Reading about the victory of Syriza from Russia rather than from Western Europe seems to come in a different context. Just watching my Facebook feed I am sure that the readings will confound normal expectations. Putin state media is reportedly playing to the Syriza win as a victory even though United Russian neo-liberal deputies like Ilya Haffner are telling Russians to eat less and remember the stoicism of the war years (while themselves owning multiple properties). Russian liberals often veer way to the right of many Europeans (when Europe is discussed) and few are likely to be sensitive to the social realities of many Europeans. This sense of disconnect is, alas, all too present in many of the European Left when discussing Russia. So surely this is an opportune moment to republish the last article by murdered anti-fascist lawyer Stanislav Markelov. An article that compared two deaths: one of a Greek teenager Alexandros Grigoropoulos murdered by a Greek police officer and the other of Patriarch Alexy in December and how these deaths reflected different aspects of two Orthodox societies. Little more than a month after this article was published on Markelov’s site, he himself (along with the anti-fascist journalist Nastya Baburova) would be gunned down in the centre of Moscow by a Neo-Nazi killer. Each January 19th a small group of demonstrators meet to commemorate Markelov’s death and to resist the encompassing threat of a patriarchal and ultra-conservative nationalist thanatocracy that Markelov so accurately describes in this piece. The Syriza victory in Greece and the growing war frenzy over Ukraine that is being felt in Russia calls for a renewed attention on this. There may be little hope that Greece’s new government will take a fundamentally innovative position on Russia but at the very least the international Left owes it to the Russian Left to remind Tsipras and his team that many Leftist political prisoners languishing in Russian jails (such as Alexey Gaskarov) deserve open solidarity from Europe’s first openly Leftist government.
TWO WORLDS, TWO DEATHS.
In Russia and Europe, not only do people live differently, they also die differently. At least, entirely different deaths are accorded public significance, and the consequences of these tragedies also are opposing. So as not to speak in riddles, I suggest that you simply turn on the TV and compare the top stories in news broadcasts here in Russia and on any of the European channels.
When you glance at what’s on TV, you get the impression that Russia is unable to pull itself out of a deep and endless mourning. Recalling Soviet times, you keep expecting to see Swan Lake, which would invariably hop on to our screens to honour the latest departed General Secretary. When you catch yourself making these kind of comparisons, you can’t avoid asking yourself the question—has the Patriarch become the General Secretary or the head of state in Russia? The church is a voluntary social organization. Why must the entire country plunge into mourning over the death of the head of a social organization? According to official statistics, only 4% of our citizens are active church members. For the rest of the faithful, the church is more a nod to tradition. But if you turn on the TV, you get the sense that we live in an despotic theocracy, and that, apart from the shipments of icons and holy relics from one worship site to another, nothing much else happens in our country. So everyone is as though obliged to consider it a matter of personal grief when Partriarch Alexy dies. At least there’s some relief that the throngs of mourners don’t crush each other, as happened when Stalin died.
Of course, the death of the head of the country’s dominant religious confession is an important public event, and one would very much hope that it occasioned a discussion of serious questions. For example, could Alexy have attained such dizzy ecclesiastical heights in Soviet times (for example becoming head of the Orthodox Church in the Soviet Union’s most problematic region, Estonia) without having closely collaborated with the competent organs? Particularly cynical citizens are already quietly humming to themselves Alla Puchageva’s song: “Oh, what a man he was, a genuine colonel!” Or one could ask oneself what do the absence of excise surcharges of alcohol and cigarettes, which helped the Church get rich off in the nineties, have to do with Christian values? We could also discuss whether all of the money collected from the whole country through an effective state racket was used for the reconstruction of the Church of Christ the Savior, in which the funeral of the departed Alexy is being held with such pomp and circumstance. Or was there really enough money to build a whole town’s worth of Christ the Saviors? But instead of answers to these and many other questions, we are presented with a reality show that practically turns the intimate matter of a man’s death and the personal grief of his family and friends into a serial of the title Big Brother Burial.
Against the backdrop of the hasty desire to canonise Alexy, Russian commentaries on the events in Greece triggered by the tragic death of a teenager struck down by a police bullet are telling. The entire analysis offered by state-controlled journalism boils down to two messages: “They’re too fussy there” and “They’ve gone mad, making such a ruckus over the death of some young kid.”
Only these commentaries wouldn’t work even as captions below the pictures from the Greek revolution. Can you be “too fussy” while also putting yourself in the path of police water cannons and tear gas? If Greek youth are too fussy, then why did the entire country support their demands by declaring a general strike? Maybe the country itself went mad and collectively decided to be too fussy?
Even the contrast between Russian spirituality and western dissolution that has become our official dogma doesn’t work in this case. Greece is also an Orthodox country, and it is so imbued with the principles of this very Orthodox Christianity that it could serve as an example even for Russian zealots.
Since we don’t have an official version, let’s try ourselves to explain why there are such different attitudes in Russia and Europe not only to life, but also to death.
In Russia, it is a person’s official status that matters. The higher he ascends the ranks, the more respected he becomes and, as we now see, the more intensely he is seen as a candidate for sainthood. In Russia, one becomes a saint by virtue of one’s office, and the wait for the new patriarch resembles the yearning for the appearance of a new saint. The newspapers are overflowing with headlines such as “In Expectation of a New Spiritual Father.” Moreover, these aren’t church-controlled or even religious newspapers, but the most secular of newspapers and even tabloids. When people are forced to become parents, it’s a bad sign. For some reason, I think that each person can decide for himself, if nothing else, who his fathers are, spiritual and otherwise.
According to state doctrine, power is infallible and framed with a halo of absolute and intrinsic value. Those who have attained the highest rank in the power system immediately become fathers of the nation and saints by virtue of their status alone. We follow the very principles of Byzantium, where each new emperor automatically became a saint. This doctrine cannot possibly account for the fact that the death of an ordinary teenager would become a national event, that five thousand people would come to his funeral without being prompted by any publicity whatsoever or round-the-clock reports on TV. In Russia, personal initiative must be sanctioned: it must have state support and be comprehensively covered in the mass media. Only then shall we end up with the “well-disciplined spontaneous outpouring of grief on the part of every Russian.” During Alexty’s funeral, central Moscow was blocked off; even the kiosks were closed. Walking the empty streets, unable to buy even a bottle of water, I wondered why I was obliged to be tormented by to the death of a man with whom I had nothing to do. In Greece, people suffer inconveniences so that reforms which hurt the majority are repealed. Greeks will even endure rioting on the streets to achieve this goal. But why torment oneself over a reality show entitled Death of the Patriarch? No, it is better to quickly switch the TV to any non-Russian channel (if, of course, you have access to one) or throw away your TV set altogether.