The “Concept” of Russia

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Умом Россию не понять,

Аршином общим не измерить:

У ней особенная стать —

В Россию можно только верить

Фёдором Тютчевым

The short poem above was written by Fyodor Tyutchev on 10 December 1866, and translated in english sounds like this:

Russia cannot be understood with the mind alone,

No ordinary yardstick can span her greatness:

She stands alone, unique –

In Russia, one can only believe.

Despite being practically unknown in the West, in Russia it is almost a popular maxim, which, in my opinion, best expresses the way in which the citizens of that country identify themselves in the relationship with their nation.

I’m going to briefly explain the meaning of these verses:

Russia cannot be understood with the mind alone

The concept that Russia is not simply a country, or rather, a nation-state like those that were born in the nineteenth century, has always been dear to the romantic intelligencija and its currents, such as Panslavism.

Since the conquest of Constantinople by the Ottomans of Muhammad II on 29 May 1453, Grand Duchy of Moscow Ivan III claimed the historical religious and imperial legacy of the Byzantine Empire, which in turn considered itself the natural heir of the former Roman Empire.

Over the centuries, this assumption gave rise to the idea that Russia was a concept rather than a nation in the strict sense, a theological political entity that cannot be assessed with simple intellect.

The coat of arms of the Russian Empire, with the double-headed eagle, formerly associated with the Byzantine Empire

No ordinary yardstick can span her greatness

In the second verse there is a concept of “unmeasurable greatness” which underlines the concept of the assumption, by the Russian Empire, of all the historical weight of the Imperial legacy, both from a state and religious point of view.

The Moscow Prince should act as the Supreme Ruler (Sovereign and legislator) of Christian Eastern Orthodox nations. He also become the defender of the Christian Eastern Orthodox Church, in opposition to both the Western Catholic Church and the Ottoman Empire, of Islamic faith. Herewith the Church should facilitate the Sovereign in execution of his function supposedly determined by God, the autocratic administration.

There is also in this an ill-concealed Panslavist afflicted, who will justify past and present Imperialism and expansionism of the Empire, in the name of the unity of the Slavic peoples, or in any case of all those who were considered “naturally integral” part of Great Russia.

She stands alone, unique…

All this brings us to the aspect that has remained the longest in history, and that is most widespread among the population: the Uniqueness of Russia compared to the rest of the world.

The sum of the aforementioned aspects, combined with the theological one that we will see later, have led over the centuries to conceive the country as something that cannot be integrated in any context: not in the West, not in the East, not a bridge between the two.

Over the centuries this concept has taken many names and many forms, some still present today in the political discourse in Russia: the aforementioned Panslavism, Eurasianism, Turanism and ultimately what has been defined as “Russian World” (Русский Мир, Russkij Mir), which I will explain in subsequent articles.

In Russia, one can only believe.

Last but not least, we have the theological conceptualization that seals the previous verses, and which states: “one can only believe in Russia”.

This is the concept that fills the precedents with meaning, through the sacred connotation reserved for the destiny and inevitability of the unity and uniqueness of Holy Russia (Святая Русь, Svyatáya Rusʹ), also called “the Eternal Czardom of God in the Heaven and on the Earth”, is a philosophical, religious and political vision that has developed since the eighth century and that can still be found in the twenty-first.

In the words of the Metropolitan Hilarion, bishop of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia (Ру́сская Правосла́вная Це́рковь Заграни́цей, Russkaya Pravoslavnaya Tserkov’ Zagranitsey) often abbreviated to ROCOR, that in New York, for the celebration of the 1025th anniversary of the Baptism of Russia said:

As sons and daughters of the Russian Orthodox Church, we are all citizens of Holy Russia. When we speak of Holy Russia, we are not talking about the Russian Federation or any civil society on earth; rather, it is a way of life that has been passed down to us through the centuries by such great saints of the Russian Land [...] These saints are our ancestors, and we must look to them for instruction on how to bravely confess the Faith, even when facing persecution. There is no achievement in simply calling oneself "Russian:" in order to be a genuine Russian, one must first become Orthodox and live a life in the Church, as did our forebears, the founders of Holy Russia!

Metropolitan Hilarion of New York

Conclusion

So we are dealing with a concept not only of an ethnic character or of mere citizenship, but with a set of things that constitute a very particular way in which the Russians relate to the “other” world.

The birth and development of this concept over the centuries is reflected, with its own peculiar way, also in modern Russia, this small analysis wants to be a starting point to be able to discern them in future articles, throughout history to date, which I hope you will enjoy reading.


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