The Legacy of the Great Mother Russia

by Maria Mikaelyan

On August 25th, Pope Francis made a speech that shook many people, both in Italy and abroad. Here are the Pontiff's words: "Do not forget your legacy. You are the heirs of the great Russia: the great Russia of saints, of kings, the great Russia of Peter the Great, Catherine II, that great, cultivated Russian empire of so much culture, of so much humanity. Never give up this heritage. You are the heirs of the great Mother Russia, go ahead. And thank you. Thank you for your way of being, for your way of being Russian".

I would like to use this speech as a starting point to reflect on the large-scale Russian military invasion that has been terribly affecting independent Ukraine for almost 600 days. Albeit the war, the massacres of the Ukrainian people and other atrocities committed by the Russian state push us to be extremely emotional and passionate, I will try my best to maintain a detached attitude based on facts. I want to avoid being accused of emotional manipulation, thus trying to remain as objective as possible.

First of all, I would like to respond to Pope Francis' words as someone born in the capital of Russia (or rather precisely of the USSR,), as well as a historian specialising in the field of Soviet political repression. Thanking us for our "way of being Russian", the Pontiff mistakenly ends up with generalisations and overlooks some very important historical facts: Russia has always been and remains to this day a multi-ethnic and multi-cultural state. A Russian citizen born on the territory of the Russian Federation often does not consider himself as 'Russian', but as 'Tatar', 'Kabardian', 'Yakut' and so on. Even I, the author of this article, do not consider myself 'Russian', but 'Russian/Armenian/Jewish', precisely because of the diversity of my origins. What we all have in common are our passport and language (which does not preclude, in any case, the use of all other languages still widely spoken in the country). In any case, I am not sure the Pope was thanking us so vehemently for these linguistic and citizenship-related factors. In my perception, he was thanking the supposed "sons" and "heirs of the great Mother Russia" from a cultural and historical point of view: referring, in the broadest sense, to how people were somehow influenced by Russian history and culture.

Now, with this in mind, I would like to express my attitude to the words "that great, cultivated Russian empire of so much culture, of so much humanity". Many people born in Russia or with kinship ties in it have no intention of feeling proud of this "great empire" – an empire that has been oppressing and massacring both its neighbouring populations and its own citizens for so many centuries. Many people, myself included, would prefer to renounce the historical and cultural heritage associated with this empire. We absolutely cannot be proud of Stalinism with its large-scale purges, as well as with some 20–25 million dead and surviving but severely tortured in the Soviet Gulag camps (see: Conquest, R., 2008 [1968], The Great Terror: A Reassessment, London: Pimlico, p. 486; Vishnevsky, A. G., 2007, 'Remembering 1937' ['Vspominaya 37-j'], in Demoscop Weekly, no. 313–314). We cannot be proud of the Holodomor of 1932–1933, of the building of the Berlin Wall in 1961, of the Soviet military invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. We cannot be proud of the many crimes the USSR committed not only against its enemies (real or ephemeral) but against its own citizens, who were often truly loyal to their Soviet homeland.

Let us leave aside, for the moment, those seventy years of the USSR and think of the Tsarist Russia. Until 1917, the "saints" and "kings" mentioned by Pope Bergoglio existed alongside the public hangings of dissidents, mass deportations to Siberia and the crimes of the so-called Okhranka, the Tsarist secret police. It would be unthinkable for us to be proud of this kind of historical legacy. Instead, at the very moment when Russian rockets rain down on the heads of the civilian population in Ukraine, the Pontiff feels compelled to suggest to people like me to be always proud of Russian 'greatness', often built on blood, tears and human suffering. A few days after the shooting down of the private jet with the members of the Wagner group on its board - yet another extrajudicial execution authorised by Vladimir Putin, who feels himself to be a true heir to the absolutist Russian Empire - the head of the Catholic Church gives us a lesson of love for the motherland. I thank him, but I have to reject this didactic moment: indulgent patriotism has never been my strong side.

Now I would like to shift the focus to what makes people like me truly proud. It is our sincere and complete solidarity with the Ukrainian people, as well as our continuous and concrete help aimed at Ukraine's victory in this war. Even before 24 February 2022, the members of our Community of Free Russians in Italy recognised Ukraine as a fully independent state within its borders established since 1991, thus including Donbas and Crimea. We have long endeavored to denounce the Kremlin's criminal policy implemented not only against Ukraine, but also against the other former Soviet territories (for example, in the case of the military invasion of Georgia in 2008) and against its own citizens who are 'inconvenient' for the Putin's regime (Anna Politkovskaya, Boris Nemcov, as well as many other journalists and activists who were killed or imprisoned).

I am recounting our struggles not to take away our responsibility or present ourselves as haughty 'blessed and holy' people, but to explain what it means for us to be "Free Russians": we reject the role of generic "heirs of the great Russia" suggested by Pope, but believe we are individuals aware of the dark and traumatic legacy of our country of origin. For this reason we choose not to remain silent or patriotically proud while Russia is adding new blood-stained pages to its historical legacy. In our opinion, this attitude implies that our origins should not be preserved through obtuse pride, but through awareness of the crimes committed by the Tsarist Russia, the USSR and, subsequently, by the Russian Federation.

Finally, I would like to reiterate a very clear and simple concept, which, however, neither Pope Bergoglio nor many internationally renowned politicians, thinkers and persons of international renown have yet managed to grasp in its fullness: 1) Ukraine and its people have the moral and legal right to defend their land and home from the attack committed by the alleged defender of their sovereignty (see: Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances of 5 December 1994); 2) Ukraine's victory in this war is necessary not only for its people but also for the aggressor. Without military defeat in Ukraine, the Russian Federation will remain a fascist dictatorship and a continuing threat to other countries and its own citizens for decades. Therefore, our Community will continue to help the Ukrainian people with all its might, hoping for Ukraine's victory.

We also seek to build a prolific relationship with representatives of Ukrainian civil society, always with the aim of bringing closer the liberation of all Ukrainian territories occupied sine jure by the Russian Federation since 2014. At the same time, we will be patient. We will understand if this relationship is not desired by our vis-à-vis: while the most heinous massacre Ukraine has seen – since Babi Yar, the Lviv pogrom, or Soviet mass repressions – is taking place, we have no moral right to insist on dialogue or cooperation. We will accept any position of Ukrainian civil society towards Free Russians precisely because we pay respect to the nation that is being bleed to death and losing the young and the old on a daily basis because of what the fascist Russian Federation is doing.



The Community of Free Russians was born from a group of activists who met in Milan in January 2021, during manifestations in support of the Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny who had been arrested and imprisoned after his return to Moscow.

Initially, the Community's main activities were focused on organising demonstrations or other political activities aimed at expressing dissent with Kremlin's policies. Since 2022, after the large-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Community of Free Russians has expanded the range of its activities organising anti-war demonstrations, sometimes in cooperation with the Ukrainian community, and helping people who were fleeing the war.

Today, together with Free Russians from other countries, our Community participates in numerous global events and humanitarian projects, such as the Warm for Ukraine initiative. The project was launched last November with the aim of raising funds to buy and ship to Ukraine electric generators that had become indispensable after the Russian bombings. More than €7,000 raised through the initiative allowed us to ship 10 generators to Ukrainian families in need.

The Community of Free Russians also cooperates with many other Russian groups and associations around the world. Members of the Community participated in the Berlin Congress in December 2022, the Riga Anti-War Conference in March 2023, the Berlin Congress in April 2023 and, finally, the 'The Day After' Round Table with the members of the EU Parliament in Brussels in June 2023.

The Community also organises various cultural activities: book presentations, meetings with Russian opposition leaders, performances and shows aimed at raising funds for Ukrainians, screenings of movies by opposition filmmakers, as well as art exhibitions dedicated to Russian resistance and the war in Ukraine. At the beginning of 2023, there has been a TV broadcast on the Community's activities on Rai3 channel. Follow the Community of Free Russians on Facebook and Instagram.

Maria Mikaelyan

Analysis by Maria Mikaelyan, Ph.D. (Community of Free Russians)

4 September 2023

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