The Byzantine History of Putin’s Russian Empire

By Theodore Christou*, The Conversation

Russian athletes were conspicuous in their neutral colors during 2018’s Winter Olympics and Paralympics due to a ban imposed on the grounds of systemic doping by the Russian state.

However, in Vancouver in 2010 and in Sochi in 2014, Russia’s Olympic hockey jerseys prominently featured a two-headed eagle exactly where Canada’s jerseys portrayed the Maple Leaf.

This two-headed eagle is not a modern invention; it comes down to us through the ages from the glorious days of the Byzantine empire.

If we travel 1,800 years back in time, the eagle served as the unmistakable symbol of the Byzantine Empire. And it is still at the core of Orthodox Christianity — including its Greek, Russian, Ukrainian, Romanian churches— throughout the world.

The great and unmistakable historical importance of the Byzantine Empire is not overlooked by Russia. It has, however, been suppressed or ignored within western history education.

It has been treated this way because it looks to the East and, here in the West, we do not.

What was Byzantium?

In a nutshell, Byzantium was Rome.

More specifically, Byzantium was the Rome that existed after Constantine I (306-337 BC) turned the Roman world from its “pagan” roots towards Christianity, and after the city of Rome ceased to be the capital of the Roman Empire in 476 AD.

The fall of Constantinople in 1453 to Ottoman Turks under the leadership of Mehmed II is here depicted in a diorama in the Istanbul Military Museum (Askerî Müze), Turkey.

Byzantium was an ancient Greek city which was rebuilt from its very foundations and became an imperial capital under Constantine I. At that time, the Roman empire extended from the Atlantic Ocean across the entirety of the Mediterranean Sea, including what today is northern Africa, the Middle East, Turkey, and eastern and western Europe, reaching to the shores of the Black Sea.

Constantinople, the great city now called Istanbul, was the beating heart of Rome — of Byzantium — from 330 until 1453 AD.

Moscow as the third Rome

So why would Russian athletes want to wear Byzantine eagles on the crests of their uniforms?

Simply put: Moscow wants to be the third Rome.

Alexander Ovechkin sporting the Russian jersey at the Vancouver Winter Olympics. The two-headed eagle is an important symbol to Russia, even though its significance is misunderstood by the west

By the time Constantinople was conquered by Ottoman Turks under the leadership of Mehmed II in 1453, after serving for eleven centuries as a Roman capital, Russia had become a central part of the Byzantine alliance.

The Russian tsar — a derivative of the Latin term “Caesar,” or imperial ruler — then assumed, or presumed, the role of the imperial head of the Roman empire.

Following the Bolshevik Revolution and the establishment of the communist, secular United Soviet Socialist Republic in 1922, this imperial legacy was largely lost.

Reclaiming the legacy

But recently, historians have begun to reclaim this important Byzantine history and its Russian legacy. Under Vladimir Putin, Russia has once again begun to portray its history through the lens of Byzantium.

The Russian strongman has begun to indelibly associate Russia with Byzantium in ways that are apparent to countries with an Orthodox legacy, but are not necessarily clear to the rest of the world.

Byzantium matters. It matters if we want to associate Russia today with imperial Russia at its zenith.

If you recognize the double-headed eagle of Byzantium, Russian athletic uniforms over the last decade make a lot of sense. If you do not, it is important that you ask why this symbol does not have as much resonance as the hammer and sickle or the maple leaf have.

Russia is reclaiming the legacy of Byzantium. Of Rome. Of antiquity. Of Orthodox Christianity. This is not necessarily a threat. But this is why Byzantium matters.

Suppression within western history

As a teacher educator, a member of the Ontario College of Teachers, and an associate dean of graduate studies and research at Queen’s University, I strongly believe this history matters.

Years ago, when I started my academic career at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton, I struggled to find a way to make social studies instruction meaningful for future teachers, who were the vast majority of students that I worked with.

I devised a scheme — crude in hindsight — for them to be in the positions of the students they would teach, meaning the elementary schoolchildren we ask to learn about medieval times and classical civilizations.

Mount Athos, where twenty monasteries and institutions of learning established during the Byzantine period have been preserved and thrive to this day. Photo: Theodore Christou

I am not challenging these subjects, pervasive as they are, in curricula across Canada. However, the rationale for their inclusion in various curriculum documents is unclear. Why every student in Ontario needs to create a medieval coat of arms in Grade 4 is beyond me, and not only because it reveals a western-European curricular bias.

I asked every teacher candidate to participate in a research project that would explore Byzantine history. Why? To situate each future teacher in the position that they are asked to place their students.

Lies in our history books

Unexpectedly, as I conducted this project, I learned that our textbooks lie.

Every publication that I could find relating to the history of education, the philosophy of education and educational “foundations” (a term that includes sociology) failed to mention Byzantium.

The common historical narrative included: China (but only sometimes), Greece, Rome, The “dark” or “medieval” ages, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment and current times.

Historians periodize. They artificially create spaces and contexts that will allow them to look back and talk about things that stay the same and things that change over time. Dynasties and confederations emerge, change, fall and evolve.

And we suppress or ignore Byzantine history.

The textbooks that I reference state that Rome was conquered in 476 AD. The city of Rome was indeed conquered on this date but it had long ceased to serve as an imperial capital.

At best, Rome was important to memory, to consciousness and to the western part of Rome, which was largely Latin speaking (as opposed to the eastern parts of the Empire, which had been “hellenized” since the days of Alexander the Great, meaning they were fundamentally Greek in linguistic and cultural terms).

Byzantium is alive and well

Again — we suppress Byzantium because it looks to the east and we do not.

Byzantium harkens to Russia, which is depicted as corrupt in the athletic and political spheres.

It points to Greece, which is economically disadvantaged and wrestling under the yoke of economic austerity and concerns about its finances.

Iveron Monastery, built between 980-983 AD, whose library holdings contain over 20,000 books and 2,000 manuscripts from the Byzantine era. Photo: Theodore Christou

It alludes to the former Soviet bloc and to the Balkans, which are still wrestling to find their identities.

It hearkens to the “Orientalism” that Edward Said pointedly identified — a patronizing depiction of eastern lands by western Europeans, whose frames of reference were both imperial and colonial. Said was speaking specifically of the Middle East, but, again, this region of the world was a vital part of the Roman and Byzantine worlds.

Byzantium is alive and well. One cannot find Byzantium on a map, but its culture persists. Orthodox monasteries, libraries and churches still exist across Greece, Cyprus, Turkey and North America.

It persists in the constitutions of countries, in the literary traditions and the poetic imaginary of millions and in the worldview formation of more than 250 million people.

Byzantium also exists as propaganda — as an historical bridge between historical spaces and geographical continents.

All this we know, and yet we have no reference points in our history books, nor do our future teachers and students.

*Theodore Christou, is an Associate Professor of Social Studies and History Education, Queen’s University, Ontario

Contributing Site: theconversation.com