sexta-feira, 9 de dezembro de 2016

Martyrs, heroes and others not so saints: the construction of the new Russian identity

(Town of Kaluga, Russia)

The anthropologist and professor at the New Bulgarian University, Milena Benovska-Sabkova, has carried out a work on memory policy implemented in Russia in the religious revival context. Her activity had as reference the city of Kaluga, with 350 thousand inhabitans 150 km southwest Moscow, and has been published in various academical journals (here - page 95-98, here and, most complete, here).

With the end of the Soviet Union, a series of research began in order to reconstitut and rebuild the religious communities, churches and monasteries destroyed in Russia. Much of this work was done by so-called kraevedenie, researchers specializing in local history as cultural heritage, biographies and origins of families. Such a kind of researcher has emerged still in the time of the Soviet Union and actually has a semi-official status, acting independently and also with research centers, schools, churches and local authorities. Within this branche there are the church kraevedenie, who makes the same work, but focused especifically on religious matters, with emphasis on survey of demolished churches, research on religious files and biographical survey of clerics and religious people, especially those who desappeared in the Communist era.

Since 2000, with the Vladimir Putin´s arrival to Presidency of Russia, the activity of the kraevedenie has has gained great official stimulus: they were co-optated by the authorities to work in rescue research of Russian history acting in schools, museums and in local activties such as congresses and books launches. Thus, these reasearchers began to form a semiprofissional group related a) to the national project of memory policy, b) to the regional projects linked to the memory policy at national level, and c) to the spontaneous research acitvity carried out by their members. The church kraevedenie also entered this process, and began to work close to the Russian Orthodox Church´s authorities. Thus, they consolidated the role as intermediaries between the Orthodox clergy and the common citizen making a knowledge "bridge" between the two social groups.

(Optina Pustyn Monastery, in the town of Koselsk 60 km from Kaluga. Founded in the 15th century, the monastery is one of the main ones in Russia and also region´s religious center. It was transformed by the Bolsheviks in the Kraevedenie Museum in 1917-29, and later received a department of a Koselk´s museum in 1957.)

It´s through the close relationship between the kraevedenie and the Russian Orthodox Church that the religious revival takes place in Russia. They work together both at national level in the Synodal Commission of Canonization of Saints and at regional level, following the example of the Commission of Canonization of the Eparchy of Kaluga, where the anthropologist Milena carried out her research. Therefore, these researchers not only rescue the Orthodoxy´s past memory but also integrate the Church´s plan to reconstitute a national religious identity.

Since 1989, the Orthodox Church has carried out a series of canonizations, among them the confessors and "new martyrs", that is, the religious assassinated or dead during the communist regime. The church kraevedenie are of fundament importance mainly for rescuing files, survivors´ memories and to discover abandoned cemiteries in the old churches. Along them work the so-called "religious entrepreneurs" who commit some of their time and personal resources to carry out and organize religious processions, restore icons, restore and rebuild destroyed churchers and create the so-called "sacred places" for visitation, as the new memorial designed in Kaluga for the veneration of the new martyrs.

The memory policy in Russia also seeks to rehabilitate the civilians and militaries´ memory, especially soldiers killed in World War II. The so-called "Great Patriotic War" is considered, as Angelo Segrillo in the book "Os Russos" ("The Russians") comments, a moment of great trauma, meaning practically a refoundation of the country. It´s estimated that seven thousand cities have been destroyed and up to 27 million people have died in this event, of which 100 thousand only in the small district of Kaluga.

The kraevedenie are also involved in this secular historical rescue, mainly in the discovery and cataloging of the collective graves, activity that involves mainly military groups and war veterans. Milena comments that it´s through the indentification of the dead and a new decent funeral that there´s a "sacralization" of the soldiers, seen as heroes, civil "martyrs" of Russia. "The anonymous dead", the anthropologist says, "are transformed into heroes via personalization and 'proper burial'" (p. 20)

The new martyrs canonization and mainly the national heroes identification serve as a way of dealing with the traumatic past, not only of war but also of anti-religious persecution. Some of the kraevedenie who formed their academical life during the Soviet Union today have to deal with KGB´s files, where many of the crimes commited against religious people as murders, arrests and persecution are documented. The seemingly irreconcilable legacy of Communist terror against religious and ornidary citizens is transformed in a "positive" past through the heroes veneration and the martyrs canonization.

(Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, in Moscow, Russian Orthodox Church´s headquartes. It was destroyed by the Bolsheviks at the behest of Stalin´s, in 1931, and rebuild from 1990 during Yeltsin government. It was consacreated on August 19th 2000.) 
In the current Vladimir Putin administration (2013-2018), there´s a clear attempt by the Kremlin to approach and ideologically instrumentalize the discourses of the Orthodox Church´s upper clergy on the country´s history. This instrumentalization, that appears on Putin´s public statements, fosters the idea of Russia as a civilization distinct from the others, unique and origial, in opposition to the West. It would be through the return to it´s cultural roots and the rescue of the tradition that Russia could fulfill it´s role as power which is destined to be. Thus, all Russian history, including the Communist period, is considered "sacred" and necessary as part of an unique experience of a people distinct from the others. In Putin´s own words:

"Many people argue about the Lenin’s Tomb, saying that it does not follow tradition. What does not follow tradition? Just visit Kiev’s Pechersk Lavra or go to Pskov Monastery, or Mount Athos. You will see hallows of holy people there. Go ahead, you can see it all there. Therefore, the communists continued the tradition even in that respect and did it competently, in accordance with the demands of those times."

(Military parade in Moscow on Victory Day, celebrated on May 9th: Communist period rehabilitated as part of the Russia´s "sacred" history.)

It´s possible to see clearly in the Putin´s statement the memory policy carried out in his administration. This is why the official stimulus of a historical rescue and a value transformation of the Communist period, from where the Russia´s new martyrs and heroes were rescued. This policy covers part of the Russian Orthodox Church´s upper clergy, as well as Orthodox leaders and faithful called "fundamentalists" and nationalist groups. These last two nourish an extreme rejection to all the Western influences and demand canonization of proeminent civilian figures in the Russian history, includind the dictator Josef Stalin. The researcher Igor Torbakov of the Uppsala University, in Sweden, comments on this Russian government´s attemp of synthesizing the contradictions of the Russian history into a single narrative:

"In Frederick Corney’s words, 'Putin was offering a narrative of modern Russian history in which the turbulences of Russia’s past served merely as a backdrop to recent progress, an offer of reconciliation without truth.' [author´s highlight] As its support base consists of a broad coalition comprising heterogeneous social groups, the regime, in its quest for historical legitimacy, seeks to synthesize disparate elements of Russia’s different 'pasts' into a kind of eclectic fusion. 'It attempts to yoke, if uncomfortably, various idealized aspects of the tsarist, soviet and émigré pasts' and present this concoction as 'history without guilt or pain.'

The search for an indivisible truth, the fascination with the irrational, the hope to find a special path, a destiny, a mission granted by God and/or History are current discourses among Russian intellectuals in the post-Soviet era, amalgamating all events and ideological branches into a single body. Nothing more exemplary of this characteristics than Alexander Dugin´s Neo-Eurasian though, so often mentioned in this blog, or the extremely heterogenous composition of members and groups linked to the Putin´s United Russia Party.

Russia seeks for an absolute unity, a totality that unifies everything and everyone in a new national identity. The Moscow´s memory policy is one aspect of the attempt to rescue or create a new Russian identity unifying successes and traumas, heroes and martyrs, crimes and holiness acts and "saints" of all specters of  Russian society, even if they arent´s so saint thus.

* Published in Portugues on April 13th 2016.

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