Thursday, October 25, 2018

Putin’s Messianism, Rooted in Concept of Russia as Third Rome, Opens the Way to War, Shtepa Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, October 25 – Since at least 2007, Vladimir Putin has insisted the two chief components of Russian statehood are nuclear weapons and Orthodoxy (, a view rooted in the idea of “Moscow as the Third Rome” and one he presents in Manichean terms (

            That would be an interesting example of intellectual history, Vadim Shtepa, a Russian regionalist who lives in Estonia, were it not for two things. That view provides the basis for an aggressive approach to the rest of the world and, now that it has been challenged by Ukrainian autocephaly, an open road toward war (

                In an analysis for Tallinn’s International Centre for Defence and Security, Shtepa analyzes both of these factors, demonstrating that the tsarist-era doctrine of Moscow as the third Rome is the real foundation of Muscovite messianism and that the collapse of that notion thanks to the actions of the Universal Patriarchate create a situation the Kremlin finds intolerable.

            Russians routine ascribe the idea that “Two Romes have fallen” – Rome and Constantinople – “a third” – Moscow – “stands and a fourth there shall not be” to Starets Filofey in the 16th century but recognize that the idea has evolved over the last 400 years as Russia has changed.

            But one aspect of this notion has remained constant, Shtepa points out, “the indivisible unity of the ‘true’ church and the ‘great empire.’ One is unthinkable without the other.” That was true under the tsars, continued to be true under the Soviets who of course understood the meaning of “church” differently, and remains true today under Putin.

            “In the post-Soviet era,” he continues, “the Russian Orthodox church has acquired the status of the Russian state church, although this contradicts the constitution’s provision about the secular nature of the state.”  And the messianic nature of this idea, although not proclaimed officially, is currently “actively” being used in Kremlin propaganda and policy design.

            World Orthodoxy, Shtepa notes, “traditionally is a collection of equal regional churches which largely correspond to the borders of this or that state.” Such an arrangement is especially clearly seen in Europe where almost every country has its own autocephalous Orthodox church. Constantinople is “first in honor” but does not have administrative control over others.

            But the Russian Orthodox Church stands as an exception. Despite its conflict with Catholicism, “it seeks to emulate Rome in terms of global influence.” That is most easily seen in the Moscow Patriarchate’s concept of canonical territory extending from the Baltic to Japan, except for Armenia and Georgia but including China and Japan. (For a map, see

                Of course, Shtepa says, Moscow views that as its base and seeks to insert its own churches elsewhere as a form of soft power however much this contradicts this notion of its canonical territory. There is now a ROC MP church in Paris but that can hardly mean that France is part of Russia’s “canonical territory.”

            Moscow’s idea of its own canonical territory was challenged in 1996 when Estonia’s Orthodox acquired autocephaly from Constantinople, an action that led Moscow to break briefly with the Universal Patriarch before the compromise of two Orthodox churches in Estonia was reached, largely because Patriarch Aleksii was a native of Estonia and didn’t want problems.

            Now, however, Shtepa continues, Ukraine is set to acquire autocephaly; and that represents a much more serious inroad into what Moscow has long assumed is its canonical space.  Not surprisingly, the Moscow Patriarchate has broken with Constantinople and sought to divide Orthodoxy in response.

            “The decision of the Constantinople Patrairch to offer the Ukrainian Orthodox Church the tomos of autocephaly” has been precisely described by Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko as an issue with global geopolitical consequences. “This is the fall of the Third Rome as Moscow’s ancient conceptual claim to world rule” (

                Autocephaly for Ukraine is such a serious challenge to Moscow, the Russian regionalist argues, not only because of this claim but also because of the ways in which the messianism of the Russian Orthodox Church informs the messianism of the Russian state. The former having been challenged, the latter feels compelled to strike back.

            And, thus, it is not surprising that “among present-day state leaders only President Putin talks about the possibility of nuclear war,” either by saying there is no reason for a world in which Russia isn’t present or by suggesting that after such a conflict, Russians will go to heaven as “martyrs” while everyone else will be consigned to hell.

            Such language, especially given that Russia has so many fewer levers than it once did, suggests that Ukrainian autocephaly could become the occasion for a nuclear war, a development that would not only end Moscow as the third Rome in a definitive sense but destroy much else besides.

No comments:

Post a Comment