Third Rome and geopolitics of Orthodox schism

Far more than the Great Schism of 1054, the breakdown of relations between Moscow and Constantinople following the granting of autocephaly to Kiev has an eminently political and geopolitical significance. We trace the history of the relations between the two patriarchal headquarters and the dynamics through which these relations have been influenced by the game between the great powers.

by Daniele Perra

The American political scientist Samuel P. Huntington in his famous essay The Clash of Civilizations identified the boundaries of Western civilization where the Orthodox world begins that, due to its inclination to contemplation and respect for tradition, was inserted by the father of geopolitics Rudolf Kjellen in the immense space of the East. What Huntington could not guess, while developing his theoretical elaboration in the moments immediately following the end of the Cold War, was the fact that the West (composed in its vision from North America and Western Europe) would be able to expand its range of action and influence well beyond the boundaries of the "Orthodox world". In fact, following the implosion of the Soviet Union and the so-called "socialist bloc", the preponderant North American influence on the European continent caused a prior to the acceleration of economic-monetary unification processes and the expansion of the future Union itself to the east so as to include former members of the Warsaw Pact and the USSR itself. The well-known US strategist Zbigniew Brzezinski, in this regard, was able to affirm:

    "Any expansion of Europe's political field of action is automatically an expansion of US influence. An enlarged Europe and an enlarged NATO will serve the short and long-term interests of European politics. An enlarged Europe will extend the reach of American influence without creating, at the same time, an integrated Europe that is able to challenge the United States in matters of geopolitical importance, particularly in the Near East"

It was thus that several countries of the Balkan area of ​​Orthodox tradition (first of all Bulgaria and Romania), between the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, were rapidly inserted into the EU and NATO. Without considering the decades-long presence within the Atlantic Alliance of Greece. This process is still ongoing. Moreover, even more recently, the West has managed to expand further, incorporating in its sphere of influence new countries of a purely Orthodox tradition such as Georgia, Montenegro and Ukraine, following the name change, in all probability, "Northern Macedonia". More or less aware of the fact that every major geopolitical orientation is also primarily a spiritual orientation, the strategists of Washington, worried by the fact that Moscow, after the end of communism and the unfortunate Yeltsin era, was again turning into a "pole of spiritual attraction" (also by reviving the myth of the "Third Rome"), they have deliberately decided to support any divisive push within the Orthodox world. In this context, the recognition of autocephaly to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, made independent of the Muscovite Patriarchate and the consequent rupture of the Eucharistic communion between Moscow and Constantinople (news, not surprisingly, little reported on the Western media) could represent a an extremely worrying precedent whose serious repercussions would affect the entire area of ​​the spread of Byzantine-Orthodox culture in the immediate future. Above all because, as stated by the Serbian Patriarch Irinej:

   " There is no underlying theological divergence but simply an instrumental use of religion and of certain nationalistic sentiments"

The Ukrainian "coup-style" President Petro Poroschenko has been pressing the Patriarch of Constantinople Bartolomeo I (primus inter pares in the now former pentarchy of the Eastern Patriarchs) to grant the Ukrainian Church autocephaly, separating it from Moscow and ending the fragmentation that existed until today. The Ukrainian Church, in fact, was divided into three different jurisdictions: the Orthodox Church united to the Moscow Patriarchate and governed by the Metropolitan of Kiev Onufriy (the only one recognized as "canonical" until today and therefore in communion with the other Orthodox Churches); the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Kiev Patriarchate) founded in 1992 by the self-proclamation to Patriarch of the former Metropolitan Filarete; the Ukrainian autocephalous Orthodox Church re-established in 1990 but wants itself to continue the church declared autonomous from Moscow as early as 1921. The pro-Atlantic coup d'état and the consequent political confrontation with Russia have further aggravated and further exacerbated the division between the Moscow Patriarchate and Kiev. So much so, that Moscow Patriarch Kirill could no longer set foot in Ukraine, while Metropolitan Hilarion was rejected on the border. By sanctioning the definitive autocephaly, Bartholomew I has readmitted to the full communion with the remaining canonical churches the Kiev Patriarchate linked to the figure of the aforementioned Filarete Denishenko. A decision that determined the schism of Moscow and the breaking of communion with the other Orthodox Chalcedon churches: in addition to that of Constantinople, the Patriarchates of Antioch, Jerusalem and Alexandria. Now this decision of the Patriarch of Constantinople is serious in the first place because it could set the tone to new divisions. The Churches of Montenegro and Macedonia (States already included in the sphere of influence of the West and NATO) could in fact point to a separation from Belgrade, still not inclined to "atlantists" compromises. The Montenegrin Church is already divided into two currents (favorable and contrary to the maintenance of the current status). While the Macedonian, after the recent agreement with Greece that has favored the change of name and with it the process of integration into NATO and the EU, could request that its autonomy prerogatives already sanctioned by Article 19 of the Constitution be respected of the small Balkan Republic born after the disintegration of the former Yugoslavia, once again, favored by the West.

Moreover, the Moldovan situation is not the best, since the country is divided between the Metropolis of Chisinau, under the jurisdiction of Moscow, and the Metropolis of Bessarabia, under the jurisdiction of the Romanian Orthodox Church. However, secondly, it is serious because it calls into question the indissoluble relationship that links Orthodoxy to its relationship with the earth and to the imperial dimension of its religious-cultural importance. In the Byzantine-Orthodox political culture, the earth, and with it, its defense or expansion, assumes a sacred character. The legacy of Byzantium played a decisive role in all the imperial and state entities that shared it. In the Battle of Kosovo of 1389, for example, the Serbian nobility, while aware of the impossibility of victory against the Ottomans and of the fact that it would in all likelihood (and indeed did) encounter death, chose to sacrifice itself in the name of a superior and sacred ideal that would set an example for future generations. Paradoxically, even the Ottoman Empire gathered its Byzantine heritage in its own way. The first ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople conquered by the Ottomans was that Giorgio Scolario (1405-1473) who, unlike the current Bartolomeo I, refused any form of compromise with the West. However, the true inheritance of Byzantium was collected by Moscow by virtue of that translatio imperii which would have transferred the imperial function of the "Sacrum Imperium" from Rome to Byzantium and from the latter to Moscow. Already at the turn of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries the then Patriarch of Constantinople, Antonio IV, frightened by the Ottoman pressure on the borders of the imperial capital, turned his hopes to Moscow. However, it was only in 1589 that Moscow was elevated to the patriarchal rank and inserted into the pentarchy instead of Rome, for centuries now dominated by what in the East was defined as "the Latin heresy". The story of how Christianity spread in the territories of modern Russia and how this, in its Byzantine-Orthodox version, played the unifying role between its various souls deserves to be deepened also to better understand the reasons that led to today's schism. The Byzantine sources report that the geographical name Rus was attributed due to the particular "red" or "reddish" of the bodies and hair of the populations that inhabited this region.

However, this name derives from the fact that this land was included in a spatial dimension surrounded by rivers whose ancestral names were Ras / Rus / Ros '/ Rus'. Both the Avesta that the Rig Veda report, for example, a particular name of the Volga fume: respectively Rangha / Rankha and Rasa. The conversion of this vast territory to Christianity took place through a long historical process during which five different "baptisms" were recognized, although it is only starting from the last that Russia was included in all respects within the Christian oecumene. The first was the preaching of the Apostle Andrew in the slave lands in the first century after Christ; the second is the preaching of Cyril and Methodius (creators of the Slavic alphabet) in the same lands on the orders of the Byzantine Emperor Michael III (842-867); the third was the baptism of the Russians in Constantinople at the time of Patriarch Photius (829-891); the fourth, the baptism of Princess Olga and the fifth the conversion of Grand Prince Vladimir of Kiev (980-1015), nephew of Olga, to the Christian faith. The Tale of Past Times (chronicle of Kievan Rus' attributed to the Nestor monk of Pecerska) tells how the Russians converted to Orthodox Christianity around the 10th century. Grand Prince Vladimir tried to unify the Slavic clans through religion. He made attempts at first with paganism, after which he received requests from both Bulgarian Muslims and the Cazarian Jews. The first was rejected by virtue of the fact that the Russians, lovers of alcoholic beverages, could never accept not to drink. The second because, according to Vladimir, the Jews, dispersed and rejected by their own God, could not teach religion to anyone. Therefore, the choice fell on Christianity, in its oriental version, because:

    "We went to the Greeks, and we saw where they officiated in honor of their God, and we did not know whether we were in heaven or on earth; there is not a sight of such beauty on earth: and we can not describe it; only this we know: that there God co-exists with man and that their ritual is better than that of all countries"

However, as was noted by the Russian theologian and philosopher Pavel Florensky, Christianity, in the Russian lands, went to mix with a whole series of pagan beliefs that specifically determined its own evolution. Nor should the fact that several Christian communities orbit around the area of ​​Kiev around the tenth century trying to impose their influence on it should not be underestimated. Some historians even claim that there was a conspicuous presence of Irish monks bearing a sort of "Celtic" vision of Christianity. Russian Orthodoxy immediately had to face ever-increasing threats. Moreover, it has always been surrounded by hostile forces (the Teutonic knights as well as the powerful Polish-Lithuanian state) intent on incorporating it into the Catholic world. In this regard, the Soviet anthropologist Lev N. Gumilev argued that the crisis in Kievan Rus' was due to a decrease in internal unity and the increase in short-term interests compared to long-term objectives and, consequently, the inability of self-protecting from external aggression. To accelerate the end, the close encounter with two particularly aggressive ethnos contributed decisively: the Mongolian and the Western European one, then still dominated by the heroic values ​​typical of Germanic feudalism.

In this context, the figure of Aleksandr Nevsky (not by chance made Saint by the Russian Orthodox Church) assumed a particularly important role for the future development of the Russian ethnic-cultural specificity. In fact, by choosing to ally himself with the Mongols against Western expansionism, he first addressed Russia along a purely Eurasian line. The alliance with the Mongols, through the payment of a tribute to the Golden Horde, allowed Russia to preserve the Orthodox Christian faith (the only element that united all the Russians of the 13th century) against the expansionism of Western Christianity. The Mongolian ethical code, the yasa, foresaw a substantial religious tolerance in exchange for total political submission. This allowed to protect the new Russian ethnos in its embryonic phase and, therefore, when it was weaker. To this, it is added that it was from the Mongol and Gengiskhanide yoke, rather than that from Byzantium, that Russia inherited its imperial functions. It is to the Orthodox Church that we owe the political creation of Greater Russia. With the transfer of the Metropolia from Kiev (occupied by the aforementioned Polish-Lithuanian state and its ideological-military aspirations) to Vladimir and subsequently to Moscow by Metropolitan Peter I, the current capital of Russia greatly increased its status and the entire Muscovy turned into a sort of real Orthodox theocracy.

The battle of Kulikov (1380) assumed the double meaning of liberation from the Mongol yoke and of the definitive separation of Russia from the West. Faced with the claims of the rebel Manaj, unsuitable for the throne of the Horde as a non-direct descendant of Genghis Khan but supported by Genoa [the Italian State-town and maritime power - Translator's note] (thalassocratic power that from the Crimea implemented aggressive trade policies towards Russia also centered on a deep religious scorn), Russians decided to stand in favor of the legitimate descendant of the throne, Tokhtamysh (last great Khan reunification of the Golden Horde). Subsequently, it was with the battle of Ugra in 1480 that Russia began to free itself permanently from the Mongol presence and to develop along three main lines: Orthodoxy, the autocracy and the rural community. Thus, the awareness of representing the only independent Orthodox power consolidated the conviction of a special destiny within the world. Moscow, which as early as 1448 (following its refusal to accept the outcome of the Union Council of Florence) elected its own Metropolitan without the consent of Constantinople, was now the Third Rome and all the Christian empires had merged into it, as recited the letter of the starec Filofej to Vasilij III, son of Ivan III and Sofia Paleologa, and father of Ivan IV the Terrible. However, only with the Romanov dynasty the ideal of Holy Russia translated into geopolitical terms as a defense of Orthodox Christianity in its entirety, reconquest of Constantinople and of the communication routes between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean and defense of the Holy Places in Palestine. The Russian philosopher and mystic Vladimir Solov'ev, who lived in the second half of the nineteenth century, in the prophetic summa of his thought The three dialogues and the story of the Antichrist, through the character of the General, even invited the Tsarist Empire to decline its role of bulwark of Christianity expanding beyond Constantinople and up to Jerusalem itself.

It seems evident that such a philosophical-existential logos, impregnated with messianic, eschatological and universalistic instincts, can only intimidate every potential "geopolitical enemy". Great Britain, throughout all the course of the nineteenth century, sought to prevent any independentist aspiration of the Orthodox Balkan peoples to translate into a geopolitical advantage for Tsarist Russia. It is no coincidence that the struggle for the independence of Greece, led by figures like Alexander Ypsilianti (former officer of the tsarist army) or Ioannis Kapodistrias (former Tsar Foreign Minister), was addressed along a line more favorable to the British thalassocratic power, so much so that at the top of the new Kingdom was imposed a ruling house, the Wittelbasch of Bavaria, totally alien to the previous history of the Mediterranean country. And, in fact, all the subsequent "Balkan Wars" evolved more or less in the same way. The myth of Moscow as Third Rome remained in underground and clandestine form throughout the Soviet period and today is experiencing renewed fortune and spread, also due to the institutional clearing of the philosophical-geopolitical current of neoeurasiatism. So, it is this "myth" that they try to undermine with the multiplication of divisions within the Patriarchate of Moscow and of all the Russias. In his poem Panmongolism, the aforementioned Vladimir Solov'ev identified in a hypothetical threat coming from the East the cause of the end of the Third Rome. The Russian mystic, unlike his contemporary and compatriot Konstantin Leont'ev (considered as the precursor of Eurasianism), was unable to understand that the real threat to the Third Rome would come from the West and not from that land towards which, as wrote St. John Damascene:

    "We must turn our eyes to pray and adore God"


Transaltion by Costantino Ceoldo - Pravda freelance

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Author`s name Costantino Ceoldo