The many souls of the Russian diaspora

The Russian diaspora abroad has been known since the days of the czars and the Soviet empire for never being able to express a unified position, and to unite as happens for the majority of emigrant peoples, such as the Ukrainians themselves for example. There are various structures that represent them, and in these times of exclusion of Putin’s militant Russia from any international forum, they try in various ways to represent the interests of “true Russians”, those who reject war and wish to live in dialogue with everyone. And that’s hardly new in Russian history.

After the much praised performance of “Boris Godunov” at La Scala in Milan, we can recall the three “false Dmitry” of the early seventeenth century, the self-proclaimed heirs to the throne who claimed to be the tsar’s son, who escaped the assassination attributed to Boris, dragging half of Europe to conquer Moscow. They all met a bad end: the most famous traitor, Grisha Otrepev, after having settled for two weeks in the Kremlin with a Polish wife and Jesuits in tow, was fired with a cannon in the direction of the hated West.

In the eighteenth century, Russians enthusiastically toured Europe, completing the grand tour of the most important and attractive cities, each telling in its own way the impressions aroused by Paris, London, Amsterdam, Vienna, Rome and Naples. The capital of the southern Bourbon kingdom was then part of the continental “top”, and divided the most famous travellers, such as Denis Fonvizin who despised it for its excessive filth, or Nikolaj Karamzin who considered it the place of true cultural synthesis of Europe. All the “traveling writers” of Russia loved the excavations of Pompeii, however, also portrayed in famous paintings by Russian painters, seen as the sign of the Apocalypse in history, in which Russia loved to identify itself.

The following century saw Russia divided in the great debate between Slavophiles and Westerners, which often took place abroad to escape the censorship of the Okhrana, the political police of the tsars, mother of the Soviet KGB and grandmother of Putin’s FSB. Gogol and Dostoyevsky wrote their most intense and most “Russian” novels, from Dead souls to the Demons and atIdiot, between the thermal waters of Baden-Baden and Palazzo Pitti in Florence, or Trinità dei Monti in Rome. Revolutionaries, from Herzen to Lenin, inspired and led the subversive actions from Switzerland and Paris, dividing into congresses and fiery assemblies of the Mensheviks, the losing majorities, and the Bolsheviks, the prevailing minorities.

Even in Soviet times it was not possible to unite a cohesive community abroad, between “secular” and “religious” dissidents, nationalists and liberals, independent poets such as the Nobel laureate Iosif Brodsky or the hero of the operas of Andrej Sinjavskij square, the another Slavophile Nobel laureate Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn or the westernist politician Vladimir Bukovsky. When the communist regime collapsed, no party at home or abroad was able to express a common idea on the new Russia to be built, left in the hands of the oligarchs and the silovikithe “men of strength” led by Putin, who has always claimed to be inspired precisely by “patriotic” dissidents such as the philosopher Ivan Il’in, or Solzhenitsyn himself.

Thus even today, between long-time emigrants and recent fugitives, the Russian diaspora presents a variegated and very unified picture, even if full of prominent personalities from culture, politics and the economy. There is the Secretariat of European Russians which brings together many supporters of Aleksej Naval’nyj’s anti-corruption fight, from chess champion Garri Kasparov to actor and humorist Aleksandr Gudkov, together with members of the Free Russia Foundation. Then there are the anti-Putin separatists of the League of Free Nations, who demand recognition of the autonomy of the various nationalities that make up the Russian Federation, and often meet in various locations, each time trying not to offend any of the many ethnic groups that should to represent. Various ex-deputies of the Duma and of the Russian regional councils also intervene, also recently gathered in Poland for the 1st Congress of People’s Deputies, the most concentrated on the possible regime change in Moscow.

One of the most active among the deputies abroad is Ilja Ponomarev, a 47-year-old former Duma deputy for the “Just Russia” group, for two terms from 2007 to 2014, then emigrated to the USA after the annexation of Crimea, and now very active in America and Europe. In various interviews and conferences, he repeats that he does not want to criticize any of the other organized realities of his compatriots abroad, “every ray of light serves us to illuminate the darkness of today’s Russia”, but nevertheless distinguishes between those who try to intervene in politics Russia, and those who defend the interests of Russians abroad, considering them two radically different and separate objectives. Ilja also underlines the considerable distance between those aiming to oust Putin and replace him with more worthy politicians, and “regionalists” such as those of the League of Nations, who work for the disintegration of the empire and the formation of Eurasian societies separated from Russia itself.

The debate is certainly interesting and will continue for a long time, regardless of the outcome of the war and the uncertainties of the political future of Putinism. Moreover, the division into parallel or even conflicting fractions is a classic not only of Russian politics abroad (at home, dictatorships and totalitarianisms usually win), but also of its religiosity and ecclesial structures, such as the war itself Russian-Ukrainian has sensationally uncovered before the whole world. The patriarchal and imperial Church of Moscow has generated abroad (even at home, actually) a very varied series of jurisdictions in the distant and recent past, so much so as to make the heads spin not only of commentators and experts from all over the world, but even to his own followers.

In Ukraine the variants of the Orthodox Church linked to Moscow, Kiev, Constantinople and Rome are dismembered and recomposed without stopping, often against each other armies, as in these days, in which Zelenskyj’s government is trying in every way to clean up battered Ukraine of religious “collaborators” linked to the patriarchate of Moscow. A pro-Muscovite priest was even sentenced to 12 years in prison for revealing the location of Ukrainian troops to the Russians. The difficulty also derives from the fact that the “patriarchal Upz” Church (Ukrainskaja Pravoslavnaja Zerkov) has formally distanced itself from Moscow for several months already, and it is impossible to figure out which priests, bishops or various representatives are faithful to one or the other other of the two faces of Russianness.

Moreover, this division derives from the very nature of the patriarchate of Moscow, created in 1589 to “save the whole world” thanks to the resistance in the true faith of the Third Rome of Moscow, in the face of the deviations and weaknesses of all the other Churches, Orthodox or heterodox which they were. That was in fact a break with the apostolic traditions, which reserved the title of patriarchate to the “pentarchy” of the original Churches of the East and West (Rome and Constantinople, the “first and second Rome” together with Jerusalem, Antioch and Alexandria of Egypt). The reaction of the Russians of Poland, the future Ukrainians, was the Union with the first Rome decided a few years later, in 1596 in Brest-Litovsk, on the border of the two kingdoms. This ancient ecclesiastical division marks the beginning of the open confrontation between the two souls of Russia, which continues with today’s war also in the religious field, and the very beginning of the history of Ukraine.

The Orthodox diaspora following the Bolshevik revolution fragmented into separate branches, with the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad “Zarubezhnaja”, the most openly tsarist, founded in Serbia in Sremski Karlovcy in 1921 (for which it is also called the “karlovčani”) and then settled in America with headquarters in Jordanville, a “metropolis abroad” for the Russians who since the 1960s had proclaimed the last tsar, Nicholas II, a saint. A part of the Russian Orthodox emigrants had instead remained suspended between Moscow and the foreign split, and entrusted themselves to the patriarch of Constantinople forming the Russo-Greek Exarchate in Western Europe, suppressed by Bartholomew I in 2018 to free themselves from all ties with the Russians , then reunited with Patriarch Kirill and today in serious discomfort, being formed by Western European Russians, decidedly opposed to the war blessed by the patriarch himself. Many churches abroad remained directly under Moscow even in the Soviet period, and today they too are positioned in an unpredictable way, depending on the orientations of the priests or the faithful.

For years the Church in England, led by the metropolitan of Surozh, Antonij, known in English as Anthony Bloom, shone in the panorama of Russian Orthodoxy, a great master of spirituality, capable of merging the Russian-Byzantine tradition with the religious culture of the West . After his death in 2003, Patriarch Kirill sent his faithful collaborator to London, the young metropolitan Ilarion (Alfeev) who had been a pupil of Bloom, and who in a few months destroyed all of his work, imposing the Russian variant ” patriotic”. Last summer, Hilarion himself was exiled by Kirill to Budapest, for “lack of patriotism”.

In short, with the Russians there is no danger of getting bored or sleeping peacefully amidst the endless discussions and the incessant showers of bombs on the material objectives of the Ukraine and the virtual ones of the West, fueled by the massive ideological propaganda abroad, or clouded by the contradictions of the diaspora in exile, or even just on vacation for work or pleasure. Russia is a mirror of other worlds and other cultures, of Churches and political ideologies, it reflects in a twisted and paradoxical way what flows in the blood of Europeans and Americans, Catholics and Anglicans, men and women in search of one’s future, in the permanent diaspora of humanity in history, after the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden, to which everyone dreams of returning.


The many souls of the Russian diaspora