Russia’s Revival of “The Third Rome”?

By Vakhtang Kiziriya, Contributor 

According to Filofei’s envisioned doctrine, the fledgling Muscovite state was bound to assume the legacy of a failed Rome and Byzantine Empire to become a spiritual and political leader of the world.

The mythical concept of the Russian state as the the Third Rome or the messianic Christian Empire rising to fulfill an ancient prophesy appeared in a series of letters of an obscure Russian monk, Filofei, in the16th century. According to Filofei’s envisioned doctrine, the fledgling Muscovite state was bound to assume the legacy of a failed Rome and Byzantine Empire to become a spiritual and political leader of the world. Grand princes of Russia picked up the idea to legitimize their efforts to centralize political power and expand the state at the expense of neighboring principalities. Consequently, Muscovite Princes became Tsars of Russia and Muscovite principality grew into the Russian Empire.

However, the Russian revolution of 1917 replaced Russian Empire with the USSR and seemingly buried the doctrine of the Third Rome. Interestingly, Soviet ideology borrowed and adopted some of the popularly familiar themes such as the image of the Orthodox Russia as an island of righteousness in the sea of wickedness. For instance, the “siege mentality” generated by the state aimed to promote a public image of Soviet Russia as an island of freedom, race and class equality beset by the Capitalist powers of the world. However, the Russian Orthodox Church (R.O.C.) and its ideology remained suppressed under the regime of the Communist party of the Soviet Union (CPSU).

The departure of Soviet ideology that came as a result of dissolution of the CPSU in 1991 and subsequent collapse of the USSR, created an ideological void which the leaders of the newly emerged Russian Federation sought to fill up. Curiously, aspirations of the Russian establishment to elevate geographically shrunken country to the status of a world power to reckon with resulted in revitalization of centuries Old Russian paradigm. By 2014, the US International Security Advisory Board observed “President Putin casting himself in major speeches as leader of forces of ‘traditional’ as opposed to Western values, coupled with a near-mystic stress on the special mission of the Russian people, in language reminiscent of historic characterization of Moscow as the Third Rome.”

The year 2014 was also marked by the Russian annexation of Crimea, an integral part of Ukraine and the beginning of Russian aggression in Donbass region of Ukraine. Analysts attributed overall success of the Russian military action to an effective application of hybrid warfare methods capitalizing on the weaknesses of international law and regime of global governance. Assertive and aggressive politics of the Russian Federation toward sovereignties established on a post-soviet space required legitimization by a sound state ideology. The appropriation of Third Rome geopolitical concept makes sense considering that R.O.C today is a “soft power arm of the Kremlin” and one of the most influential political actors both in the Russian political scene and on post-soviet space.

Evidently, strategic aims and principles of new Russian state were outlined almost two decades prior to the Russian-Ukrainian conflict of 2014. Alexander Dugin, the founder of Russia’s Eurasian movement,  author of dozens of books on Russian geopolitics, close associate of President Putin and allegedly the brain behind Russia’s  annexation of Crimea, explicitly stated in his 1997 book The Basics of Geopolitics, that “the new Eurasian empire will be constructed on a fundamental principle of the common enemy: the rejection of Atlanticism, strategic control of the USA, and the refusal to allow liberal values to dominate us. This common civilizational impulse will be the basis of a political and strategic union.”

The rejection of liberal values stressed by A. Dugin, apparently manifested in gradual dismantling of political opposition, civil society and repression against LGBT communities in Russia.  The attack on civil society became apparent with passing of the “foreign agent law” in 2012 and the ensued “witch hunt” of NGOs.  The “foreign agent” legislation carries very derogatory connotation according to Russian cultural vocabulary and provides legal means to silence NGOs critical of the government policies and actions.  Another aspect of suppression is a long list of assassinations and “framing” of prominent leaders and activists of human rights organizations in Russia.  Consequently, weakened civil society could not effectively respond to the anti-gay legislation of 2013 and news of  atrocious persecutions of LGBT members in the Russian Federation that became public in 2015-2017.

Persecuting LGBT members under the banner of protection of traditional as opposed to liberal values, aims to mobilize patriarchal constituency of post-soviet sovereignties against pro-Western political course and to bring them in alignment with ideals of Third Rome. Either this brutal tactic aimed to capitalize on fears and frustrations of people still struggling to shed away the legacy of soviet regimes will work for benefit of the Kremlin government, remains to be seen. Alarming is a lack of adequate response by the international community.

Once upon a time, the European scene witnessed gradual rise of a regime underpinned by exclusive ideology of greatness and halfhearted response of the international community. The Anschluss of Austria by the mentioned regime, known as Third Reich produced arguably more response than annexation of Crimea by the so-called Third Rome. Perhaps the explanation is in the following phrase written by the retired lieutenant-colonel Ralph Peters in 2004:  “Swift intervention is one of the rarest acts of international community. The world reacts to horror, but refuses to anticipate it.”

Author: Vakhtang Kiziriya is Master’s student at the Division of Global Affairs, Rutgers University- Newark.


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