Blaming the "Third Rome" Doctrine for Putin's Invasion Distorts His MotivesRoundup
tags: Russian history, Orthodox Church, Russian Orthodox
Matthew Lenoe is associate professor of history at the University of Rochester and author of Closer to the Masses: Stalinist Culture, Social Revolution, and Soviet Newspapers.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, unprovoked and brutal, has led to discussions about Russia’s putative 500 year history of imperial aggression. Frequently, these histories begin with the concept of the “Third Rome,” first articulated clearly by а Russian monk in the 1520s, which was supposedly the center of a Russian imperialist ideology that sought, and continues to seek, to conquer the world.
But this narrative misconstrues history and the relationship of Christianity to dreams of empire 500 years ago. At the time of its conception, the “Third Rome” idea had nothing to do with conquest of the world, but rather with theological claims made by Russian Orthodox Church leaders about Moscow’s place in the Orthodox world. In the past 100 years, that idea has been co-opted into a narrative of “eternal” Russian expansionism.
Such false tales threaten to distort policy toward Russia by obfuscating Putin’s real motivations for attacking Ukraine, which have more to do with modern forms of Russian nationalism and revenge for the collapse of the Soviet Union. Bogus theories about an innate Russian drive to expand will only complicate negotiations with Moscow, especially a possible post-Putin Moscow.
The story of the “Third Rome” begins with the Roman Empire and its acceptance of Christianity in the early 300s. Within two generations of that conversion, the empire had divided in two: a western half with its capital in Rome and an eastern one centered in Constantinople (today Istanbul). The west collapsed in the early 400s under multiple assaults by “barbarian” armies, but the empire continued for another millennium in the east. Today, it is generally known as Byzantium.
After the empire split, the western church, centered on Rome and the Latin language, and the eastern church, centered on Constantinople and Greek, diverged culturally and theologically. The Roman church evolved into what we know as Catholicism, while the Greek church became what we know as Orthodoxy. The formal separation is usually dated to 1054, when leading figures in each camp excommunicated one another.
In the view of the Orthodox, the Roman Catholic Church had lost its way, and their own capital, Constantinople, became the “New Rome,” or the “Second Rome,” which stood at the center of true Christianity.
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