Three Romes: A Stark Warning
The Russian Monk Philotheus c. 1520
From an Orthodox point of view, Old Rome fell when it lost the Orthodox Faith and cut itself off from the Church in the eleventh century. The Second Rome, Constantinople, fell when it was conquered by Muslims in the fifteenth century. As for the Third Rome, Moscow, it fell to militant ‘humanist’ atheism in 1917. However, such simple notions need closer examination, for they conceal greater truths from which we can still learn for our benefit. These truths are all concerned with the question ‘Why?’
Why did the First Rome fall?
Old Rome fell, because it saw in itself the continuation of the old pagan Roman Empire, the leaders of its Church substituting themselves for the old pagan Roman Emperors, who had claimed universal jurisdiction. This imperialism was taken up by newly-converted Germanic peoples and imposed ideologically through the teaching of the filioque. This was a doctrinal heresy, added to the Creed of the Universal Church, which made the Popes of Rome substitutes for Christ, from Whom, according to their novel doctrine, proceeded the Spirit of Truth and all authority. Thus, arrogant Germanic nationalism, added to historic Roman narcissism, caused the Schism of the West, which ripened and fell from the Tree of the Church in the eleventh century. The new faith was called ‘Roman Catholicism’, a contradiction in terms, for something merely local, ‘Roman’, cannot in its local form also be universal, or ‘catholic’. The essence of the fall was imperial ‘Romanism’, what can be called doctrinal nationalism (1).
Why did the Second Rome fall?
New Rome, Constantinople, came soon after its foundation to be dominated by Greek culture and language. Again and again, the political centralism of the Greek-speaking Emperors and Empresses in Constantinople led them into both heresy and brutality, especially in the form of blinding its enemies. The imposition of this centralism led to the alienation of other races. Thus, Persian Orthodox were led to fall into Nestorianism, which spread to Afghanistan and China, meaning that the first Christians there were not Orthodox. In turn, Armenians, Copts and Syrians fell into Monophysitism, not necessarily because they were Monophysites, but because of their sense of outraged nationalism.
The fact that the Greek elite of Constantinople had already alienated these peoples only encouraged the spread of Islam. The fact they also showed such contempt for the ‘barbarian’ Western peoples did nothing to prevent their fall into heresy. Even Orthodox Bulgarians and Serbs at times rose up against the imperialistic injustices of Constantinople. The racism, or ‘phyletism’ of the Greek cultural elite, who even called other Orthodox ‘barbarians’ (2), led to their willingness to compromise the Orthodox Faith at the Council of Florence in 1439 and become Uniats. Any sacrifice could be made, provided that the elite could keep its racial heritage. The result was that very swiftly the Second Rome fell to the Muslims, the Lord allowing the Empire to be taken away. The essence of the fall was something that the Apostle Paul condemned, Hellenism, what can be called ‘ethnic nationalism’.
Why did the Third Rome fall?
After the fall of the Second Rome, there remained only one source of power in the Orthodox Commonwealth and that was in Moscow. With the First Rome fallen into doctrinal error, the Second fallen to the ‘Hagarenes’ after compromising the Orthodox Faith, responsibility for Orthodoxy fell to Moscow. However, this responsibility soon became mingled with nationalism. Tragically, those who had a broader vision of the Orthodox world, like Patriarch Nikon in the seventeenth century, were deposed and from 1700 on the Russian Church found itself controlled by a Department of State on the Protestant model. The aim was to reduce Orthodoxy to a mere national ritualism of outward observance.
Then the understanding of the Church Fathers was submerged beneath the knowledge of German philosophy and Western technology, which together formed the bedrock of the new centralizing Russian national chauvinism and its imposition of Muscovite language, culture and customs, even in ancient Orthodox lands and regions like Georgia, Belarus, Galicia and other border areas. This inevitably led to the fall of 1917. Soviet Communism preached the supremacy of Russia without Orthodoxy, replacing the Third Rome by the Third International. It replaced icon banners with portraits of its demons and in the centre of the Third Rome enshrined the ‘relics’ of its 'immortal' founder, Lenin. His forename, Vladimir, meaning ‘the ruler of the world’, echoed that of St Vladimir, who had baptized Russia nearly a thousand years before.
At that time, millions of Russian Orthodox were massacred by other Russian ‘Orthodox’. The difference was that the former were practising Orthodox, the latter were apostates and had quite lost their Faith. The symbol of them was Stalin, the apostate Orthodox seminarian, who became probably the greatest mass murderer in all human history. The problem was that the Orthodox Faith had for them been reduced to a mere external rite or ideology, for which an easier ideology, promising paradise on earth without God, could be substituted. The Communists behaved like Orthodox, but without Christ, i.e. anti-Orthodox. And that is what they were, Christless, and so devilful. The essence of the fall was externalism, what can be called ‘ritual nationalism’.
The Third Rome and the Future
It may be argued that there is one vital difference between the first Two Romes and the Third. The First has not repented, but persists in its errors. The Second is still occupied, partly due to its ever-willingness to compromise the Faith, as we have again recently seen in Istanbul. The Third, however, is in the process of repenting. What truth is there in this argument?
True, Communism fell fifteen years ago. However, the scars which Communism left are everywhere clearly visible. Everywhere, alcoholism from the dread Polish vodka, everywhere, sexually transmitted diseases and abortion, everywhere, ecological catastrophe, everywhere, crime, injustice and intimidation, everywhere, the rule of the Mafia (3). It took seventy-five years for Communism to fail so utterly. It may take seventy-five years for repentance for Orthodoxy to work so utterly. Today, over 27,000 churches are open in Russia - a miracle when compared to the 6,000 churches open fifteen years ago. But we shall only be assured of popular repentance, when there are 100,000 churches open in Russia. There is still so far to go. We are only just beginning.
Thus, human-beings have compromised the Faith brought by the Son of God, with three sorts of nationalism. Firstly, they corrupted the teachings of the Church, directly contradicting the words of Christ in the Gospel, that the Spirit proceeds from the Father (Jn. 15, 26). This was doctrinal nationalism. Then they sold their Faith for the mess of pottage of their race. This was ethnic nationalism. Then they substituted mere external ritual for the Faith. This was ritual nationalism. And yet by virtue of the repentance and sacrifice of the New Martyrs and Confessors, the Third Rome has, miraculously, been allowed to rise again. Crucifixion is followed by Resurrection. However, this rising again is only for a time. Here, there is a stark warning. If Russia makes her Orthodoxy once more into a mere national ritual, she will lose it again, and this time for ever.
All the best elements in Russia’s history worked not nationally, but internationally. They understood that Russia’s responsibility was multinational and multilingual. Whether it was the wonderful mix of Russian, Bulgarian, Greek, Syrian, Hungarian, Serbian and others in Kievan Russia, St Anthony and St Macarius the Romans living the ascetic life in Russia’s forests, whether it was St Stephen of Perm converting the Zyrians, St Solomonia the Tartar, Patriarch Nikon, ‘Russian, but whose faith and religion are Greek’, with his international Monastery at New Jerusalem outside Moscow, whether it was St Herman of Alaska, converting Inuit and Eskimo, St Nicholas of Tokyo, converting the Japanese, or St John of Shanghai, celebrating in Greek, Chinese, Dutch, French or English, they all understood that Orthodoxy is not a national cult, but a Commonwealth, of which God has put Russia in charge, and that if Russia is not worthy of that charge, it will be taken away from her.
Thus, when contemporary Russia builds and opens new churches in China, Iceland, Korea, Italy, Vietnam, Holland, South America, India and Cuba, and translates the Gospel and the catechism into many languages, from Chinese to those of Siberian peoples, she does well. But she must also realize that her responsibilities are not only to her own ethnic peoples, but to World Orthodoxy. Local Orthodoxy can quickly sour into a narrow chauvinism, if it is not combined with love of the Orthodox Commonwealth. May the New Russia learn from the errors and betrayals of the First and Second Romes, but may she also learn from the errors of the Third Rome. The Orthodox Christian Faith cannot be reduced to a mere ritual or language, for what is important is its inner content. Let us hear much less about ‘The Third Rome’, and much more about ‘Holy Russia’, which is the defining essence of the spiritual meaning of Russia. For it is to the example of Holy Russia, and to no other, that we must all turn and repent.
November/ 8 December 2006
1. This is the error repeated by all Western European leaders ever since. Thus, to take a local and contemporary example, the failed moralist and politician and anti-Serb warmonger, Mr Blair, considers that some vague and undefined State ideology, which he calls ‘Britishness’, must be considered to be more important than every religion. So, he has called for all who live in the United Kingdom to put every religion and culture after ‘Britishness’. It seems extraordinary that this arrogant lowland Scotsman should admonish, in his usual Calvinistic dictatorial manner, fifty million English people, telling them that they can no longer put Christ first. Is this a call to martyrdom?
2. See for example pp. 284-285, 345, 354-356 and 366-367 in The Byzantine Commonwealth by Dimitri Obolensky, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London 1971.
3. As seen in the recent assassination in London of the spy Litvinenko, poisoned possibly by expatriate Russian-Jewish Mafia oligarchs, who made huge fortunes from the ‘privatization’ of Russian national assets in the 1990s, under the alcoholic President Yeltsin.