Written by Travis Aaroe
The fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans in 1453 finally brought an end to Byzantium, the Christian successor state to the Ancient Roman Empire. After the holy city’s capture, Orthodox Christendom was thrown into a state of panic and confusion, and seemed to be teetering on the edge of oblivion. The only politically independent Orthodox states left in the Balkans were a collection of small duchies and kingdoms, soon to be swallowed up by the expansionist Ottoman Empire. The only region of Eastern Christianity not under immediate threat of subjugation was Russia, which had joined the Orthodox fold following the conversion of Prince Vladimir the Great of the Kievan Rus in 988AD. The remarkable endurance of Russian Orthodoxy created a potent narrative of the Grand Duchy of Moscow (the precursor to the modern Russian state) taking up the mantle of Rome and of Orthodox Christianity after the destruction of the Byzantine Empire. This ideology implanted a sense of holy mission into Russian culture, which continues to shape Russia’s view of its place in the world to this day.
As Byzantium disintegrated, elements of the old empire trickled north towards the relatively untouched and stable Russian principalities. Orthodox clergymen began to relocate to Moscow from the 14th century onward as the Ottomans gained ground in the Balkans – one of these émigrés, a Bulgarian by the name of Cyprian, even became Metropolitan of Moscow in 1390. These clergymen provided much of the theoretical basis for the Moscow’s fledgling identity as a new homeland for the Orthodox and Roman traditions. For example, in the chaotic and sorrowful years that followed the fall of Constantinople members of the Orthodox intelligentsia sought to ensure the survival of Moscow, the most powerful remaining Orthodox state. A Serbian monk wrote to the Muscovites in 1480, imploring them to resist the Mongolian Great Horde’s assault on Moscow, lest they share the same fate as their Balkan and Greek brethren. Furthermore, in the early 1500s another Serbian monk wrote the ‘Tale of the Princes of Vladimir’ – a book which hailed the Grand Princes of Moscow as descendants of Augustus Caesar, and argued that their princely crown was originally a gift from Emperor Constantine IX of Byzantium to his Russian grandson. As the Muscovite duchy grew in power, claims of its destiny grew grander still; the monk Philotheus wrote to Prince Vasili III of Moscow in 1511, claiming that his city would be the third and final Rome, and that he was the legitimate ruler of all Christian peoples.
Moscow’s inheritance of the legacy of Rome manifested itself in other ways as well. In 1467, Prince Ivan III married Princess Sophia, the niece of the last Byzantine Emperor, and Moscow adopted the Byzantine double-headed eagle as its own coat of arms in 1472. This double-headed eagle has remained the symbol of every subsequent Russian state, except during the times of the Soviet Union.
Aside from the ideological, familial and symbolic reasons for treating Moscow as a “Third Rome”, the Grand Duchy’s successes further justified this label. In 1480, Moscow led a coalition of Russian cities to a decisive victory at the ‘Great Stand on the Ugra river’, a battle which ended the Islamic Great Horde’s suzerainty over the region. A pan-Russian state was eventually created under Muscovite leadership in 1547, and its rulers took the title of ‘Tsar’ – Russian for Caesar.
This “Third Rome” ideology began to implant itself deep within the Russian psyche as the new Tsardom developed. It entailed that Russia was a special nation with a holy mission to, spread the true Orthodox faith, reclaim the holy city of Constantinople and ultimately redeem the Christian world by ushering in a new age of godliness. The novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky would later write of a “ceaseless longing, which has always been inherent in the Russian people, for a great universal church on Earth”. The sentiment was exacerbated by Russia’s insecure geopolitical position: with no natural borders it was surrounded by enemies such as Poland, Sweden, Prussia, the Ottomans, the steppe hordes and the Siberian tribes – in the eyes of the Russians, their nation was a besieged island of godly, neo-Roman civilization in an ocean of barbarian heathens.
It is therefore no surprise that Russia’s “Third Rome” identity would guide its foreign policy as it emerged as one of the great powers of Europe. Driven by this messianic mission and a desire for greater security, Russia conquered in all directions – expanding an average of 100,000 square kilometres annually from 1547-1914. This included Russia’s colonization of Siberia from the late 1500’s onward which, inspired by a desire to civilize and Christianize the wild region, would eventually extend Russia’s borders to the Pacific Ocean. The Westernizing reforms of Tsar Peter the Great did little to dull this desire for an evangelising conquest – if anything, Russia’s modernization was a means to more effectively carry out its holy mission. This is evidenced by the foreign policy of Catherine the Great, who in the 1780s formulated the ‘Greek Plan’ of relentless southward expansion, which would culminate in the liberation of Constantinople from the Turks and the establishment of a new Russo-Byzantine Empire. To this end, Catherine famously crushed the Zaporizhian Host and the Crimean Khanate (Ottoman vassals), thus annexing much of modern-day Ukraine and extending Russian power into the Black Sea and the Balkans.
Russia’s sense of destiny guided its policy throughout the Age of Revolution as well. In the heady days following Napoleon’s downfall in Russia in 1812 and the subsequent toppling of his government, Tsar Alexander I envisioned Russia (by now the premier land power in Europe) as a divine instrument to create a new world order of universal Christian brotherhood under Russian leadership. This led him to create the ‘Holy Alliance’ after the Congress of Vienna with Prussia and Austria, which was designed to contain often anti-clerical and anti-monarchical liberal uprisings.
Russia’s “Third Rome” messianism collided with the realpolitik of other European powers in the middle of the 19th century. His answer to the ‘Eastern Question’ of what the European powers should do in the face of the Ottoman Empire’s decay was southward expansion at the Empire’s expense, with the objective of eventually liberating Constantinople and vindicating himself as the heir to Rome. This policy deeply alarmed many European powers, who feared that such a scheme– if eventually executed – would upset the European balance of power by allowing Russia to control the Black Sea and the Eastern Mediterranean. These geopolitical tensions led to the Crimean War (1853-1856) in which France, Britain and Sardinia intervened against Russia after Tsar Nicholas I threatened the Ottoman Empire with renewed conflict. Russia, diplomatically isolated and without any major allies, was defeated and its expansion south temporarily halted. The Crimean War ideologically alienated Russia from its fellow European nations – who in Russia’s view had cynically sided with the Islamic Ottomans over the Christian cause. This gave rise to a new dialectic in the minds of Russians: Western liberalism, secularism and cynicism versus Russian conservatism, godliness and messianism. Hence, far from ending Russia’s sense of holy mission as a “Third Rome”, the Crimean War exacerbated the sentiment by pitting Russia’s cultural values against the outside world.
Grand narratives of Russia’s divine ‘Roman’ destiny arguably contributed to the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 – which was to prove the ruin of the old Tsarist, Christian Russia. Ironically, the previously-mentioned Russian cooperation with Prussia (later Germany) and Austria was destroyed by Russia’s attempts to realise Catherine’s ‘Greek Plan’ – as its renewed attempt south towards Constantinople led it into diplomatic conflict with Austria. Russia’s desire to cut a path towards Constantinople drove it into the arms of Britain and France and into alliances with fellow Orthodox states such as Serbia, diplomatic manoeuvres which would eventually drag it into conflict in 1914.
Communist rule led to the suppression of Russia’s deep Christian character. As a result, Russia’s distinctly ‘Roman’ identity laid dormant. However, the extraordinary revival of Orthodox Christianity in Russia following the collapse of the Soviet Union has rekindled this old narrative. Once again, a newly conservative and devoutly Christian Russia stands in opposition tothe liberalism, secularism and consumerism of Western Europe and America. Notable Russian conservative intellectuals have gathered in organisations such as the Izborsk and Byzantine Clubs – and expound the view that Russia is the true successor to the Roman Empire, and as such has a special destiny as the defender of traditional Christian values against the alleged decadence of the West. One of the most notable proponents of this view is the philosopher Aleksander Dugin, who reportedly has ties with many leading Russian politicians as well as the Kremlin itself. Dugin argues that Russia should aim to banish Anglo-American liberalism from the Eurasian continent – a conflict in which Russia would act as ‘Rome’ against Anglo-Saxon ‘Carthage’.
Since the traumatic fall of Constantinople, Russia has seen itself as a “Third Rome”: a redeemer and vindicator of Christian civilization, and a bastion of the true faith beset by enemies – be these enemies Islam, Enlightenment-era revolution, or consumerist liberalism. As Russia rediscovers its Christian identity after decades of Communism, it is not inconceivable that this old narrative might greatly influence Russian foreign and domestic policy once again.
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Galstyan, Areg, ‘Third Rome Rising: The Ideologues Calling for a New Russian Empire’, ‘The National Interest’, http://nationalinterest.org/feature/third-rome-rising-the-ideologues-calling-new-russian-empire-16748, June 27th 2016
Kissinger, Henry A, ‘World Order’, Allen Lane, 2014
Magaril, Sergei, ‘The Mythology of the “Third Rome” in Russian Educated
Society’, in ‘Russian Politics and Law’ (Volume 50), 2012
Strémooukhoff, Dimitri, ‘Moscow the Third Rome: Sources of the Doctrine’ in ‘Speculum’ (Volume 28), 1953.