Moscow the third Rome

By: Timothy Ware ( Bishop Kallistos of Diokleia)Read time: 13 mins6393 Hits

Moscow the third Rome

After the taking of Constantinople in 1453, there was only one nation capable of assuming leadership in eastern Christendom. The greater part of Bulgaria, Serbia, and Romania had already been conquered by the Turks, while the rest was absorbed before long. Russia alone remained. To the Russians it seemed no coincidence that at the very moment when the Byzantine Empire came to an end, they themselves were at last throwing off the few remaining vestiges of Tartar suzerainty: God, it seemed, was granting them their freedom because He had chosen them to be the successors of Byzantium.

At the same time as the land of Russia, the Russian Church gained its independence, more by chance than from any deliberate design. Hitherto the Patriarch of Constantinople had appointed the head of the Russian Church, the Metropolitan. At the Council of Florence the Metropolitan was a Greek, Isidore. A leading supporter of the union with Rome, Isidore returned to Moscow in 1441 and proclaimed the decrees of Florence, but he met with no support from the Russians: he was imprisoned by the Grand Duke, but after a time was allowed to escape, and went back to Italy. The chief see was thus left vacant; but the Russians could not ask the Patriarch for a new Metropolitan, because until 1453 the official Church at Constantinople continued to accept the Florentine Union. Reluctant to take action on their own, the Russians delayed for several years. Eventually in 1448 a council of Russian bishops proceeded to elect a Metropolitan without further reference to Constantinople. After 1453, when the Florentine Union was abandoned at Constantinople, communion between the Patriarchate and Russia was restored, but Russia continued to appoint its own chief hierarch. Henceforward the Russian Church was autocephalous.

The idea of Moscow as successor of Byzantium was assisted by a marriage. In 1472 Ivan III “the Great” (reigned 1462-1505) married Sophia, niece of the last Byzantine Emperor. Although Sophia had brothers and was not the legal heir to the throne, the marriage served to establish a dynastic link with Byzantium. The Grand Duke of Moscow began to assume the Byzantine titles of “autocrat” and “Tsar” (an adaptation of the Roman “Caesar”) and to use the double-headed eagle of Byzantium as his State emblem. Men came to think of Moscow as “the Third Rome.” The first Rome (so they argued) had fallen to the barbarians and then lapsed into heresy; the second Rome, Constantinople, had in turn fallen into heresy at the Council of Florence, and as a punishment had been taken by the Turks. Moscow therefore had succeeded Constantinople as the Third and last Rome, the center of Orthodox Christendom. The monk Philotheus of Pskov set forth this line of argument in a famous letter written in 1510 to Tsar Basil III:


I wish to add a few words on the present Orthodox Empire of ?ur ruler: he is on earth the sole Emperor (Tsar) of the Christians, the leader of the Apostolic Church which stands no longer Rome or in Constantinople, but in the blessed city of Moscow. She alone shines in the whole world brighter than the sun.… All Christian Empires are fallen and in their stead stands alone the Empire of our ruler in accordance with the Prophetical books. Two Romes have fallen, but the third stands and a fourth there will not be (Quoted in Baynes and Moss, Byzantium: an Introduction, p. 385).


This idea of Moscow the Third Rome had a certain appropriateness when applied to the Tsar: the Emperor of Byzantium once acted as champion and protector of Orthodoxy, and now the autocrat of Russia was called to perform the same task. But it could also be understood in other and less acceptable ways. If Moscow was the Third Rome, then should not the head of the Russian Church rank senior to the Patriarch of Constantinople? In fact this seniority has never been granted, and Russia has always ranked no higher than fifth among the Orthodox Churches, after Jerusalem. The concept of Moscow the Third Rome also encouraged a kind of Muscovite Messianism, and led Russians sometimes to think of themselves as a chosen people who could do no wrong; and if taken in a political as well as religious sense, it could be used to further the ends of Russian secular imperialism.

Now that the dream for which Saint Sergius worked — the liberation of Russia from the Tartars — had become a reality, a sad division occurred among his spiritual descendants. Sergius had united the social with the mystical side of monasticism, but under his successors these two aspects became separated. The separation first came into the open at a Church council in 1503. As this council drew to its close, Saint Nilus of Sora (Nil Sorsky, 1433?-1508), a monk from a remote hermitage in the forests beyond the Volga, rose to speak, and launched an attack on the ownership of land by monasteries (about a third of the land in Russia belonged to monasteries at this time). Saint Joseph, Abbot of Volokalamsk (1439-1515), replied in defense of monastic landholding. The majority of the Council supported Joseph; but there were others in the Russian Church who agreed with Nilus — chiefly hermits living like him beyond the Volga. Joseph’s party were known as the Possessors, Nilus and the “Transvolga hermits” as the Non-Possessors. During the next twenty years there was considerable tension between the two groups. Finally in 1525-1526 the Non-Possessors attacked Tsar Basil III for unjustly divorcing his wife (the Orthodox Church grants divorce, but only for certain reasons); the Tsar then imprisoned the leading Non-Possessors and closed the Transvolga hermitages. The tradition of Saint Nilus was driven underground, and although it never entirely disappeared, its influence in the Russian Church was very much restricted. For the time being the outlook of the Possessors reigned supreme.

Behind the question of monastic property lay two different conceptions of the monastic life, and ultimately two different views of the relation of the Church to the world. The Possessors emphasized the social obligations of monasticism: it is part of the work of monks to care for the sick and poor, to show hospitality and to teach; to do these things efficiently, monasteries need money and therefore they must own land. Monks (so they argued) do not use their wealth on themselves, but hold it in trust for the benefit of others. There was a saying among the followers of Joseph, “The riches of the Church are the riches of the poor.”

The Non-Possessors argued on the other hand that almsgiving is the duty of the laity, while a monk’s primary task is to help others by praying for them and by setting an example. To do these things properly a monk must be detached from the world, and only those who are vowed to complete poverty can achieve true detachment. Monks who are landowners cannot avoid being tangled up in secular anxieties, and because they become absorbed in worldly concerns, they act and think in a worldly way. In the words of the monk Vassian (Prince Patrikiev), a disciple of Nilus:


Where in the traditions of the Gospels, Apostles, and Fathers are monks ordered to acquire populous villages and enslave peasants to the brotherhood? …We look into the hands of the rich, fawn slavishly, flatter them to get out of them some little village… We wrong and rob and sell Christians, our brothers. We torture them with scourges like wild beasts (Quoted in B. Pares, A History of Russia, third edition, p. 93).


Vassian’s protest against torture and scourges brings us to a second matter over which the two sides disagreed, the treatment of heretics. Joseph upheld the view all but universal in Christendom at this time: if heretics are recalcitrant, the Church must call in the civil arm and resort to prison, torture, and if necessary fire. But Nilus condemned all forms of coercion and violence against heretics. One has only to recall how Protestants and Roman Catholics treated one another in western Europe during the Reformation, to realize how exceptional Nilus was in his tolerance and respect for human freedom.

The question of heretics in turn involved the wider problem of relations between Church and State. Nilus regarded heresy as a spiritual matter, to be settled by the Church without the State’s intervention; Joseph invoked the help of the secular authorities. In general Nilus drew a clearer line than Joseph between the things of Caesar and the things of God. The Possessors were great supporters of the ideal of Moscow the Third Rome; believing in a close alliance between Church and State, they took an active part in politics, as Sergius had done, but perhaps they were less careful than Sergius to guard the Church from becoming the servant of the State. The Non-Possessors for their part had a sharper awareness of the prophetic and other-worldly witness of monasticism. The Josephites were in danger of identifying the Kingdom of God with a kingdom of this world; Nilus saw that the Church on earth must always be a Church in pilgrimage. While Joseph and his party were great patriots and nationalists, the Non-Possessors thought more of the universality and Catholicity of the Church.

Nor did the divergences between the two sides end here: they also had different ideas of Christian piety and prayer. Joseph emphasized the place of rules and discipline, Nilus the inner and personal relation between God and the soul. Joseph stressed the place of beauty in worship, Nilus feared that beauty might become an idol: the monk (so Nilus maintained) is dedicated not only to an outward poverty, but to an absolute self-stripping, and he must be careful lest a devotion to beautiful icons or Church music comes between him and God. (In this suspicion of beauty, Nilus displays a Puritanism — almost an Iconoclasm — most unusual in Russian spirituality). Joseph realized the importance of corporate worship and of liturgical prayer:


A man can pray in his own room, but he will never pray there as he prays in Church… where the singing of many voices rises united towards God, where all have but one thought and one voice in the unity of love.… On high the seraphim proclaim the Trisagion, here below the human multitude raises the same hymn. Heaven and earth keep festival together, one in thanksgiving, one in happiness, one in joy (Quoted by J. Meyendorff, “Une controverse sur le rôle social de l’Église. La querelle des biens ecclésiastiques au xvie siècle en Russie,” in the periodical Irénikon, vol. xxix (1956), p. 29).


Nilus on the other hand was chiefly interested not in liturgical but in mystical prayer: before he settled at Sora he had lived as a monk on Mount Athos, and he knew the Byzantine Hesychast tradition at first hand.

The Russian Church rightly saw good things in the teaching of both Joseph and Nilus, and has canonized them both. Each inherited a part of the tradition of Saint Sergius, but no more than a part: Russia needed both the Josephite and the Transvolgian forms of monasticism, for each supplemented the other. It was sad indeed that the two sides entered into conflict, and that the tradition of Nilus was largely suppressed: without the Non-Possessors, the spiritual life of the Russian Church became one-sided and unbalanced. The close integration which the Josephites upheld between Church and State, their Russian nationalism, their devotion to the outward forms of worship — these things were to lead to trouble in the next century.

One of the most interesting participants in the dispute of Possessors and Non-Possessors was Saint Maximus the Greek (1470?-1556), a “bridge figure” whose long life embraces the three worlds of Renaissance Italy, Mount Athos, and Muscovy. Greek by birth, he spent the years of early manhood in Florence and Venice, as a friend of Humanist scholars such as Pico della Mirandola; he also fell under the influence of Savonarola, and for two years was a Dominican. Returning to Greece in 1504, he became a monk on Athos; in 1517 he was invited to Russia by the Tsar, to translate Greek works into Slavonic and to correct the Russian service books, which were disfigured by numerous errors. Like Nilus, he was devoted to the Hesychast ideals, and on arriving in Russia he threw in his lot with the Non-Possessors. He suffered with the rest, and was imprisoned for twenty-six years, from 1525 to 1551. He was attacked with particular bitterness for the changes which he proposed in the service books, and the work of revision was broken off and left unfinished. His great gifts of learning, from which the Russians could have benefited so much, were largely wasted in imprisonment. He was as strict as Nilus in his demand for self-stripping and spiritual poverty. “If you truly love Christ crucified,” he wrote, “…be a stranger, unknown, without country, without name, silent before your relatives, your acquaintances, and your friends; distribute all that you have to the poor, sacrifice all your old habits and all your own will” (Quoted by E. Denissoff, Maxime le Grec et l’Occident, Paris, 1943, pp. 275-276).

Although the victory of the Possessors meant a close alliance between Church and State, the Church did not forfeit all independence. When Ivan the Terrible’s power was at its height, the Metropolitan of Moscow, Saint Philip (died 1569), dared to protest openly against the Tsar’s bloodshed and injustice, and rebuked him to his face during the public celebration of the Liturgy. Ivan put him in prison and later had him strangled. Another who sharply criticized Ivan was Saint Basil the Blessed, the “Fool in Christ” (died 1552). Folly for the sake of Christ is a form of sanctity found in Byzantium, but particularly prominent in medieval Russia: the “Fool” carries the ideal of self-stripping and humiliation to its furthest extent, by renouncing all intellectual gifts, all forms of earthly wisdom, and by voluntarily taking upon himself the Cross of madness. These Fools often performed a valuable social role: simply because they were fools, they could criticize those in power with a frankness which no one else dared to employ. So it was with Basil, the “living conscience” of the Tsar. Ivan listened to the shrewd censure of the Fool, and so far from punishing him, treated him with marked honor.

In 1589, with the consent of the Patriarch of Constantinople, the head of the Russian Church was raised from the rank of Metropolitan to that of Patriarch. It was from one point of view a triumph for the ideal of Moscow the Third Rome; but it was a qualified triumph, for the Moscow Patriarch did not take first place in the Orthodox world, but fifth, after Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem (but superior to the more ancient Patriarchate of Serbia). As things turned out, the Moscow Patriarchate was to last for little more than a century.

 From the book The Orthodox Church by Timothy Ware (Now  Bishop Kallistos of Diokleia)