The Heirs of Byzantium
Even though the past is gone, it never really goes away. People, societies, and civilizations can have a lasting impact long after their own demise. We are all, in some way, the heirs of those that came before us. Sometimes we inherit things, like plots of land or money or antique pairs of underpants.
Other times the things we inherit are more abstract. We often inherit ideas, ways of thinking, and traditions from people long ago and far away. The Byzantine Empire faded away in 1450 after a long decline, but their influence has been present well into the twentieth century. The inheritor of the Byzantine tradition, especially in the realm of religion and public life, was the Soviet Union.
I. The people who lived in what modern scholars call the Byzantine Empire never called themselves Byzantines. They called themselves Romans, as they were the citizens of the eastern half of the empire. But Byzantine is a useful designation as it denotes the particular flavor the Romans took on when they didn’t have control of Rome anymore. Distinctly Greek, and distinctly Christian.
Although there is some debate the Byzantine, or Eastern Roman Empire was formed in 395 when Emperor Theodosius I split up the Empire between his two sons. Honorious got the unruly and besieged Western half, while Arcadius got the rich and affluent Eastern portions. Guess which son was the favorite.
As the Western Empire stagnated, shrank, and eventually fell, the Eastern Empire experienced a series of defeats and renewals all the way up to the final conquest of Constantinople in 1450. Invading Muslims breached the walls and renamed the city, “Istanbul.” Not just a popular song, but also a historic event.
The Byzantines developed and spread what we know today as Orthodox Christianity.
There was no real concept of, “separation of church and state,” for the Byzantines. Religion and public life were inexorably tied together, for better or worse. Byzantine missionaries spread their brand of Christianity north into Eastern Europe and Russia, where people still follow the Orthodox faith today.
The Soviet Union was formed much, much later after a revolution in 1917. This is fairly recent history, so I will be brief. Their idea was, basically, to create a lasting communist utopia where everyone would get along, there would be an abundance of resources, and no one would ever have to be, “purged.” It all sounds great. Too bad it wasn’t real.
Things didn’t work out that way, to say the least, and the Soviet Union suffered the fate of so many other civilizations that bit off more than they could chew. It collapsed under its own weight in the late 1980’s, leaving behind nothing but chaos, bitter memories, and dull remnants of its former self.
II. There are some obvious similarities between the Byzantine Empire and the former Soviet Union.
Orthodox Christianity was influential for both the Byzantines and the regions that encompassed the Soviet Union. Furthermore, like many groups in Western Europe, leaders in Russia and the surrounding region harbored dreams of resurrecting the ancient empire. Before the soviets, there were the Czars, the Russian adaptation of the word Caesar.
A third similarity that may be more topical is the Byzantine and Soviet tendency to muscle into regions where they historically held influence and think they ought to once again. The Emperor Justinian waged great campaigns across Italy reclaiming most of the peninsula for the Empire. But it didn’t last very long, because the people there had already moved beyond old Imperial loyalties. It was a costly campaign that ultimately didn’t achieve very much.
The Soviet Union took control of regions where Russians had historically held sway, regardless of how the people in those regions felt about communism and comradeship. Wrestling control over unenthusiastic regions probably contributed to the collapse of the Soviet Union.
III. The crux of this argument, however, only arises when you compare the Byzantine and Soviet attitudes toward religion and public life.
The Byzantines had a love-hate relationship with religion. It was an intrinsic part of both public and private life. The Emperor was not only the head of state, but he was also the head of the Church.
Many Byzantines, and Orthodox Christians throughout time, used representations of Saints and other religious figures to help them pray. These representations were called icons, and they were supposed to act as a sort-of conduit to God. The image of the Saint can remind you of the divine and help focus your thoughts on prayer. But there is a fine line between using an object to help you worship God and worshiping the object itself.
The temptation to worship objects or even revered people was a little too close to paganism for many Christians to be comfortable.
Because of this, the Byzantines often exhibited a behavior called, “iconoclasm,” or in layman’s terms, “smashing the icons!” Iconoclastic waves tore through Byzantine society many times throughout their history. Sometimes the Emperor gave the call to smash the icons, other times it was an influential bishop or priest, but every time it left waves of dissent among the people. Nobody likes having things they care about destroyed right in front of them, even if it might be for a good reason.
Centuries later the Soviet Union, already influenced by the Byzantines because of history and geography, took on this iconoclastic attitude. And they ran with it.
When you mix iconoclasm with socialist ideology the logical conclusion is violent atheism.
As for the Russian Orthodox Church, Soviet authorities sought to control it and, in times of national crisis, to exploit it for the regime’s own purposes; but their ultimate goal was to eliminate it. During the first five years of Soviet power, the Bolsheviks executed 28 Russian Orthodox bishops and over 1,200 Russian Orthodox priests. Many others were imprisoned or exiled. Believers were harassed and persecuted. Most seminaries were closed, and the publication of most religious material was prohibited. By 1941 only 500 churches remained open out of about 54,000 in existence prior to World War I.”
First, you want people to stop worshipping Icons because they distract from what is really important. But what if the very idea of religion is distracting from what is really important. It is, after all, the opiate of the masses. At least according to prominent socialist thinkers.
If you smash the icons and you slaughter the religious, then there is nothing left to worship but the state.
IV. In their attitudes toward religion, the Soviet Union was the heir to the Eastern Roman Empire. But the Soviets took it a bit too far, and like many of us, they failed to live up to their progenitors.
Given their similarities there is still a very distinct difference between the Byzantine Empire and the Soviet Union. The Eastern Roman Empire lasted for a thousand years after the fall of its Western counterpart.
The Soviet Union didn’t even last a single century.