Why is the late Russian Empire associated with Byzantium while having little in common with it?

Why is the late Russian Empire associated with Byzantium while having little in common with it?

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I have started reading the book A people's tragedy by Orlando Figes about the Russian revolution. I am no historian, however having read a few pages I have a few questions about the repeated comparison of some facets of the pre-revolutionary Russian regime to Byzantium.

The second principle from Muscovy was the idea of personal rule: as the embodiment of God on earth… This too had distinguished the Byzantine tradition of despotism from the Western absolutist state.


… much preferred the older title Tsar (derived from the Greek term kaisar), which went back to the Byzantine era and carried religious connotations of paternal rule.

To me the comparison between Byzantine despotism and Russian despotism seems stretched and superficial. Despite the millennium long history, no dynasty in Byzantium ever came close to ruling over 300 years, while the Romanovs did rule for that long. Uprisings and pretenders were very common in Byzantium, perhaps all too common (as is described in the book 'The Byzantine Republic'). This was not the case in Russia. In fact, it seems to me that Russia is much closer in this regard to late medieval/early modern western-European kingdoms like France and England, where to my understanding the king had to be completely incapable of ruling for people to seriously contemplate a change of dynasty.

The divine rights of rulers is not a Byzantine invention (as far as I understand, it goes back at least to Roman times), and it is definitely not a uniquely Byzantine phenomenon.

The title Tsar is not Byzantine and was first used by the Bulgarians. Thus the choice of Tsar seems to be more nuanced than simply 'going back to Byzantine era' as the author puts it. The way the author phrases it as an embrace of Byzantine style seems an oversimplification.

Now, as the author of the book puts it later, the Russian elites did view the autocratic style of ruling as 'Byzantine' as opposed to a more western style. However, it seems to me that they are projecting their ideas backward in time as the relations between the ruler and the people in Byzantium was quite different from those in contemporary Russia.

To sum up, it seems to me that there is a massive difference between Byzantium and the late Russian empire in the way people viewed the relations between themselves and the ruler. Comparing pre-revolutionary Russia to a state which ceased to exist so many centuries ago feels forced and completely arbitrary. There may be other not so distant in time states which the pre-revolutionary Russia may be more fittingly compared to. What am I missing?

The reason is because of some superficial similarities, mainly of the "headline" variety.

After the fall of Rome, the Eastern Roman, or Byzantine Empire claimed the mantle of the new Rome. In the 14th century, Bulgarian monks fleeing the Ottomans (and anticipating the fall of Constantinople) urged the Russians to declare themselves the Third Rome. After the actual collapse of the Byzantine Empire, Russian rulers such as Ivan III and Ivan IV did this, and they called themselves "czars" after Caesar. This formula was used by a later dynasty, the Romanov dynasty, to "legitimize" their rule. In eastern Europe, at least, Russia was considered the "last refuge" from the barbarian Mongols and Turks who had already overrun Persia, Central Asia, and Asia Minor (formerly on the fringes of western civilization).

Ironically, Imperial Russia and Byzantium had similarities in their falls. They both got started filling a local power vacuum, then expanded until stronger countries contained them. Eventually, these "stronger countries" (the Turks in 1453, Germany in World War I), brought down the respective monarchies.

You are right that the objective is reality is that Russian politics were more stable and less "byzantine" than those of Byzantium. But often, as is the case here, image counts for more than the reality.

I'd say that historically, the ideology in Russia meant it preferred to compare itself to Byzantium, probably similarly to the way you can hear the US is compared to Rome.

This was, and still probably is, based on these facts:

  • Russia has (and had even more) cultural ties to Greece and Byzantium: Christianity came to Russia from Greece, with majority of bishops and other top clerics (the scientific/educated elite 1000 years ago), being Greeks; Russian writing system originated in Greece;

  • The title Tsar actually didn't came to Russia from Bulgaria, this is how it's described in Cambridge History of Russia:

    Ivan embarked on an ambitious and politically controversial plan to be crowned as tsar of all Rus'. Church texts described Old Testament kings as 'tsars' and Christ as the Heavenly Tsar. Muscovite political vocabulary reserved the title of tsar for the rulers of superior status, the Byzantine emperor and Tatar khan. In the Muscovite view, the moral authority of the Orthodox emperor and the political might of the Muslim khan derived from the will of God. Given the strong religious connotation of the title of tsar, it is almost certain that the main driving force behind the coronation was Metropolitan Makarii. Familiar with descriptions of Byzantine imperial coronations, the metropolitan acted as the mastermind of Ivan's coronation, which took place in the Dormition cathedral in the Kremlin on 16 January 1547.

    During the coronation, the ruling circles claimed continuity between Ivan's rule and the rule of the Byzantine emperors and the Kievan princes.

  • since the fall of Constantinople in 1453 Russian political ideology (cleric texts at the time) officially proclaimed Russia as the only successor to Byzantium, the Third Rome (after Rome and Constantinople).

So the fact is that Russia itself, from the political and historical points, tried to identify itself with Byzantium, which in turn has spread vastly to various works, texts etc.

Why did Orlando Figes make that comparison? I don't know exactly, but I suspect that it was influenced by the facts listed above.

Question: Why is late Russian Empire associated with Byzantium while having little in common with it?

To sum up, it seems to me that there is a massive difference between Byzantium and the late Russian empire in the way people viewed the relations between themselves and the ruler. Comparing pre-revolutionary Russia to a state which ceased to exist so many centuries ago feels forced and completely arbitrary. There may be other not so distant in time states which the pre-revolutionary Russia may be more fittingly compared to. What am I missing?

Short Answer:
Russia bound itself to the byzantine Empire in the 10th century AD by adopting Orthodox Christianity as their national religion because Byzantines were militarily strong, culturally impressive, and economically important to the Rus. The Rus needed to adopt a national religion for security. The larger and more unstable the empire the greater the need to bind that empire together with common belief system. Why Byzantine Eastern Orthodox Religion specifically, grandeur, proximity, and the familiarity which fell out of the former as Russia was vetting alternatives.

Detailed Answer:
Until the late 10th century, Slavic tribes were predominantly pagan with different communities worshiping different “local” gods. Want to win a battle - make a sacrifice to Perun, god of thunder and war. Want a rich harvest - pray to Mokosh, the mother-of-all.

According to the Rus Primary Chronicals, Vladimir the Great who is credited with Christinizing Russia called for envoys from Islam, Judaism, Roman Catholicism and the Eastern Orthodox churches in the year 987 AD. He dismissed one envoy after another as unsuitable until Eastern Orthodoxy was left.

  • Islam was dismissed because restricted Alcohol.
  • Judaism was dismissed because the Rabbi could not suitably explain why they had no homeland.
  • The German Roman Catholic envoy was dismissed because he was deemed to judgmental.
  • The Eastern Orthodox emissary was the only one remaining

So Vladimir converted to Orthodoxy in 988 and decided to adopt Orthodox Christianity for his entire country according to the chronicle. Now this is a great story and given it is derived in the Russian Chronicle it's history; although, It doesn't quite cover all the data we have.

First we know that Vladimir the Great lived in a time of great turmoil. In 972 a fratricidal war broke out between Vladimir's father and uncle and Prince Vladimir was forced to flee to Norway to his kinsman Haakon Sigurdsson, ruler of Norway; where he raised a viking army to invade and reclaim his kingdom. Vladimir successfully recaptured his capital Kiev in 978, and executed his uncle.

Secondly we know that Vladimir's grandmother Saint Olga of Kiev, was baptized into the Orthodox Christian Church and was involved in converting followers to Christianity decades before Prince Vladimir came to power.

We know that Orthodox Christianity was not Prince Vladimir's first choice for the national Religion for the Rus. Vladimir had tried to impose the cult of Perun, his favorite pagan god, but people didn't embrace it.

Lastly we know Byzantium in the 10th century was an important trading center for the Rus. The Capital of Russia at this time was Kiev and it's primary ports were on the black sea. The Black Sea trade was controlled by Byzantium which controlled the Dardanelles which connected the Black Sea to the Aegean Sea and Mediterranean. Having a common religion with Byzantines made a lot of sense. It would have not only improved the unity for the Rus but served another important motivation of improving trade and relations with one of the strongest and culturally sophisticated kingdoms in Europe at that time. A kingdom who held important immensely important geographic asset which could facilitate Trade for the Rus throughout Europe and North Africa.

I checked the book: The word "Byzantine" is mentioned only on 9 pages (out of nearly a thousand). Mostly, it is mentioned in relation to personalities of Nicholas-II and his wife. (In one case, it is mentioned in relation to Stalin's idea of embalming Lenin's corpse.)

Examples of these are:

  1. "Nicholas's model of the autocracy was almost entirely Muscovite. His favourite Tsar was Alexei Mikhailovich (1645-76), after whom he named his son the Tsarevich. He emulated his tranquil piety, which it was said had given him the conviction to rule Russia through his own religious conscience. Nicholas often liked to justify his policies on the grounds that the idea had 'come to him' from God. According to Count Witte, one of his most enlightened ministers, Nicholas believed that 'people do not influence events, that God directs everything, and that the Tsar, as God's anointed, should not take advice from anyone but follow only his divine inspiration. Such was Nicholas's admiration for the semi-Asiatic customs of the Middle Ages that he tried to introduce them at his court. He ordered the retention of the old Slavonic forms of spelling in official documents and publications long after they had been phased out in literary Russian. He talked of Rus', the old Muscovite term for the core lands of Russia, instead of Rossiia, a term for the Empire which had been adopted since Peter the Great. He disliked the title Gosudar Imperator (Sovereign Emperor), also introduced by Peter, since it implied that the autocrat was no more than the first servant of the abstract state (the gosudarstvo), and much preferred the older title Tsar (derived from the Greek term kaisar), which went back to the Byzantine era and carried religious connotations of paternal rule. He even toyed with the idea of making all his courtiers wear long caftans, like those of the ancient Muscovite boyars (it was only the cost that discouraged him)."

  2. A quote from Witte:

"Our Tsar is an Oriental, a hundred per cent Byzantine."

  1. "… and Nicholas made no secret of the fact that he much preferred Moscow to St Petersburg. The old 'holy city', with its thousand onion domes, stood for the Eastern and Byzantine traditions which lay at the heart of his Muscovite world-view. Untouched by the West, Moscow retained the 'national style' so favoured by the last two Tsars. Both considered Petersburg, with its classical architectural style, its Western shops and bourgeoisie, alien to Russia."

  2. "The unpopularity of the Empress would not have mattered so much had she not taken it upon herself to play an active political role. From her letter to Queen Victoria it was clear that the mystical attractions of Byzantine despotism had taken early possession of her."

All these views would be quite alien to, say, Peter-I, Catherine-II or Alexander-I.

Lastly, the author of the book does not try to argue that Byzantine model was in any way applicable to describe realities of life in Russia of the turn of the 20th century. I would go one step further and say that Tsar's views show how little did he know his country.

  • Russian autocrats have, to a greater or lesser extent, considered themselves heirs to Byzantium since the 15th century
  • Inasmuch as Russian culture has traditionally been centered around the Orthodox faith, the Greek tradition was always the strongest foreign influence on it. The majority of Russians even today have first names of Greek origin (Aleksandr, Alexey, Dmitry, Kirill, Nikolai, Anastasia, Sofia, etc.) The Russian writing system is derived from Greek; so is the traditional mode of Russian visual art.
  • Having made a perpetual rival of the Ottoman Empire, during the rules of Alexander I and Nicholas I (the great-granduncle and the great-grandfather of Nicholas II, respectively) Russia was instrumental in helping secure Greek independence. More recently, in the rule of Nicholas' grandfather Alexander II, another successful military incursion into the Balkans further fomented pan-Slavic Orthodox sentiment in Russia. While Greece is not a Slavic country, it nevertheless has always been convenient for Russian ideologues to proclaim the Russian link to both medieval Orthodox and, in a bit of a rhetorical stretch, the ancient pagan Greek traditions, thus legitimizing a claim to a rich cultural background, which is hugely important given that the elites of the West always have and to this day continue dismissing Russians as semi-barbaric.
  • Another way this search for cultural identity created a renewed interest in Byzantium in late 19th century Russia was Russo-Byzantine architecture. Overall in Europe 19th century generated an unprecedented body of research in classics and medievalism, along with an equally unprecedented nationalistic sentiment, so that the cultural elites of every country sought to assimilate historical styles and traditions in an attempt to reinvent their origin narratives (Wagner's operas are a good example of this trend). Russia being no exception, the Byzantine Empire furnished it with one of its strongest historical models, although it should be remembered that the debate about the influence of Greece vs. the Slavic paganism and the Western rationalism was ongoing at the time of Nicholas II.

One detail worth mentioning: during its formative period, Constantinople was the premiere center of culture & knowledge, with no serious competition. Rome had declined in size, wealth & importance, & except as the seat of the Pope was of negligible importance. Venice, Paris & London were infant metropoleis, barely of note even within their own countries. Until 1204, when a European thought of a city, Constantinople was the example par excellence. (The Arab examples, such as Cairo & Babylon, were exotic but effectively beyond their known world.)

Russia embraced Orthodox Christianity over Roman Catholicism because Constantinople was closer than Rome, thus reinforcing the cultural influence Byzantium had on Russia. Likewise other physical & intellectual cultural items & traditions flowed north from Constantinople into the Russian homelands. Western Europe honestly had little to offer in competition.

Watch the video: The Russo-Turkish Wars (July 2022).


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