My first novel The Song of the Sirin imagines a strange scenario: what if the early Russians were the chosen people of God? What would that look like?
That may seem like my own brand of Russian triumphalism, but it’s more complicated than that. Russia, throughout its history, has gone through different phases of the “Russian idea.” Sometimes Russians isolated themselves, sometimes they tried to fit in with everyone else. But always, Russians have seen themselves as the bearers of a special historical calling, whatever that may be.
This is especially obvious in the doctrine of Moscow as the Third Rome.
The expression “Moscow is the Third Rome” is well known, even to children in Russian elementary schools. It’s said that Ivan III gathered all the princedoms into Moscow’s sphere of influence using this slogan. His successors then widened and strengthened their rule thanks to the “Third Rome” ideology. However, it turns out that the history of this idea is complicated and very fascinating.
In 2001, an American historian named Marshall Poe wrote an article called “Moscow, the Third Rome: the Origins and Transformations of a ‘Pivotal Moment.’” In this article, he explored the development of the “Third Rome” idea from its first mention in the letters of a 16th century monk to its current use in a newly-patriotic Russia. Arzamas academy (the original Russian article is here) has summarized the main points of this article to demonstrate how a phrase from the personal letter of a monk from Pskov became a national myth. The following is my translation of the original Russian.
The “pivotal moment” and historians’ errors
“Pivotal moments” in a nation’s history occur at critical moments when the nation or the era has to choose between two fateful paths. Either direction determines an essential change in the future history of the nation. However, finding pivotal moments in history is often just as much a matter of emotion as it is cold fact-finding. The drama of history sometimes distracts historians from historical reality.
In general, even though such “pivotal moments” are often considered the keys to understanding the modern world, they are sometimes the result of one-sided historical bias. Russian history gives a wonderful example of this. The formation of the doctrine of “Moscow as the Third Rome” is one of the most famous (and incorrectly interpreted) episodes of Russian history.
Monk Philophei reveals the Third Rome
There is absolutely no evidence that Moscow or Rus called itself “the Third Rome” in any text prior to the 16th century. The first mention of Moscow’s great fate occurs in a letter written by the Pskovian monk Philophei. In the first decades of the 16th century, he wrote several letters to the grand prince of Moscow that spoke of it as “the third Rome.” Here is the version that has survived to this day:
And so know this, Christ-lover and God-lover. All Christian kingdoms have come to their end and have come together in the single kingdom of our lord. This is in accordance with the prophetic books. This is the Roman kingdom: for two Romes have fallen, the third stands, but there will not be a fourth.”
The actual meaning of Philophei’s letter
These words are often interpreted as a triumphant ode to the birth of a new empire. However, taken in context, the phrase has a completely different meaning. Even a superficial reading of the letter shows that even though Philophei mentions “the Third Rome,” he in no way suggests that the phrase be used in a global sense. His letter is a detailed description of the evils of astrology and Catholicism, not an ode to Russia’s future.
Actually, this letter is an exhortation to destroy heresies and protect the purity of the Church. Let’s look at it in its historical context. Byzantium recently fell to the Moslems. That fall of the “Second Rome” does mean that Russia is now the “Third Rome.” However, this comparison with Byzantium has a concrete purpose. If the Church in Russia fails, the end of the world will come, for “there will not be a fourth.” Effectively, Philophei intended to use his flattery to inspire fear, not triumphalism.
The doctrine of Philophei in the 16th century
Church circles adopted the idea of Philophei for the purposes of battles with internal dissent and heresy. However, there is no proof that it immediately became a cornerstone of Muscovite imperial ideology. It did begin to appear in popular literature of the time. For example, in “The Tale of the Novgorodian White Klobuk (cleric’s hat)”, it begins to lose its original, apocalyptic context. In other words, the key phrase “there will not be a fourth” begins to disappear.
“The Third Rome” and the Old Believers
Interestingly, in 1667, the Church officially banned the “White Klobuk” story. The reason was that certain schismatic groups were using ideas in this story to resist the reforms of Patriarch Nikon. These early versions of the Old Believers were the first to equate the idea of a “Third Rome” with the purity of the Russian Church. Effectively, they were using the idea in the opposite sense than the one intended by its author.
The official acceptance of the idea of “the Third Rome” by the Old Believers is an important historical moment. The Old Believers were the first to interpret the development of the “Third Rome” idea as a pivotal moment for Russia’s history. They vividly demonstrated their faith in Philophei’s doctrine. When the Orthodox Church was headed by the “antichrist” Nikon, they left the church and took the Third Rome with them. This was a belief they continued to confess even in the 19th century.
The Third Rome that everyone forgot
In contrast to the Old Believers, the political elite of the age of Russian unification considered the annexation of Novgorod and the coronation of Ivan IV as Tsar to be far more important political moments. Some historian do see the influence of the “Third Rome” ideology in the expansionist politics of Peter and Catherine. However, this was the age of Classicism. Comparisons with Rome were commonplace, and not only in Russia.
For example, in 1697, the Greek brothers Likhoudi wrote an ode to Peter the Great, in which they called him “the successor to the throne in Constantinople.” However, there is no word of the “Third Rome” in this ode or any in other such literature.
The “Third Rome” doctrine remained forgotten outside Old Believer communities until the 19th century. Even the Slavophiles, many of whom believed that Moscow surpassed both Rome and Constantinople, hardly ever mention the idea of the “Third Rome.” Nikolai Karamzin, the famous historian, believed the idea of the “Third Rome” to be a doctrine intended to bolster the formation of the Russian patriarchate, nothing else.
The interpretation of the doctrine in ecclesiastical circles
Without a doubt, many members of the clergy knew of the existence of this doctrine. However, even ecclesiastical literature hardly ever used the doctrine as a triumphalist excuse for the greatness of Russian empire. More often it is mentioned in the context of the Old Believer schism. Interestingly, a historical encyclopedia of ecclesiastical writers published in 1827 mentions Philophei as the author of a letter “against the astrologers.” But there is no mention of his theories concerning the Third Rome.
The rise of interest in “the Third Rome”
After Alexander II became Tsar in 1855, we see an uptick in interest in the doctrine of “the Third Rome.” In this time period, several historical manuscripts were published that directly mentioned Moscow as “the Third Rome.” In 1861, a new edition of Philophei’s “letter against the astrologers” was published. The official commentary to the letter mentions that Philophei offered the idea of “the Third Rome” against the “perversion of the Christian Church in countries conquered by the heathens.” Effectively, the original intention of the letter—to expunge heresy in the Russian church, was ignored.
It was only then, a few years after the publication of the letter, that a radical interpretation of the doctrine was first offered. The historian Vladimir Ikonnikov considered that the conception of Moscow as “the Third Rome” should be investigated in the context of the rise of Muscovite imperial ideology, not the purification of the Church during Nikon’s time. He interpreted its appearance in the 16th century as proof that it was tied to Moscow’s rise as a unified and future imperial power. Byzantium fell, Moscow took its place, and Philophei expressed this idea in his letter.
According to Ikonnikov, the apocalyptic phrase “there will not be a fourth” was an example of Russian messianic ideology, not a prophecy of the end of the world. This version of the doctrine would soon become more popular in Russia.
The growing popularity of “the Third Rome”
The doctrine of the Third Rome, in this new interpretation, began to appear in historical textbooks in the late 19th century. This corresponded very well with the rise of Russian nationalism at that time. By 1900, the doctrine of “the Third Rome” was firmly connected in the minds of educated Russians with the Muscovite period of Russian history. However, not many people considered this doctrine important for their current historical moment.
A notable exception was the Pan-Slavic movement. Pan-Slavs openly used the idea of Moscow as “the Third Rome” in their calls to protect their “Slavic brothers” from the Ottomans and even in their calls to conquer Constantinople.
The apogee of “the Third Rome”: the Russian idea
By the time Alexander III became Tsar, this doctrine became very influential. During his coronation banquet, the new emperor was praised as a protector of the Slavs, a continuer of the work of Constantine, and “the ruler of the Third Rome.” This idea profoundly influenced the idealistic philosophers of the end of the 19th century. Vladimir Soloviev in particular used this doctrine extensively in his works, using it to promote his calls for Christian universalism.
Soloviev’s central argument was his idea that Russia had a special calling in the work of unifying the East and the West to form a new organic whole, a new “world empire.” The doctrine of “the Third Rome” confirmed the historical roots of Russia’s special mission, and was, in effect, a metaphor of the “Russian idea.” Russia was not merely the third of the Romes, but it also personified the “third principle,” a selflessness that would allow it to unite the East and the West.
In 1914, Ivan Kirillov wrote a book in which he described the historical development of the concept of “the Third Rome.” According to Kirillov, this doctrine was visible proof of the burgeoning self-consciousness of the Russian nation. Before Philophei, Russia had no common goal. This doctrine, however, gave Muscovy and the Russian nation a sense of their unique destiny. In his version of history, the Old Believers were the “good guys” who preserved the intuitive, folk understanding of the “Russian idea.” They fought “foreign perversions” of doctrine.
After Peter and the rise of the gulf between the elites and the commoners, the idea of “the Third Rome” was “hidden” among the common people until it was found again in the 19th century by the Slavophiles. Effectively, Kirillov’s book completed the transformation of the doctrine of “the Third Rome” from an apocalyptic prophecy of an obscure monk to a “pivotal moment” in Russian history.
To this day, some historians continue to insist that the doctrine of Philophei was the official political ideology of Muscovy. This is completely understandable, since many Russians seek a foundation for the development of a post-Soviet “Russian idea.” Philophei’s doctrine is very attractive in this sense. On the other hand, in the Western press, the doctrine is often cited as a historical context for “Russian messianism” and “post-Soviet expansionism.” Some Western political leaders have even found Putin’s policies to have roots in Philophei’s doctrine.
Of course, any attempt to find the roots of current events in a “pivotal moment” of the past can lead to anachronistic interpretations of history. Philophei’s doctrine is such a flexible idea that it was used to justify almost anything. For example, Vladimir Lamanskii saw it as the root of Pan-Slavism. Vladimir Soloviev, on the other hand, considered it the source of Christian universalism. Nikolai Berdyaev even went so far as to suggest that the doctrine gave rise to Bolshevism. Naturally, Philophei could never have even imagined any of these later incarnations of his original “Third Rome” idea. Rather, proponents of a specific “Russian idea” co-opted the words of Philophei to mean something very different than what he intended.
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