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Byzantine History, Russian Autocracy, and the West

The West fails to understand President Putin. To distant observers, the rebellion in Crimea and proxy war in the Donbas seem like the immoral actions of a rogue leader. This could not be further from the truth in Moscow. Although politicians and pundits are quick to accuse the Kremlin of ignoring international norms and eroding the global system, they fail to recognize the foundational differences between Russia and the West. Cultural history defines many aspects of a nation’s foreign policy, particularly how they perceive just action. To the surprise of many, assuming Russia will act under Western pretenses will lead to confusion and strife.

Image Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, © 2010.

Russian cultural history derives primarily from the political framework of the Byzantine Empire. After Diocletian split the Roman empire in two in the late 3rd century A.D. and the western Roman empire finally collapsed in the late 5th century, the Byzantine empire, as the remaining vestige of military might in Europe, stood alone opposing European barbarians in the west and Persian empires in the east. This dire time required competent, centralized leadership, otherwise the empire would suffer the same fate of the Western Roman Empire.

As the political framework of the Byzantine Empire rapidly developed, political and religious authority coalesced under the emperor who became the sole political authority. In Byzantine culture, he could not be challenged by the church or political institutions.

During most of the Byzantine Empire’s existence, it was the most powerful cultural, economic, and military force in Europe and the Near East. This cultivated a sense of sole legitimacy—there was no absolute power to challenge the Emperor’s rule or the efficacy of the Byzantine system for many centuries. There were challenges to Byzantine supremacy, such as the rise of Islam, but none that could topple the civilization until the mid-15th century with the Ottoman storming of Constantinople.

After the collapse of the Byzantine Empire and the Fall of Constantinople, the Grand Duchy of Moscow claimed the title ‘The Third Rome’ and the mantle of the Caesars. This perception was not without historical reasoning. The various duchies in modern-day Russia had close political ties to the Byzantine Empire. The Eastern Orthodox Church was a common vein. East Slavic ethnic ties united culture and faith. The Moscow Prince claimed supreme sovereignty over Christian Orthodox states and became defender of the Church. Furthermore, Ivan III of Russia married Sophia Paleologue, niece of Constantine IX, the final Byzantine emperor. Given standard inheritance traditions of the time, Ivan III could claim he and his children were heirs to the Byzantine throne if the Palaiologos dynasty could not determine an heir. Lastly, this claim was not solely supported by Muscovites; other Eastern Orthodox people supported Moscow’s claim to ‘The Third Rome.’ Clearly, legitimacy of Byzantine culture translating to Moscow is not a far-fetched idea.

The Western Roman Empire legacy developed European politics with an eye towards rule of law, sovereignty, and republicanism. The rich Byzantine origin of Russian politics understands the sufficiency and success of autocracy. This is how Russia, a regular actor in recent European history, can be in Europe, but not of Europe. This is how brazen disregard for Western perceptions of international law and order can be flagrantly disregarded. Byzantine history formed Czarist Russia and the subsequent Soviet system. This cultural reality of autocratic unipolarity is deeply embedded in the Russian psyche, and “Putin’s Russia is a one-man show” now, as Brookings Senior Fellow Fiona Hill argues.

There have been protests in Russia in the past several years over corruption and Putin’s rule admittedly. He is not entirely devoid of rampant public opinion. Yet in 2014, more than 80 percent of Russian citizens supported Russia going to war to ensure the annexation of Crimea. Conversely, the majority of Russians do not support the proxy war in the Donbas but there is no widespread dissent towards the conflict. Protests in the last several months have specifically ignored anti-Putin messaging. Additionally, there is no domestic movement to prevent Russian military aggression in the Baltics, which is a major concern for NATO. An observer would note that few Russians would challenge Putin’s autocratic foreign policy. These decisions are his and his alone. Cultural history has taught Russians to accept the regime’s rules. Extrapolating this principle also explains why there has never been a more organic push for democracy in Russia. Democracy is not a fundamentally Russian idea regardless of the “End of History” and the alleged success of the liberal order after the Cold War. Much like the West has continued to evolve democratically over the long-term, Russia will continue to evolve autocratically. Both won’t change without unprecedented upheaval, and attention to history explains why.


David Stoffey

David is a foreign policy research analyst and M.A. candidate currently living in Washington, DC. He focuses on East Asian and European international relations with a particular interest in military history. David holds a B.A. in economics and political science from the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs.
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