The Byzantine Tradition in Russian Orthodox Church

PutinPatriarchThe traditional approaches between the church and the state have been actively evolving from the time of their origin. Since the official adoption of Christianity as the Rome’s main religion, different traditions and practices have been established, from which we can distinguish three basic forms: Secularism, Theocracy and Caesaropapism (Byzantine Tradition). The secularism is based on the idea that the state and the church have to separate from each other and do not intervene in their own affairs; In practice, Secularism is not as old as the Theocracy, which opposes the ideas of separation and underlines the importance and supremacy of religious principles over the secular laws. Accordance to the Theocracy, every law and every political system created by humans, which all have a sinful nature, therefore their ideas naturally have their innate imperfections, but, oppose to this, the principles of the religion can’t have flaws, because they were created by the God. The third and currently least prevailed system is Caesaropapism, also known as the Byzantine tradition. What this tradition stands for and why it is called the “Byzantine”? And what this tradition has to do with modern Russia?

When the church works not with the state but for the state and lies under the state than it is called Caesaropapism. This idea is based on the principle that the head of a country is an expression of God’s rule on earth. Caesaropapism portrays ruler as a head of state and church, simultaneously. He or She (but mostly he), can unify his subjects and heal or crush any division. The term Caesaropapism itself consists of a general definition: a ruler is a Caesar and a Pope at the same time. A clergy is going to praise a ruler as a benevolent leader of the people and a church and directly or indirectly helps him or her to achieve their political objectives. Caesaropapism in practice means that the church works as an ideological institution, which has the readiness to wipe rulers off any kind of shortcoming and helps them to smoothly realize their policies.

Byzantine Empire was the distinguished empire which effectively adopted Caesaropapism as an effective practice to rule the state and clergy. When Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV tries the same, he was failed, while in Constantinople any resistance from the Church was crushed. In the Bizantine Empire, often, the predecessors of an acting emperor were declared saints, while current ones portrayed as direct successors of their past deeds and visions.

The Church was quite consistent with the imperial policy. If the empire’s attitude towards a domestic or foreign enemy had changed, the Church had also soon changed its tone towards them.

The Christian religion in Russia came from the Byzantine Empire with a large part of Byzantine church traditions. It is important to note that the process of conversion was not peaceful – Ruler of Kievan Rus Vladimir conducted this process by force. Consequently, the religious institutions, as well as his subjects, perceived Tsar and his subsequent successors as the leaders of both, state and church, simultaneously.

In 1453 the Byzantine Empire fell. The house of Palaiologos was the last rulers of the empire. Byzantine princess Sophia Palaiologina got married to Ivan III of Russia and their son Vasili officially adopted the idea of the Third Rome and continuation of the Byzantine Empire. It is important to note that neither the Russian Empire nor the Soviet Union has ever denied this idea and still, in modern Russia it remains a popular concept. In spite of the initial antagonism and red terror, the Church still retrieved privileges in the late Soviet times and readopted Pro-Kremlin agenda. Although the last sovereigns of the Russian Empire have been officially declared as saints by the church, there was no condemnation of Soviet rulers who officially proclaimed themselves as atheists and conducted atrocities over its people and the church. Moreover, currently, the members of the Communist Party of Russia are enjoying the support of the church.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Russian government fully embraced the church. Since then the Russian government has been trying to portray itself as the fervent defender of Christianity. The church was financially dependent on the state. It is easy to find how luxurious is Russia’s Orthodox Church has become lately – compare to the average Russian family, clergy have privileges, financial and political support and material superiority over its people.

Despite the fact that the Russian Empire is no longer present and the official separation between state and church declared, still the obedient attitude towards the ruler remains unshakable. The ruler of the state still revered as an emperor-like figure which strengthens his or her position. Based on that perception the Russian Orthodox Church is almost always in collaboration with the Russian political elites. The church says almost the same what the government says. The examples are many but several are most common: introduction of the West and Europe as a decadent and morally corrupt force is an equally popular concept among Russian church and Russian political elites as well. Ukraine is a hotter topic. Russian church and political elites were working hand in hand during the crisis in Ukraine. Besides the fact that Ukrainian revolution (Euromaidan) was demonstrated as pure evil and as a Nazi revolt by the Russian church, at the same time, both the Russian ecclesiastical and the ruling circles severely condemned and criticized Ukrainian Church who tried and successfully regained the autocephaly.

As mentioned above, the Russian authorities and the Church tries to portray and present Russia as a defender of moral values and Christianity itself. Neither this approach is new. Against the Ottoman Empire, Russia has repeatedly used the status of Christian protector. Today, with regard to Georgia, which is an aspiring nation towards the EU and the West generally, Russian church and political authorities are trying to derail strong Pro-Western attitudes in there. Religion has crucial importance in the anti-EU and pro-Russian propaganda in Georgia. According to the Russian narrative, Georgia, as well as Serbia and Macedonia will lose their religious and cultural identity if they become EU members.

Beyond the adjacent neighbourhood, Russia even tries to have influences over the orthodox member states of EU and NATO. The Bulgarian and Greek Patriarchates are one of their main sphere of interests. If the pro-Kremlin and pro-Russian attitudes win within the Orthodox Churches and their flock, then scepticism and division in the EU will grow even more.

Moreover, Russia is trying to maximize the role of the Moscow Patriarchate and demonstrate its superiority among other churches, even though there is no official hierarchy between patriarchs in Orthodox Christianity. Russian clergy and state are working together to achieve this goal. The Patriarchate of Constantinople is one of the main opponents of this, who has a status of “Primus inter pares” – first among equals. But Kremlin and the Patriarchate of Moscow set a division and schism within the Orthodox Churches, where two camps – Pro-Kremlin and Pro-Constantinople –  have risen and discontent between them remains tense.

Through this hand in hand political activities, what is the final objective of the Russian Church and the state? As the Byzantine Empire and Patriarchate of Constantinople represented one of the main political actors in Eastern Europe and the Middle East, now the Russian political circles and the Church wants to gain the same superiority and recognition by others. For Russia as well as the Byzantine Empire, religion is an important tool to gain spheres of influence and direct or indirect control over them.

Russia, apart from various political instruments, also considers religion as one of the key means to achieve a favourable political outcome. Russia is actively trying to present itself the defender of the entire Christianity or, more narrowly, the defender of Orthodoxy. The goal always remains the same: to portray the Kremlin as a reliable and compare to others, less corrupt actor, with whom you can trust. Although this approach has ties into the Byzantine traditions and therefore is very old, still in Russia and other countries where religion matters, religious propaganda in the hands of politicians works enormously well.

Giorgi Koberidze
Senior Fellow

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