July 8, 2023


Eight Hundred Years of Russian Despotism: An Interview with Orlando Figes: In a new book, the historian traces modern Russian aggression to an apocalyptic mythology rooted deep in the nation's past. (Jonathan Kay, 7 Jul 2023, Quillette)

Jonathan Kay: So I'm going to start off with a big question. In your book, you talk about the "sacralization" of the Russian Czars' authority as a legacy of Byzantium. And until I read your book, I really had no understanding of how much Orthodox Christian theology had mixed with Slav ethnic populism to create this kind of theocratic--and maybe even apocalyptic--vision of the Russian Empire as the "third Rome."

Can you explain what that means--the third Rome? You used that phrase several times in your book.

Orlando Figes: This concept of the third Rome, which is at the heart of a Russian sense of mission in the world, presents Russia as a sort of messianic land--a little bit like Israel, I guess--in the medieval theology that was adopted by Ivan the Terrible, who was the first to be crowned Czar. It served to reclaim, after all those years of Mongol occupation, the Byzantine legacy, symbolically, through his coronation.

The idea was that after the fall of Constantinople in 1453, Moscow was the last true seat of Christian orthodoxy. And there would be no other. The idea was that the west lay in a fallen state. It was fallen from a state of grace that Russia still retained by virtue of its orthodox religion.

Therefore, the true salvation of humanity lay with holy Russia. And this idea, of Russia as a providential land chosen to save humanity, is at the very heart of both the Russian Empire, and, later, [Russian] communism. It's deeply connected to the sacralization of power because it presents the Czar as the direct manifestation of God on earth--as Ivan the Terrible saw himself. It was his mission not just to save humanity, but also to prepare his people for the final judgment. [...]

So the Czar is potentially also a tormentor of his people, in order to make them worthy of that messianic role. Putin acts in this tradition. He sees Russia as having a mission that goes beyond its strict territorial boundaries. In the 19th century, similarly, Nicholas I claimed Russia had a holy mission to liberate the Orthodox Christians of the Ottoman Empire. And indeed, he saw his mission going so far as to liberate Jerusalem.

J.K.: I'm going to quote something from your book, which I found remarkable. This is a description of what happened in 1552, after Ivan the Terrible's forces conquered Kazan:

A large horizontal icon called The Blessed Host of the Heavenly Tsar was painted facing the Czar's throne in the Dormition Cathedral. Known as The Church Militant, it shows the mounted figure of Ivan following the Archangel Michael in a procession of Russian troops from the hell-like burning of Kazan to Moscow depicted like Jerusalem, where they are received by the Madonna and Child. The iconography borrows from the Book of Revelation, in which Michael defeats Satan before the Apocalypse. Ivan appears as a new King David and the Russians as God's Chosen People, the new Israelites.

The Church Militant.
This kind of image, if placed in the Western idiom, sounds like something out of the age of Richard the Lionheart. Yet this Russian scene is from the 16th century--at a time when the West already had the printing press. It's the dawn of the Elizabethan age. In the West around this time, people are talking about things like parliaments and theories of taxation and private property. There's something strangely anachronistic about the world portrayed in The Church Militant.

Western philosophers and politicians were then trying to separate the abstract state from the people who ran it. Your contention in the book is that this separation has never really been clearly defined in Russian history.

O.F.: You're absolutely right. And with The Church Militant--I mean, there you have it. Everything we discussed in your previous question is there contained in that one icon.

What Ivan was suppressing in Kazan was a whole kingdom--the khanate--that had remained from when the Mongols had swept over Russia in the 13th Century. This was one of the last offshoots of the Golden Horde, as the Mongol occupation of Russia was known. Ivan's victory was seen as a kind of providential deliverance, ending more than two centuries of Mongol rule over the Russians, which had entailed, at least periodically, the ransacking of towns and the burning of churches.

This was the sort of precarious existence that Russia's Christian civilization endured on a Eurasian steppe peopled by pagans, Muslims, and, in some cases, Jews. The idea here was that the Russians were carrying the Christian mission.

And yes, the idea of the state being fused with the Czar, that absolutely is at the heart of my argument about what makes Russia very different from the Western tradition. As you say, around the time of the Renaissance, and arguably earlier in most Western states, there was a growing separation between both King and church, but also between the idea of the King's office and the idea of the king himself.

That separation didn't happen in Russia, partly because of the Byzantine tradition where church and state are fused and represented through the holy body of the Tsar; and partly because of what I think of as the other great structural continuity in Russian history, namely patrimonialism [a form of governance in which all power flows directly from the ruler].

The idea of state in Russia, which is expressed as gosudarstvo (государство) in the Russian, is completely fused with the idea of the sovereign, the gosudar (государь), which means not just a ruler, but a sovereign or anyone who has a patrimonial property over land--which is, actually, the source of the concept of power itself in Russia.

Posted by at July 8, 2023 7:19 AM