Roman Emperor Ioannis II Komnenos (1087-1143) with his wife Empress St Eirene (?-1134, married in 1104) in a mosaic in the Cathedral of the Holy Wisdom (Agia Sofia) in Istanbul/Constantinople
Archimandrite Tikhon Shevkunov poses a very important question in his film: Who are we as Russians? Is Russia just a remote backwoods of Europe? Are we doomed to be obedient pupils of the West? On the other hand, is Russia the heir to ancient traditions passed down directly from classical Rome from which the West could also benefit? Should Russia follow the Western paradigm, as if it was indeed universal, or does Russia have its own path that is just as legitimate? This has always been a question for Russia, not only during the 19th century disputes between Slavophiles and Westernisers, but also during the reforms of Peter the Great and in the backroom discussions of speechwriters for Soviet leaders such as Leonid Brezhnev and Mikhail Gorbachev.
A fresh look at the history of Byzantium, an empire despised by Western and Soviet ideologues alike, presents us with an excellent opportunity to talk about contemporary Russia. For the first time, the average Russian television viewer heard that the Eastern Roman Empire was neither an “evil empire”, nor a centre of dark obscurantism and superfluous luxury, but the largest civilisation of its time, one that has something to offer modern Russia. It is little wonder, then, that the film upset those who have been trying to convince us that the sun rises not in the East but in the West. It is surprising that some critics have not bothered to discuss the film’s production quality or the facts and ideas it portrays, but simply lashed out at the very idea of “rehabilitating” Byzantium and the “Byzantine spirit” in Russia. Their arguments are weak. “The filmmakers are trying to take us back to the Middle Ages”, they say.
What we need here is a real dialogue with pro-Western Russians. Are they able to prove that the course of development they favour is the sole alternative, even though that path is causing an increasing number of crises in the West? What has the West come to, when its leading nations drop bombs in an effort to prove the truth of their cause (which is a sign of weakness)? Alternatively, does the ideal of an alliance between the people and the authorities suggested by Byzantium offer a viable model for the future? Might the West itself one day turn to such a model as well? We clearly do not have enough dialogue on these questions. Instead, we have heated arguments on the one hand, and demands that the film be all but prohibited on the other.
The film provides convincing arguments that the Byzantine model of society, one based on Christian social ideals, on the unity of faith and civil action, on the “symphony” and harmony of Church and State, and on mutual understanding rather than competition, has a very promising future. It was no coincidence that Russia survived when it adopted this model. In fact, one can say that it thrived. The main thing now is not to marginalise those who are sympathetic to this paradigm, whether in the East or in the West.
In my view, Byzantium would not have perished if it could have found a general modus vivendi with the Muslim world. It did find one, but, only when it was too late to save them. Russia did find such a solution. If the Archbishop of Canterbury spoke recently of the need of the West to reconcile itself with Islamic law, I must point up that in some of the regions of the Russian Empire such accommodation with Sharia existed for many centuries, and this only strengthened the unity of our country. Indeed, our respect for other traditions, and our realisation that alteration and “re-education” of other peoples and cultures was impossible, became the basis of harmony in our society.
It was necessary for Byzantium to have contacts and real dialogue with its Western neighbours. Not all who came from the West were enemies. Many of the participants in the first crusades sincerely wished to help the Byzantines, and they did help them, with the sacrifice of their money, well-being, and their very lives. Many contemporary Western Europeans considered the attack and pillage of Constantinople in 1204 by the Fourth Crusade as a tragedy, not excepting the Pope of Rome. It was only later that Westerners began to apply the disparaging term “Byzantium” to the Empire of the Rhomaioi, deeming it unworthy of respect. By losing contact with the Orthodox East, the West began to breathe with only one lung; it choked itself in spiritual isolation.
Russia needs dialogue with the West. It is not only indifferent egoists and our opponents that live there, we also have sincere friends in the West, and the copies of Russian icons hanging in the churches of Brussels, Paris, and Rome testify to this. However, this dialogue should not be a one-way street. Russia and the West need to respect each other and accept each other the way we are. Only in this way, can we offer each other our best qualities as friends, and correct the worst.
7 March 2008
Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin
Vice Chairman of the Moscow Patriarchate Department for External Church Relations
The Moscow Times
As quoted in Interfax-Religion
Paragraphs 5 and 6 are missing in the English version on the Interfax website. I have translated them from the Russian original.