Russians Vs. Romans!
Commander John Murphy, USN Ret.
Is the Cold War returning? Cold War "rock star" Mikhail Gorbachev said so in Berlin on 9 November - at the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall. Current Russian leader Vladimir Putin couldn’t make the event. He was too busy developing the New Russia in Ukraine and Crimea. From a Russian
perspective "it’s the Romans fault!" If they had not spread throughout the world in the first millennium, grabbing land and imposing their language on foreign nations the world would be a much better place today. Russian scholars referred to this mindset as the "Russian Westernizer versus Slavophile controversy".
At Georgetown University in the 1970s, we expected this question to appear on major, graduate degree exams. We also knew that our answer should include four major elements: the historic evolution of the Russian state; the role of religion and the role of the Russian language development of the Russian
national state. Finally, a discussion of major Russian Westernizers and Slavophiles over the years - from 800 AD to the present.
Historic evolution of the Russian state
The modern Russian state began to emerge in Kiev,Ukraine in the 9th century. At the end of the European Dark Ages. It was called Kievan Rus’. Prior to that Russia was a desolate, frigid land of nomadic tribes. Primitive peoples with equally primitive cultures that were driven by cults of earth and stone
and trees. You came from the soil and you would return to the soil - Mother Russia. By the 10th century, the Kievan Rus’ people were a blend of northern Scandinavians and Eastern Slavs. A nation - state began to take form and was called Kievan Rus".
It was ruled between 882 -1054 by a series of princes with names such as Oleg, Svyatoslav, Vladimir, and Yaroslav the Wise. Svyatoslav greatly expanded the state’s territory. Vladimir the Great introduced religion and Yaroslav the Wise expanded the state out from its center in Kiev and introduced laws
and written culture. I describe this in some detail in the May 2014 Cold War Warrior article entitled "Putin the Great?"
Suffice it to say - all great Russian leaders after the Princes of Kiev seem to be measured by how much territory they acquired. So when the Mongol hordes began rolling west and destroying all in their path in the 13th century, the cradle of Russian history in Kiev was lost. It would be over 200 years
before a little known country crossroads called Moscow (Moskva in Russian) began to emerge as a center of Russian power and culture. In 1480 Ivan III of Moscow reestablished Russian control over lands taken by the Mongols and began to refer to himself as "tsar" (czar) - a Russian transliteration of the Roman word Caesar. It
was meant to be a clear statement that an empire was under his control.
In 1670, Pope Clement X wondered how to translate the Russian word "tsar"? To him, It seemed to be a barbarian term for "emperor". But, In the Christian world there could be only one emperor and he was in Rome. Peter the Great in 1721 didn’t help things much when he asserted that the Latin term
"imperator" should be used in place of tsar. Whatever you called him, it seemed to be in the DNA of Russian leaders to expand the territory of their Russian Empire.
This began with Ivan III in the 15th century when he claimed that he was the true heir and successor of Kievan Rus’. Then along came Ivan the 4th (Ivan the Terrible) in the 16th century who expanded the Russian state to over 1,000,000 acres and demanded that he be called "tsar". His western cousins did
not appreciate this. It made them nervous. But, Ivan eventually got so fed up with the politics in Russia that he decided he would seek asylum in England from his cousin Elizabeth the Great. Elizabeth refused his request and "The Terrible" died of a stroke while playing chess at the age of 53.
Then along came another great westernizer - Peter the Great (1672 -1725). Peter expanded the Russian empire from the Baltic Sea in the west to the Pacific Ocean in the east. He established Russian settlements in the Pacific in the mid-17th century. Also, it is important to note that Peter set out to
bring Kievan Rus’ back into the Russian empire. A process that dragged on from the mid 17th to late 18th century.
In 1721 Tsar Peter went to war with Sweden to gain unfettered access to the Baltic. He won convincingly and built a new capital on the Baltic - St. Petersburg. It was his window "upon Europe". He also reorganized his government based on European models. The Russian Orthodox Church was brought into his
government’s administrative structure. This subordination still exists today. This state religion became another element of control. Like communications, propaganda, finance, the courts etc. When Peter the Great died in 1725 (at age 53 … just like Ivan the Terrible), Russia had become a great power.
When the Soviet Union was created in 1918, Ukraine declared that it was Independent of the Russian Republic. During the Russian Civil War after World War I, Russians and Ukrainians fought for both the Red and White Armies. In 1922, both Russia and Ukraine were founding members of the USSR. Ukraine tried
to preserve its ancient ties to Christianity while the New Russia of the USSR viewed religion as a form of oppression. "Religion is opium for the people. Religion is a sort of spiritual booze, in which the slaves of capital drown their human image, their demand for a life more or less worthy of man." (Vladimir Lenin, "Novaya
In 1932 the Russians launched Stalin’s Holodomor or "Death by Hunger". A famine that killed 7.5 million Ukrainians. Scholars say that Holodomor was the result of economic problems that were tied to major economic changes during the liquidation of private property. Sound familiar?
When I was young, I met a local businessman who grew up on a large estate near Kiev. His father was the Chief Justice of the Kiev Supreme Court under Tsar Nicholas II. His family had to flee Russia in the 1920s. In the 1970s, much to his surprise, he received a check for $70,000 (about $530,000 today)
from the Soviet government in payment for his family estate. I guess Brezhnev’s Soviets decided it was payback time. Then came the post-Soviet "New Russia" where all property was up for grabs -again. This time by the greedy, immoral Russian oligarchs. Some would say that Russia had become westernized at last. By unprincipled
"wild and crazy" capitalists. A world without the constraints of morals, ethics and religion.
Role of Religion in Russia’s Development
To understand the significance of religion in the development of the Russian state we need to return to Kiev in the ninth century. The princes of Kiev understood only too well that religion was a part of the structure of a modern nation. But, they wanted their religion to have a uniquely Slavic
dimension to it. They would begin by conducting a worldwide survey of all religions. When they were finished, they selected the Church of Constantinople as the model for their future Eastern Slavic religion. They believed that the Northern Slavs - particularly Poland - were unduly controlled by the Bishop of Rome. They did not
want this to happen to Russia.
The Eastern Orthodox Church in Constantinople traced its roots back to St. Paul and the Apostles through the Holy Roman Empire. It claimed it was the church founded by Jesus Christ. In the 16th century, when Moscow decided to assert that it was the legitimate Capital of Christendom or the "3rd
Rome"….they used a story first recorded by the Monk Philotheus in 1510 that a white cowl (i.e. hood) was a sacred relic that was passed from the Bishop of Rome to Constantinople and finally to Moscow.
The legend had it that the Bishop of Rome had sinned and thereby lost his right to the white cowl. The white cowl was then passed to the Bishop of Constantinople. When Constantinople fell to Islam and the Ottoman Turks in 1545, the white cowl was passed to Moscow and the Patriarch of the Russian
Orthodox Church. It became a symbol of the supremacy of Russian Orthodoxy in the Christian world and of Moscow as a world power.
Unlike the Western church, the Russian Orthodox Church has been under the control of the Russian government since the time of Peter the Great. A potential tool for repression. I visited Czechoslovakia in 1993 shortly after the demise of the USSR. The Czechs were thriving….as were the Poles. Their
American cousins were over there helping them adjust to the transition from the state planned economies of communism. Their everyday business practices reflected the highest standards of morality and ethics. Standards that they inherited from their ancestors in the Holy Roman Empire.
Meanwhile, in Russia there was a faux rebirth of religion. This included the restoration of ancient, orthodox churches and a show of great deference to the Patriarch of Moscow by Russian leaders. But we soon saw that it was nothing but a show. Soon the oligarchs dominated everyday life in Russia and
corruption and immorality spread throughout New Russia. The rule of law was a sham. Russia seemed to lack a moral rudder. Unlike their European Slavic cousins.
Role of Language in Russia’s Development
Language has also played a major role in Russian politics. Starting way back in Kievan Rus’ in the 9th century. When the Princes of Kiev set out to build the foundation for their Slavic state. They saw language as a discriminator and barrier to the influences of the west - particularly against Rome And
the Roman Catholic Church. They felt that their cousins In the Holy Roman Empire (i.e. Germans, Italians, Czechs, Polish, Dutch, French, Frisian, Slovenes, Serbians etc.) were held together by their use of the Latin or Roman alphabet in all their religious and secular writings. Kievan Rus’ would not fall into this trap. They
would create their own alphabet and it would serve as a barrier to the influences of Rome.
Most know the story of the creation of the Cyrillic alphabet by two brother priests - linguists from Constantinople - Cyril and Methodius. The brothers conducted a phonetic analysis of the sounds of the southern and eastern Slavs. Where they heard vowels and consonants that were common to their Greek
language they would use the symbol from the Greek alphabet. When they encountered unique sounds they created new symbols that appear in the modern Russian alphabet today.
The initial Cyrillic alphabet of the 9th century had 56 symbols. This has been gradually reduced to 26 symbols. The last Russian alphabetic symbol to be deleted was known as the "hard sign". It was deleted by Stalin in a cost-cutting measure in the 1920s. It was noted that they could save $15 million
($170 million today) in annual printing costs by eliminating this non -significant symbol.
Once The Princes of Kiev had an alphabet they set about creating a rich foundation of religious and secular writing. This task was assigned to the holy monks of the Crypt Cave Monastery in Kiev. This was in contrast with the monks in the west that focused strictly on religious material. The Kievan Rus’
secular material gave historians and linguists rare insights into the daily lives of eastern Slavdom at the time.
It was not long before these ancient Rus’ians began to claim that their culture was superior to that of Europe. A case in point would be when Princess Anne, daughter of Yaroslav the Wise of Kiev married King Henry I of France. The Russians proudly noted that Anne was the only literate member of the
French Court. Queen Anne signed important court documents for Henry and became Regent of France after his death in 1080.
Language as a unifier
If you fast-forward to the 19th and 20th centuries you can see where the Russian language was used to unify and control the people. Especially during the Soviet era (1918 -1992). As a student of Russian in the 1970s, I took great pride in my ability to read, write and even speak 9th century (Church
Slavonic) and the modern Russian language. We could see the similarities and transferences that occurred over a 1,000-year period between these languages. To us, Ukrainian and Russian seemed like the same language. We joked about it being like listening to a Yankee from New Jersey or a Southerner from Alabama or Georgia speak
English. They were communicating alright, but sounded a little different.
The beauty of the modern Russian language was that it allowed the Soviets to communicate across 150 subdivisions of their nation (16 autonomous Republics, 120 Oblasts etc.) Through the printed and spoken word - this diverse conglomeration of governmental units became one. I can see where from a Russian
perspective, the collapse of the Soviet Union also led to a breakdown in solidarity across the former Soviet Union. The various nationalities and ethnic groups drifted back to their native languages. Still, Russia remains number 1 worldwide in terms of overall national -territory with 6,000,000 square miles. Well ahead of
China with 3,600,000 square miles, and the U.S. and Canada with about 3,500,000 square miles of territory each.
Westernizers versus Slavophiles
Vladimir Putin is tsar of Russia today. For better or worse he rules supreme over all that Peter and others created. As we have seen, some Russian leaders have chosen to isolate themselves from all western influences. In my May 2014 article "Putin the Great?" I provide an assessment of those leaders
that have tended to work with the west and those that considered it their enemy.
Peter the Great was the greatest Russian westernizer. Vladimir Putin is now showing himself to be a classic Slavophile. This is to be expected… It’s in his genes. His grandfather - was a cook for Joseph Stalin himself. Putin was a rising star in the Soviet KGB in the early 1990s. Now he is the very
personification of the kulak…a Russian macho type who likes to strut about and lead his New Russia straight back to the past. Will he succeed? I doubt it, but he clearly relishes being front stage and center.
Putin’s agenda is clear
Vladimir Putin clearly wants to prevent Ukraine from becoming pro -Western and a part of NATO. He seeks dominance of their energy resources - its "chernomor" or earthly resources. He is using energy to control and subvert the Ukrainians. He does not want them to become part of the EU or "westernized".
He also is using all the old tricks in his KGB tool kit. First of all, there is a generous use of disinformation. America is portrayed as the archenemy of Russia.
He hits all the Ukrainian "hot buttons" such as claiming they are "neo Nazis" – that are conducting an ethnic cleansing of innocent Russians from their territory. Also, he is using Special Operations forces troops (spetsnaz) in Crimea and East Ukraine.
Moscow denies that they are Russians and when shown evidence that they are - simply says they are volunteers on vacation. How stupid does he think we are? It doesn’t matter. Meanwhile, ancient Bear D reconnaissance aircraft are conducting unannounced flights along the periphery of NATO nations.
Threatening? Ominous? Actually it is pretty "bush league" stuff by Cold War standards, but the western press eats it up.
What do the Ukrainian and Russian people think?
If you read the Russian press regularly you get the impression that the Russian people support what Putin is doing in Crimea and East Ukraine. Recent polls by the state media claim Russians support Putin by 65%. Of course this is a Russian press that is tightly controlled by the central government.
Reading between the lines, I sense that the every day Russian has little or no appreciation for the potential impact of Putin’s policies and the western sanctions against them. Not yet anyway. They only know what their government is telling them and they believe that there is some kind of an information
war going on. That America and the West simply want to push Russia around and control the whole world. Quite a change from what I was hearing from the man on the street in Moscow and St. Petersburg in the early ‘90s. They were so upbeat and hopeful. They loved us! I thought at the time "This is good! … The Russian soul is free
If you read between the lines of the Russian and Ukrainian press today you would get the impression that some fear that Russia is drifting back into a dictatorship. A land where there are no rules or laws. But lots of repression. Many Ukrainians just want the Russians to "go home". Sure Putin is doing
some things that they like, but they do not want to go back to Communism. This is why Putin wraps what he is doing in terms of ancient Russian history.
Russians know and understand men like Putin and they expect to be ruled by strong leaders. Young Russians …particularly small business owners, realize that there is a Russian elite (i.e. oligarchs) that makes way too much money and the rest of Russian society "lives off the crumbs". And yet, I sense
there is a true and living bond between Russia and Ukraine. A very strong bond.
"Andrey" of Kiev recently was quoted in Reuters: "To me, he’s (Putin) a fascist. But I regard Russia and Russian culture with respect and even love. Many of my friends are Russian and many of them also don’t support Putin’s politics.".
So as you read the headlines In the near future, keep in mind that from Putin’s perspective - all that is going wrong in Ukraine is America’s fault … and the Romans of course. Not him - Tsar Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin.
Yet, some Russians think that we should be a little careful as to what we wish for. That Putin could be replaced by someone who is a lot worse from a western perspective.
Read other articles by Commander John Murphy