During this Christmas season, one’s soul naturally turns to matters religious and ecclesiastic. This has to direct one’s thoughts towards Rome, but which Rome?
Geographically there’s only one worthy of mention, but religiously there have been at least two – or three, if you accept Moscow’s claim to the title of the third Rome.
The idea that Moscow had a legitimate right to that lofty title originated in the Grand Duchy of Muscovy during the reign of Ivan III. He ascended to the Moscow throne in 1462, just a few years after the fall of the second Rome, Constantinople.
Byzantium was no more, and Ivan felt its mission had been passed over to Moscow and him personally, especially since he was married to Sophia Paleologue, the daughter of the last Byzantine ruler. However, Ivan died in 1505, and the third Rome doctrine was coherently formulated during the reign of his son, Vasily III.
The man responsible for explaining the concept to the Grand Duke was the Pskov monk Philotheus, who wrote to Vasily: “So know, pious king, that all the Christian kingdoms came to an end and came together in a single kingdom of yours, two Romes have fallen, the third stands, and there will be no fourth.”
But there was work still to be done. Yes, explained Philotheus, the first two Romes had sunk into debauchery and heresy, thereby dropping the mantle of holiness into Moscow’s lap. The Russians had become God-chosen people, having relegated the Jews and the Greeks from that status.
Philotheus scolded Vasily for failing to accept such indisputable facts and act accordingly. However, the Russians too had room for self-improvement. For them to lead the world until the Second Coming they had to get rid of certain practices Philotheus found incompatible with their sacred mission.
Specifically, they still insisted on crossing themselves with two fingers, rather than the three prescribed by the Greek Orthodox Church. That deadly heresy was only abandoned in the late 17th century, when many of the two-finger schismatics were burned at the stake. Vasily, however, failed to act on the monk’s command, thereby doubtless consigning himself to the fire of hell.
Then Philotheus took exception to the Russian princes’ propensity to rob churches of their valuables. Now that charming tendency never quite went out of fashion.
For example, Ivan the Terrible and the two Russian tsars who merited the sobriquet of ‘Great’, Peter and Catherine (Ivan III was also called Great, but he wasn’t strictly speaking a tsar), didn’t mind replenishing their treasury at the expense of churches and monasteries.
And of course the Bolsheviks outdid them all by not only robbing the churches but also murdering over 40,000 priests and God only knows how many parishioners – all still on Lenin’s watch (d. 1924). It appears that Philotheus’s second warning fell on deaf ears.
All that is straightforward, but his third gripe was far from straight, as it were. For Philotheus accused the Russians of fondness for what he called the “Sodomite sin”. Moreover, according to him, “that abomination was widespread not only among the masses, but also among others who will go nameless, although the reader will understand.”
What the reader was confidently expected to understand was that Vasily himself wasn’t alien to that little indulgence. In fact, he shocked the Muscovites by shaving his face (which was extremely risqué at the time), surrounding himself with a bevy of muscular Adonises and ignoring his wife Solomonnia, whom he confined to a convent.
Yet eventually dynastic duty prevailed. Vasily remarried and, when he was well into his 50s, even produced an heir. The Russians, however, had good reasons to regret that Vasily had strayed from his natural inclination. For his heir went on to become the first Russian tsar, Ivan IV, better known by his richly deserved nickname The Terrible.
Was Philotheus right in implying that the “Sodomite sin” was more prevalent in Russia than elsewhere? Since he wasn’t a well-travelled man, the monk had no basis even for anecdotal comparison, and I doubt he had any statistical data at his disposal.
However, fast-forwarding four centuries, the first European country to decriminalise homosexuality was Soviet Russia between 1917 and 1934, a place and period not otherwise known for a laissez-faire attitude to life. After 1934, however, Comrade Stalin could no longer reconcile his high moral standards with such permissiveness.
Laws against homosexuality appeared on the books, and they were often enforced with brutal severity. And of course the current tsar, Vlad II, regularly rails against homosexuality and other vices that he ascribes to Western dissipation and degeneracy. (If you detect excessive vigour in his diatribes, you are a Russophobe.)
Russia has thus come full circle, and the idea of the third Rome has been taken off the mothballs too. Some spoilsports still insist that Russian history, especially over the past 100 years, makes it hard for any but an extremely perceptive analyst to detect any signs of holiness. But what do they know?
It’s the thought that counts, and this persistent thought vindicates adherents to the cyclical nature of history. One of them was Ecclesiastes: “And the wind returneth again according to its circuits.” (It is seasonally fitting to end on a biblical note.)