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We cannot understand what is happening in Ukraine right now if we dismiss Russian president Vladimir Putin as a mere madman without making an effort to understand his disturbing geo-philosophical project.

The thought of Augusto Del Noce (1910–1989), one of the greatest Italian philosophers of the twentieth century and an expert on Marxist doctrine, offers some helpful interpretive tools for grasping Putin's goal. In the early ’70s, I worked as an assistant to Del Noce at the University of Rome-La Sapienza. He and I enjoyed a strong intellectual friendship until his death.

According to Del Noce, the idea of revolution has its most complete and coherent formulation in the Marxist turn from speculative philosophy to the philosophy of praxis. Marx’s famous eleventh thesis from the Theses on Feuerbach (1845)—“the philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it”—expresses a new relationship between revolutionary thought and reality. It is in praxis—that is, in the historical result of political action—that the truth of ideas will be measured.

In moving from theory to action, however, Marxism faces an internal contradiction. The revolutionary idea involves two incompatible goals: the need to destroy the old order of values, and the need to found a radically new order. In the process, the two goals cancel each other out. In pursuing revolution, Marxist thought arrives at its own self-denial, since Marxism itself is a product of old-order values. In effect, it discredits whatever claim to truth it has within itself. This results in an absolute nihilism that collapses the idea of revolution, according to Del Noce. 

It is from this contradiction that the conflict arose between Lenin’s two heirs, Leon Trotsky and Joseph Stalin. Trotsky accused Stalin of having betrayed the revolution, because he strengthened in Russia what he should have abolished: the state, authority, bureaucracy. Stalin replied, citing Marx, that it is in practice that the revolutionary verifies the strength and truth of his thought. In Russia, even after Stalin’s death in 1953, the Soviet regime failed to achieve Lenin's goal of the final “withering away” of the state—instead, it strengthened the state. The Soviet dictatorship of the proletariat, which was supposed to be a transitional phase in the process of humanity’s liberation, crystallized into the most massive police state in history.

When the foundations of the Soviet empire began to crumble, along came Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika in 1985 in an attempt to save the communist revolution through metamorphosis. But perestroika failed and the KGB apparatus tried to steer the self-dissolution of the Soviet Union. Gorbachev was replaced by Boris Yeltsin while, according to Russian sociologist Vladimir Schlapentokh, the communist empire was replaced by a “feudal” one characterized by collaboration between organized crime and the old communist nomenklatura.

Del Noce died in 1989, a few weeks after the fall of the Berlin Wall. He had foreseen that Marxism would have to yield to the pragmatism of technological civilization. Marxism's separation from the sacred led to permissiveness, since the loss of the transcendent dimension inevitably reduces human life to the pursuit of pleasure. The Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union was signed in Nice on December 7, 2000. The charter, which ignored the Christian roots of Europe entirely, seemed to serve as the symbolic fulfillment of communist theorist Antonio Gramsci's goal of “a complete secularization of all life and of all customary relationships.” In the same year in which this charter was approved, Vladimir Putin was elected president of the Russian Federation. From the beginning, he defined his political position against both Gramsci and Gorbachev.

Gorbachev wanted to complete the process of de-Stalinization begun by Nikita Khrushchev without abandoning Lenin's teaching. “The ideological source of perestroika” is Lenin, he declared, asserting the need for a “reinterpretation” and “rethinking” of Lenin’s works in order to understand the Leninist method in depth. In this sense, Gorbachev can be considered a post-Leninist, because he tried to shake off Stalinism and get back to Lenin.

Putin, on the contrary, is a post-Stalinist, because he harks back to Stalin rather than Lenin. Putin presents Stalin as the patriot who restored Russia’s territorial unity and moral greatness during the Second World War. According to Putin, it was thanks to the Georgian dictator that after May 1945 the U.S.S.R. became a great power again. Stalin’s regime won “the great patriotic war” by evoking the national sentiment and spiritual solidarity of the Russian people, which had been destroyed by class internationalism.

For Putin, Stalin redefined the role of Soviet Russia during the Second World War by recovering its patriotic values and opposing Nazism. But he also recovered its religious values by “reinventing” the Moscow Patriarchate, which had previously seemed to have been erased from history. After the battles of Stalingrad and Kursk, on the night of September 4, 1943, Stalin was visited by Metropolitan Sergius of Moscow and Kolomna, Metropolitan Alexy of Leningrad and Novgorod, and Metropolitan Nikolai of Kiev and Galich. They met in the presence of Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov; Vsevolod Merkulov, head of the NKGB; and Colonel Georgii G. Karpov, head of the fourth department of the NKGB’s third secret political directorate, whose responsibilities included the control and repression of religious organizations. The historian Adriano Roccucci identifies this meeting as a turning point in relations between the church and Soviet power.

At this meeting Stalin, in order to involve the Russian church in his plans to expand Soviet influence, granted authorization for the convocation of a council and the election of a new patriarch. Four days later, on September 8, a council of bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church met in Moscow. Nineteen bishops took part. Some of them were flown to Moscow by military aircraft. At this council, the elderly metropolitan Sergius (Stragorodsky, 1867–1944) was elected patriarch of Moscow and all Rus’, the first patriarch after the death of Tikhon (Bellavin, 1865–1925). A six-member synod was also elected, including Alexy I (Simansky, 1877–1960), who, after Sergius’s death in 1944, was elected patriarch. In 1946 Alexy took charge of the disbandment of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church. In March of that year, in fact, the Soviet authorities imposed the convocation of a council in Lviv. This council dissolved the 1596 Union of Brest, forcing the Greek Catholics under the jurisdiction of the Russian Orthodox Church, which was granted free use of the buildings of the newly dissolved community.

Stalin’s two patriarchs were succeeded by Pimen (Izvekov, 1910–1990), who had the role of showing the world the goodness of U.S.S.R. policies, and Alexy II (Riduger, 1929–2008) a representative of the “Brezhnevian” group of hierarchs. Finally, in 2009, Kirill (Vladimir Mikhailovich Gundyayev) was appointed head of the Russian Orthodox Church. Kirill had been active in the KGB, along with Putin, since the ’70s, as evidenced by declassified documents from the archives of Moscow.

Two years after Putin’s inauguration as president of the Russian Federation, Orthodoxy was declared the “state religion,” in accordance with the 1997 reformed law on religious freedom. This law recognized Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism as “traditional” religions, but not Catholicism. The Catholic Church is prohibited from conducting any form of “proselytism” in Russia. Russia’s “imperial mission” involves not only Putin’s geopolitical ambitions, but also the Moscow Patriarchate's ambition to exercise its religious authority outside Russian borders and throughout the ex-Soviet space, against what is called “undue interference” from the Patriarchate of Constantinople and—above all—from the Vatican.

After the fall of the Soviet regime, beginning with the Revolution of 1968, the nihilistic dimension of communism spread throughout the West in the form of Gramscianism and Freudo-Marxism. In Russia, Putin has recovered the messianic dimension of communism by proposing to Europe a “way of salvation” that involves severing geopolitical ties with the United States and severing religious ties with the Church of Rome. In Putin’s proposal, the transcendent dimension of religion is absorbed by the political, reversing the primacy of religion over politics that has always characterized the spiritual tradition of the Christian West. This is the reason why, today, we must see Putin’s geo-philosophy as antithetical to an authentic Christian theology of history.

Putin’s post-Stalinism is above all opposed to the Church of Rome, because it offers an alternative to the self-dissolution of the West. Not surprisingly, the church that Putin is fighting hardest against today is the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, because it is a living testimony to the possibility of rediscovering the authentic religious soul of Russia—found in the legacy of St. Vladimir in Kyiv, and not in the Moscow Patriarchate of Stalin.

Roberto de Mattei has taught at the universities of Roma-La Sapienza, Cassino, and Europea di Roma, and worked with the Pontifical Committee for Historical Sciences under Cardinal Walter Brandmüller.

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