Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

How Russia encroached on the Byzantine Empire

In this situation, Den’s historical book Return to Tsarhorod is very topical, for it can bring Ukraine back onto the European stage without “intermediaries”
30 November, 2015 - 18:01

On November 25, the Russian Federation’s State Duma endorsed the idea to return to Christians the Cathedral of Saint Sophia of Constantinople, which has been the Muslim mosque of Hagia Sophia for almost five centuries. In particular, Sergey Gavrilov, a Communist Party of Russia MP, coordinator of the inter-faction parliamentary group for the protection of Christian values, issued this call to Turkey. “We expect the Turkish side to make a friendly step – to return St. Sophia’s Cathedral to the Christian church,” he said. “The Russian side is prepared to offer material assistance and involve the best Russian restorers and academics in the restoration of an ecumenical Christian monument. This step would help Turkey and Islam to show that good will is above politics.”

All this looks funny, to put it mildly. The imperial-minded Russians must have decided to recall the good old times, when their ancestors used to assume the role of the defenders of Christians in the Ottoman Empire in the 19th century. But this empire no longer exists. Present-day Turkey is in fact a nation state, where Muslim Turks obviously dominate, which, incidentally, is not the case in Russia, a conglomerate of diverse peoples that adhere to different faiths.

It also looks funny that a communist MP is making this statement. It is no secret that the current communists have long been serving the Putin regime and saying what their bosses tell them. But this regime’s spin doctors might have understood that it was not a good idea to put this “original idea” into the mouth of the communists who once made quite an effort to ruin Christian (and not only Christian) shrines in Russia and other parts of the USSR and the so-called “socialist camp.”

Of course, the communist Gavrilov’s statement will remain just a statement, but it may produce an adverse effect from the viewpoint of Russian leaders. Will some Muslims, especially in Turkey, view this statement as an attempt to rob them of their shrine, as a new “crusade” of sorts? For the former Byzantine Sophia has become a shrine for them, known as Hagia Sophia. And will the Muslim countries, above all Turkey, try to use the Islamic factor to ruin Russia? For a large number of Muslims live on its territory, and this number grows with every passing year.

The Russian imperial mentality is a set of “borrowings,” if not thefts. The builders of the Russian Empire, among whom there were a lot of Ukrainians, renounced their real legacy – political traditions of the Golden Horde. Instead, they appropriated the legacy of Kyivan Rus’ – it was the “handiwork” of Ukrainian intellectuals who went en masse to serve in Muscovy-Russia in the 17th-18th centuries. We can recall the Kyivan Synopsis which “proved” that Russian tsars had descended from Kyivan Rus’ rulers and became a history textbook in Muscovy. We can also recall the historical and political works of Feofan Prokopovych, et al.

But it is not only the Ancient Rus’ legacy the Russian imperial mentality was feeding on – it also used the legacy of the Byzantine (to be more exact, Eastern Roman) Empire, from which Christianity and some political and cultural traditions came to Kyivan Rus’. Hence is the formula “Moscow, the third Rome.” It was claimed that Muscovy-Russia was a continuation of Byzantine (“the second Rome’s”) political traditions, which had in turn come from “the first Rome,” i.e., the ancient Roman Empire. Even the double-headed eagle, the Russian Empire’s heraldic emblem, was borrowed from the Byzantine Empire. In the 19th century, Russia laid claim to the “Byzantine legacy” by interfering into the affairs of the Ottoman Empire which had in fact borrowed this legacy, going to war in order to liberate the Orthodox Balkan peoples from the Turks, and even trying to seize the Bosporus and the Dardanelles.

Since then, a lot of water has flown under the bridges of the Bosporus and the Dardanelles and the world’s political map has changed essentially. But it turns out that imperial-minded Russians are still nurturing a “Byzantine dream.” This made itself known when the Russian-Turkish relations were aggravated because the Turkish military downed a Russian warplane that intruded into their territory. Accordingly, this triggered an anti-Turkish hysteria in Russia.

A popular wisdom springs to mind: “If God wants to punish someone, He deprives him of reason.” Maybe, God has really deprived the current mainstays of imperial Russia of reason?