Lessons from Byzantium

I finally watched the film Гибель Империи. Византийский урок (Death of an Empire: the Byzantine Lesson), narrated by Archimandrite Tikhon Shevkunov, the father-confessor of Vladimir Putin. This film takes a stylized interpretation of the decline and fall of the Byzantine Empire – the root cause of which is attributed to mystical factors such as loss of faith in indigenous traditions, the state, and God – and implicitly (and at the end explicitly) draws lessons for modern-day Russia about the dangers of corruption, poshlost, and denigration of national traditions in favor of indiscriminate copying of foreign ways.

One could (rightly) quibble at the film’s ahistoricity, selective coverage, and slanted rhetoric. It is questionable that the West’s plundering of Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade was what spurred the development of European capitalism, and so is the assertion that the fundamental cause of Byzantium’s final defeat to the Ottoman Turks in 1453 was due to its recognition of papal supremacy. The arguments eschew rigorous analysis, instead relying on “mystical” explanations based on “life and death biological growth analogies of life and death and vaguely defined concepts of “vigor” and “decadence””, which are unscientific, albeit aesthetic (and hence persuasive). So it is justifiable for the academic historian or the “Western chauvinist” to dismiss the film out of hand.

However, that is to miss the point, which is that the film is political, following in the Russian Orthodox Church’s long tradition of legitimizing the Russian state. It is also a reflection of the feelings of the current Kremlin elites and a majority of the Russian population.

Below is the film, as well as some good expositions and reviews, after which my own review is continued.

In the film, Father Tikhon expounds on importance of a strong power vertical, family values, control over oligarch predation, suppression of separatism, martial values, and state support for agriculture, manufacturing, and the Church. He likewise condemns the court intrigues, corruption, and promotion of Greek ethnic dominance that undermined the administrative power and ideological cohesiveness of the late Byzantine Empire. Above all, he stresses the dangers of adopting an uncritically submissive attitude towards Western cultural imports, which tended to erase older values (along with faith in the future), and which furthermore tended to be very inefficiently applied.

The implications for today’s Russia are perfectly clear. In Father Tikhon’s vision, the state should play an active role in effecting a spiritual revival in Russia, to transform it into an Orthodox-Eurasian Empire, which could be characterized by producerism, derzhavnost, and sobornost, and one unbeholden to the West.

This is not to say that it should reject Western innovations entirely, but it should apply them gradually, moderately, and with level-headed consideration. Furthermore, they must be avoided entirely if they challenge its core civilizational values. The Bolshevik importation of Marxism unto the Russian lands is mentioned as a regrettable example of the consequences of deviating from this philosophy. (Though at the end of the film, he even makes a qualified accolade to Stalin for the 1943 rehabilitation of Byzantinism, which had previously been suppressed, during the wartime patriotic revival).

As such, the film should not be viewed as a Byzantine history, but as an insight into the restorationist, conservative, and neo-Tsarist nature of Putinism… and as a guide to its possible future evolution. An evolution whose outlines are already emerging in trends as disparate as rising Russian protectionism, the clampdown on the oligarchs, neo-imperial rhetoric, Medvedev’s anti-alcohol measures, and incipient military revival. An evolution that is fast returning Russia to its past-and-future Empire.

Comments

  1. True, Lessons of Byzantium was not ‘good history’ but it was better history than many takes on Russia: especially what I think of as the Muzhik Theory (though there is probably a more elegant term) which is that the Russians are inherently brutal and fawning over their leaders who (as I saw one Russian historian put it ironically) ‘have an unbroken line from Ivan Vasilievitch to Joseph Visarionovitch’. Or the idea that America’s values which were formed in a very unique country could be transplanted into a very different nation like Russia. A Russian friend was telling me that the state heats the buildings in Moscow’s very cold winter… something that would probably have Hayekians feeling faint.

    Incidentally, any thoughts on the rehabilitation of Stolypin, which seems to have been ignored by the MSM? His case is one reason why I dislike grand historical theories. If it hadn’t been for an insane young man with a gun, then someone with intelligence might have been in a position of power during WWI. Whether Stolypin could have saved Tsarism or helped form a viable Provisional Government, I don’t know, but a chance assassination may have changed the course of Russian history.

    Personally, I am rather sceptical about using the word ‘Tsar’ too generally. Perhaps sadly for us medievalists, Russians are not as reactionary as the neo-liberals like to portray them ;-) but I do think that monarchist theocracy is actually a viable political position in its own right. That isn’t to say it is one that I would support or that I think should exist independently of democracy, but not one that should be said to exist where it doesn’t.

    • Unlike in British apartments, which had individual central heatings per room, across Russian apartments it is centralized – that is correct. Actual control is in the hands of the municipal authorities, however, not strictly the state. The system is highly inefficient because of the greater heat loss and it becomes a real nightmare when half or 75% of the people abandon the apartment, as has happened in some cities in the Far North and the Far East. This is, however, as you correctly point out, an example of how much more “structurally centralized” (for lack of a better term) the Russian economy has been locked in to be by its legacy of centrally planning – and why this means its optimal state is far more centralized & interventionist than in the West.

      I do not think Stolypin could have prevented the Revolution. Russia was suffering from deeper problems in 1914 that made it a fragile complex system, that would descend into chaos given big perturbations like a prolonged war.

  2. John McNeill says:

    I really hope Russia does not pursue any future imperialism. No empire in history has ever survived; the and people who founded the empire are often corrupted by all the power, wealth, and prestige. Rome and Greece are perfect examples. And right now I’m witnessing the death of my country, America, and the death of Europe as well, and an imperial past of many of these countries played huge role in current affairs.

    As a Russophilic American I hope Russians learn from the mistakes of Americans and Europeans, and heed Alexander Nevsky’s advice in the Soviet film about him, where he says “Better to die in your own land than leave it.”

    • I don’t think it is possible for Russia to finally stop being an Empire, until all other Empires vanish from the face of the Earth.

      Not a matter of wishing for it or not… just a reality we have to live with, IMO.

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