Wednesday, 12 July 2017

On Russia, Greeks and the Byzantine Empire

Below is an article by Dmitry Shlapentokh on how some recent Russian films are reflecting that country’s ideological and foreign policy preoccupations, its relations with Asia and the West. One of the films mentioned is The Fall of an Empire – the Lessons of Byzantium, which was written and presented by the prominent Russian cleric Archimandrite Tikhon Shevkunov who, apparently, is Vladimir Putin’s spiritual father. (The film is widely available on youtube, and above is the first part).

The film purports to explain why the Byzantine Empire collapsed, and it does this, largely, by pinning the blame on the West, which was not only perfidious and avaricious but also espoused decadent political and philosophical ideas that were exported to the Byzantines, who stupidly consumed them. Tikhon implicitly refutes any notion that Byzantium was an expression of Hellenism and, indeed, points to the re-emergence of Hellenism and Greek national consciousness as critical factors undermining the Orthodox Christian and multi-ethnic nature of the Empire. The Russian priest bemoans ‘Greek arrogance’ and its dalliance with the paganism of the classical past, which Tikhon says alienated Byzantine Slavs.

As Shlapentokh’s piece indicates, Tikhon’s film is less a serious attempt to understand Byzantine collapse and more an effort to draw a crude parallel between the malaise of contemporary Russia and that of Byzantium in decline and to warn Russian viewers that unless they confront their own social and moral turpitude and resist the influence of the decadent West, then Russia will go the same way as Byzantium.

Among other things, the film is an interesting insight into anti-Greek Slav prejudices and a warning to many Greeks (including me) who are susceptible to Russophilia.

A projection of Moscow’s mindset, by Dmitry Shlapentokh
Russia’s relations with the Asian people, as projected in recent movies, provides important insight not just about Russian domestic but also foreign policy, including Moscow’s view of the current conflicts in the Middle East.

Since the end of Vladimir Putin’s first term as president, the Russian movie industry has produced several historical movies on Asia and Russia’s relations with the Asian people. Most have had broad public responses, indicated by heated debates in cyberspace.

A movie about Genghis Khan, Mongol, created in 2007 and directed by Sergei Bodrov, was one of the most prominent. It dwelt on Khan’s extraordinary life, rising from an unknown man, even a slave at certain times of his early life, to became the creator of a huge empire.

His extraordinary brutality, even by the criteria of his time, was overlooked, as well as Khan’s descendents’ conquest of Russia. The emphasis was on Khan’s vitality, energy, talent and extraordinary will. In the movie, the East has positive implications whereas the West has a negative image.

In 2008, on the eve of Putin’s passing his presidential scepter to Dmitry Medvedev (at least formally), a new movie, The Fall of an Empire – the Lesson of Byzantium, created by Archimandrite Tikhon, allegedly Putin’s confessor, was shown on the official government TV channel, indicating its paramount ideological importance.

The movie dealt with history and the end of the Byzantine Empire, clearly identified here with Russia. While having a lot of similarities in its overall ideological framework with that of Mongol, Tikhon’s movie has much less pleasing images of the East than Bogrov’s work. The movie has decidedly anti-Western overtones.

According to this movie, the West is sly and deceptive; and one should not trust Western smiles and handshakes. Still, the most dangerous factor is not Western duplicity or even the fact that Western crusaders devastated Constantinople in 1204, but the corrosive influence of Western culture, which weakened the Byzantium Empire.

Still, there was not much hope in the East, and it was the Ottoman Turks who finally overtook Byzantium in 1453, leading to the disappearance of the indigenous Orthodox population.

Finally, last year, the movie The Horde, sponsored and funded by the Russian Orthodox Church, was brought to the screen with an entirely new image of the West. The movie dealt with the Golden Horde, created after Batu (Batyi), Genghis Khan’s grandson conquered Russian lands in the early 13th century. The rule of Batu and his descendants is usually called in Russian historiography the ‘Mongol/Tatar Yoke’, and the movie’s producer followed this traditional line.

The image of Tatars here is extremely negative: they were identified as brutal, sadistic, dirty, and with no moral restraints. One Tatar Khan, the protagonist of the movie, even contemplated an incestuous relationship with his mother.

Westerners emerge here as implicit allies of Russia, plainly because they were treated as badly as Russians; and, with all of their cultural/religious differences from Russians, they are closer to Russians by culture and habits. What is the broad implication of these movies and the evolution of the image of the West and East?

And why should anyone outside of Russia give any significance to these movies? This is quite important for understanding the nature of not just the internal evolution of Russian society.

Throughout most of Putin’s tenure, Moscow’s relationship with Washington was tense; and recently Moscow became at odds not just with the US, but also with most Europeans over the conflict in Syria. Still, despite the deterioration of Moscow’s relationship with both Washington and Brussels, the opposite process took place among the Russian public.

It’s true that the rest of Russians’ lost their excitement about the US – quite strong in the beginning of Gorbachev’s era – a long time ago. Yet, their interest in West and Central Europe and the desire to follow European footsteps grew as time progressed.

This process also corresponded with the increasing hostility between ethnic Russians and Muslims of various ethnic origins, including those who are citizens of the Russian Federation. As a result, the West, especially Europe, emerges in the mind of most ethnic Russians if not as friendly but at least a neutral force. In any case, the West is seen as much less of a threat than the Asians, mostly Muslim Asians. This view has a direct implication for Moscow’s foreign policy.

The mainstream media usually points to Moscow’s support of Damascus, ignoring the fact that Moscow’s relationship with Teheran actually worsens as the Syrian Civil War rages. Moscow continues to deny Tehran’s request to send S-300 missiles despite the 2007 contract and a recent Tehran law suit in an international court.

The Bushehr nuclear plant – still operated mostly by Russian personnel – has stopped working, and Iranian questions about nature of the problems were left without a response. Nor has Moscow responded to Israel’s tough statement that S-300 missiles would be immediately attacked by Israel if they are, indeed, delivered to Syria.

All of this indicates that, while defending its national interests, neither the Kremlin nor the majority of ethnic Russians – similar to the protagonists of The Horde – are anxious to join the East in a full-fledged alliance to confront the West, including the US. And these views should be taken into account both in Washington and Brussels, especially at a time when Western military power is clearly showing its limits.

Dmitry Shlapentokh’s article originally published here.