One of the early readers of my first novel complained that I had too many adjectives in my writing. He was absolutely right; I was inordinately, extremely, excessively enamored of beautiful, excellent, fabulous adjectives (and, apparently, adverbs too). I have since purged many of them (poor things). But I have noticed a disturbing trend of denigrating adjectives, as if it would be enough to just “pick a more colorful noun.” I’m still a fan of adjectives. The trick, of course, is using them correctly.
No, worry not, fair reader. This is not a post about grammar. Not quite. What I really wanted to talk about was a very specific adjective. Byzantine. You’ve probably heard it before. Depending on your cultural baggage, it may have different connotations for you. But the dictionary use of the word may surprise some. Here’s the dictionary definition:
“Characterized by elaborate scheming and intrigue, especially for the gaining of political power or favor.”
Nowadays, all of Russia’s problems are often chalked up to its Byzantine heritage. Some prominent Russian cultural critics have even suggested that all of Russia’s problems arose from their acceptance of Eastern Christianity. And, to top it all off, the EU has suggested adding the Russian Orthodox Church to a black list of “agents of political propaganda”.
But has Byzantium perhaps gotten the fuzzy end of the lollipop, so to speak? My old thesis adviser in UC Berkeley, the noted Russian linguist Victor Zhivov (who unfortunately died a few years ago) seems to thinks so. The following article is a translation of a Russian interview with Dr. Zhivov from the Russian e-zine “Tatiana’s Day.” According to Dr. Zhivov, it’s not Byzantium’s fault. We just learned badly from them.
In the steps of Gibbon
When we encounter negative appraisals of Byzantine influence on Russian in 19th century literature, we have to keep in mind one thing. Writers of that time imagined Byzantium to be different than it actually was. Their main source for the history of that time was Edward Gibbon, who despised Byzantine culture. Gibbon was a very intelligent man, extremely educated, but he was prejudiced about Byzantium. Lecherous morals, fanatical religiosity, court intrigues—that’s all he saw. So when someone like Chaadaev wrote, “It was a terrible fate that we turned for our moral instruction to corrupted Byzantium,” he had in mind the Byzantium of Gibbon’s books.
Today, we have a completely different view of Byzantine civilization. Our knowledge has greatly increased since the late 18th century. In actual fact, Byzantium, during its entire, long existence, was the most intellectual country in Europe. It was the center of the highest philosophical culture. It (not Western Europe) was the actual keeper of Classical civilization. And after the fall of Byzantium, Rus, in some sense, became an inheritor of that tradition of Byzantine culture.
However, one caveat. Russia only absorbed certain aspects of Byzantine culture.
How did Byzantine Orthodoxy influence Russian culture? Simple. It created it. It made it into the culture that we know. Russian culture formed as an Orthodox Christian culture among a population of eastern Slavs (not only Russians). However, we cannot ignore the fact that Rus only assimilated part of Byzantium’s rich cultural inheritance.
Russians were very picky in what they took, actually. When Constantine the Great, the first Christian emperor, built Constantinople, he carried with him many pagan statues, because for him the city was unthinkable without this inheritance of the past. (We shouldn’t forget also that Constantine remained the pagan Pontifex Maximus through most of his reign –NK) And this is the aspect that Rus did not assimilate from Byzantium—secular culture. It was, by and large, a continuation of pagan Late Antiquity.
So Rus ignored Byzantine literature, philosophy, and even Byzantine theology took a very long time to be absorbed (and it was only taken in sparingly). In order to understand the texts of the Fathers of the Church, you had to know Greek philosophy well. You needed a certain philosophical context which Byzantine children received with their mothers’ milk and in their schools. But the Eastern Slavs didn’t have this.
Some texts were translated, of course, but as a rule Russians chose ascetic texts, not philosophical or even theological ones. In fact, theology as a rule didn’t excite the Rus. Naturally, this is because a regular Christian can get by without much difficult theology. Theology, in this sense, becomes necessary when heresies arise. The entire history of Byzantine theology is the history of battles against various heresiarchs, the history of philosophical formulations, the history of polemics.
But Rus hardly had heresies. The first major one, the so-called “Judaizers,” only appeared in the 16th century, which is almost six hundred years after Rus accepted Christianity. The largest and most complex theological book written in Muscovite Rus was the “Enlightener,” by St. Joseph of Volokolasmk. It simply cannot be compared to the Greek Fathers.
The blame game
It’s simply silly to talk about “Byzantine bureaucracy” or “despotism” in Rus. Yes, Byzantium was the successor of the Roman empire, an organized government with a very effective, professional class of bureaucrats. Perhaps the Byzantine bureaucracy was not the most pleasant social class in world history, but these were extremely educated people, the elite of the most educated society in the world of its time.
Kievan Rus had nothing of the sort. First of all, it never properly assimilated the Roman imperial idea. Coronations in the autocratic sense appeared much later, as did the idea of empire, and not from Byzantium. For Kievan Rus, this was simply not the case. Certainly, neither Kiev nor Moscow had any kind of Byzantine bureaucracy. The Russian civil service only appeared with Nicholas I (centuries later).
As for Russian despotism, it appeared in two historical moments. First of all, there was no independent institution such as a parliament. Secondly, some Tsars were known for killing off their opponents (primarily aristocrats) in spectacular fashion. Of course, these executions were horrifying, as they were in most Western European countries of the time as well. Look at how Henry VIII routinely executed those he didn’t like. But common people weren’t affected by these purges, mainly because there was no bureaucracy, as we have already stated.
From the perspective of Byzantine education, Western European barbarians remained as unlearned as the Russians for a long time. If we look at France of the 10-11th centuries, it was no more impressive in a cultural sense than Kievan Rus. But medieval Scholastic philosophy soon flowered in Western Europe, determining the direction of Western civilization for many centuries. Why did they come to need their systematic theology, their “summa theologicas”?
The thing is, during the entire early Medieval period, the Western Church was vitally interested not just in missionary work, but in the enlightenment of the barbarians that kept invading. The Church tried to transform these barbarians, at least partially, into Romans. And this created channels for the transmission of Christian education from generation to generation, from Antiquity to the Middle Ages. The Byzantines, on the contrary, were bad missionaries. They despised their barbarians: “A barbarian will never be a true Christian.”
Western barbarians, in contrast with Eastern barbarians, lived within the confines of the Western Roman empire. The Slavs interested the Byzantines only as subjects on which to practice their missionary work, while the Western Church, if it was to survive, had to “enculturate” its barbarians. After all, they didn’t live somewhere far away, but “in our back yard,” so to speak. For example, the French city of Tours, even in the 7th century, preserved its Roman roots, and the descendants of Roman nobility continued to play an important part in the rule of the local society. Slavs had no Byzantine nobles nearby.
The future French and the future Germans received from the Western Church something that the Slavs never did—a foundation of Classical culture. So, when new heresies arose in the Church, the West turned to philosophy and systematic theology. It established places of learning—the future universities. Centralized church authority always played a more important role in the West. The East leaned more on charismatic spirituality, and didn’t need an institutional apparatus. The centralized ecclesiastical structure of the Western Church gave rise first to Scholasticism, then the Renaissance. Neither phenomenon reached Russia. Rome, and the Roman past, remained something foreign and pagan for Rus, and so was completely rejected.
Secondly, people in the West could read Latin. Rus had the Slavonic language and culture, and that meant that everyone understood the services, more or less. And so, literacy spread very quickly in Russia. In fact, most Russian city dwellers could read, while in the West, literacy remained the privilege of the elite. However, at the same time, there were not as many books available in Slavonic as there were in Latin in the West. There, the literate could read Classical authors, philosophers, and this also played a role.
It’s possible that if the Turks had not taken Constantinople, if Byzantium had continued to exist past the 15th century, that Russian enculturation would have gone in a different direction. Perhaps there would not have been such a cultural confinement and isolation from central and Western Europe during the 15th and 16th centuries. In some sense, there may have been less of a “cultural lag.” In any case, the fault doesn’t lie with Byzantium. And certainly, not with Byzantine Orthodox Christianity.
If you liked this post, and if you’d like to read more about Russian history and traditions, be sure to join my Readers’ Group. Members of my Readers’ Group will get exclusive opportunities to get bonuses from me when I launch my first novel, The Song of the Sirin, on July 1.