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Eight Hundred Years of Russian Despotism: An Interview with Orlando Figes
A fragment of The Blessed Host of the Heavenly Tsar, created to celebrate Ivan the Terrible’s conquest of Kazan. 

Eight Hundred Years of Russian Despotism: An Interview with Orlando Figes

In a new book, the historian traces modern Russian aggression to an apocalyptic mythology rooted deep in the nation’s past.

· 9 min read

The text that follows is adapted from a July 3rd, 2023 podcast interview conducted by Quillette’s Jonathan Kay with historian Orlando Figes, author of the newly published book, The Story of Russia.

Podcast #217: Eight Hundred Years of Russian Despotism
Quillette podcast host Jonathan Kay talks to acclaimed historian Orlando Figes, whose new book traces Russia’s political dysfunction back to the age of Byzantium and the Mongol invasion. This podcast is also available on YouTube.

Jonathan Kay: So I’m going to start off with a big question. In your book, you talk about the “sacralization” of the Russian Czars’ authority as a legacy of Byzantium. And until I read your book, I really had no understanding of how much Orthodox Christian theology had mixed with Slav ethnic populism to create this kind of theocratic—and maybe even apocalyptic—vision of the Russian Empire as the “third Rome.”

Can you explain what that means—the third Rome? You used that phrase several times in your book.

Orlando Figes: This concept of the third Rome, which is at the heart of a Russian sense of mission in the world, presents Russia as a sort of messianic land—a little bit like Israel, I guess—in the medieval theology that was adopted by Ivan the Terrible, who was the first to be crowned Czar. It served to reclaim, after all those years of Mongol occupation, the Byzantine legacy, symbolically, through his coronation.

The idea was that after the fall of Constantinople in 1453, Moscow was the last true seat of Christian orthodoxy. And there would be no other. The idea was that the west lay in a fallen state. It was fallen from a state of grace that Russia still retained by virtue of its orthodox religion.

Therefore, the true salvation of humanity lay with holy Russia. And this idea, of Russia as a providential land chosen to save humanity, is at the very heart of both the Russian Empire, and, later, [Russian] communism. It’s deeply connected to the sacralization of power because it presents the Czar as the direct manifestation of God on earth—as Ivan the Terrible saw himself. It was his mission not just to save humanity, but also to prepare his people for the final judgment.

Nicholas I of Russia, (r. 1825-1855).

So the Czar is potentially also a tormentor of his people, in order to make them worthy of that messianic role. Putin acts in this tradition. He sees Russia as having a mission that goes beyond its strict territorial boundaries. In the 19th century, similarly, Nicholas I claimed Russia had a holy mission to liberate the Orthodox Christians of the Ottoman Empire. And indeed, he saw his mission going so far as to liberate Jerusalem.

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