Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Wednesday, March 27, 2024

What Pre-Revolutionary Russia Can Tell Us About Russia Today: Part I – Messianic Russia

The Kremlin—Symbol of Russian Power

The Russian nation is an extraordinary phenomenon in the history of all mankind that may hold the power to bring a new light to the world.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Russia has hypnotic power. This was especially evident in its dynamic 19th-century history, when its population tripled. Russian military power, critical in defeating Napoleon, cowed the empire's neighbors and allowed the tsar to expand wherever he could get away with it. Even Europe's master statesman, Otto von Bismarck accepted that Germany's well-being depended on peaceful relations with the Russian bear. (Wilhelm II forgot this and started down the road to doom in 1914.) 

Despite suppressing the first post-Napoleonic revolt against the old order, the Decembrist revolt of reformist military officers in 1825, Russia then continually disconcerted the rest of world by serving as an incubator for more extreme radicalism. Regardless of the oppressive measures taken by the tsars' agents, secretive groups of Russians relentlessly borrowed or invented, then tested, perfected, and propagated the revolutionary and nationalistic ideologies that would make the next century one of the most violent in history. All of this went on while innumerable Russian writers and musicians—like Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Tchaikovsky, and Rimsky-Korsakov—were enchanting the world with their creativity. In this series we will explore why 19th-century Russia was so dynamic and dangerous in order to see what insight it might lend on Vladimir Putin's 21st-century Russia.

Russian Icon Suggesting Divine Blessing
of the Nation

Messianic Russia

Russia's centralized and militarized state has distinguished the country for centuries, although whether its militarization was offensive or defensive has been a matter of considerable historical debate. Nonetheless, starting from the beginning of the 16th century, Russia eventually and uniquely came to control major portions of two continents.

Historian George Vernadsky embraced the argument of geographical determinism—that the peculiar geography of Eurasia encouraged a dynamic national grouping (i.e. Russia) to extend its domination as far as possible for security reasons. Richard Pipes suggests, however, that the Russians, and later the Soviets, adopted an ideology—be it "Moscow as the Third Rome" or Marxism-Leninism—that promoted and encouraged the government to be inherently aggressive and expansionist. 

A powerful national myth is required to dominate such extensive territories, and the Russians developed one under the first tsars. The 15th century saw the emergence of a messianic vision for the Russian state and the people of Moscow as the "Third Rome," or historical protector of Orthodox Christianity. The first Rome was long gone, and the second Rome, Constantinople, fell in 1453. In 1472 Russian Prince Ivan III married Sofia Paléologue, the niece of Byzantium's last emperor, Constantine, and this marriage gave legitimacy to Russia's claim as Byzantium's historical successor. In 1520 the monk Filofey supposedly wrote in an oft-cited letter to the tsar.

And now, I say unto them: take care and take heed, pious tsar; all the empires of Christendom are united in thine, the two Romes have fallen and the third exists and there will not be a fourth. 

Ivan the Terrible—Note Religious Elements

In 1547 the Muscovite prince Ivan IV ("the Terrible") officially adopted the title of tsar, derived from the Latin caesar, to emphasize that the line of Christian capitals was matched by a succession of rulers. Iver Neumann has argued that the Third Rome doctrine anointed Russia as the divine successor to Constantinople, but Russia's borders were never fully identified, thus providing religious justification for expansion. Throughout Russian history, Holy Russia has been invoked as the suffering savior of the world, and its historical mission was the crux of the Russian Ideal.

Russian philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev attributed the Russians' messianism to their unique combination of Western and Eastern qualities:

The Russian people is not purely European and it is not purely Asiatic. Russia is a complete section of the world—a colossal East-West. It unites two worlds, and within the Russian soul two principles are always engaged in strife—the Eastern and the Western. 

This East-West duality, though, would contribute much to the pre-revolutionary strife in Russia. The eternal question of East or West was at the heart of the 19th-century debate between Russian Slavophiles and Westernizers. The Slavophiles were aristocratic romantic intellectuals who believed in the superior nature and historical mission of Orthodox Christianity and in Russia as uniquely endowed with a culture transcending East and West. They touted traditional institutions such as the peasant commune as models of harmonious social organization and claimed that rationalism, legalism, and constitutionalism would destroy Russia's natural harmonious development. The Slavophile movement was a reaction against the Westernizing efforts of Peter the Great and Catherine the Great.

The Westernizers took the German idealism of Hegel as a starting point but argued that while Russia possessed many unique and superior features, its historical mission required it to follow the path of Western civilization. They criticized Russian autocracy and took a more positive view of the rule of law and constitutionalism. While the Slavophile ideology was anchored in Russian Orthodoxy, the Westernizers placed little value on religion; some became agnostic or even atheist, while the moderate Westernizers retained some religious faith and their political and social programs supported moderate liberalism with popular enlightenment.

This messianic impulse, nevertheless, would naturally provide a self-evident (to Russia) legitimization to a constantly expansionist foreign policy. Richard Pipes commented that it "promoted an extraordinary imperial appetite." Russia could also justify certain acquisitions by stressing its role as defender of Orthodox Christianity. It believed Orthodox Ukrainians, for example, should accept the tsar's sovereignty because the tsar would protect them against both the Muslims of the Ottoman Empire and the Catholics of Poland. 

Christianity was a powerful spiritual unifying force that helped involve various tribes and tribal unions of the vast Eastern Slavic world in the creation of a Russian nation and Russian state.

Vladimir Putin, 2014

Source: “Russia’s Early Identity Questions” from the chapter "Russia's Historical Roots" in the book The Russia Balance Sheet by Anders Åslund and Andrew Kuchins. Copyright: Peterson Institute for International Economics. Reprinted with permission.


  1. I find the article well timed with the backdrop of Easter week. PAX Romana was seen in its own way as peace on earth. Caesar’s titles were used by the Gospel writers in framing their understanding of Jesus and his way. Clarity brought forth of the tools of one kingdom’s method being set against the tools of another’s. Only justice placed over oppression and violence, would we ever see true peace. In the case of this article how can one not see the force of one empire set directly against another’s? Good news to the poor, the binding up of the brokenhearted, a proclamation of freedom to the captives and release from darkness for those imprisoned. I appreciate your work and the posted article. Though I fear we are too blinded by apathy to grasp the underlying dichotomy presented. Tg.

  2. I found some good stuff on Russia watchingROKU.