What’s Going on with Russia?

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We seem to be entering the Cold War 2.0, and it’s bewildering. What happened to détente? The Berlin Wall came down and the Soviet Union ultimately disintegrated. Wasn’t it all over? I think I finally have an answer. I’m always interested in comments, and on this one, particularly interested in the comments of my Russian and Eastern European friends.

When President Reagan (not my favorite President, but even a broken clock is right twice a day) declared “Mr. Gorbachev, Tear down this wall!” a new era began. Just over two years later, the Wall came down, and the era of glasnost (“transparency”) and perestroika (“restructuring”) continued.

"Brandenburger Tor abends" by Thomas Wolf, www.foto-tw.de - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Brandenburger_Tor_abends.jpg#/media/File:Brandenburger_Tor_abends.jpg

The Brandenburg Gate: “Brandenburger Tor abends” by Thomas Wolf, http://www.foto-tw.de – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Brandenburger_Tor_abends.jpg#/media/File:Brandenburger_Tor_abends.jpg

I was in Berlin during the time of the Wall. It was like in the film, The Wizard of Oz. In West Berlin, you walked down the Ku’Damm (Kurfürstendamm), West Berlin’s great boulevard, and everything was like Technicolor. Then walking down the Ebertstraße (ß = ss in German), you came to the Brandenburg Tor (Gate), and crossed into East Berlin on the famous Unter den Linden street. Everything was quiet and gray.  I walked past a Communist bookstore selling children’s books with Stalin sitting with little kids, just like the ones with Jesus. Creepy. Thank you Fr. Renna for that great opportunity.

глaсность (glasnost) is from гласный (glasnyjpublic, open) +‎ -ость (-ostʹ-ness), ultimately from Old Church Slavonic гласу (glasu), from Proto-Indo-European *gal(o)s-*glōs-*golH-so- (voice, cry). It signaled an attempt to open the Soviet Union to scrutiny by its own people.

перестройка (perestroika) is from пере- (pere-over, over again) + стройка (stroykaconstruction), ultimately from  Proto-Slavic and Proto-Indo-European, *per- and from Old East Slavic стройи (stroйi), from from Proto-Indo-European *strew- (to strew, to spread out). It was the attempt to restructure the antiquated and sluggish mechanisms of Soviet government. 

So What Happened?


As Winston Churchill so famously said, “Russia is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” From the heady days of Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin, Russia descended into economic problems and a new dictatorship of the apparent “President for Life,” Vladimir Putin, former head of the KGB. There are many other complexities as well.


alexander-nevsky_4x6The most basic problem is that Russia, as a society, has rarely known real democratic freedom in its long history. One of the sole exceptions is The Novgorod Republic, which between the 12th and 15th Centuries had a fair degree of popular participation in government. One of the most famous Princes of Novgorod was St. Alexander Nevsky (1221-1263), who famously defeated the Roman Catholic Teutonic Knights and others, but wisely knew to submit to the overwhelming power of the Mongols. Otherwise, the people of ancient Rus’ and later Russia have not know popular rule.

Then too, Putin is a megalomaniac, and probably a sociopath. It is hard to imagine a worse person to be at the helm of the Russian State. Russians wax nostalgic about the glory days of the Soviet Union and the Russian Empire, however inexplicable that is to us. Power and prestige are tempting fruits. The Moscow Patriarchate of the Orthodox Church, unfortunately, is all too eager to stoke the fires of Nationalism for its own benefit.

Putin tightly controls almost all media in Russia, and therefore, the common Russian believes the lies he tells, such as that Russia is not involved in the rebellion in Eastern Ukraine. Just watch the Russian RT news channel on cable. It’s the Kremlin Party Line: Everything going wrong in the world is America’s fault. Russia is noble and blameless.

"Great Seal of the United States (reverse)" by IpankoninThis vector image was created with Inkscape. - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Great_Seal_of_the_United_States_(reverse).svg#/media/File:Great_Seal_of_the_United_States_(reverse).svg

“Great Seal of the United States (reverse)” by IpankoninThis vector image was created with Inkscape. – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Great_Seal_of_the_United_States_(reverse).svg#/media/File:Great_Seal_of_the_United_States_(reverse).svg

Just as the United States sees itself as the New Order of the Ages inspired by the Grand Architect of the Universe, and prophesied by the Cumean Sybil and Virgil Magus, Russia too has a messianic complex, which it comes by historically.

The Third Rome

Vladimir the Great converted Kievan Rus’ to Orthodox Christianity in 988, and married Roman Emperor Basil II’s sister, Anna Porphyrogenita (born to the purple-Imperial family. “( from GreekΠορφυρογέννητος, literally born in the purple) was an honorific title in the Byzantine Empire given to a son, or daughter (Πορφυρογέννητη, Porphyrogénnētē, Latinized Porphyrogenita), born after the father had become emperor.”



We should note that the early center of Rus’ was Kiev. Kiev in what is now Ukraine, founded in the 8th Century is actually the beginning of Rus’, and Moscow was not founded until 1147, and as we have seen, the Novgorod Republic was the center of power in the North West of Rus’. (Rus’ designates the ancient areas inhabited by the Eastern Slavs. Today, it also designates the Ruthenian or Pod-Carpathian people, primarily the Ruthenian Byzantine Catholics.)

As the centuries continued, Kievan Princes often married Roman Imperial daughters. Therefore it was natural for the Princes of Rus’, Kievan, and later Muscovite, to consider themselves members of the Imperial Family of Rome, which in fact, they often were. Not only that, they shared a common Orthodox Christian faith.

Constantine XI at the Walls of Constantinople

Constantine XI at the Walls of Constantinople

On that tragic day, Tuesday May 29, 1453 at about 2pm, the Ottoman Turkish usurper Mehmet II breached the walls of Constantinople and put an end to the Roman Empire. The last Emperor, Constantine XI Dragases Palaiologos (Greek: Κωνσταντινος ΙΑ’ Δραγάσης Παλαιολόγος, Kōnstantinos XI Dragasēs Palaiologos) died in defense of the Roman Capital.

After this, Moscow saw itself as the legitimate heir of the Roman power, as the major, remaining, free Orthodox State. Tsar “Ivan III of Russia had married Sophia Paleologue. Sophia was a niece of Constantine XI, the last Byzantine emperor.” An old saying goes, “The first Rome fell to the barbarians. The second Rome fell to the Turks. Moscow is the third Rome, and a fourth there shall never be.” This is deeply imprinted in the Russian soul. The double-headed Eagle in Russian Heraldry is the doubler-headed Eagle of the Roman Empire, ruling over both East and West.


The Line of Diocletian

It is almost impossible to overestimate the important of an event that occurred around 285-286. Faced with a virtually ungovernably large Roman Empire, the Emperor Diocletian, the great persecutor of Christians (back then, there was a War on Christianity!), divided the Empire into Eastern and Western jurisdictional sections, and each was then sub-divided to be governed by an Emperor and a Caesar.

The Tetrarchy (Rule by Four)

The Tetrarchy (Rule by Four)

Over the centuries the line has shifted a bit, but the essential division through Eastern Europe separates the areas of Roman Catholic (and later Protestant) influence and Eastern Orthodox influence. Modern people do not realize the incredible importance of this religious division. For most of history, from the schisms between the Roman Church and the Orthodox…

  • from the scandal of the Roman Pope Leo III crowning Charlemagne as Roman Emperor when the Empress Irene was happily reigning in Constantinople, on Christmas Day, 800
  • to the 9th Century disputes between Pope Nicholas I and Patriarch Photius the Great
  • to the mutual excommunications of 1054
  • to the sack of Constantinople by the Crusaders in 1204
  • and finally to the rejection of the humiliating terms of union at the Council of Florence in the Italian Renaissance in 1439 by St. Mark of Ephesus and the rest of the Orthodox Church

… and continuing into the Age of Colonialism, the Roman Church has viewed the Orthodox as disobedient children, while the Orthodox viewed Old Rome as overreaching, exaggerating its authority, and suffering from overweening pride.

Furthermore, national and personal identities were intertwined almost inextricably with religious identity. As history continued, the line, sometimes shifting, divided the Orthodox East from the Roman Catholic, and later Protestant, West in Europe:

© Dragan Brujić

© Dragan Brujić

Later things shifted around a bit, but this is essentially why Poland, Croatia and other Western Slav countries are Roman Catholic, while Greece, Serbia, Bulgaria, Russia, Belarus, etc. are Eastern Orthodox, and so on.

At the time of Western (Roman Catholic) expansion into the Orthodox borderlands of Ukraine and what is now the Czech and Slovak Republics, and other areas, some Orthodox Bishops and Dioceses were convinced to enter into Union with Rome, which created several Byzantine / Greek Catholic Churches, so that a country such as Ukraine has a majority Orthodox population, especially in the Eastern, Russian-looking regions, while they also have a sizable minority of Ukrainian Greek Catholics, especially in Western Ukraine.

The Czech Republic today is primarily irreligious, but the largest single Church is the Roman Catholic and the Proto-Protestant Hussites are important. In Slovakia, in decreasing order, the people are Roman Catholics, Protestants, Greek Catholics, and Eastern Orthodox.

The three Baltic States are neatly divided, religiously. Estonia has an Orthodox majority, Lithuania has a huge Roman Catholic majority, and Latvia has a Lutheran majority.

We should note that three of the nations in this area are not Slavic. The people of Hungary are Magyars (pronounced Madjars), and religiously, they are primarily Western Christian, Roman Catholic and Protestant.

In Romania, almost 90% of the people are ethnic Romanians, and their language is the largest Eastern Romance language. Romance Languages are those that descend from Latin, like French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Romansh, Occitan, and many others. Religiously, the Romanians are overwhelmingly Eastern Orthodox, with minorities of Roman Catholics, Greek Catholics, Protestants and others.

Romanian Orthodox Archepiscopal Divine Liturgy

Romanian Orthodox Archepiscopal Divine Liturgy

In Moldova, the people are Moldovans, perhaps their own ethnicity, or perhaps a sub-set of Romanians. They also speak a Romance language, and are about 98% Orthodox.

Looking at these two bordering countries, then, we can see the effect of that line Diocletian drew: Orthodox to the East of the line, Roman Catholics to the West of the line.

We can see this line again in the seven countries that emerged from Yugoslavia. The name Yugoslavia means “Southern Slavs,” and as it became all too clear in the late 20th Century, they were held together by the brutal Regime of “President” Tito, their Communist dictator.

Orthodox Majority Heirs to Yugoslavia:

  • Serbia
  • Montenegro
  • Macedonia (with a significant Muslim minority)

Roman Catholic Majority Heirs to Yugoslavia:

  • Croatia
  • Slovenia

Muslim Majority Heir to Yugoslavia:

  • Kosovo

Mixed State:

  • Bosnia and Herzegovina (40% Muslim, 31% Eastern Orthodox, 15% Roman Catholic, 14% “other.”)


The fact that these seven countries co-existed in Yugoslavia is due only to the tyranny of Tito. Here is a modern map of these countries, where the World began the 20th Century in war, and concluded there in war again. You can see the division between West and East.

We should not forget long-suffering Albania, perhaps the nation that suffered the most under Communism. I wrote several articles for an Albanian-American Journal years ago (see my Linked-In Bibliography), and greatly admire Albanians and their culture. One of my best friends at Yale, Patty Christo (now Pat Coffey), is Albanian-American, and had a great influence on my life, helping to turn me Eastward. We directed several plays together!

The Orthodox Clinic of Annunciation in Albania to offer High Level Service for Ophthalmology Surgery

The Orthodox Clinic of Annunciation in Albania to offer High Level Service for Ophthalmology Surgery

Religiously, Albania reflects the changing history of this area of the world. At present it is approximately:

  • Muslim 59%
  • Roman Catholic 10%
  • Eastern Orthodox 7% or 24%, it is disputed.

Originally part of the heartland of the Roman Empire, it would have been largely Orthodox at that time. Under the Communists, leaders and adherents of all three groups suffered horribly. Albanian Orthodox, and Albanian Greek Catholics in Albania, Italy and North America are a significant Eastern Church.

The Glorification of 1.5 million Armenian New Martyrs on April 23, 2015. © 2015 Getty Images

The Glorification of 1.5 million Armenian New Martyrs on April 23, 2015. © 2015 Getty Images

Further East of Diocletian’s line, where Europe meets Asia, we should also mention that the first two ancient Kingdoms to make Christianity their Official Religion are : Georgia (Eastern Orthodox) and Armenian (Armenian Apostolic–Gregorian–Christian). These two Kingdoms were not part of the Roman Empire, and so technically were not affected by the division, but are Eastern Christian none the less. Further North, Scandinavia was Roman Catholic, and then became majority Lutheran. Finland, between Scandinavia and  Russia, has a vast Lutheran majority, and a small, but significant, Eastern Orthodox Church.

The nations of Western Europe were, Roman Catholic, and later, Anglican, Protestant and Roman Catholic after the Reformation.

You can therefore see that religious identity in Europe, even if distant, is important. People may not practice their religion much, but it forms part of their cultural awareness.


Slavic Europe: Western, Eastern and Southern Slavs. © Artemis Dread, Wikimedia Commons

Slavic Europe: Western, Eastern and Southern Slavs. © Artemis Dread, Wikimedia Commons

Pan-Slavism was a 19th Century movement to unite all Slavs, Eastern, Western and Southern. It popularity peaked before World War I, and after The Great War, it rapidly declined. Its death knell came with the 1980s fall of Communism. Any possible Pan-Slavism would naturally be dominated by Russia and Serbia, a prospect that was not attractive to most of the other Slavs.

Nevertheless, the concept still holds traction in Russia, Serbia, Belarus, and Slovakia.

Modern Confrontations

In 1922, following the Communist Revolution in Russia, the Soviet Union was formed, and eventually included Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, the Caucasian States, the Baltic States, and the Central Asian States.

After World War II, the Russian-led Soviet Union dominated a number of other Eastern European countries, creating a Buffer Zone between it and the Capitalist West and installed or supported Communist regimes there. These included

  • Albania
  • Bulgaria
  • Czechoslovakia
  • East Germany (GDR)
  • Hungary
  • Poland
  • Romania

Austria, and its capital, Vienna, like Germany and Berlin, were divided into British, French, American and Russian zones:

"Austria 1945-55" by Jarry1250 (talk) 13:59, 15 May 2009 (UTC); original Christoph Lingg - Derivitive of http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Austria_1945-55.png. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Austria_1945-55.svg#/media/File:Austria_1945-55.svg

“Austria 1945-55” by Jarry1250 (talk) 13:59, 15 May 2009 (UTC); original Christoph Lingg – Derivitive of http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Austria_1945-55.png. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Austria_1945-55.svg#/media/File:Austria_1945-55.svg

Divided Vienna © Christophe Lingg, Wikimedia Commons.

Divided Vienna © Christophe Lingg, Wikimedia Commons.


My beloved Salzburg was in the Austrian American Zone. Maybe that’s why I have such an affinity for the place! Thank you Fr. Renna, leader of our trips there, and Herr Gunter Reibhorn, our local travel man!

Happily, in 1955, Austria regained its full independence. In their Coat of Arms, one can see the Eagle’s talons holding the hammer and sickle of Communism with its chain broken signaling their freedom from the Communist Yoke. No symbols of freedom from Britain, France or the U.S.: That says it all.

"Coat of arms of Austria" by Peter Diem - Peter Diem. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Coat_of_arms_of_Austria.svg#/media/File:Coat_of_arms_of_Austria.svg

“Coat of arms of Austria” by Peter Diem – Peter Diem. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Coat_of_arms_of_Austria.svg#/media/File:Coat_of_arms_of_Austria.svg

In Europe and North America,  in 1949 we formed the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, NATO, to protect ourselves against Soviet Communism. When West Germany joined NATO in 1954, the Soviet Union became alarmed and formed the Warsaw Pact, with many of its buffer/client States.

NATO and the Warsaw Pact were both armed to the teeth:

European NATO and Warsaw Pact forces. © Alphathon, Wikimedia Commons

European NATO and Warsaw Pact forces. © Alphathon, Wikimedia Commons

Tensions ended with the fall of Soviet Communism, and the Warsaw Pact disbanded. NATO did not. I’m not suggesting it should have, but Russia took note nonetheless.

The EU and NATO in Eastern Europe Today

Both the European Union and NATO have rapidly expanded into the old Soviet Sphere, the “Eastern Bloc,” in the late 20th and early 21st centuries:

European Union:


European Union 2015


NATO's growth © Arz, Wikimedia Commons

NATO’s growth © Arz, Wikimedia Commons

We know that the EU and NATO pose no offensive military threat to Russia. But they don’t. They perceived our buildup on their doorstep as very threatening, or at least Putin did.

Hieromonk Mark Ciccone, S.J. at Our Lady of Fatima Byzantine Catholic Church, San Francisco

Hieromonk Mark Ciccone, S.J. at Our Lady of Fatima Byzantine Catholic Church, San Francisco, serving Divine Liturgy in continuity with the Roman Empire in 1453. The Legacy continues.

Due to the long, often painful history of Russia, there is a strain in Russian / Slavic Culture that tends toward suspicion. I have encountered that first hand living here in San Francisco, and especially in my 13 years as Pastor at Our Lady of Fatima Russian Byzantine Catholic Church. Nothing against the Slavs I knew and ministered to, but it was there. I remember the venerable Dimitry Gay, the old Choir Director who lived at Fatima for many years, and others remarking after the fall of the Soviet Union: “Just wait, this is a trick! The West will let down its guard, and boom! The Communists will jump back up and seize us all!” They had been praying to the Theotokos for so long for just this to happen, and they could not accept that their prayers had been answered!

So Russian suspicion about Western motives is almost natural for them. And, truth to tell, the United States does have a history of dominating others, usually culturally and economically, but, as in many of the wars of my lifetime, militarily too.

We forced the Soviet missiles out of Cuba in 1962, one of the most terrifying times of my childhood. Even though the NATO missiles in Eastern Europe are defensive in nature, they are missiles. Again, I’m not against it, but we also have to–as they say in politics nowadays–look at the Optics, that is, how does it look?

But through all of this, Russians kept liking all things American, until four months in 1999.

The Bombing of Belgrade and Kosovo

As Yugoslavia began to implode in the decades following Tito’s death, a series of nationalist wars ensued 1991-2001. Among these, in 1998-1999 the then Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (Serbia and Montenegro) began an armed campaign against the separatists in their province of Kosovo, which led to war crimes and ethnic cleansing. It was an enormously complex situation, and you can read the details here.

From March to June 1999, NATO, led by the United States, decided to unilaterally intervene with air strikes in Kosovo and the Serbian capital, Belgrade. NATO did not have UN backing, as Russia and China would certainly have vetoed the resolution in the Security Council. I am not arguing in favor of, or against, the NATO intervention, which did bring the conflict to an end. The debate on the action’s legitimacy continues today. That is not my point. The stakes on both sides were very high.

St. Sava's Orthodox Cathedral, Belgrade, modeled on Hagia Sophia in Constantinople.

St. Sava’s Orthodox Cathedral, Belgrade, modeled on Hagia Sophia in Constantinople.

I am speaking here about the “Optics” which ensued and their lasting repercussions on West-Russia relations.

Optics here is used in the figurative sense we use it for in politics today. It’s how a situation will look like to the public. It comes from Medieval Latin opticus (optic; of or relating to seeing, sight or vision), from Ancient Greek ὀπτικός (optikós, of or relating to seeing, sight or vision). BTW: I just contributed this etymology to Wiktionary!

The Long Slavic Memory

Americans collectively have notoriously short historical memories. Europeans in general have longer memories, but Slavs are past masters of remembering their history. A couple of examples follow.

Holy Protection (Russian Icon)

Holy Protection (Russian Icon)

From Wikipedia, an excellent explanation of the Orthodox / Byzantine Greek Catholic Feast of the Holy Protection on October 1:

According to Eastern Orthodox Sacred Tradition, the apparition of Mary the Theotokos occurred during the 10th century at the Blachernae church in Constantinople where several of her relics (her robe, veil, and part of her belt) were kept. On Sunday, October 1 at four in the morning, St. Andrew the Blessed Fool-for-Christ, who was a Slav by birth, saw the dome of the church open and the Virgin Mary enter, moving in the air above him, glowing and surrounded by angels and saints. She knelt and prayed with tears for all faithful Christians in the world. The Virgin Mary asked Her Son, Jesus Christ, to accept the prayers of all the people entreating Him and looking for Her protection. Once Her prayer was completed, She walked to the altar and continued to pray. Afterwards, She spread Her veil over all the people in the church as a protection.

St Andrew turned to his disciple, St. Epiphanius, who was standing near him, and asked, “Do you see, brother, the Holy Theotokos, praying for all the world?” Epiphanius answered, “Yes, Holy Father, I see it and am amazed!”

According to the Primary Chronicle of St. Nestor the Chronicler, the inhabitants of Constantinople called upon the intercession of the Mother of God to protect them from an attack by a large Rus’ army (Rus’ was still pagan at the time). According to Nestor, the feast celebrates the destruction of this fleet sometime in the ninth century.

An icon of the Virgin Mary praying, surrounded by people, was said to be kept in the Blachernae church. It is said to reproduce the events as St Andrew saw them that day.

What is relevant here is that while the Feast of the Holy Protection is on the calendars of non-Slavic Eastern Orthodox and Slavic Greek Catholic calendars, it is only in the Slavic Orthodox and Slavic Byzantine Greek Catholic Churches that it is celebrated with tremendous fervor. It is the highest feast on the calendar after Pascha and the 12 Great Feasts themselves. Those who were protected have almost forgotten the Feast. Those who were defeated (the pre-Christian Slavs) remember it passionately.

Secondly, I recall a TV reporter interviewing a Serbian soldier on a battle field in Kosovo during the War, after the fighting had stopped. The journalist asked, “What happened here?” He meant, what happened in this battle.

The Serbian soldier replied “Well, you see, in the 15th century…” and began relating events of one of the old Battles of Kosovo that are central to the Serbian national character.

The Significance of Kosovo for Serbians and Others in Eastern Europe

Caveat: Anything I say here is never meant to justify Ethnic or Religious Cleansing anywhere or the War Crimes of the Yugoslav Wars. 

After the Roman Capital fell in 1453, the bulwark that had held back the sea of the Muslim Ottoman Turks from Eastern Europe was gone. Already there had been incursions, and after the Fall of Constantinople, these increased. Under the Millet system of the Ottomans, the Christian population of their Greek and Balkan occupied territories were the Millet-i Rûm (Nation of Romans). Just as during the time of the Roman Empire, their realm was known as  The Empire of the Romans, Βασιλεία Ῥωμαίων, Basileia Rhōmaiōn; Latin: Imperium Romanum), or Romania (Ῥωμανία), now these occupied territories were referred to by the Ottomans as  Rumelia (TurkishRumeliBosnianRumelijaGreekΡωμυλίαRomylía, or Ρούμελη, RoúmeliAlbanianRumeliaSerbianRumelija and BulgarianРумелияRumeliya).

And the Turks did not stop with the Balkans. From the 14th to the early 20th Centuries, they kept advancing or trying to advance into Eastern and Central Europe, getting so far to be besiege Vienna in 1529, at the height of Ottoman power in Europe. (There is a wonderful fantasy novel by Tim Powers, The Drawing of the Dark, involving the historical Siege, Merlin, the Fisher King and Muslim and Christian Magicians. Read it!)

You will doubtless recall that Vlad II Dracul, Vlad the Impaler, on whom Dracula is modeled, fought the Ottomans, trying to keep them from advancing further into Europe in the 15th Century.

Paolo Siccardi, The Battle of Kosovo

The Battle of Kosovo,

The Battle of Kosovo (1389), even before the Fall of the Roman Empire, is deeply etched in Serbian and other Eastern European memory. The opposing armies were led by Serbian Prince Lazar Hrebeljanović, and the Ottoman Sultan Murad Hüdavendigâr. Both leaders were killed, and their armies virtually destroyed one another. However heroic the Serb defense of their nation was, it left them so weakened that the next assault from the far larger Ottoman forces was successful.

What are the Optics from the Ordinary Russian’s (and Eastern Slav’s) Viewpoint

I am not suggesting that we have caused this situation needlessly. I’m taking no position on that question. What I am saying is, we must start being aware of the Optics of our actions. And in doing so, we must become much more sophisticated in our foreign policy and use of military power.

Bombing Serbia and Belgrade

In Bombing Serbia, and especially Belgrade, we were bombing an ancient Orthodox East Slavic capital. The Belgrade area has been continuously occupied for about 50,000 years. The Roman armies reached it around 33 BCE, naming it Singidunum, and within two centuries the old city became a Roman municipium and then a colonia (highest city class).

Emperor St. Constantine the Great

Emperor St. Constantine the Great

The first Christian Emperor, St. Constantine the Great (272-337) came from Serbia, as did the restorer of Christianity, the Emperor Jovian (331-364) who was born in what is today, Belgrade.

In a recent HBO Vice episode, they went inside Russia to ask what was causing this Cold War 2.0. The episode inspired this post. When they asked a Russian on the street about the chill in relations, she said something like this:

“We all loved everything American, and then you bombed Belgrade! That changed everything.”

After the Fall of the Orthodox Christian Roman Empire in 1453, Russia assumed the mantle of the protector of Orthodoxy. While Russia may not be acting in a very Christian manner, that concept is deeply imbedded in the Russian soul. Protector of the East Slavs, and protector of Orthodoxy.

The bombing of Belgrade stirs up bad memories for the Russian / Orthodox soul:

  • The sack of Constantinople by the Roman Catholic Crusaders in 1204
  • Other attacks against the Orthodox East by the Latin West, such as the Teutonic Knights and the Swedish forces whom St. Alexander Nevsky defeated in the 13th century.

And to make matters worse, a Serb or Russian would say, the West did this to protect Muslims: those who destroyed the Great Christian Empire of Rome, and turned its chief Church, Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, into a Mosque, and who occupied much of the East Slavic world for centuries.

The Third Rome

The Third Rome

I am not taking those hatreds into myself, and I do not excuse the Serbian atrocities. But we need to understand history, and use that knowledge in our actions. A war criminal and tyrant like Slobodan Milošević knows that history, and used it to manipulate his people and armed forces.

We must never forget that from a Russian and East Slavic perspective, there are historically two great threats to Slavs and Orthodoxy: Islam, and the West.

For centuries in this part of the world, Roman Catholic and later Protestant forces kept making incursions on East Slavic and other Orthodox territory, even plundering Monasteries and killing the Monks and Nuns. In the Old Menaion, the daily canon of the Saints commemorated, there is an epithet reserved for only three groups. While it has largely been removed in modern Menaia, it is still there in the older editions: “God-disgusting.” When a monastery or Orthodox Christians were martyred by Muslims, Latins, or Lutherans, it will read, “…martyred by the God-disgusting (fill in the enemy).”

Not all Orthodox Christians feel this way. Obviously the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew has moved on, and is working hand-in-hand with his counterpart, Pope Francis. but that long Slavic memory, coupled with a well-earned cultural pre-disposition to suspicion (history has been hard in this part of the world!), is at play. I’m not saying this is a religious dispute, but the culture has been permeated with this feeling.

Crossing the Line of Diocletian

The EU and NATO presence in Eastern Europe, welcomed by those nations that have invited them in, can therefore be seen by Russia as a threat to Russian security and influence. Having escaped the Bear Hug of Mother Russia, they are not eager to return to Russian domination.

Knowing his history well, Putin can play on those deeply felt suspicions by Russians of the West. Of course he doesn’t say, “They’ve crossed the Line of Diocletian.” He doesn’t have to, and I’m not sure the common Russian knows about the Line of Diocletian. Putin knows what emotional buttons to push. These reactions are instinctual, perhaps even sub-conscious. But they are there. Putin, like Milošević, knows how to cynically manipulate his people.

So What Do We Do?

I wish I had a comprehensive answer to that question. Given Putin’s saber-rattling, we have to be prepared to defend our allies. But the World would scarce survive an all-out war between Russia (and probably China) and NATO. It’s madness: MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction).

One thing we can do is to break Putin’s hold on his media. Radio Free Europe did a great job during Cold War 1.0. Perhaps some internet-based version 2.0 could assist. And we can once again promote cultural exchanges; it worked before.

Above all, we’ve got to be smart, and must increase our control of the Optics.

End Note: My Historiography

As anyone who reads my Blog regularly can tell you my view of the history of the Western World (From Persia / Iran, West, and including Western outposts like Australia and New Zealand), my historiography, if you will. For me, the central fact of Western History is Roman Civilization from its legendary beginning in 753 BCE to the Fall of the Roman Empire in 1453 CE. Rome itself inherited much from Ancient Greece, Ancient Egypt, and the Ancient Middle East, including the unending enmity with its rival to the East, Persia. It is in the context of, or in opposition to, the Roman Empire that the Abrahamic Faiths operated, and still do. The Empire completed the expulsion of Jewish people from their Temple and its destruction begun by Hellenistic forces, spreading the Jewish diaspora. The Empire first persecuted, and then sponsored Christianity. And one of Islam’s chief worldly goals was capturing the Empire.

On my cruise in Asia a couple of years ago, I coined the phrase “Children of Alexander, and Heirs of Rome” for this phenomenon, in my Blog. For me, this does not exclude or minimize the vital importance of knowing the many other strains that make up Western Civilization, including the rich aboriginal heritage of the native peoples of the West, our ties and debt to the civilization of India, the Shamanic origins behind our civilization as explained so well by Peter Kingsley, and the cultural and human riches brought by East Asians, Sub-Saharan Africans and the peoples of Oceania to the West (some brought willingly, and some brought by the great sins of Slavery and Colonialism).

I see the situation as an analogy with the nature of English as a Germanic Language with 70%+ of its vocabulary from Romance (Latin) and Greek sources. The underlying structure is one thing, but how that structure is expressed is a marvelously delicious tossed salad of diversity.

To those for whom this all sounds dreadfully Eurocentric and Male-focused, I offer these reflections to defend my historiography of the West as more than just studying DWEMs (Dead White European Males):

The Empire was in Europe, Asia (including the Middle East), and Africa. There were influential people in the Empire from any number of ethnicities. While the state of women wasn’t perfect, the women of the Roman civilization wielded considerable power, including, at times, ruling the Empire. For 1,100 years, the center and capital of Roman Civilization was at the furthest point of Southeastern Europe, with its Eastern suburbs in Asia: Constantinople. When one realizes that Roman Civilization stretches from 753 BCE to 1453 CE, it becomes far more diverse. Not perfect, but less DWEMy.

I consider Roman Civilization a lens which focused and transmitted what went before to us. It is Romanitas for the Western Heirs to the Empire, and Ῥωμαιοσύνη (Rōmaiosúnē, The Roman Way) for the Eastern Heirs.

Ovid in the Nuremberg Chronicle

Ovid in the Nuremberg Chronicle

Inspired by a section of Ovid’s Ars Amatoria, I wrote this at Brophy Prep in the early 70s, and it has always been a symbol of this gift from Latin and Greek:


(A Palimpsest or interpretation of Ovid’s Ars Amatoria Book II, “Forma bonum fragile est”)

A gift of airy lightness is this beauty
Fleeting as the frost of April’s melting.
The years flow by in endless, unrelenting promenade–
Beauty’s once sun-lit face can do no less
But fade into a twi-light fraught with greying hair
And face resembling the dried apricot whose withered grace
Pleases only weary travellers at journey’s pause.

The Rose, in manner quite like Cupid’s arrow
Has cause to wither,
Leaving thorns on which the unblemished child may prick her thumb.
Yawning lilies are vanquished finally by Cronus’ cruel sickle,
And the purple of new violets must fade into the brown
Of time-sands’s only hue.

O lover! Build your walls of star-plucked ebony
Made of the heavenly arts,
For even Saturn cannot raid a household fostered on twy-fold Tounguèd knowledge.
The lovers’ grasp is strong, founded on that celestial anchorage.

The lines of Ovid that inspired the conclusion were:

Nec levis ingenuas pectus coluisse per artes
Cura sit et linguas edidicisse duas.

Nor let it be a slight care to cultivate your mind in liberal arts, or to learn the two languages well.

Gratias tibi ago! Εὐχαριστῶ! (eukharistō) спасибо! (spa-CEE-boh)

Thank you.

Steven A. Armstrong
Tutor, Editor, Consultant

One thought on “What’s Going on with Russia?

  1. Great article, as usual!

    I understand your concerns but…..dictators are always like that….they want to be paid attention to….(sort of ..ego driven behavior…)…. …they usually last about 20 years…(from my experience)…so observe, and hold on….they are mortal…

    Cheers! antonietta

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