The Economist has an article on quasi-official modern Russian uses of Byzantium that caught my attention. The article describes the efforts of certain reputed Putin loyalists to marshal Byzantine history in support of the Kremlin, which is hardly the first time a head of state in Russia and his hangers-on have drawn on the legacy of the empire to bolster their own stature. Of course, the Putin supporters have adopted elements in Byzantine history that appear to justify Putin’s regime, and these are necessarily oversimplified and selective examples. Nonetheless, there are certain older lines of interpretation in Byzantine studies that have made it possible for the Putin loyalists to appropriate Byzantine history in the service of the Russian government.
In recent decades, these interpretations have come under attack precisely because of their implications for modern politics. Where strong emperors were once lauded as scourges of “feudalism” and fragmentation, some see their concentration of power, their deployment of propaganda and their exercise of control over public life in a more sinister light. Comparisons with the Soviet Union, while overwrought, appear from time to time in important monographs.
The article says:
The television film seems to be in that genre. In it, Father Tikhon is transported in full attire from a snow-swept church to Istanbul and Venice, where he exposes the West as a “genetic” hater of both Byzantium and its spiritual heir: Russia. The Byzantine empire’s rich and cultured capital, Constantinople, was the envy of dark and aggressive barbarians from the West, who looted it during the fourth crusade in 1204. Modern Western capitalism, argues Father Tikhon, is built on Byzantine loot and Jewish usury.
In this version, Byzantium’s first mistake was to trust the West (represented in the film by a cloaked figure in a sinister, long-nosed Venetian mask) and surrender the commanding heights of the economy—trading and customs collection—to Western entrepreneurs and greedy oligarchs. Using a term from today’s Russia, Father Tikhon talks of some “stabilisation fund” when describing the achievements of one Byzantine emperor, Basil II, godfather to Russia’s Prince Vladimir, who crushed separatists and sent oligarchs to prison. But even great emperors could have weak successors. (The film was made before Mr Putin chose Dmitry Medvedev as his successor, to be endorsed by voters in the election on March 2nd.)
The film’s usage of modern words and imagery is so conspicuous that the moral cannot escape a Russian viewer. Instead of sticking to its traditions, Byzantium tried to reform and modernise, as the West demanded, and it paid the price. Worst of all, the West infiltrated Byzantium with harmful, individualistic ideas, which destroyed the core values of the empire—so the people lost faith in their rulers.
The image of Byzantium presented here is, of course, distorted in important ways, but still draws on classic interpretations that can be found in The History of the Byzantine State by Ostrogorsky. In Ostrogorsky’s view, Basil II combated the “powerful” (dynatoi) on behalf of the “poor” (ptochoi) and punished the alienation of revenue-bearing lands to these powerful aristocratic landlords, and he ruled as a military and expansionist emperor. This has a certain obvious appeal to a nationalist authoritarian government that has made a show of reining in its wealthy oligarchs (along with everyone else).
When Ostrogorsky was developing his general theory of the decline of the empire, which he identified as the result of decentralization, loss of lands and revenues to the aristocracy (which he dubbed feudalism), the predominance of Italian mercantile powers and the disappearance of the Byzantine army, consolidating power in the hands of the emperor appeared to be the way to stabilize state institutions. As others have noted since, Ostrogorsky’s was a history of the Byzantine state, which led him, as it can lead historians with a focus on institutional history, to valorize the institution-builders and damn those who neglect or undermine institutions. There has since been a backlash against this, and it is perhaps ironic that it was the great Russian Byzantinist Kazhdan, coming out of the Soviet Union, who promoted the critique of this latent admiration for strong emperors and a strong state apparatus. To summarize rather crudely, what Ostrogorsky judged to be prudent reforms of economic and social abuses by the aristocracy could be seen in recent times as the source of arbitrary and repressive government from the center.
Basil II has long been a favorite of modern nationalists and empire-builders. At the time of the Macedonian Struggle and the Balkan Wars, Greek irredentists deployed Basil II (“the Bulgar-slayer”) as the exemplar of Greek leadership and victorious military struggle over the Bulgars/Bulgarians. Kostis Palamas, the great demoticist Greek poet of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, included Basil II in the conclusion of his important work, The king’s flute, and Penelope Delta authored a popular history of Basil’s reign that identified Basil’s victory and the legendary atrocities he carried out against the Bulgar army after Kleidion with the modern Greek cause in Macedonia. In their flight of fancy, some Greek propaganda posters even depicted Constantine I as Bulgaroktonos. By comparison, the current Russian uses of the emperor and Byzantine history more generally are frustrating for those who are trying to emphasize Byzantium’s connections with western Europe, but they are also somewhat less threatening.
The greatest irony of the Russian deployment of Byzantine political history is that Russia’s period of modern absolutist, centralist rule began with the advent of Westernization in the late 17th and early 18th centuries and has literally nothing to do with Byzantium. The “Caesaropapism” of which Byzantium is sometimes still accused did not exist in the Orthodox world—the closest thing to the caricature of Byzantine church-state relations was the post-Petrine position of the Synod as effectively an arm of the Russian state. It is quite remarkable that the most eloquent proponents of a starkly pro-Orthodox, anti-Western, romantic Russian nationalism of the kind hinted at in the description of the film in question were the Slavophiles of the mid-19th century, who deplored the introduction of absolutist rule and desired the return of a weaker, pre-Petrine monarchy that respected the power of the boyars. Putinism has made a weird fusion of the anti-Western critique of the Slavophiles with a post-Petrine Westernizing centralism, masking the contradiction with the references to the Byzantine past.