From its inception, the Russian state has long used Europe as a measure for itself. In the 19th century, the leading intellectual debate in Russia was between the Slavophiles and the Westernizers, divided on the idea of the essence of the Russian civilization and its relation to Europe.
The Westernizers called for Russia to modernize its economy and political institutions to become part of the advanced European intellectual space. In contrast, the Slavophiles did not see the autocratic and religious political culture as backward but rather as an expression of the uniqueness of Russian identity that ought to be preserved.
US, NATO and the Question of Russia
Throughout the Soviet experience, Europe and the West have retained this position of alterity and, at times, enmity, especially due to the USSR’s long-lasting confrontation with the US and NATO that characterized the Cold War years. Nowadays, Russian identity vis-à-vis Europe is again a topic of heated debate.
Indeed, relations between Moscow and its Western neighbors have become increasingly conflictual, especially since the events in Ukraine that led to the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014. In particular, a renewed oppositional stance toward the EU and NATO has allowed some interesting reworking of ideas around the relationship between Moscow and the West.
The turbulent events of 2013 and 2014 marked a crucial point, when political instability in Ukraine — a country Moscow considers a historic and strategic ally — and the ousting of the pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovich, created the conditions for the annexation of Crimea, provoking a Western response in the form of sanctions.
An unsurprising consequence of these developments was Russia’s return to the old Slavophile civilizational discourse to distance itself from Europe. But together with a new Russian imperial narrative to justify its hegemonic tendencies toward other post-Soviet countries, another, more ambiguous discourse has been disseminated by the Kremlin and Russian conservatives.
First of all, it is essential to emphasize that the Russian conservative milieu is varied and comprises people who are at least partially critical of President Vladimir Putin, but whose ideas are still close enough to the Kremlin not to be considered opposition figures. These include the controversial neo-Eurasianist philosopher Alexander Dugin, the outspoken imperialist leader of the Liberal Democratic Party Vladimir Zhirinovsky, and the hard-line nationalist Alexander Prokhanov. The intellectual debate taking place within this circle is contributing to the official ideology of the Russian government.
Particularly because of the renewed tensions, it is not surprising that the Kremlin is disseminating anti-Western discourses, both domestically and abroad. Mainly thanks to a well-developed web of alternative media, such as RT and Sputnik, directed at Western audiences, Russia is attempting to market itself as a civilizational alternative centered on “traditional values,” especially among those in the West who are dissatisfied with current politics.
An interesting way of both marketing Russia as an anti-Western civilization but still maintaining that active thread to Europe is by designating Russia as the “Third Rome.”
This idea is both simple and enticing. It entails a reinterpretation of the Third Rome prophecy formulated in the 16th century, according to which Moscow is the third and last Christian kingdom after the fall of Rome and Constantinople. Consistent with the millenarianism characterizing Christian philosophy, Moscow is described as destined to represent Christianity in its last and decisive struggle against the forces of the Antichrist: “Two Romes have fallen, the Third stands and a fourth shall never be.”
The first is of course Ancient Rome, which adopted Christianity as its state religion in the 4th century under Emperor Constantine but fell to the barbarians a century later, and the second is Byzantium, which succumbed to the Ottomans in 1453. Reinterpreted in modern terms, according to the anti-liberal and anti-Western worldview that has become part of the official discourse in Russia, the country is resignified as the political heir of the Christian Byzantine Empire and as the last standing bulwark of Christian moral values amidst a world corrupted by cultural decadence and moral relativism.
This trope has the effect of distancing Russia from the West while at the same time reclaiming Russian conservative values as quintessentially European. Indeed, the central claim is that Russia is now the last country that completely abides by the Christian values Europe once supposedly stood for, as seen in the Kremlin support for family values, characterized by traditional gender roles, opposition to LGBTQ+ rights and the rejection of multiculturalism.
Disseminated by pro-Russian media and other sympathetic outlets, such ideas have found the approval of far-right activists in Europe and beyond. At the International Conservative Forum in Saint Petersburg organized in 2015 by the Russian ultra-nationalist party Rodina (Motherland), Nick Griffin, the former leader of the British National Party, and Roberto Fiore, leader of Italy’s neo-fascist party Forza Nuova (New Force), underlined how Russia is the only country today that could save the West from the encroachment of the global elites and Islamization.
Griffin and Fiore both commented on how Russia represents the survival of Christendom and also the hope for a multipolar future against the “New World Order,” with not-so-subtle conspiratorial undertones.
Even if these ideas deal with the perception of Europe, they may also be easily reframed into a broader civilizational nuance. Matthew Heimbach, an American white supremacist and the founder of the Traditional Workers Movement, does not hide his admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin. In a 2016 tweet, he emphasized how his government has reasserted itself “as the defender of Christendom and the Third Rome, and has demonstrated a rediscovered purpose of supporting Tradition, Christianity, and identity.”
In more recent times, observers have noticed the proliferation of Byzantine themes in QAnon circles and among similar conspiracy groups, remarking the continuity between this bizarre phenomenon and the official statements of the Russian government defining itself as the rightful heir of Byzantium. In a period marked by increasing tensions between Russia and the West, it is of paramount importance to continue monitoring the evolution of such ideas and their potential impact both in Russia and beyond.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.