Constantinople and Moscow: Two Churches, One Faith, and John Meyendorff

Historians increasingly attribute the origins of the modern West’s global ascendancy to Western Europeans’ superiority in technology and war making.  Indeed, in the case of Western Christian states, like Islamic polities in the Near East, the spread of their power and cultures was the direct result of military might and forcible, violent expansion.  For instance, just as the diffusion of the Arab Muslims’ faith and civilization in the Old World stemmed directly from invasion and conquest of foreign lands and peoples during the Middle Ages, the spread of Western power, culture, and Christianity across the New World, and later much of Africa and Asia, was accompanied by the brutal colonization, enslavement, and exploitation of foreign peoples and lands during more recent centuries.

In one of the most significant and enduring books on the expansion of Orthodox Christianity as a faith and civilization, Byzantium and the Rise of Russia, written by the late John Meyendorff, we are presented with an historical experience that stands in stark contrast to the Islamic and Western examples of cultural diffusion.  Today, Russia’s aggregate “historic lands” are home to the majority of the world’s 300 million Orthodox Christians.  Arguably, Russian society owes its faith, much of its culture, and perhaps even its early survival to Byzantium and its civilization.  Yet, Byzantine civilization and Orthodox Christianity did not come to the Russians through conquest and subjugation.

Precisely because the Byzantine-Russian historical phenomenon sheds light on the distinctions between different patterns of civilizational expansion, Meyendorff’s study is important for evaluating how the culture and religion of a society help shape its interaction with other peoples.  With its relevance to these larger aspects of global history obvious, Meyendorff’s book remains above all a seminal contribution to both Russian and Byzantine scholarship.  Indeed, first published in 1981 by Cambridge University Press, Byzantium and the Rise of Russia: A Study of Byzantino-Russian Relations in the Fourteenth Century is universally recognized as the definitive work on its subject.

John Meyendorff was one of the world’s most respected and prolific authorities on Orthodoxy and Byzantium.  From the time of his first publication in 1949 to his death in 1992, he authored more than 30 books and some 285 articles.  Born in France in 1926 to a tsarist Russian émigré family, and descended from Baltic aristocracy (among whom he was known as Ivan Feofilovich Baron von Meyendorff), he was raised near Paris and attended French schools.  Meyendorff completed religious studies at the St. Sergius Orthodox Theological Institute in Paris in 1949, and received his doctorate from the Sorbonne in 1958.  Ordained an Orthodox priest, Father Meyendorff immigrated to the United States in 1959 in order to take up a position as Professor of Church History and Patristics at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary in Crestwood, New York.  In addition to his post at St. Vladimir’s Seminary, from 1967 he held a joint appointment in Byzantine History at Fordham University.  He also enjoyed longtime affiliation with, and played a very active role in the intellectual life of, Harvard University’s Center for Byzantine Studies at Dumbarton Oaks, in Washington, D.C.  Both professional historian and theologian, John Meyendorff treated his two fields as interrelated, producing a corpus of work that was as original and distinguished as it was immense.

In Byzantium and the Rise of Russia, John Meyendorff argues that, through their Christian civilization, the medieval Greeks played a decisive role in shaping early Russia’s culture, formal institutions, and, ultimately, political life.  The geography and economy of the Black Sea region made contacts inevitable between Russians and Greeks.   From their principality’s capital in Kiev, the early Russian/Ukrainian/Belorussian people(s)—the “Rus”— dominated what is now most of European Russia, as well as Belarus and Ukraine.  Like other peoples who coveted the incomparable wealth and grandeur of Byzantium, the pagan “Rus” assaulted the empire, and Constantinople itself, on more than one occasion.  With time, however, conflict subsided and gradually gave way to friendship as the vibrant, creative, and alluring world of Byzantium drew Russia into a common civilizational space radiating from Constantinople—a cultural sphere often described as the Byzantine Commonwealth. 

On this phenomenon, Meyendorff wrote that, “‘New Rome’ on the Bosphorus was the unquestionable center of the civilized Christian world.  With a population close to a million, with its imperial palaces and hippodrome and, above all, its ‘Great Church’ of St. Sophia—by far the biggest and most magnificent building in the medieval world—Byzantium exercised on all the Slavic ‘barbarians’ a fascination with which no Christian center of the West could compete.  Thus it was able to win their allegiance not only by the force of arms, but by making them acknowledge the superiority of its Christian civilization.” 

Russia’s place in the Byzantine world order was cemented with the country’s embrace of Orthodox Christianity.  As a guest of Emperor Constantine VII, the Kievan princess Olga personally adopted Christianity during a visit to Constantinople in 957.  Olga’s grandson Vladimir followed her example.  Moreover, Prince Vladimir not only received baptism himself, he promoted Orthodoxy as Russia’s state religion, thus beginning in 988 the country’s official Christianization.  For the Byzantines, the “baptism of the Russians” signified their integration into a universal Christian structure unified through the imperial supremacy of Constantinople.  Indeed, Russia’s subsequent cultural and religious dependence upon Constantinople seemed to reaffirm the central role and purpose of the empire and the emperor in the “Christian inhabited earth,” understood as the oikoumene.

Meyendorff posits that, “since the adoption of Christianity as the state religion of the Kievan principality, the influence of Byzantine civilization upon Russia became the determining factor of Russian civilization.”  In this regard, the author proposes that the very extent of Byzantine influence on Russia should be understood by a consideration of the three main, essential elements which, in combination, determined the character and life of Byzantine society and civilization: Roman political tradition; Greek language and culture; and the Orthodox Christian Church and faith.

Obviously the connections between Constantinople and Kiev that existed before 988 acquired an entirely new significance when Russia accepted from Byzantium the Greeks’ religion, their ecclesiastical hierarchy, their literature in translation, and their art.  In this area, Meyendorff makes clear the vital contrasts between the religious conversion of Western Germanic peoples by Rome and the adoption of Orthodox Christianity by the Russians and other Slavs through an evangelizing Constantinople.  Whereas Byzantium accepted cultural and linguistic pluralism as a reality of the oikoumene, the increasingly authoritarian and centralizing tendencies of the papacy left no possibility for the development of indigenous literary languages and corresponding styles of art in the West. 

Indeed, while the papacy insisted upon linguistic and cultural uniformity and submission to a rigid Latin model in the West, Christians in the Orthodox East were free to worship and express themselves in their own literary languages and creative modes of expression.  In short, Byzantine cultural and religious influence, no matter how decisive, was not equivalent to domination.  To look to just one example, Meyendorff notes that as “faithful disciples of the Greeks,” the Russians, in their acceptance of Orthodoxy, “took for granted its doctrines and canons, but they also learned from the Greeks that doctrines could be expressed in liturgical beauty, in music, in the visual arts, and in patterns of ascetic behavior.  Those aspects of Christianity they loved most and developed very early in their own indigenous ways.”

In the realm of political thought, Meyendorff notes that from ancient Rome, Byzantium inherited the ideal and goal of a universal empire, which would supersede conflict between nations and establish world peace.  Inasmuch as this imperial goal was merged with the Christian aspiration for Christ’s universal kingdom, the Byzantines were able to make the distinction between their empire, albeit Christian, and the actual Kingdom of God.  Out of this worldview, the Byzantines produced a refined, cosmopolitan theory of Church and state, or symphonia.  One of the foundational principles of symphonia posited that “the first duty of the emperor consisted in protecting and sheltering the Church, which alone could give legitimacy to his imperial claims and reality to his responsibilities, as the promoter of the apostolic faith and the guardian of Christian truth in the life of human society.” 

Because the Church was universal, the empire and the emperor—entrusted as the latter was with the protection of the oikoumene—were in principle equally universal.  Consequently, even in Christian lands where the emperor did not exercise direct imperial authority, it was understood that such areas or polities accepted the principle of a universal Christian empire, and remained within that system through the Byzantine Commonwealth, or civilizational space. 

This acknowledgment of the universality of the Christian Roman Empire and the imperial supremacy of Constantinople did not compromise the autonomy or independence of Christian states outside the empire.  Instead, it helped establish the legitimacy of such states by formalizing their relationship with the acknowledged imperial and civilizational center of Constantinople.  This very model, in fact, characterized the relationship between Byzantium and the Christian West as well, at least before the beginning of papal pretensions to ecclesiastical supremacy in the ninth century.

The implications of this ideology were monumental for the Byzantine-Russian relationship.  If the ideal principle of a universal Christian empire had any practical significance, it was realized primarily through the Orthodox Church.  Indeed, precisely because Russia was never a part of the Byzantine Empire, “its acceptance of the Byzantine political worldview and of Constantinople’s cultural leadership represents the greatest of all spiritual conquests of the Byzantine Empire.  This conquest is so much more extraordinary that it never involved direct political dependence and was therefore accomplished almost exclusively by the Church.” 

Despite the unifying impulses of the Byzantine worldview, Russia itself was soon torn apart by a long series of civil wars and struggles for power.  Beginning in the middle of the eleventh century, the large, unified, highly developed state of the “Rus”—the Grand Principality of Kiev—fragmented over the next almost two centuries into no fewer than 64 principalities.  Severely divided, the Russian lands were quickly overrun and conquered by the Mongols, who destroyed Kiev in 1240.  Although many of the Russian principalities remained intact, they were reduced to petty vassal states, humiliatingly forced to pay tribute and provide military and other resources to the Mongols.  The Russians’ political freedom came to an end.  This condition would last until the vassal principality of Moscow would shift its policy, from cooperation to resistance, and lead a successful campaign of liberation against the Mongols in 1380.

Meyendorff regards the fourteenth century as a decisive period in Byzantium’s critical role in the development of Russia.  Despite the political and military weakness of fourteenth-century Byzantium, the energy of the Orthodox Church and Greek culture were, paradoxically, ascendant.  Indeed, throughout the period of Mongol rule over the “Rus,” as before and for some time thereafter, Byzantium exerted a continuous cultural and spiritual impact on Russia.  Moreover, inasmuch as the Metropolitan of all Russia—the head of the Russians’ Orthodox Church—remained an appointee of the Byzantine emperor and the Patriarch of Constantinople, the empire’s influence in Russia was direct and significant.  Ironically, Byzantium’s ability to affect developments in the Russian lands, largely through ecclesiastical diplomacy, expanded considerably during the period of Mongol rule. 

The country’s acute political divisions and subjugation under foreign rule left Russia without any unifying institutions, save the Orthodox Church.  Consequently, the Church, with its widespread administrative network and corresponding web of cultural, community, regional, and “national” structures became overarching and indispensable to the Russians’ survival and eventual revival.  The Orthodox Church preserved the memory of a unified, free Russia and championed its restoration as part of the Christian Commonwealth.  Through the Church—the chief agency for Byzantium’s connection to, and influence in, Russia—the Russians received the message that culturally, politically, and religiously, they were part of a wider, universal community. 

John Meyendorff makes it clear that after the Mongol period of rule, the Russians’ political unification into a consolidated state under Moscow’s leadership could not have taken place as it did without the direct influence of the Orthodox Church—and hence indirect, but decisive, role of Byzantium.  Obviously, Moscow’s triumph in the process of Russian national integration cannot be explained by only one factor.  Nevertheless, the eventual relocation of the office of the Metropolitan of all Russia to Moscow after the destruction of Kiev, resulting in the Orthodox Church’s subsequent association with that new assertive principality in the country’s geographic center, figures prominently as a crucial, if not the most important, component in Russia’s unification and rise under Moscow.

John Meyendorff acknowledges that by the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, Western ideas made Byzantine political philosophy increasingly obsolete for many Russians.  Indeed, as early as the fourteenth century the princes of Moscow, although willing to invoke Byzantine principles and imagery when it suited their interests, were actually involved in a decidedly Western, non-universalist, project of building a proto-nation-state.  To complement that goal, Moscow succeeded in securing from Constantinople the elevation of Russia’s historic metropolitanate to an autocephalous patriarchate in 1589. 

Yet, despite the fact that Byzantium had fallen in 1453 and the Patriarchate of Constantinople became captive to the Ottoman Empire, the Patriarchate of Moscow and All Russia—even with its status as the only Orthodox patriarchate free from Muslim occupation, as well as eventually the most populous patriarchal jurisdiction—never sought to claim primacy over Constantinople.  The status of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople as the first among equals was unequivocal in Russia.  Indeed, this was a self-evident principle that even Russia’s ambitious, imperial tsars would not question or challenge.  Instead, Russian tsars and patriarchs alike always recognized the ecumenicity and spiritual aegis of the Patriarch of Constantinople in the Orthodox world.  Clearly, despite the victory of Western ideas in the country’s modern state formation, Byzantine understanding and Orthodox ecclesiastical tradition continued to be revered by both Church and state in both Muscovite and imperial Russia.  

“This deliberate ideological self-limitation of the Russians can be explained by a variety of considerations.  In no way did it prevent the Russian empire from spectacular growth, as a national state.  But precisely because of this national character of the Muscovite tsardom, some deep-seated consciousness kept reminding its leaders that the Byzantine political ideology excluded the right of any nation, as nation, to monopolize the leadership of the universal Orthodox Christian Commonwealth.”  Despite great changes in political and international conditions, this tenet of the Orthodox Church and precept of Byzantine Christian civilization is as relevant today for respecting the special bond between Constantinople and Moscow as it was more than a thousand years ago.  In this regard, the current ecclesiastical posturing and positioning of the Patriarchate of Moscow, a policy undoubtedly coordinated with and likely imposed by the geopolitical architects of the post-Soviet Russian state, represents a dramatic rupture with the historic tradition and ecclesial reality of the global Orthodox Church.

Dr. Alexandros K. Kyrou is Professor of History at Salem State University in Salem, Massachusetts, where he teaches on the Balkans, Byzantium, and the Ottoman Empire.