Project Augustine

Chapter 15: Russia: The Third Rome (900 – 1800) – Part II






After reading MacCulloch’s section, what do you believe was Ivan IV’s (aka ‘Ivan the Terrible‘) most notable achievement or lasting legacy he left during his rule?  How did he change Russian czarship?  What was his relationship with Metropolitan Makarii like?  How was he influenced by him?


For a guy who was so brutal to this people he did seem to love his handi-capable brother and genuinely seemed interested in theology.  He did reorganize the various institutions of Church, army, and law, and even presided over a Church council.  His secret police oprichniki which ruthlessly enforced his will seemed to have been based on a religious order.  RussianChurch’s theology had changed towards to emphasize more on obedience and the support of strong fighting men such as the Cossacks who had been important in the region.  Ivan may have been a product of this environment where killing and poisoning political rivals were commonplace.  It may take a cold, hard man to govern over a cold, hard people.





After the collapse of the Byzantine Empire in 1453, there was a large void in Orthodox leadership that the Muscovite leadership was eager to fill.  One of the first steps they accomplished was when the RussianChurch and Court cooperated with one another very closely to create an increasingly autocratic system which presented the Grand Prince as the embodiment of God’s will for the Rus’ people.  The grand princes sought to gain as much control as they could over exploitable assets of manpower and finance.  The Church hierarchy aided them by preaching the holiness of obedience to the Prince which had little precedent in Byzantium and the Latin West.


Much of Moscow’s rise to power into becoming the “Third Rome” began around 1380 when Grand Prince Dmitrii Donskoi decided to attack his Tatar overlord.  After this victory over the Tartars, Moscow’s subservience under their rule was quickly forgotten, and two years after annexing the city-state of Novgorod into Muscovite rule in 1480, Grand Prince Ivan III announced the end of the tribute paid to the khans after two centuries.  Soon afterwards he married a niece of the last Byzantine emperor and adopted the double-headed eagle once the symbol of Byzantine imperial power.  Occasionally he would even use the title ‘Emperor’ – or Tsar in Russian, in an echo of the imperial ‘Caesar’.


File:Byzantine eagle.jpg

Byzantine Empire emblem. The double headed eagle as standing in the front entrance of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople.


File:Coat of arms Russian Empire.png

Central element of the Great Coat of Arms of the Russian Empire (1721-1917).


It was a very tense time when all this happened when many believed the end of the world was near after the fall of Constantinople came about.  Many calculated that since they were living in the seventh millennium since creation, and that it was about to be completed, they believed that they were living in the Last Days during mid-1492-3.  But when the end did not come, many believed that God had spared the Muscovites and that this strengthened Muscovite sense of a divine imperial mission specifically entrusted to their government.  This led to a great spur in Russia in building many churches, with much of their designs harkening back to earlier Byzantine designs with churches being adorned with gables and domes.  Later on, towards the 16th century, these domes took on the familiar ‘onion’ form.  As Greek Orthodox Churches in the Ottoman Empire were diminishing, they were flourishing in Russia.


All this apocalyptic excitement led churchmen to start referring to Russia as ‘the Third Rome’ and to award the Russian Church a particular destiny ordained by God.  The tsars were wary of this idea as it might give more power to the Church, but the Russian church propagated this idea in sermons and readings of the liturgy that appealed to regular folk.  The Russian Church proclaimed that the first Rome had fallen away into heresy, while the second Rome in Constantinople had been taken over by unbelievers (i.e., Muslims) in 1453, but the tsar was now presiding over the destiny of the new third Rome that would never fall, through the Church of Rus’, and having dominion over every Christian in the world.


Just as faith or religion can infuse a person with a (divine) sense of purpose and destiny and change his or her way of life drastically afterwards, it can happen on a national scale as well.  The mixture of being specially chosen by God and assuming the role as rightful heir to the Roman empire gave a powerful sense of identity and mission for the Russian people.  No doubt that their religious conviction spurred their political and imperial ambitions in time to come.  Just as Protestantism played a part in developing American identity and culture (particularly to her sense of manifest destiny as pioneers moved out West), so too had the Orthodox faith for Russia.  As you can clearly see, religion played a huge part in forming and shaping the ideals of two of the most dominant superpowers in the world.  My personal opinion on whether or not Russia “deserved” the title of “the Third Rome” is moot; fact of the matter is that they (that is the Russian Church, princes, and people) believed it to be so and made that into their reality.  One can make the claim that the Byzantine Empire survived through Russia and the Russian Orthodox Church, but any resemblance to Byzantine culture was adapted and absorbed by Russian local culture, so you can’t really say that Russia is entirely “Roman” in their minimal to no use of Latin or even Greek in their services or cultural practices.  The term “Roman” has this automatic quality of power and grandeur associated with it in the West – a testament to the power and legacy that the Roman Empire left behind even after its demise.  Case and point would be other political/religious entities that adopted Rome into their identities to boost their legitimacy, sense of entitlement to power, or propaganda like the “Holy Roman Empire” or the “Holy Roman Catholic Church”.  It would be interesting to see if modern Russians still hold onto this view of their country till this day, though Putin of late has been acting more and more like a tsar in his own right.


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