The Lessons of Byzantium's Collapse

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Rossia state television showed "The Fall of an Empire: The Lessons of Byzantium," a film by Archimandrite Tikhon Shevkunov, in late January. The film sparked a heated debate about the role that the West played in the collapse of the Byzantine Empire, whether modern Russia faces similar dangers, and whether the Russian Orthodox Church could help prevent a similar collapse.

It is pointless to discuss whether the film is historically accurate because it is obvious that the story was deliberately fictionalized. It is enough to recall the line from the film that the Byzantine Empire 1,500 years ago was characterized by the supremacy of the rule of law, which is particularly absurd when we learn later in the film how Byzantine emperors blinded opponents and castrated bureaucrats in large numbers.

This is not a historical film but a mythological one. It appeals to a myth deeply rooted in the consciousness of many Russians -- one that combines the bold ideas of Moscow as a "Third Rome," the greatness of the 18th- and 19th-century Russian Empire and the Communist fairy tale of a flourishing Soviet superpower that was destroyed by insidious and subversive liberals.

The film uses the Byzantine model to advance another myth -- that all of Russia's problems today are rooted in confrontations dating back to ancient times. These include Russia's eternal battle with the West, which many conservatives believe harbored an irrational hatred for Russia "on a genetic level." Other clashes included the Russian Orthodox Church vs. Catholicism and individualism vs. the state.

This is why the film depicts Byzantium using catchphrases and images taken right from the ideology and demagogy used in Russia today. We see Byzantium -- and by extension, Russia -- as a huge country situated between Europe and Asia and "unique in relation to the rest of the world." It has domestic enemies in the form of "oligarchs" and a pro-Western intelligentsia. The film also portrays the benefits of a power vertical, the harmful disruption to the state that comes from changing emperors every four years. The danger of "revolution" is also discussed against a backdrop of fallen oranges -- unsubtly capturing the image of the Orange Revolution. What's more, the film mentions the unfair and debilitating international agreement between the Byzantine Empire and the West, which can be interpreted in modern terms as membership in the World Trade Organization. Finally, the film warns of the danger of an influx of immigrants who are unwilling to adopt the Orthodox faith.

The film conveys an obvious message to its target audience: Russia's only guarantee of survival lies in a certain Orthodox Juche -- a mixture of the North Korean philosophy of isolation, unconditional obedience to the state and self-sufficiency. This ideology is presented in the film as complete loyalty to the Russian Orthodox faith as the true form of Christianity.

It's clear why state-run television conducted such an intensive PR campaign hyping this film. The film's discourse on the relative merits of two competing political parties -- one traditional and Orthodox and the other liberal and pro-Western -- mirrors the Kremlin's current propaganda line. The transfer of power to Dmitry Medvedev will only intensify the struggles between two contending Kremlin clans. In that context, the appearance of such a film should not be surprising.

Archimandrite Tikhon's role in this PR campaign raises some interesting questions as well. Does this mean that, against the backdrop of the power struggle in the Kremlin, the Russian Orthodox Church is trying to establish itself as the official state religion and ideology? Or is there a deeper secret that we are unable to comprehend? I do not have the answer.

The only undeniably accurate historical aspect of the film is that the final conquest of Byzantium came from the east and not from the west. Incidentally, this threat has much relevance today, and it is something that we should be watching closely.

Mark Urnov is the dean of the political science department at the Higher School of Economics.

The Lessons of Byzantium's Collapse



By Vsevolod Chaplin

Archimandrite Tikhon poses very important questions in his film: Who are we as Russians? Is Russia just a remote backwoods of Europe? Are we doomed to be obedient students of the West? Or is Russia heir to time-honored traditions passed down directly from ancient Rome and from which the West could also benefit? Should Russia follow the Western paradigm, as if it were indeed universal, or does Russia have its own path that is just as legitimate?

These have always been questions for Russia, not only during the 19th century disputes between Slavophiles and the Westernizers, but also during Peter the Great's reforms and the backroom discussions of speechwriters for Soviet leaders Leonid Brezhnev and Mikhail Gorbachev.

A fresh look at Byzantium -- an empire despised by both Western and Soviet ideologues -- presents us with an excellent opportunity to talk about today's Russia. For the first time, the average television viewer heard that the Eastern Roman Empire was neither an "evil empire" nor a center of dark obscurantism and superfluous luxury, but the largest civilization of its time and one that has something to offer modern Russia.

It is little wonder, then, that the film upset those who have been trying to convince us that the sun rises not in the East but in the West. It is surprising that some critics have not bothered to discuss the film's production quality or the facts and ideas it portrays, but have simply lashed out at the very idea of "rehabilitating" Byzantium and the "Byzantine spirit" in Russia. Their arguments are weak. "The filmmakers are trying to take us back to the Middle Ages," they say.

What we need here is a real dialogue with pro-Western Russians. Are they able to prove that the course of development they favor is the sole alternative, even though that path is causing an increasing number of crises in the West? What has the West come to when its leading nations drop bombs in an effort to prove the truth of their cause? Alternatively, does the ideal of an alliance between the people and the authorities suggested by Byzantium offer a viable model for the future? Might the West itself one day turn to such a model as well? We clearly do not have enough dialogue on these questions. Instead, we have heated arguments on the one hand and demands that the film be all but prohibited on the other.

The film provides convincing arguments that the Byzantine model of society -- based on Christian social ideals, on the unity of faith, on the "symphony" and harmony of church and state and on mutual understanding rather than competition -- has a very promising future. It is no coincidence that Russia survived, and even thrived, when it adopted this model. The main thing now is not to marginalize those who are sympathetic to this paradigm, whether in the East or in the West.

By no means was everyone from the West an enemy. Among the first crusaders were quite a few Westerners who sincerely wanted to help, and they sacrificed their money, health and lives. Many in Western Europe, including the pope, viewed the fall of Constantinople and the plundering by crusaders as a real tragedy. Only later did the West attach a pejorative meaning to the word "Byzantium" as something unworthy of respect.

Russia needs dialogue with the West. It is not only indifferent egoists and our opponents that live there -- we also have sincere friends in the West, and the copies of Russian icons hanging in the churches of Brussels, Paris and Rome testify to this.

But this dialogue should not be one-sided. Russia and the West need to respect each other and accept each other the way they are. Only in this way can we offer each other our best qualities and values -- and correct the worst.

Father Vsevolod Chaplin is the vice chairman of the department of external church relations of the Moscow Patriarchate.