12 June 2017

Irony, holiness and machiavels (or, why Moscow?)

Ivan I Kalita ‘Moneybag’ of Moscow

In my arguments online with various Central European nationalists and Uniates (yes, I know, total and unhealthy waste of time – but occasionally entertaining in a ‘they say the darnedest things’ kind of way), there seems to be no sorer point than the fact that Moscow, rather than Kiev, is the acknowledged ecclesiastical centre of the Slavic Christian East. Usually – but wrongly – this is blamed on some kind of political shenanigans or on that eternal bogeyman of ‘Russian imperialism’. Naturally in the current-day political climate such misreadings of history become ever more common.

Never mind, of course, that ‘Russia’ as a united polity, let alone as an empire, did not even exist until 1721, or that Moscow as the diocesan centre of the Rus’ predates that polity by nearly 400 years, when Moscow was still a third-rate city-state governed by a knyaz rather than a tsar. The claim that the Patriarchate has historically been the handmaiden of ‘Russian imperialism’ is even more amusing when one considers that the last few early-modern Patriarchs of Moscow were a constant hamper on Tsar Pyotr I’s ambitions for a unitary centralised and cæsaropapist state, and after an argument on the subject of beards he had it broken back down to a Metropolia and converted into a bureau of government. The mundane, often comic realities tend to toss buckets of cold water on Central European nationalist persecution fantasies.

But it’s still an interesting historical question: why is the centre of the Orthodox Church of the Rus’ (that is to say, of the East Slavs) in Moscow, and not in some other city? Why not in Tver, or Vladimir, or Novgorod? Indeed, why not in Kiev? The answer, as it turns out, has its amusing points, though it’s hardly a convenient one for nationalists of various stripes – whether Polish or Ukrainian or even Russian. But then, the ideology of nationalism generally has an insufficient appreciation for irony, and the ecclesiastical history that begins in Kiev and ends in Moscow is nothing if not ironic.

Romanticism about Kievan Rus’ aside – a romanticism I myself sometimes indulge in, by the way – the vast bulk of the rulers of Kievan Rus’ who came after Saint Vladimir the Great and Yaroslav the Wise (with a handful of honourable exceptions, such as the stern-but-fair Andrei I of Rostov) were, shall we say, not the very best of men. For the most part, they were petty, quarrelsome, greedy and duplicitous princelings. The want of quality in these bickering rulers, particularly in light of the shining virtues of their predecessors, was a particular cause for lament in the Tale of Igor’s Armament:
  Усобица княземъ
на поганы я погыбе.
  Рекоста бо братъ брату;—
“Се мое, а то—мое же”.
И начаша князи про малое
“Се великое” молвити, а сами
на себе крамолу ковати.
а поганіи со всѣхъ странъ
прихождаху съ побѣдами
на землю Рускую.
О, далече зайде соколъ
птиць бья къ морю.
  А Игорева храброго полку не кресити!

  The discord of the princes
ruined them against the Pagans.
  For, brother spake to brother;—
“This is mine, and that is also mine.”
And the princes began to pronounce
of a paltry thing, “this is great”;
and themselves amongst them to forge feuds;
and the heathens from all sides
advanced with victories
against the Russian land.
Oh, far has the hawk followed,
smiting the birds into the sea!
  And Igor’s brave host will rise no more!
Kiev’s importance as the political centre of a united Rus’ quickly declined as local princelings began taking control of their own postage-stamp states (usually centred on one of the fortified cities that gave Garðaríki its name); the result was something not entirely unlike the Spring and Autumn and Warring States periods of Chinese history. The political-cultural centrality and primacy of the Kievan state among the Rus’ was reduced to a symbolic role. Even that centrality and primacy soon transferred, on account of Saint Andrei’s brilliant rule, to the city of Vladimir, although the ecclesiastical seat remained – in spite of Saint Andrei’s efforts to the contrary – firmly in Kiev. Vladimir’s power was in turn broken by the onslaught of the Mongols.

As for Moscow: the grasping, thieving, petty and opportunistic nature of the later Rus’ princes, poetically summarised by the anonymous author of Igor’s Armament, was certainly reflected in the early history of Moscow as well. Russia historian Robert Crummey writes:
The early princes of Moscow are shadowy men. [V. O.] Kliuchevskii, a lecturer renowned for his verbal portraits of historical figures, remarked, ‘All princes of Moscow up to Ivan III were as similar as two drops of water so that the observer sometimes has trouble deciding which of them was Ivan and which Vasilii’. He then went on to describe them collectively as cautious, calculating, petty men with no soaring visions and no morally edifying qualities. There is some truth to his observations. The sources give us very little direct evidence of the personal features or ideals of Moscow’s rulers. Moreover, their actions – and those of their rivals – suggest that they were all, to some extent, greedy and ruthless men. A world of incessant warfare and political intrigue required such unpleasant qualities for survival.
Among these vicious princes, it so happened that one of them was in the right place at the right time, and – more importantly – behaved in an uncharacteristically generous way to the right person (and afterward never stopped bilking that act of generosity for all it was worth). Ivan I ‘Moneybag’ of Moscow was certainly of a piece with his contemporaries, and he is described thus by Dr Crummey:
To generations of historians, Ivan I has been the epitome of the early rulers of Moscow. His actions reveal him as a crafty and ruthless opportunist, an ambitious and grasping landowner and tax-collector. In his career, we see little of the visionary and absolutely no signs of a chivalrous crusader. He pursued limited goals by devious means. Yet his unattractive personal qualities equipped him well for the political struggles of his day.
The aforementioned ‘right person’ for whom he stepped out-of-character was a Galician hermit by the name of Piotr, who had been elected Metropolitan of Kiev (against his wishes) by Byzantine Emperor Andronicus II and Œcumenical Patriarch Saint Athanasius I, under the following circumstances:
When the office of metropolitan became vacant in 1305, the Patriarch of Constantinople rejected Michael [of Tver]’s hand-picked candidate and instead selected Peter, the abbot of a monastery in Galich in south-west Russia. From the Patriarch’s point of view, the appointment made very good sense, for in addition to Peter’s strong personal qualifications, the choice headed off an attempt by the ruler of Galicia to set up a separate ecclesiastical hierarchy. Under Peter’s leadership, the Eastern Orthodox Church would remain united throughout the Russian lands.
I’m shocked, shocked that a Galician prince would seek to subvert the Orthodox Church and set up his own. It’s not like that ended up happening over and over and over again in the coming centuries. Sarcasm aside, though, instead of accepting the decision of the Œcumenical Patriarch meekly, Michael of Tver made himself an enemy of the new Metropolitan Piotr and attempted to have him deposed by fair means and foul. Even though Piotr had taken the omophor unwillingly at Yuri’s behest, he still did not take kindly to assassination attempts or having his authority undermined, so he did what any self-respecting Metropolitan of the Orthodox Church would do in such circumstances. He made a deal with another prince who was willing to offer him protection, settled down and continued his work. And that prince was Ivan ‘Moneybag’. The result was predictable:
In 1325, after years of cooperation with the house of Moscow, Metropolitan Peter moved his residence to Ivan’s capital and prepared a tomb for himself in the new stone Church of the Dormition. Peter’s acts had lasting significance. From that time on, Moscow was the residence of the head of the Russian Orthodox hierarchy and its princes played the role of primary protectors of the Church. Moreover, in 1339, Peter’s successor Theognostus canonised him. Moscow became a pilgrimage centre and even Peter’s patron, the unscrupulous Ivan I, acquired an aura of sanctity in the eyes of later generations!
Metropolitan Saint Theognostus, in fact, was the one who really put the last nail in the coffin of Kiev’s ecclesiastical status and the political ambitions of the Princes of Tver to succeed Kiev; as the glorification of Metropolitan Saint Piotr along with the fact that Theognostus himself took up Piotr’s residence essentially assured that all future Metropolitans of Kiev and All Rus’ would rule from the Kremlin as long as the title lasted.

But that process had been started far earlier by Metropolitan Saint Piotr himself. And Piotr would not have been elected Metropolitan if Yuri of Galicia hadn’t been a particularly impious selfish jerk and threatened the Œcumenical Patriarch with schism. Which means that ‘Ukrainians’ – and not just any, but Galicians – are to thank or to blame, depending on your perspective, for the fact that Moscow rather than Kiev (or Tver, or Novgorod, or Vladimir) is the ecclesiastical centre of the Rus’. And as you choose, you can attribute this result either to the scheming calculations of Ivan I, or to Blessed Metropolitan Piotr’s peacemaking and church-building labours in and from Moscow, without which Ivan I would be little more than a footnote.

The logic of the world and the logic of the Church thus often intertwine, intersect and contrast themselves. Symphonía is not always pretty, and it can be both ironic and remarkably messy that way, but it’s still the most preferable way of ordering the political lives of the Church and the State.

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