnik of the Kremlin. The Glock has been returned to him along with the rest of the weapons, and it really would seem as if the early post-Soviet years and the gang warfare had returned to share the cake of the crumbling empire, which Putin had ended by restoring his Stalin’s Russia way. Immediately after the death of the Georgian dictator, in the five years that preceded the 20th Congress of the CPSU in 1957 and the repudiation of Stalin by the Ukrainian Khruschev, a kind of hippy movement had arisen in the Soviet Union, the stiljagi – for the Americanized “style” -, which began to play new music and spread jazz on the other side of the Iron Curtain. Now the sounds of the music of the future are expected, once again entrusted to improvisation.
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