Letter From the Editors
As the one-year anniversary of the Ukraine war approaches, comparisons to Dante Alighieri’s “Inferno” are certainly apropos. Eerily, this year also marks the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Stalingrad, one of the bloodiest clashes of World War II. In the run-up to Putin’s visit to the city to mark the historic occasion, it has been renamed “Stalingrad.” City officials established the tradition a while back, and now for several days of the year, Volgograd exists in two separates planes of history. As Mikhail Shevchuk points out, “It’s natural for an enthusiastic conservative role-player to embrace a kind of elemental eternalism, to live in all historical periods at the same time.” And we all know how much Putin likes to wax poetic about historical parallels.
Dante’s first few circles of hell mainly deal with the concept of incontinence (in the philosophical, not medical sense) – i.e., overindulgences and excesses of all kinds. Putin’s historical excesses – or, as Shevchuk puts in, living in a reality where “all of the historical processes taking place today just started yesterday, and the Battle of Stalingrad and the Battle of Bakhmut are literally part of the same war” – embodies that form of incontinence.
Another great exaggeration this week is the capabilities of Russia’s missile defenses. As Novaya gazeta Europe writes, more and more Russian border cities and towns are coming under shelling from Ukrainian territory. Yet the government has done fairly little to either prevent these attacks, or to help the people living there resettle to other areas. Meanwhile, Pantsir air defense systems have even appeared on the rooftops of Moscow. But, as military expert Yan Matveyev says, these installations won’t save residents, since “the missiles need to be shot down long before they make it to the city.”
Few can forget the death and destruction in Dnipro when an ordinary apartment building was hit by a Russian missile. And while the outpouring of rage and sympathy was certainly to be expected in most Western countries, such shows of emotion have also popped up in a surprising place – in Russia. People across the country have been bringing flowers and stuffed animals either to memorials of Ukrainian poets Taras Shevchenko and Lesya Ukrainka, or to victims of Soviet-era political repressions. While a seemingly minor gesture, for many Russians, this is the only way to express their sympathy with Ukrainians – as well as their frustration with their own government. According to anthropologist Aleksandra Arkhipova, “makeshift memorials appear when people feel some kind of injustice.” In many cities, municipal workers have cleared away these memorials, but new ones reappeared, perhaps indicating that dissent in Russia has not been silenced after all.
Finally, the deepest circle of hell, according to Dante, is reserved for traitors. The list of such future languishers is long, but one stand-out candidate is PMC Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin. According to sociologist Svetlana Stephenson, Prigozhin is prepared to supply the Russian war machine with “human resources,” mostly in the form of convicts who have nothing to lose, in exchange for getting a seat on Putin’s “Mount Olympus.” Prigozhin’s willingness to barter and blackmail in order to whitewash his own reputation is certainly well known – but is his star descending? Mikhail Shevchuk pointed out a curious detail – the Wagner Center in St. Petersburg (incidentally, St. Petersburg Governor Aleksandr Beglov happens to be a sworn enemy of Pirgozhin) was recently renamed “Maritime Capital” on the q.t. Apparently, the building had problems attracting tenants.
In “Inferno,” Lucifer, bound for betraying God, is trapped in a frozen lake. Doesn’t exactly fit the popular image of hell as a hot and fiery place. But then again, a lot of concepts have been turned on their head during the almost year-long war. And as winter maintains a firm grip on the icy fields of Ukraine, the analogy is as frightening as it is apt.