The Real Byzantium?

In late January, Russian television showed “The Fall of an Empire: The Lessons of Byzantium,” a film by Archimandrite Tikhon Shevkunov. The film has sparked a controversy in Russia about the role that the West played in the collapse of the Byzantine Empire, whether modern Russia faces similar dangers, and whether the Russian Orthodox Church could help prevent a similar collapse.

The Moscow Times published two opposing views on the documentary today. Mark Urnov, dean of the political science department at the Higher School of Economics, had this to say:

This is not a historical film but a mythological one. It appeals to a myth deeply rooted in the consciousness of many Russians — one that combines the bold ideas of Moscow as a “Third Rome,” the greatness of the 18th- and 19th-century Russian Empire and the Communist fairy tale of a flourishing Soviet superpower that was destroyed by insidious and subversive liberals.

The film uses the Byzantine model to advance another myth — that all of Russia’s problems today are rooted in confrontations dating back to ancient times. These include Russia’s eternal battle with the West, which many conservatives believe harbored an irrational hatred for Russia “on a genetic level.” Other clashes included the Russian Orthodox Church vs. Catholicism and individualism vs. the state.

Fr. Vselevod Chaplin, vice chairman of the department of external church relations of the Moscow Patriarchate, countered with this:

A fresh look at Byzantium — an empire despised by both Western and Soviet ideologues — presents us with an excellent opportunity to talk about today’s Russia. For the first time, the average television viewer heard that the Eastern Roman Empire was neither an “evil empire” nor a center of dark obscurantism and superfluous luxury, but the largest civilization of its time and 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 have 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.

Read the full exchange here.

The Pravoslie Web site published the script from the documentary here.


  1. Richard Barrett :

    G. K. Chesterton once commented (in The Everlasting Man, I believe) that Christianity, arising in the Mediterranean as it did, had to be Greek, Roman, African, and Middle Eastern all at once. From the point of view of the Western world, all but the Roman identity have fallen away from relevance, and I think probably there are those who would say that wouldn’t have happened if the East hadn’t deserved it. Constantinople, and the Christian East in general, are quaint curiosities for the West, relics of something which no longer exists and died out for a reason. Attempts to “rehabilitate” it, and/or to put Russia firmly within that tradition, are therefore going to be seen as threatening for all kinds of reasons.


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