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Putin Reclaims Byzantium for His New Russian Empire

Vladimir Putin visited the St. Nilus Stolobensky Monastery in 2018. Credit: President of the Russian Federation,  Creative Commons Attribution 4.0, Wikipedia

Putin has associated 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.

By Theodore Christou

Russia’s two-headed eagle often worn by Russian athletes on their jerseys 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.

Putin Byzantium
Russian imperial eagle, Saint Petersburg. Credit: George Shuklin, CC BY 2.5/Wikipedia

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.

Putin Byzantium Russia
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 that 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.

Putin wants to make Russia the new Byzantium

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

Simply put: Russia wants to be the third Rome.

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.

Russia reclaims 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.

Putin 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, and of Orthodox Christianity. This is not necessarily a threat, but this is why Byzantium matters.

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.

Putin Byzantium Russia
Mount Athos, where twenty monasteries and institutions of learning established during the Byzantine period have been preserved and thrive to this day. Credit: 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).

Putin’s 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 was economically disadvantaged and wrestling for years in the 2010s under the yoke of economic austerity and concerns about its finances.

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

It harkens 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 imagination of millions, and in the worldview formation of more than 250 million people.

Byzantium also exists as propaganda—as a 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

The article was published at The Conversation and is republished under a Creative Commons License.

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