Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Hyper-Centralization Killed Byzantium and Can Do the Same to Russia, Moscow Historian Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, November 1 – The Byzantine Empire ultimately collapsed because its rulers concentrated all power and wealth in the capital city of Constantinople, Ivan Baydakov says. Now, the Russian empire faces a similar risk because its rulers have done the same things in its capital city, Moscow.

            Clear parallels exist, the historian says, between the hyper-centralization of the Russian state as it emerged after the collapse of the Soviet Union and hyper-centralization of the Byzantine one, parallels that should serve as a warning to Russia’s current leaders (

                Russian powers that be often compare the two states, “beginning by suddenly recalling the old idea of ‘Moscow as the Third Rome’ and ending with the notion that Russia” in all its various guises “has taken from Byzantium a very great deal: the most obvious being Orthodoxy as a civilizational doctrine and the historical title of the ruler.” 

                But there is another and more fundamental resemblance. Moscow today is “everything” in Russia: “money, power, respect, cultural life, the entire life of the state.”  Indeed, “everything revolves around Moscow.”  A millennium ago, Constantinople was “everything” for Byzantium: “power, connections, status, money, simply everything.”

                There are many reasons this was the case with Constantinople within Byzantium, Baydakov says. The emperor lived there, surrounded by an enormous “’army’ of bureaucrats,” money and trade, and the aristocracy all wanted to be there and so left the rest of the empire behind. 

            As a result, he argues, “the difference in the level of life in the capital from the level of life of the entire empire was approximately the same as the difference between that in Moscow and that in Magadan today.” 

            Because Constantinople grew so large and needed to be fed and supported, it changed the relationship between capital cities and the empire. At its insistence, “the entire country worked to support Constantinople … All the cities of the empire paid taxes ‘to the center,’ but Constantinople didn’t because it was the center.”

            To justify this, Constantinople had to be “sacralized,” and that very step which showed that the empire existed to support a single city ultimately condemned it to collapse.  “At a certain moment, the Byzantine Empire lost almost all its territories which had been feeding Constantinople and couldn’t exist any longer.”

            If one considers Russia in the 21st century, one sees much the same thing, Baydakov argues. “Moscow is accumulating everything. All power is in Moscow,” and the status of anyone is dependent on how close it is to that power. Moreover, all money is concentrated there as well. And together those ensure a better standard of living and higher cultural life.

            “Undoubtedly,” the historian continues, “a capital city must accumulate in itself power, but not all the resources of the state. An enormous state must not feed only one city.” Otherwise disaster will follow. That is what happened in Byzantium; that is what can happen in the Russian Federation as well.

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