Paul Robinson

The return of White Russia

Paul Robinson attends a reburial in Moscow that could signal the rebirth of Russian nationalism

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‘Unbelievable,’ the professor told me. It was hard to disagree. We had just laid flowers on the grave of the anti-communist Russian philosopher Ivan Alexandrovich Il’in. Just a short time ago, mere possession of one of Il’in’s books would have brought six years in prison. Now the Russian state has reburied the philosopher in Moscow with all the pomp and ceremony it could muster.

Earlier this month the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, Alexei II, presided over a service of reburial at the Donskoi monastery in Moscow for not only Il’in but also his far more famous contemporary General Anton Denikin, head of the anti-Bolshevik White forces in southern Russia during the Russian civil war. Denikin was the White movement’s military leader; Il’in its most prominent theoretician. Together, they were the pen and the sword of anti-communism. Denikin fled Russia after his defeat in 1920 and Il’in was expelled from the young Soviet Union in 1922. Both died in exile. This month their bodies were exhumed from graves in America and Switzerland, and returned to their native soil.

Before the ceremony, I met a journalist from a Moscow newspaper. Over tea and a bowl of gurevskaia kasha, we discussed the state of modern Russia. Life was getting better, we agreed. For a start, even five years ago it wouldn’t have been possible to find such a nice café, serving such good quality fare in such comfort at such a reasonable price. There are fewer beggars and fewer old ladies at street corners selling their last possessions to supplement their meagre pensions; and while there are still occasional packs of wild dogs sunbathing beside apartment buildings, there are not nearly so many. Prosperity is gradually returning (in so far as Russia has ever experienced it since the revolution of 1917).

The most prevalent narrative of Russian affairs in the Western press talks of a return to dictatorship under a former KGB colonel. The Russian President is repeatedly portrayed as a closet communist, eager to suppress freedom of speech and jail any political opponents.

My journalist friend laughs at the suggestion that Putin has suppressed all independent political thought. He should know; he has twice been sacked from newspapers for writing pro-Putin articles. The problem, he tells me, is that Westerners listen too much to the likes of the former oligarch Boris Berezovsky. Incidentally, he adds, Berezovsky still owns a newspaper in Russia — so much for there being no anti-Putin voices. In fact, my friend suggests, there may even be more freedom of expression in Russia than in the West, because there are fewer social and legal constraints on ‘politically incorrect’ and extremist points of view. If you want to be racist, sexist or anything else-ist, you’ll find it easier to get a publisher in Moscow than in London or New York.

Putin, I’m told, played a major role in repatriating the bodies of Denikin and Il’in. Most of the government were against it, but Putin insisted. When Denikin’s daughter, Marina Grey, refused to give permission to exhume her father, the President won her over by granting her Russian citizenship. When the Russian army refused to provide a military honour guard for Il’in because he had never served in the military, Putin overruled the generals. The honouring of the Whites, and the implied repudiation of the Reds, came from the top.

Eleven o’clock. We assemble in the grounds of the Donskoi monastery, in front of the cathedral. Orthodox monks wander around in black robes, jabbering into mobile phones and snapping photos with their digital cameras. Spetsnaz commandos in combat fatigues provide security. Little boys dressed in the black, blue and white uniforms of the Moscow cadet corps line the road from the monastery gates to the cathedral. A handful of men are walking around in military uniform and badges identifying them as members of the Cossack forces. Yet more uniformed men are Russian civil war re-enactors, decked out as soldiers of the White Volunteer Army.

A Russian army band strikes up the Soviet, now Russian, national anthem. The Patriarch rolls up to the cathedral steps in a big black limousine. Fireworks celebrate his arrival. He lays the foundation stone of a new bell-tower dedicated to national unity, and mounts the steps to deliver a speech on reconciliation. He announces that henceforth 3 October — the day of the reburial — will be a Day of National Unity, which will replace Revolution Day (7 November) as a national holiday. After the Patriarch, others speak — the President’s representative, the minister of culture, Moscow’s mayor Yury Luzhkov, and the film director Nikita Mikhalkov. Vladimir Zhirinovsky, I’m told later, stormed off in a huff because he was not allowed to speak. Again, the tone of the speeches is not of White triumph but of unity and reconciliation. Denikin might well have approved. His slogan, after all, was ‘Russia, one and indivisible.’

After the speeches, we pack into the Cathedral. A host of impressions: the golden Imperial double-headed eagles on the enormous chandeliers; hundreds of mourners crossing themselves to the chant of gospodi pomilui, Lord have mercy; the crackle of thousands of lighted candles; the flash of cameras; the tinkle of bells as the Patriarch shakes incense around the church; the deep booming of the monks, rising to a final crescendo of the words of eternal memory — vechnaia pamiat’, vechnaia pamiat’, vechnaia pamiat’. Soldiers pick up the coffins and slowly march out.

An honour guard leads the way to the new graves. One officer carries Denikin’s sword; others hold his medals; others carry wreaths. We wind through the decrepit tombs of the monastery’s cemetery, past the graves of long-forgotten imperial aristocrats, to an area newly carpeted in fresh pine branches. Incense floats through the thinning brown autumn trees. The honour guard fires three salutes. Then silence. A sudden breeze wafts a flurry of leaves down on the graves.

At a party held in the President Hotel later that evening, a lady of a certain age sitting next to me reveals herself to have been an interpreter for Andrei Vlasov, the Soviet general who defected to the Germans in the second world war and raised an anti-Soviet Russian army. I know what people think of the Vlasovtsy, she tells the diners, but I know that many of them were good men. Later she apologises. Has she spoken out of turn? she asks. No, everybody replies. Not at all. How times have changed.

Not everybody is quite so jubilant. The next day I meet my friend again. Though a Putin fan, he regards most of those who now rule Russia as unreconstructed Soviet apparatchiks. The reburials are a fraud, he claims. The nomenklatura are usurping the memory of the Whites to legitimise their own rule. The talk of unity and reconciliation is a means by which they suggest an equivalence between Red and White, both equally guilty and equally right. The honouring of the Whites washes away the sins of the Reds.

There is some truth to this. Undoubtedly, there is a political purpose to ceremonies such as these. The focus on unity suggests that all Russians should abandon party divisions. It helps to suppress political competition, and to create a sort of corporatist, nationalist unity which favours those in authority. Still, by celebrating Denikin and Il’in, their anti-communism, nationalism and Orthodoxy, the Russian state is making a statement about the country’s future which, for those of us who remember the Soviet years, is a statement we can only welcome.

After the burial I wandered through Red Square. Lenin’s tomb looked deserted and forlorn. His honour guard has abandoned him for others.