Putin Stumps for the Orthodox Church in a Film Celebrating the Kievan Rus Anniversary

Leaving aside the issue of historical accuracy, one cannot help but be struck by how direct and numerous the historical analogies of this film are. The separation of Serbs and Bulgarians from Byzantium is presented as instigated by the West in order to weaken the empire (an obvious hint at the independence of Kosovo and the joining of the NATO by several Slavic nations). The Renaissance is portrayed as a strange phenomenon (an implicit criticism of the influence of Western popular culture on Russian esthetic values). The emperor who restrained the power of oligarchs is praised as a great patriot (a clear parallel with Putin's crusade against the tycoons: Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Vladimir Gusinsky, and Boris Berezovsky). At the end of the film, Shevkunov makes the most revealing statement: He claims that it was Joseph Stalin who, in the midst of World War II, gave a personal order to revive the scholarly study of Byzantium in the USSR (it was banned after the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917). "The former seminarian," Shevkunov concludes, finally realized from which historical periods Russia should learn its lessons.

Considering that neither of these films would have been shown on a state-controlled TV channel without high-level political support, Putin's statement that "Russia is an inalienable and organic part of Greater Europe and European civilization" is a brazen show of hypocrisy. The Europeanism of Russian culture was advocated by many Russian intellectuals, including the patriarch of Russian intelligentsia, the late academician Dmitry Likhachev, whose ideas were shared by Gorbachev and Yeltsin. Today, Russia is seen by its leaders as a great and unique empire with vast geopolitical interests. It has neither true allies nor friends: both the East and the West are allegedly eager to get control over its vast territories and natural resources.

In this respect, it comes as no surprise that in recent years Russia witnessed a growing interest in the ideas of Lev Gumilev, a historian who called himself "the last Eurasianist." Gumilev's 100th anniversary was widely celebrated and commemorated last year. The son of two famous Russian poets, Gumilev suffered tremendously from Soviet oppression. He spent 18 years (1938-1956) - most of his youth - in the Gulag. However, his concepts, including the fashionable idea of "passionarity" (a term he invented to mean the critical ability of a nation to survive and prosper) have been debunked by many professional historians. Gumilev calls Slavic and Turkic peoples the "super-ethne," while Europeans, according to him, have been for ages in the state of "inertia and obscuration" (terms that Gumilev uses to designate historically 'insignificant' nations). A viable ethnos, according to Gumilev, is defined through its ancestral lands. Consequently, "a parasite ethnos" or "parasite state" either lacks or loses its roots. Under this scenario, both the French and American Revolutions - perhaps the two most definitive political upheavals in the modern history of the West - led to the creation of parasite states: the French Republic and the United States of America. According to Gumilev, such states could survive only through the exploitation of someone else's resources - biological, intellectual, territorial, and natural. Paradoxically, a man who spent a significant portion of his life in jail valued neither a call for "liberté, égalité, fraternité" nor the declaration "that all men are created equal."

This being said, the sad reality is that a growing number of politicians and intellectuals in Russia seem to believe that "orthodoxy, autocracy, and nationality" -- the famous political slogan of Count Sergei Uvarov (1786-1855) -- could work today. One wonders whether they even care that Nicholas I (1796-1855), under whom Uvarov was minister of culture, is best-known for his brutal handling of the Decembrists - the Russian aristocrat-revolutionaries who in 1825 attempted to introduce either a republic or constitutional monarchy in Russia. Five of them were hung, while others deprived of their titles and sent to Siberia. One would hope that Russia's political and religious elites would find a more contemporary and inspiring slogan. Russian history and literature provide a wealth of positive ideas.

Presented by

Peter Eltsov is Washington-based political analyst.

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