Hundreds of thousands of expertly organised patriots have come out to gridlock Russian cities with rallies.
In a show doubtless pleasing our own Putinophiles, this time around the demonstrators are waving not the customary red flags, nor even swastika banners that appear now and again, but posters, icons and gonfalons with visages of saints.
If only we had our own KGB joining forces with the Church to instil as much piety in the British as the counterpart Putinesque fusion has instilled in the Russians. Isn’t that right, Mr Hitchens? Piety is the lynchpin of conservatism, isn’t it?
Of course it is. Yet a more observant and better-educated commentator may discern something peculiar in the Russians’ recently discovered devoutness. So peculiar, in fact, that its public manifestations typologically resemble Nuremberg rallies more than your run-of-the-mill religious processions.
To wit, the poster in this photo says “Matilda is a slap in the face of Russian people”. Now the Matilda in question is the ballerina Matilda Kschessinskaya, who died at the venerable age of 99 in 1971, 46 years ago.
Hence the aforementioned slap must have been delivered posthumously, and so it has. What makes so many Russian cheeks sting is the new eponymous film by the director Alexei Uchitel about the 1890-1893 affair Kschessinskaya had with Grand Duke Nicholas.
By itself this escapade was extraordinary for neither Russia nor Matilda, who favoured the Russian royalty as lovers, husbands, sires of her children and providers of a sumptuous palace in the centre of Petersburg.
Nor were Russian royals ever suspected of having taken the vow of chastity. For example, Grand Duke Nicholas’s father and especially his grandfather, Alexander II, were womanisers of epic proportions, which Nicholas never was.
However he was smitten with the beautiful 17-year-old dancer, and surely a single 22-year-old chap can be forgiven for sowing some wild oats? He who is without sin…and all that.
That’s where we’re stepping on a thorny path. For in 1894, now happily married to a German princess, with Matilda switching to other princes, Grand Duke Nicholas became Nicholas II, Tsar of all the Russias. In 1917 he was forced to abdicate and a year later the tsar and his family were massacred on Lenin’s orders.
And in 2000 Nicholas and his family were recognised as saints by the Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) that saw in them “people who sincerely strove to incarnate in their lives the commands of the Gospel.”
Those examining the history of that reign with a dispassionate eye may take exception to that assessment, but that’s hardly the point. The point is that in the same year a five-foot KGB officer Putin became president of Russia.
Or rather that’s one point among several. Another one is that Putin, with an unerring instinct honed in history’s most diabolical organisation, realised that the Russians can’t live without an ideology personified in the figure of a strong leader.
Meek attempts in the previous decade to posit democracy and free enterprise in that role had predictably failed, for such lovely things can’t be mandated from above, certainly not in a major country with no history of them. Sure enough, democracy turned into anarchy, and free enterprise into a kleptocracy to end all kleptocracies.
Yet an ideology was sorely needed to justify the miserable lives the Russians had lived, were living and, as could be confidently forecast, were going to live in eternity.
This is where that KGB experience came in handy. Putin and his ruling oligarchy (85 per cent of whom share his professional background) created a weird cocktail of Russia’s glorious imperial past (critically, not only tsarist but also communist), victory in the very same great war Russia started as Hitler’s ally, militarisation, traditional bellicosity towards Russia’s neighbours – and Orthodoxy.
ROC went along with this stratagem as Putin knew it would. After all, its entire hierarchy, starting with the Patriarch, are career KGB agents, the kind of people Putin could talk to in the spirit of corporate solidarity and guaranteed mutual understanding.
The confidence trick took several years to refine, but it’s now running like a well-oiled machine. Previously removed statues of Stalin are proudly going up again, a statue of one of history’s worst mass murderers Felix Dzerjinsky has just been erected in Kirov, the mummy of Lenin, the teacher of inspiration of those two monsters still adorns Red Square.
And of course Nicholas’s sainthood is never questioned. Somehow he’s being portrayed as John the Baptist to Lenin’s Christ and Stalin’s St Peter, the man who passed on the relay baton of the great empire.
It could be argued, rationally and convincingly, that Nicholas bears the lion’s share of blame for the demise of the pre-communist and relatively benevolent Russian empire.
But we’re not in the realm of rational and convincing propaganda. We’re in the realm of no-holds-barred propaganda, and in that realm Alexei Uchitel has caused great offence. And him, such a great man otherwise.
Rather than being a dissident against Putin’s kleptofascism, Uchitel is its enthusiastic supporter. He welcomed the annexation of the Crimea, the aggression against the Ukraine – and would no doubt welcome even Jewish pogroms, if Putin chose to emulate the sainted Nicholas.
Yet his personal loyalty is immaterial. Matilda shows the sainted tsar as having an extra-, well, pre-marital affair, which no Russian saint is allowed to do. Why, Putin’s stormtroopers have even accused Uchitel of showing the saint’s marital infidelity. That’s why, following multiple threats of blowing up cinemas, many Russian distributors refuse to run the film.
How Nicholas could have been unfaithful to his future wife before he even met her is a question that’s never answered, nor indeed asked. A saint has to remain saintly, against all reason.
One could argue that the libidinous Nicholas had no way of knowing that a century later he’d become a saint. One could even go so far as to suggest that many real saints, such as Augustine and Francis, had been guilty of much worse excesses before embarking on the road to sainthood. But when totalitarian propaganda speaks, reason shuts up.
Out of sheer mischievousness, however, I’d still like to ask a provocative question. If even depicting Nicholas’s dalliance is so offensive, how come the mummy of his murderer Lenin is still worshipped as an imperial relic – on Putin’s direct orders?
A silly question, I know. But perhaps Peter Hitchens can answer it: he seems to understand the laudable logic behind Russian kleptofascism.