Moscow the Third Rome?


In the rite of baptism used on Mount Athos candidates are required to demonstrate their loathing for darkness and evil by spitting in a westerly direction. The baptism rite continues once the candidate has turned to face east. The east is regarded as the source of light and truth. For many Orthodox there is rich symbolism in the fact that it is in the east that the sun rises, and in the west that it sets.

There is a view that the emergence of a new civilization can only come about in an environment that bridges the divide between east and west. Only then can there be that cross-fertilization of ideas from which culture is reborn, and a new civilization emerges into being. Russia has long seen itself as a place where east meets west.

Today many Russians are of the view that they are coming out of a post Christian society, while the west is entering one. It is against this background that we might consider the matter of Mr Putin’s interest in Mount Athos, reported by Jeremy Martin in The Spectator 10 September 2016.

Some Orthodox Christians regard Moscow as the Third Rome, in succession to the New Rome (Constantinople/Istanbul) after its capture by the Turks in 1453. According to this view the first Rome had lapsed into a state of heresy and schism in 1054, following its unilateral adoption of the Filioque Clause.

Following on from the Great Schism of 1054 Orthodox attitudes towards the western Church deteriorated further, mainly as a result of the Fourth Crusade’s Sack of Constantinople in 1204. Sir Steven Runciman wrote: “there was never a greater crime against humanity than the Fourth Crusade.” Soldiers in the service of the Pope looted, terrorized and vandalized Constantinople in an orgy of violence which lasted three days – treasures were looted, libraries destroyed, nuns raped and some of the holiest sites in Christendom desecrated.

The Russians have also suffered at the hands of the forces of western imperialism. In 1812 the Tsar’s armies had to fight off an attempted invasion of Russia by Napoleon. In 1854 Russia faced another invading army – this time an Anglo-French force in the Crimean Peninsula. In 1919 Russia was invaded by a coalition of western military forces from the USA, the UK, Estonia, Australia, Czechoslovakia, Romania, Japan and France. Again, in 1940 Russia found itself fighting off an attempted military invasion from the west – on this occasion from Hitler’s Germany. By way of contrast Russia’s only incursion into western Europe has been in alliance with the UK, helping to defeat the armies of Napoleon, the Kaiser and Hitler.

The sacking of Constantinople by western forces in 1204 fatally weakened the Byzantine Empire, preparing as it did the way for the city’s capture by the Turks in 1453, and the ultimate victory of Islam - precisely the opposite of the actual intention of the Fourth Crusade, which had been to recover Jerusalem from the armies of Islam. Although devastated by the loss of their city, many Byzantines believed that they would be better off under the Turks, than under their supposed fellow Christians from the west. They said: “Better the Sultan’s turban than the Pope’s tiara.”

For the Byzantines their very identity – that which distinguished them from the barbarians - was rooted in their Orthodox faith. Furthermore, although they spoke Greek they regarded themselves as Romans. In fact – well into the twentieth century – many Greeks regarded themselves as Romans, rather than citizens of a secular, Hellenic nation state.

Vladimir the Great’s conversion to Orthodox Christianity, combined with his marriage to Sophia Paleologue, a niece of Constantine XI, the last Byzantine Emperor, meant that the Russians came to see themselves as the legitimate heirs to Byzantium – a new Roman Empire. In 1510 the Russian monk Philotheus proclaimed “Two Romes have fallen. The third stands. And there will be no fourth. No one shall replace your Christian Tsardom!” Interestingly, Moscow stands on seven hills, as did ancient Constantinople and ancient Rome.

Oswald Spenglar’s “The Decline of the West,” published in the immediate aftermath of the First World War, opined that the next thousand years would belong to Dostoevsky’s Christianity.

Dostoevsky was a key and inspirational figure in the intellectual renaissance that swept across nineteenth century Russia, a renaissance which questioned the very basis of the European Enlightenment. A distinguishing feature of this renaissance was its rejection of rationalism and empiricism. Dostoevsky succinctly summarized this rejection when he said: “I spit on two plus two equals four.”

For the Orthodox a fatal moment in the history of the western Church came when it decided to adopt the philosophy of Aristotle, rather than Plato, in support of its theological tradition. Aristotle’s philosophical system had no room for the existence of the universal within the particular, a flaw which was to ultimately result in the Cartesian divorce of mind from body, and the construction of an intellectual paradigm which divorces man from himself, his fellow man and the environment. In this way the Cartesian paradigm, which underpins the very foundations of the European Enlightenment, is regarded by the Orthodox as directly responsible for the violence and destructiveness of the twentieth century, now reaching its apogee in the ecological catastrophe that threatens the very survival of humanity.

For the Orthodox Christian a man’s identity does not lie in his thinking mind, as asserted by Descartes. Instead his identity rests in Christ whose presence is to be found in the depths of every human heart, a presence which extends a unifying bridge across the whole of creation.

For the Orthodox Christian a man’s identity is found in his communion, through the heart, with God, the environment and his fellow man. An Orthodox Christian does not say “I think therefore I am.” Instead he says “I Love therefore I am.” His thinking mind is an agent of his Being, rather than the source of his being.

Other figures in the astonishingly creative intellectual movement that drove the nineteenth century Russian Counter Enlightenment movement included Berdyaev, Soloviev, Khomiakov, Kireevesky and Florensky.

Khomiakov was a country gentleman, and former cavalry officer. He acted as a driving force in the development of nineteenth century Slavophil thought. His ideas are enjoying a revival of interest in highest levels of decision-making in Moscow.  In fact Mr Putin is believed to have instructed his state governors to place Khomiakov’s works on their reading lists, as part of their professional development programmes.

Having been cut short by the events of 1917, the full creative potential of the Slavophil intellectual renaissance are now beginning to revive. One of the few Russian philosophers of this tradition to exist in Soviet Russia (at least until his ultimate expulsion) was Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, as fiery a critic of the western capitalism as he was of Soviet communism.

The Slavophils argued that Russia should not use western Europe as a model for its development and modernization. Instead they believed it should follow a course determined by its own character and history, shaped as these things had been by its Orthodox faith. For the Slavophils western Europe was morally bankrupt. Its western political and economic institutions - for example constitutional government and capitalism – seemed to them to be the poisoned fruit of a deficient society.

For the Slavophils Orthodoxy united the Russian people in a harmonious “Christian community.” Many of the Slavophils were Russian country gentlemen who loathed the Russian aristocracy, believing it had become westernized and decadent. Instead the Slavophils placed their faith in Autocracy believing it to be an essential check on the power of oligarchs, and the best form of government for Christian communities. They idealized the Russian peasant commune, seeing it as an uncorrupted representation of the “Christian community,” a place where true democracy – based on the principles of consent and consultation - could be played out.

The Slavophils believed that Russia’s ultimate destiny was a spiritual one, a mission to rescue western Europe from decadence through the introduction of spiritual values to replace the destruction which they believed materialism and individualism were inflicting on western society, and which are not all too apparent as mankind faces the ecological consequences of western consumerism.

The Slavophils also fought for the reform of their own nineteenth century society, believing Russia had been corrupted by the western inspired domestic policies of Peter the Great. The Slavophils argued for the emancipation of the serfs, curtailment of the stifling bureaucracy introduced by Peter the Great, the granting of civil liberties such as freedom of speech, press and conscience, and the establishment of an institution representing the whole people, like the zemsky sobor of pre Petrine Russia.

For the Slavophils the monastic communities that exist on Mount Athos are models of divinely led communities in which the ascetic life of self-denial enables the liberation of the power of reason from domination by the passions. Such communities are authoritarian.

Each monk surrenders his external freedom in order to realize a deeper, internal freedom. The peace and harmony of the monastic community is ensured by the monk’s obedience to Christ’s commandment to love one’s neighbor in the same way that one loves oneself. Thus the Athonite community’s freedom and peace is guaranteed through observance of an individual’s duty to love, rather than an individual’s belief in his own personal rights.

In his critically acclaimed book “After Virtue” Alasdair MacIntyre expressed his belief that the best hope for Europe lay in the emergence of spiritually revitalized local communities, capable of sustaining lives free from the corrosive effects of neo liberal capitalism. MacIntyre believes that moral life in western Europe is in a state of collapse because it has become too individualistic, too divorced from the communal life.

Maclntyre writes: “it is always dangerous to draw too precise parallels between one historical period and another, and among the most misleading of such parallels are those which have been drawn between our own age in Europe and North America, and the epoch in which the Roman Empire declined into the Dark Ages. Nonetheless certain parallels there are. A crucial turning point in that earlier history occurred when men and women of good will turned aside from the task of shoring up the Roman imperium and ceased to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of that imperium.”

MacIntyre believes that western Europe has now reached that point and “what matters (now) is the construction of local forms of community within which the civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new Dark Ages which are already upon us... this time however the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time. And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament.”

The Russian monastery of St Panteleimon referred to be Jeremy Norman is immediately on the coastline where Athos meets the Aegean Sea. The waters there are deep, and I have seen photographs showing warships of the Imperial Russian Navy at anchor there at the turn of the twentieth century. Similarly, I suspect there is a good reason why the monastery’s accommodation blocks for pilgrims look like military barracks. It is possible that the Tsar used the monastery as a basis for military operations in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Athos is set in a strategically vital location, one of huge importance to the interests of Russian foreign policy.

Whether or not the Russians are using Athos as a basis for contemporary military operations is anyone’s guess, but in my view this very unlikely. In the course of many visits to Athos over the last 15 years I have never seen any evidence of Russian military activity, and as former soldier myself I think I would be sensitive to such dynamics. The “sophisticated looking antennae” noticed by Mr Norman are, frankly, most likely to be related to the IT systems used by the monks. Although they are wary of modern technology, Athonite monks are no Luddites. They know how to use modern IT to their advantage. The idea that they are communication systems for the FSB is just comical. The vast majority of the monks on Athos are Greek, and if the Russians were engaging in clandestine activities they would be first to tell the world. The Greeks have always been paranoid about the Russians.

As regards the source of wealth on Athos Mr Norman does not seem to appreciate that Athonite monasteries are extremely wealthy in their own right. They own vast amounts of property across the Balkans, and Russia. Prior to the Russian revolution one monastery owned most of Moscow’s Red Square – the source of a current dispute between that monastery and the Russian government, rather undermining Mr Norman’s seeming belief that Putin’s government is bankrolling Mount Athos – although I have no doubt that Russian benefactors, maybe even Mr Putin, will have given money to the “Russian” Monastery which, by the way is mostly comprised of Ukrainian, rather than Russian monks.

Instead the real story is rather different from the one portrayed by Jeremy Norman. It is a story of a revitalized Christianity, one which offers western Europe the possibility of liberation from the materialism and pursuit of mindless happiness that is such a distinguishing feature of Anglo American neo capitalist paradigm, a paradigm which is killing humanity, and the environment, literally and metaphorically. The greatest threat to the future survival of humanity does not come from the religious lunacy of ISIS, but rather from western consumerism. As Woody Allan once said: “ I have seen the enemy. It’s us.”

One of the truly great spiritual leaders in the twentieth century was Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh. As a young child he fled Bolshevik Russia for western Europe. His father had been in the Russian Imperial Foreign Service. The family arrived in Paris penniless. Initially his father had to work as a labourer. Very quickly, however, life became much better materially. As a young man Metropolitan Anthony experienced a severe spiritual crisis, prompted – paradoxically- by the improvement in his family’s material circumstances. Eventually he resolved to blow his brains out with his service revolver unless he could come to discern the truth of the religion into which he had been born.

While reading St Mark’s Gospel he experienced some kind of personal encounter with the Risen Christ. Thereafter he always claimed to know that God existed. Interestingly he said that it was not the suffering of his family in the early years that had brought him to the brink of despair. Instead it was the pursuit of mindless happiness. Maybe, just maybe Mr Putin visits Mount Athos because he feels it feeds his soul, guiding him in a way that is not necessarily obvious to an increasingly lost western society. As history shows us, the west does not always know best.