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Tracing the early roots of the concept of the "Russian world" that sees the Russian state as eternal and impervious to change. Its primary objective is the establishment of a robust national state, a realm of expansionism where autocracy is the only form of governance possible.
Looking back at the start of the 16th century, the Grand Duchy of Moscow had emerged victorious over its Orthodox rivals, including principalities such as Tver and the Novgorod Republic. At the time, a significant portion of the eastern Slavic lands was under Catholic Lithuania's control.
So, how did Moscow rise to prominence?
On the surface, Moscow appeared to fill the void left by the Mongolian Golden Horde. While Moscow had previously collected tributes from other principalities, it now retained these resources for itself. There was an inclination for Muscovy to expand further eastward, assimilating fragments of the Genghisid empire. However, aligning the descendants of ancient Rus’ with the heirs of Genghis Khan would necessitate a fundamental shift in the state's identity. This was particularly complex due to the prevalent ideology built around religion, with the Tatar khans, unlike the Russian princes, adhering to Islam.
In the early 16th century, a Pskov monk named Philotheus introduced a new idea: that Moscow represented the "third Rome."
According to Philotheus, the first Rome had succumbed to Latin heresy (Catholicism), and the second, Constantinople, had fallen to Turkish conquest. He believed Moscow was now the capital of the only Orthodox state remaining in the world. Philotheus presented his worldview to Grand Duke Vasily III, advocating for the unification of all Christian kingdoms into one.
The descendants of ancient Rus’ sought to trace their lineage back to Prus, the legendary brother of the first Roman emperor Augustus Octavian, establishing a link between Russia and the first Rome. Even though historical evidence doesn't support these claims, Ivan IV, better known as Ivan the Terrible, proudly asserted his connection to Augustus Octavian. He took the concept of the third Rome very seriously and became the first Russian ruler to take on the title of the tsar.
Peter the Great also seemed particularly fond of emulating the ancient Romans. He added the Latin title of emperor to his existing title of king and initiated Western-style reforms in Russia, frequently assigning Latin names to high-ranking institutions.
Coronation of Tsar Nicholas II of Russia, by Russian painter Walentin Alexandrowitsch Serow (1899)
Ekaterinburg Museum of Fine Arts/Wikimedia Commons
The Russian World
During the 19th century, the era of nationalist fervor in Europe, a transformation began where nations, whether already established or striving for statehood, sought to define their distinct identities. Previously, affiliations were determined by religion, territory, or feudal allegiances. Now, individuals began identifying as French, German, or Russian.
In Russia, the concept of the "Russian world" emerged in the mid-19th century. Initially, this term held an ethnographic connotation. The Russian writer Mikhail Zagoskin referred to Moscow as "the whole Russian world" due to its diverse population, while another writer Ivan Goncharov applied the phrase to the frigate Pallada, which embarked on a voyage around Africa and Asia. Notably, both the city and the ship housed people of diverse ethnic backgrounds united by the same state and cultural tradition.
By now, the ideology of the Russian world had encompassed all eastern Slavs bound by common heritage.
Of particular interest is the perspective of historian Nikolai Kostomarov. For him, the Russian world consisted primarily of two major nationalities: the Great Russians and the South Russians (referred to today as Ukrainians). While not explicitly spelt out, this configuration left space for a potential third group (potentially Belarusians). Kostomarov envisioned the Russian world as a harmonious blend of these nationalities. While such an approach might be viewed today as colonial or imperialistic, in that era, it could have represented a relatively liberal standpoint. Importantly, Kostomarov displayed great respect for Ukrainian history and culture in his interpretations.
By the 1860s, the term "Russian world" had evolved into a central motto among the Slavophiles, particularly prominent in Moscow. Konstantin Leontyev, a 19th century philosopher, described their ideal as a “union between the Russian world and the autocracy: fostering Russian song, customs, fervent faith, and Orthodoxy; upholding family morals characterized by inner freedom, joy, and love.” Although this ideal seemed unattainable and more of an abstract concept than a practical program, it became an aspirational goal guiding actions, permeating various aspects of life.
By now, the ideology of the Russian world had taken on a defined shape, encompassing all eastern Slavs bound by common heritage and culture. Its appeal extended to neighboring peoples without established statehood, stressing loyalty over assimilation. While the Orthodox faith held a significant place in shaping this world, it didn't solely define its distinct character.
The Russian world is perceived as eternal and impervious to change; it sees external influences as detrimental. Its primary historical objective is the establishment of a robust national state, a realm where only autocracy can prevail, making it incompatible with democratic principles. There exists an inherent discord between the West and this world – the West struggles to comprehend or embrace it, leading to perpetual animosity. Despite this tension, the existence of the Russian world is deemed essential for the betterment of humanity, and its victory in conflicts against the West is believed to ultimately benefit the West itself. This perspective aligns with the messianic aspirations inherited from the third Rome.
During the reigns of Alexander III and Nicholas II, the Russian world would become an integral component of the state's ideology.
President Putin sits in the review stand with veterans at the start of the 77th annual Victory Day military parade
Mikhail Metzel/Kremlin Pool/Planet Pix/ZUMA
Following the 1917 revolution, visions of the Russian world survived primarily among emigrants, often tinged with a sense of nostalgia. The poet Mikhail Kuzmin, in his 1934 diary entry from Leningrad, expressed apprehension that the Russian world had “transformed into something one could be captivated by, akin to Crete and Mycenae, yet challenging to sustain in reality.”
To be sure, this doesn't imply that the Bolsheviks were unaffected by previous ideologies. The establishment of the Third Communist International in Soviet Union after the Bolshevik revolution involved an alliance of communist parties from various nations, aspiring to institute Soviet power globally.
Scholars have extensively analyzed Bolshevism as a messianic doctrine, a distortion of Christian faith: Bolshevik ideology aimed to construct an earthly realm of goodness and truth without end. Since its inception, the USSR viewed itself as a distinctive state upholding the most accurate, essentially the sole correct ideology, destined to lead the world toward an inevitable bright future. Smaller and distant entities, like Orthodox Georgia or socialist Mongolia, seemed inconsequential within the grand narrative of the only Orthodox kingdom on earth, the Moscow kingdom.
World War II marked a shift in ideology from Bolshevik messianism to the concept of the Russian world.
The numerical coincidence of "third" in both Third Rome and Third Communist International may seem arbitrary, yet there's a symbolic interpretation: the first two Rome-Internationals were akin to trial phases, while the third was viewed as definitive, decisive, and global.
World War II marked a shift in ideology from Bolshevik messianism to the concept of the Russian world. Stalin's leadership realized the potency of national sentiments over Marxist ideals in mobilizing people. Consequently, the USSR adopted similar notions about the Russian world as those embraced by the Russian Empire under the Slavophiles, albeit presented in a somewhat modified manner.
Notably, during the late 1940s, while the Soviet Union was conducting an anti-cosmopolitan campaign, Ivan Ilyin (a favorite reference for Vladimir Putin) penned articles about a distinct Russian civilization, differing from official Soviet propaganda in its sharp disapproval of the Soviet system. Yet, when critiquing Western civilization as utilitarian and spiritually lacking while praising the unique Russian spirit, the rhetoric of both Stalin's propaganda and Ilyin's writings bore striking similarities.
Russia's President Vladimir Putin stands behind a rostrum during a Victory Day parade
Greatness over development
Amid Russia's resurgence from attempts to catch up with the West, many find it offensive and wish to assert that it's not about catching up but following a distinct, singular path where Russia has long surpassed others.
The Third Rome, the Third International, and the the Russian world all share a common element: the exaltation of Russia's greatness. These ideologies have gained traction precisely when there's growing awareness and criticism in some sections of Russia's serious challenges and deficiencies.
Proving that we are no less than the West was palpable.
Russia's situation isn't unique. As the researcher Dmitry Travin illustrates in his works, the notion of a distinct path (Sonderweg) was popular in Germany during early and mid-19th century, a time when the country was fragmented into numerous principalities. While Britain and France built colonial empires and focused on technological advancements and social institutions, Germany saw itself as a nation of thinkers and creators rather than traders and politicians. This sentiment, as Pushkin noted, was brought to Russia from "foggy Germany," infusing an “impassioned and somewhat peculiar spirit” into Russian culture during that period.
One might also consider Japan and Turkey, countries that embraced Western culture later than Peter's Russia. In both states, the strong sentiment of "proving that we are no less than the West" was palpable. In Japan, this sentiment bred a policy of aggression, and while nationalist rhetoric and opposition to the west continues to be a powerful force in Turkish politics, history shows that these attitudes can be transformed. For instance, following World War II, Japan shifted its focus from waging war to excelling in workshops and laboratories, achieving remarkable progress.
Amidst the weariness with reforms in Russia during the 1990s, nationalist philosophers like Alexander Dugin championed ideas and wrote texts that appeared detached from reality and were deemed impractical by many. However, by the mid-2000s, when the Kremlin sought a galvanizing ideology, it found nothing more fitting than a modernized version of the Russian world proposed by Dugin and his ilk, eventually pushing Russia into conflict.
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