Maxim Shemetov / Reuters Two Orthodox priests at an Epiphany Day ceremony in Velikoye, Russia, January 2017.

From Rome to Russia

Moscow's Byzantine Myth

In This Review

The New Third Rome: Readings of a Russian Nationalist Myth
By Jardar Ostbo
Columbia University Press, 2016
270 pp.
Purchase

On January 19, Russia’s Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev summed up his eight-year experience with the United States under outgoing president, Barack Obama. “The Obama administration,” he wrote on Facebook, “was completely short-sighted on such an important and complex issue as relations with Russia.” The Americans, according to Medvedev, had forgotten that “Russia is not a banana republic.”

Medvedev is only the latest in a long list of post–Cold War Russians to express such anxieties. When the Soviet Union dissolved in late 1991, the Russian economy was left in shambles. Today, a quarter-century later, things are more stable, but grim nonetheless. The Russian economy is still the sixth-largest in the world in terms of purchasing power parity, but it continues to be based on raw materials. Large swathes of the economy are defined as “strategically sensitive,” which in practice means that they cannot be overhauled. In recent years, Western sanctions have crippled the Russian economy by making those sectors off limits to structural reform. And if not exactly a banana republic, in economic terms, Russia is definitely not great. There is a reason why Medvedev, in the aforementioned Facebook post, tries to stay off economic topics altogether. His gripe is with politics, and how the United States refuses to treat Russia as a power on par with itself, as it did the Soviet Union. Somehow, from a Russian perspective, the vast economic differences between the two powers, or between Russia and China for that matter, should not be considered relevant. They should not detract from Russia’s claim to being a great power. 

For despite, or even because of, their country’s troubles, Russians are obsessed with the idea of being a great power, and will support a leader who can fulfill their ambitions. When asked in a poll last year whether their country needs a “strong hand” to rule it, more than 60 percent of Russians, including the young, answered “Yes.” Putin’s approval ratings are thus consistently high, and his 2014 Crimean land grab is still vastly popular. Even the political opposition to Putin, such as it is, is not primarily liberal but nationalist, with Moscow maverick Alexey Navalny being but one example. And over the last five years or so, the Putin regime has increasingly appealed to the urban working class and rural Russians through the promotion of nationalist ideas, which have enjoyed a resurgence over the last two decades. 

WOUNDED PRIDE

Russian nationalism has long had a messianic quality, in which the country is thought to serve as an example to the rest of humankind. In the nineteenth century, for instance, an influential group of intellectuals known as the Slavophiles held up the Tsarist Empire as a spiritual counterweight to Western Europe, whose modern Enlightenment values they rejected as decadent and materialistic. Then, in the twentieth century, the Soviet Union claimed a different sort of special destiny as the first country to blaze a trail toward the bright communist future—a claim that faded with the fall of communism.  

Today, a new generation of thinkers is beginning to reinterpret nineteenth-century Slavophile ideas in order to create a Russian exceptionalism for the twenty-first century. Chief among these ideas is the notion of Russia as the “Third Rome” —the true defender of Christianity after Rome’s break from Orthodoxy and the fall of Constantinople in 1453. In his new book, The New Third Rome: Readings of a Russian Nationalist Myth, Jardar Ostbo traces how four contemporary intellectuals are reviving this old Russian myth.

FROM BYZANTIUM, WITH LOVE

Historically, the idea of Russia as the Third Rome goes back to a 1523 letter written by the Russian Orthodox monk Filofey (also known as Philotheus) to a civil servant. Filofey divided Christian history into three parts. The partition was linked to sacred, rather than political, history. The First Rome lasted as long as Byzantium was firmly in control of Christendom, and dissolved with the rise of Charlemagne, who provided a strong political basis for the spread of Catholicism in Western Europe. The Second Rome ruled while the Byzantines were able to hold the Westerners at bay, which for Filofey was until the proposed Union of Florence between the Orthodox and Catholics in 1439, a consequence of which, he insists, was the fall of Constantinople in 1453. With the rest of Christendom either lost to the Catholic heresy or under Muslim domination, it was left to Russia, as the Third Rome, to keep true Orthodoxy alive and the Antichrist at bay.

People pray for rain in the Russian village of Kriusha, August 2010.

People pray for rain in the Russian village of Kriusha, August 2010.

Other mentions of the Third Rome at around the same time used the idea in a more direct political manner, tied to the ambitions of the princes of Muscovy. In 1589, it resurfaced in the founding document of the Russian patriarchate, where its use was even more directly political, claiming that the rulers of Russia guaranteed the faith of not only their country, but that of the entire world. The idea had been altered to imply that Russia’s ascent as the Third Rome was not just a period in sacred history, but also a concrete historical phenomenon. Then, having hibernated for two and a half centuries, the myth made a forceful return in the Slavophile literature of the 1800s, when it was used to argue that Russia had become the defender of everything good (the Russian nation), true (the Orthodox faith), and beautiful (Russian lands, Russian culture) after the fall of Byzantium. Ostbo’s book demonstrates quite clearly how, mutatis mutandis, this overarching theme is now back.

The contemporary nationalists profiled by Ostbo share a similar outlook, in that they celebrate Russia as a source of opposition to the liberal West. Perhaps the most prominent advocate of this view is Alexander Gelevich Dugin. From the late 1990’s on, Dugin has assumed the position of principal unifier and standard bearer of radical Russian nationalism, partly due to his impressive networking and strong military contacts. The list of Dugin’s collaborators down the years reads like a who’s who of nationalists in Russia. He joined Pamyat, a far-right history organization, as a 25-year-old in 1988, worked with the nationalist journalist Alexander Prokhanov, and collaborated with Gennady Zyuganov, the leader of the revamped Communist Party. 

Yet Dugin’s success is also due to his prolific writing. In addition to translating European fascists such as Julius Evola into Russian, he has authored a string of monographs under his own name, including his major work, 1997’s Foundations of Geopolitics. In these books, Dugin sees a looming conflict between Russia and the United States, part of an eternal rivalry between land and sea powers. Dugin has proclaimed himself heir to Russia’s twentieth-century Eurasianists—émigré nationalists who came to see the Bolshevik Revolution as a necessary stage in Russia’s development toward a modern continental empire—and argues that Russia, as the world’s principal land power, should be the primary node in a great Eurasian alliance against the sea. (This war, however, may not be inevitable—when Donald Trump was elected president of the United States, Dugin declared on Facebook that “Washington is ours.”)

In his recounting of the myth of Russia as the Third Rome, Dugin is clear about Russia’s exalted position, but is more interested in the Second Rome, Byzantium, than are most other Russian nationalists. One may speculate that this is due to his being an Old Believer, a minority Orthodox sect that split from the main church over reforms introduced by Peter the Great, which broke with Russian (and, by extension, Byzantine) tradition. In a 2001 essay on Byzantium, Dugin followed suit: “Our formula is: the West is evil, Byzantium is good. Everything bad that is written about Byzantium is a lie.... If you criticize Byzantium, you are an enemy of the Russian people.” For Dugin, Byzantium is the pure, right-thinking, and well-governed ideal toward which contemporary Russia should strive. For critics, Dugin is comfortable suggesting that they should be killed. Indeed, in 2014 he lost his professorial chair at Moscow State University for exhorting Russians to “kill, kill, kill” Ukrainians

Such violence is permissible, for Dugin, because for him Russia is the world’s katechon. The katechon, an obscure Greek word referenced in Paul’s second letter to the Thessalonians (2:6-7), is, roughly speaking, “he who holds it together” —that is, the force that protects and holds the world together in the face of danger. Although scholars disagree about what the Biblical katechon refers to, and holds out against, in Russian tradition the answer to this question is unequivocally the coming of the Antichrist. To Dugin, whose ideal is Byzantium, Russia better fulfills its holy role of katechon the closer it is to the Byzantine ideal. And the idea of Russia as katechon, which confers on the country the status of savior of the world and thereby legitimizes the use of nearly any foreign policy as the means to a noble end, is gaining increasing popularity in Russia. No wonder—it would be churlish to measure the power of the savior of the world by the size of its GDP.

Tatyana Makeyeva / Reuters Fireworks in Moscow's Red Square on New Year's Day, January 2011.

THE NATIONALIST FRONT

While Dugin is both the key networker and the public enfant terrible of Russian nationalism, Natalya Narochnitskaya, the second nationalist profiled by Ostbo, is a typical state-supporting academic (she was also elected to the Duma in the mid-2000s and helped push what would eventually become the 2012 anti-NGO law). History tells a nation where it comes from, and the key challenge for Russian nationalism since the fall of the Soviet Union has been to tell a story that could tie together the Tsarist, Soviet, and post-Soviet periods. Narochnitskaya, who is herself a confirmed Slavophile, is exactly the kind of historian that the regime needs. Her strategy is to smooth out all the contradictions and breaks in Russian history by arguing that everything went well when the Russian state was strong. She was, not coincidentally, appointed by Medvedev in 2009 to the Commission to Counter Attempts to Falsify History to the Detriment of Russia’s Interests.

Narochnitskaya’s reading of the myth of the Third Rome has, at its core, a view of history as Christian progress that is the opposite of the secular story of progress familiar to most Westerners. Where the West sees the progress of civilization, beginning with the Renaissance’s break with the Middle Ages and further developed by the Enlightenment, Narochnitskaya sees these ideas as ushering in a materialistic modernity that is antithetical to Russia and its Orthodox faith. Perhaps most interesting for an audience unfamiliar with Slavophile doctrine is the way in which neo-Slavophiles like Narochnitskaya conceptualise Russia’s status as the “Third Rome” as not only a metaphor or religious principle, but as a mystical reality on earth, in which all believers, high and low, together embody a living church. In this way, all true-spirited Russians carry a mystical bond not only to fellow believers, but also to their country’s political leaders.

Ostbo’s third subject is Vadim Tsymburski, the only philosopher in the group, who died in 2009. Where Dugin and, to a lesser degree, Narochnitskaya, favour an active Russian foreign policy and direct confrontation with Western liberalism, Tsymburski was wary of foreign entanglements: his basic idea states that Russia is a surviving island of rightfulness in a sea of opponents from which it would do well to isolate itself. His thinking pairs geopolitics and an organic form of Orthodox thinking that sees history as a clash of living civilizations, with one civilization, the post-Christian West, attempting to dominate the others. Ostbo writes of Tsymborski’s view of history as an eschatological drama; he fears most of all Western attempts “to create a world order where some values, such as human rights, are promoted as universal and superior to national sovereignty,” paving the way, in his view, for the apocalypse. Yet unlike Dugin, he believed that Russians should sit on their Eurasian island without doing much about it. 

The fourth nationalist that Ostbo discusses is in one sense the odd man out, since he is not an academic. On the other hand, he has the most concise foreign policy doctrine. Egor Kholmogorov, born 1975, is a conservative journalist and publicist with a rather straightforward reading of history: everything that came before Russia was paving the way for it, and everything that is not Russian is basically irrelevant. As he puts it, “Russia is everything. The rest is nothing.” Russians—by which Kholmogorov means ethnic Russians, Ukrainians, and Belorussians—are God’s chosen people, and Russian national consciousness is “the oldest of all modern European nations.” Russia first, and Russia should be for Russians. Kholmogorov deploys the Third Rome myth to argue for his country’s natural superiority, and in general expresses an enthusiasm for militarism and war. Indeed, according to him, one of the uses of the military is to make the rest of the world see Russia’s greatness. As Kholmogorov wrote in 2006, “It is practically impossible for a great power of our magnitude and with an internal structure like ours to survive without striving for superiority.” The combination of Kholmogorov’s enthusiasm for Russia’s religion and its nuclear arsenal mean that his view is often referred to as “Nuclear Orthodoxy.”

THE MORE THINGS CHANGE...

There are important differences in how these four authors put the myth of the Third Rome to work, but what is of principal interest is how they and a host of other Russian nationalists share a number of basic approaches and themes. The celebration of religion and its use as a basis for Russia’s greatness is an obvious one, and one that they increasingly share with the Russian state. So are the anti-Westernism and the attempts to partially defend the Soviet period as an era in which, despite some mistakes, Russian strength was preserved. Underlying these similarities, we find three traits that are perhaps of even greater interest because of what they say about the entire mode of thinking that characterizes Russian nationalism today. These traits are myth-making, historiosophy, and Manichaeism.

Ostbo himself focuses on the myth-making that these Russian nationalists engage in. Indeed, the subtitle of his book is “Readings of a Russian Nationalist Myth.” Anthropologists studying myth, from Edmund Leach onward, have highlighted how myths are best understood as matrices that make more specific thinking possible; that is, they structure the world. Ostbo, following the philosophers Georges Sorel and Chiara Bottici, also underlines how myths are productive: they infuse life with meaning, strengthen the cohesion of groups, and can rally them to action. One should add that there is something inevitable about the presence of myth in political life. 

Russian President Vladimir Putin sips champagne at a diplomatic function in Moscow, November 2016.

Russian President Vladimir Putin sips champagne at a diplomatic function in Moscow, November 2016.

 

All nations have such myths. What is striking about Ostbo’s four nationalists is that even the certified academics among them make no attempt to separate myth from history, and do not welcome discussion about their narratives. Although myth may defensibly include unfalsifiable (one might say “alternative”) facts, divine movers, and sublime goals, academic history as it has been established over the last 250 years or so may not. We are, with these Russian nationalists, in a pre-Enlightenment world, where it seems to be legitimate for people who call themselves academics and historians to produce myths. As may be gleaned from the above, Russian nationalism’s critique of the Enlightenment is not only explicit, it may also be traced in the mythical form that they give to their works, which leave professional history (with its footnotes and methodological reflection) behind.

Among all these figures, there is a turn away from the academic historian’s question of what happened in previous times and how, and a return to historiosophy, which is the exercise of finding meaning in history. Put differently, if the historian seeks to understand why events in the past happened the way they did by examining causal relationships, the historiosophist asks what the events of the past mean for the present and the future. This is often a religious exercise, but, as is demonstrated by the example of Marxism, religious believers are not the only ones interpreting history with an eye toward reaching some utopia. Nationalists tend to do the same. A key figure for contemporary Russian nationalism, the Soviet-era historian Lev Gumilyev, was in the habit of writing books about ancient peoples such as the Huns that had no footnotes and were short on facts, but which were long on eternal lessons for modern people. For thinkers such as Dugin and Kholmogorov, Gumilyev is treated as a person to emulate. The myth of the Third Rome, for instance, invites nationalists to rewrite Russian history in such a way that it begins a millennium before Russia itself. All four of thinkers described by Ostbo seize this possibility with both hands.

 The third trait on display here is Manichaeism, in the sense of thinking about the world as a struggle between good and evil. World history, for these thinkers, is depicted as an endless fight between good (Russia) and evil (the West). Historical Manichaeism was an ancient Persian religion that understood the world as a cosmic struggle between the forces of light and darkness. In all Christian traditions, including Russian Orthodoxy, Manichaeism is a sin, for it presupposes that evil is a principle in the world on par with God. But in Christian teaching, evil has no independent status, but is simply portrayed as distance from God: the devil is a fallen angel. It must be a huge challenge for the Orthodox believers among Russian nationalists—and there are many—to base their entire view of the outside world on a doctrine that their very own church condemns as a heresy.

THE ALT-RIGHT INTERNATIONAL

Russian nationalism is not alone in criticizing the West—there are clear parallels in Iranian and Turkish nationalism, for instance. The radical right in the West might also agree with the idea that the West has lost itself in Enlightenment and liberalism, and that the way forward is to go back to a time before facts, free speech, and the drawing up of new claims about what constitutes reality. Interestingly, as documented most fully in Marlène Laruelle’s 2015 book Eurasianism and the European Far Right, Dugin’s Eurasian movement is busy forging ties with a number of these far-right milieux. In the United States, too, there is considerable interest in the traditionalist rightism of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Observers tend to forget that the radical right has been an international movement since its inception in the early twentieth century. A self-proclaimed fascist like Dugin is inspired by older European fascists and has inspired a new generation of fascists in turn.

This connection is not merely intellectual—Putin signed a working agreement on political cooperation with the radical Austrian right only last year, and there will likely be more institutionalized cooperation among the alternative rightists of the world going forward. Followers of an isolationist like Tsymburski see little use for such ties, and imperialists like Kholmogorov are probably not knowledgeable enough about the outside world to explore them. But others such as Dugin, with a natural taste for alliance-building, demonstrate that many Russian nationalists do not hate all foreigners equally. Their major target, in fact, is the liberal West, and they are open to partnering with anti-liberals in Europe and elsewhere. And as Russian nationalism moves closer to the heart of Russian foreign policy debates, outsiders should watch it accordingly. 

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