Three nations — Russia, China and Iran — aim to challenge U.S. claims of moral superiority.
Russian President Vladimir Putin greeted Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill after Putin’s inauguration ceremony in 2012. In mimicry of his tsarist predecessors, Vladimir Putin has restored prestige to the Orthodox Church.
There is much more to Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Crimea and continuing pressure on Ukraine than meets the eye.
The Russian leader has drawn open the curtain on a new era of global competition among a handful of nations that presume to act as heaven’s surrogates on Earth.
America’s sense of its own exceptionalism — its “City Upon a Hill” complex — is disdained even by some Americans, who think it leads the nation into trouble. But America isn’t the only society with a mystical sense of mission. In fact, the rest of the 21st century may be the story of America’s confrontation with three rival powers that directly challenge our claim to moral superiority.
One such nation is Russia, which has a long tradition of believing in its destiny as the “Third Rome.” The second is China, which for 2,500 years has positioned itself as the Middle Kingdom directly under heaven. The third is Iran, whose ayatollahs believe they possess the most truthful understanding of God’s holy order for humanity.
When Putin spoke to his national assembly March 18 explaining why Russia was justified in absorbing Crimea, he didn’t hesitate to cite the deepest roots of Russia’s identity: “Everything in Crimea,” he said, “speaks of our shared history and pride. This is the location of ancient Khersones, where Prince Vladimir was baptized. His spiritual feat of adopting Orthodoxy predetermined the overall basis of the culture, civilization and human values that unite the peoples of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus.”
In 988, Prince Vladimir of the Kievan Rus had converted to Orthodox Christianity and had married a sister of the Byzantine emperor, linking a Slavic royal family to the lineage of Constantine the Great and protection of orthodox faith. This was the beginning of the Russian myth of a Third Rome.
In seizing Crimea, Putin is not proposing to play a parlor game but a game of thrones — a grand contest against the backdrop of human civilization. He has affirmed Russia’s historic destiny as the Third Rome to redeem humanity.
In the mystical vision of medieval Slavic leaders, the first Rome had been lost to true Christianity when it was captured by the Roman papacy. Protection of original Christian beliefs and practices — what we now call Eastern Orthodoxy — was then left to the patriarchs in the eastern Mediterranean, especially to the patriarch in Constantinople in his magnificent basilica of Hagia Sophia.
Then, when Constantinople’s freedom was threatened with conquest by the Ottomans, Slavic Christians claimed to see a larger meaning in the conversion of Slavs to Orthodox Christianity. What they saw was a new way to salvation — the appointment of a chosen people to save the Christian gospel.
The monk Foma of Tver in 1453 wrote The Eulogy of the Pious Grand Prince Boris Alexandrovich to give substance to the Third Rome myth. The idea of Muscovy as heir to Rome crystallized with a panegyric letter composed by the Russian monk Philotheus (Filofey) of Pskov in 1510 to Moscow’s Grand Duke Vasili III, which proclaimed, “Two Romes have fallen. The third stands. And there will be no fourth. No one shall replace your Christian Tsardom!”
Vasili III’s father had married the niece of the last Byzantine Emperor, so Vasili III was in the lineage of those who were divinely ordained to protect the Orthodox faith.
Muscovy became, therefore, a close political partnership between an autocratic ruler and a spiritually transcendent priesthood in a Christian theocracy. Moscow with its tsar and its Metropolitan then grew in power and pride as humanity’s redemptive force.
The novels of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy speak eloquently to the supreme purity and importance of Russian spirituality, which gave meaning to an otherwise bleak and foreboding Russian culture of secular oppression.
One reason the last tsar, Nicholas II, and his wife, Alexandra, did not seek secular reforms to preserve their dynasty was their mystical belief in their sanctity and their importance to God, who would accordingly save them from revolution. The monk Rasputin notoriously came to dominate the tsaritsa with such arguments.
Putin’s faith in the exceptionalism of his Russian people has been and is widely shared. His stratospheric approval ratings in current polls reveal his alignment with popular beliefs and aspirations.
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