Alfons Brüning
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For approximately 450 years, Orthodox Russia was governed by the tsars. If we can indicate a starting point for the “tsarist system,” it would have to be the last third of the 15th century when the grand princes of Russia first claimed the title of “tsar” for themselves. The “tsarist system” ended in February 1917 with the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II and the assumption of power by the Provisionary Government. It had obviously become outdated in the eyes of many by then. At least, the Orthodox Church in Russia had surprisingly few problems with accepting new developments: “God’s will has been fulfilled: Russia has entered the path towards a new governmental state life.” This is the initial, rather laconic sentence in an official statement by the Holy Synod of the Orthodox Church, published in early April on the front pages of the leading church journals.1

The fact that the Russian Orthodox Church, with a delay of almost two months, felt urged to give its own theologically founded interpretation of the events in the spring of 1917 highlights a particular element, namely, the religious aspect of this system that needed to be definitively addressed.2 The “tsarist system” has always been more than the practical manifestation of one political theory that demands reflection along with alternative and competing theories. As a rule, this system it does not even theoretically offer any space for alternatives.

It is the religious foundation and claim that make the “tsarist system” interesting for a conference on politics, democracy and human rights in Orthodox thinking. Both the theme of the conference and the many implications of the tsarist system provide the interdisciplinary nature of any attempt to design an appropriate picture of this system. Such an attempt, if carried out carefully, would need to engage at the least cultural and political history and political theory, in addition to theology and religious studies.

The long life of this system is one thing, and the limited space for a contribution like this is another – the picture under such circumstances can necessarily only be impressionistic, consisting of some main lines and colors that I hope to have appropriately identified as constitutive. There are mainly two such constitutive elements: first, we have the position and function – the office – of the tsar himself; second, there is the notion of pravda as a constitutive moral element. One can add others that I can touch upon only in passing, like the noble entourage of the “tsar” with its development from a circle of advisors and holders of beneficiaries into a bureaucratic system, or the dualism and inter-relation of church and state derived from the famous symphonia principle in Byzantium.

Each of these elements has a prehistory that illustrates its relevance within Orthodox discourse on political theory, given its particular predecessors in what Father Georges Florovsky would have called the Byzantine culture of “sacred Hellenism.” For Florovsky (Georgii Florovskii) and even more so for some of his followers, Russia, including its political system, would have formed an integral part of a “Hellenic Orthodox” civilization that emerged in late antiquity on paths that eventually became distinct from those followed in the West.3 Wherever necessary, this origin, and what has become of it on the way to its adoption in Muscovite and Russian Imperial context, also needs to be briefly addressed.

The Tsar

By calling themselves “tsar,” since the late 15th century, the grand princes of Muscovy applied a title that in its current, Slavonic form had first occurred in and eventually been taken over from medieval Serbia and Bulgaria. There the Latin caesar or Greek kaisar had been transformed in the early Slavic idioms into the title of “tsar.” By that time, Serbian and Bulgarian kingdoms were vassals of the Byzantine Empire. While this large political entity still existed, there could – at least in theory – be only one kaisar, which meant that any attempt to adopt the title on the part of Slavic vassal states came down to sporadic attempts to rebellion or at least to achieve greater independence.

The claim made by the Muscovite princes since the late 15th century was very much of this kind. When first expressed, it lacked the approval of the Patriarch of Constantinople that it still theoretically needed. There was an important reason for this delay because, in comparison with the medieval Balkan states, the situation had basically changed on one pivotal point: since the conquest of Constantinople by the Ottoman Turks in 1453 the “original” kaisar had ceased to exist. Against this background, the adoption of the title in any linguistic adaptation whatever came down to a claim to, not independence, but a translatio imperii in full, i.e., a claim to continuing the legacy of the Byzantine Empire in its entirety. That included all the pillars of its political structure as well as its eschatologically charged self-understanding since the time of Emperor Constantine. An illustrative example of the prevalent mood among Christians at the time are the writings of the historian and church father Eusebius of Caesarea. He depicted the tolerance of Christianity by and eventually the conversion of the first Byzantine Emperor to Christianity as the beginning of a new era in world history, i.e., that of the emergence of the actual kingdom of God in a political form after the many persecutions Christians had suffered.4

The Byzantine emperor was much more than just a political ruler. According to interpretations still current among experts in Byzantine studies, the image of the emperor had been formed by using a vacuum that had come into being when the early Christological debates of the council of Nicea and Constantinople saw the defeat of the Arian party. Whereas Christ was now to be described – as in the Nicene Creed – as equal to God (homoousios), the emperor had subsequently adopted the Arian alternative of a man similar to God (homoiousious).5 It is probably this perspective in which the central theme in Deacon Agapet’s famous “mirror of princes” from the 6th century has to be understood: Agapet addresses the emperor as a twofold being – as a simple human, equal to all others, and at the same time exceptional, raised by God’s grace above all others to be the representative of the heavenly kingdom on earth.6

The emperor, therefore, was seen as a figure both political and spiritual. He was the source of justice and law as well as a defender of the faith and guardian of the Church. Although there was a certain insistence in Byzantine political theory on the separation between political and spiritual matters, the two were supposed to closely combine in the end and cooperate – the famous concept of symphonia prominently fixed in Emperor Justinianus’ 6th novel issued in 535. In practice and theory the system offered a certain superiority to the office of the emperor. It was he who convened ecclesiastical synods, and he even attended Divine Liturgy from a prominent place opposite the altar and high above the mass of ordinary believers. Byzantium has aptly been described as a theocracy.7

A matter of particular importance within this framework was the inherent distinction between the office itself, with all its theological and eschatological ornamentation on the one hand, and the real person of its actual holder on the other hand. The consequences of this distinction were twofold. First, the office itself was highly morally charged: to become emperor automatically meant being subject to almost superhuman requirements for character, moral behavior, and lifestyle. This is where a specific category of Byzantine political literature, the “mirrors of princes” with their explanatory and admonishing style (the above-mentioned Agapet among them) had their purpose and context. On the other hand, this meant that even in individual cases of obvious violations of the highly moral norms connected with the Emperor’s office by a concrete holder, the ideal remained intact. Byzantine history had already contained numerous usurpers, cruel dictators, and even murderers on the Emperor’s throne, but all such deficits could be attributed to the particular person in charge. An emperor might have failed to achieve or even have ostentatiously ignored the requirements of his office, but the purity of the ideal did not suffer. Nor did obviously bad developments really generate a real debate about possible mistakes of the system itself. Byzantine political concepts already had little if any space for system debates – mistakes had to be corrected morally and were not perceived as conceptual deficits of the political system.

All this – the eschatological perspective and legitimization, the moral ideal, and the resilience of the system against any theoretical questioning – became Byzantium’s heritage to the Russian tsars. The idea of the “Third Rome,” so often quoted and referred to as illustrative of Moscow’s political ambitions, in fact at the time of its conception had almost nothing to do with political power claims but rather expressed this eschatological perspective of the emperor’s office. The admonishing tone of Filofei of Pskov’s famous passage needs to be compared with similar overtones in the above-mentioned mirrors of princes:

So be aware, lover of God and Christ, that all Christian Empires have come to an end and are gathered together in the singular empire of our sovereign […] and this is the Russian empire; because two Romes have fallen, and a third stands, and a fourth there shall not be.8

In the given context as well as being quite in line with Byzantine examples, Filofei first and foremost reminds the tsar of the exceptional dignity of his office and the specific duties and moral requirements linked to it. If there were any differences from the Byzantine examples, these would have been found in an even greater emphasis on the particular, in a way superhuman, character of the office of the tsar, and a greater neglect of the ordinary human aspects of their holders. The “charisma of power” of the tsar (and also of the patriarch of Moscow in the period between 1589 and 1721), expressed by numerous elements in the inauguration ceremonies, raised him to a level highly different from that of ordinary humans and their usual concerns.9

The office of the tsar was virtually untouchable in Muscovite and later Russian history. Critique could be directed only at its actual holder, with a specific set of possible consequences. First, there was in theory the possibility of resistance by the governed people or the nobility in relation to a tsar who obviously failed to fulfill his God-given duties. A passage in Iosif Volotskii’s famous Prosvetitel’ (Enlightener) apparently provides a possibility of refusing the otherwise obligatory obedience to a tsar who had turned into a negation or caricature of the ideal:

However, if there is a Tsar who reigns over the people, but himself is overwhelmed by evil passions and sin, by greed, violence, lie and defiance and, worst of all, disbelief and blasphemy, then such a Tsar is not a servant of God but a devil, not a Tsar but a tyrant. Our Lord Jesus Christ named such a person not a Tsar, but a fox (Luke 13,33); you do not owe obedience to such a Tsar, or Prince, who would lead you only into dishonor and cunning – even if he molests you and threatens you with death.10

The very existence of such a possibility, even in the writings of Iosif Volotskii, the abbot of the Volokolamsk monastery and a political author otherwise often quoted as the main theoretician of Russian tsarist absolutism is remarkable. On the other hand, its significance should obviously not be exaggerated. Beyond the refusal of obedience, the passage does not give any further indications about other possible kinds of active resistance. Furthermore, the authority of decision, i.e., the answer to the question who would be authorized to decide whether a given tsar did not only display a bit too much human weaknesses but had truly turned into a bad governor or tyrant, remains within the church. Till its end, the Muscovite and tsarist Russian system did not develop any formal, let alone constitutional, mechanisms to control or restrict the tsar’s power even in case of obvious violations of the high requirements linked to the ruler’s office.

Probably the best example is the reign of Ivan IV, who became known as “the Terrible” (an English translation of the Russian groznyi, which in fact means “the strict, severe” and is just one of the possible titles along a scale of stereotypical properties of tsars, ranging from “humbleness” to “authority and severity”). Even the disastrous consequences of his reign – like the extinction of a 600-year-old dynasty through Ivan’s murder of his son and heir, the devastation of entire regions, the numerous victims of the tsar’s personal cruelty and of his notorious private militia (the oprichnina), eventually the “time of Troubles” as well that would result from Ivan’s government – did not lead any political writer to question the institution of the tsar’s office itself. Such writers in the late 16th and early 17th centuries might well have felt urged to specify the ideal and redefine the moral requirements of the tsar’s office a bit, but there was still no attempt whatsoever to reconceptualize the political system itself. Reflections made against the background of the crisis had a predominantly moral and only exceptionally also a systematic character.11 Cautious reassessments of the system concerned the significance of the tsar’s noble entourage and its right to be adequately honored through appropriate consultation before important decisions. This did not mean, at any rate, a step towards any division of power. Recent investigations of this corrective element, however, still had to state that such corporative patterns in the Old Russian system were at best of a “pre-magna charta type” and still constituted a “state-conditioned society.”12

Consequences that we can observe all relate to a slightly altered profile of the tsar as an ideal. Therefore, the oath of newly elected tsars now gave greater attention to the circle of his advisors, the boiar elite and the nobility; furthermore, successors of Ivan IV were often eager to maintain their reputation as not “terrible” (groznyi, as in Ivan’s case) but “most humble” (tishaishii), even if as actual persons they could appear rather irascible and intemperate (like Tsar Alexi I, the father of Peter the Great).13

This distinction between the sacred office and the human person actually occupying it also resulted in numerous stories of “tsar pretenders” (like the several “false Dmitriis” in the early 17th century) who continued to be promoted by rebellious groups, at least until the end of the 18th century and the famous Pugachev rebellion. Again, the ideal and the institution remained intact, as did the system it represented. It was only that the “right” human occupant, according to allegedly true divine providence, needed to be someone else.

Opposition to this system was therefore only possible as fundamental opposition with all the radical attendant consequences. To call the system into question was to raise doubts about its metaphysical foundations itself. That might still – at least partly – explain the radicalism of late 19th-century revolutionary movements inspired by whatever ideology. Perhaps even the various (in one case, i.e., Alexander II, successful) assaults on the reigning tsar’s life carried out by revolutionaries in the late 19th century followed the same logic in a certain sense, at least if they were directed not against an individual tsar (only Alexander II enjoyed the reputation of a reformer) but the institution. The revolutionaries of the narodnaia volia (“people’s will”) movement after 1860, within the ranks of which the murderers of the “Tsar liberator” were recruited, had in fact an ambiguous relationship with the institution of the tsar. Some felt that only its annihilation could make the Russian peasants abandon their veneration of the tsar and develop instead a clear view of their miserable conditions that would have resulted in revolt; others shared the veneration of the tsar like the people widely did and openly bemoaned the assassination of Alexander II.14 A reform of the system, certainly if it included a downgrade of the tsar’s sacred office to a mere constitutional context for quite a few of them was not an option. Change could only be attained by annihilating the tsar himself.

On the positive side, the tsar’s obligations subsequently changed in the course of modern history. This began as just a mere moral profile as the “righteous” (pravednyi, derived from pravda, a term we are about to explain more thoroughly) and the “caring” one – a protector of the right faith on the one hand and a defender of the poor, the oppressed and the weak on the other. This basic, predominantly moral, profile did not change, but it did take on a more “bureaucratic” character through the centuries, in line with the development of Muscovite and Russian state structures. The responsibility of the tsar, according to changing definitions, was less related to the welfare of an amorphous people or particular groups (nobility, church) and more to the state system and its functioning. Moral requirements were partly “translated” into technical measures and institutionalized: redistributing wealth as a matter of practicing justice became an issue of the tax system; listening to advisors and commissioning embassies to foreign powers resulted in the installation of offices (the Muscovite prikazy since the 16th century) and the appointment of office holders and secretaries.

Responsibility for the accurate functioning of the system, in the sense of fostering the “common good” became a concretization of the tsar’s duties for the state together with the development of a bureaucratic system with officers, defined tasks, and a legal and financial system. Not earlier than the end of the 17th century was a term like “the common good” (obviously a borrowing from Western political theory transferred to Russia via 17th-century Ukrainian intellectuals) made it into the tsars’ speeches.15 By then, slowly but surely the “reforming tsar” appeared as a more professional and less as a merely moral manifestation of the tsarist ideal.16 On the other hand, even a partial reception of Western political theory in the Russian context led ultimately to just a more sophisticated theoretical foundation of tsarist sovereignty. One prominent example from the early 18th century is Bishop Feofan Prokopovich’s Pravda voli monarshei (“Justice of the Monarch’s Will”), which he published in 1721. Despite all its borrowings from contemporary Western political theory, the learned monk and bishop Prokopovich became one of the main theoreticians in transforming old Byzantine and Muscovite rule into modern forms of Russian-style absolutism.17 In that same year, which saw the publication of Prokopovich’s treatise, the Petrine church reform, carried out according to guidelines fixed in the famous Dukhovnyi Reglament (“Spiritual Reglement”) came into force. Once again, Prokopovich was the main author of these guidelines. What started here was the so-called “synodal period,” in which the church was completely formally subordinated to the state, governed by a “holy synod,” presided over by the oberprokur, a delegate appointed by the tsar. This period ended only in 1917, after the February revolution and the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II.

Some corporative elements as part of the system before and still after the Petrine reforms did not basically change the picture. Indeed, there was a peculiar role in the Russian empire for the nobility as well, but this could be compared to Western estates in a feudal system in only a rather limited sense.18 Rather, once again, everything depended on the tsar’s favor. Already according to the Byzantine model, the tsar was supposed to listen to his advisors and consult his entourage in case of difficult political decisions. The Russian system distinguished between different ranks among the nobility and had a system that was even enhanced by Peter the Great’s introduction of a “table of ranks.” Nonetheless, an ethos of service to the tsar and therefore to the country was always the conditioning pattern of the mentality of the Russian nobility, whereas, in turn, everything concerning rank and welfare ultimately depended on the tsar’s favor. The situation changed dramatically once more, when Tsarina Catherine abolished the obligatory state service for members of the boiar elite in the late 18th century. What resulted was a class with no defined task within the state, even though they retained a feeling of commitment as “sons of the fatherland.” Noblemen, like the writer and philosopher Alexander Radishchev (1749–1802) in his famous Journey from Petersburg to Moscow, took pride in presenting to the tsar a mirror, an authentic picture of the miserable conditions in his country.19 Nobles regarded this for some time as a patriotic duty connected with their status to admonish the tsar about necessary improvements of the system. The ethos culminated in use of the term of a “son of the fatherland” (syn otechestva) by patriotic noblemen to express their code of behavior and allegiance to the Russian state. Radishchev still remained unheard, as happened to this and another generation of reform-oriented noble politicians. The institution of tsarist autocracy (samoderzhavie) in the further course of the 19th century was in addition charged with a patriotic spirit and provided with ideological justification. Conservative ideologists came to see in it the main representative of the uniqueness of the Russian political system that would also distinguish Russia from suspicious Western models. Attempts at reform to transform autocracy into forms of constitutional monarchy ended in failure and another return to restrictive authoritarianism. The most prominent example, representing the following generation of noble reformers and “sons of the fatherland” was the revolt of the Decembrists. This was a group of officers and young noblemen who tried in December 1825 to use the occasion of the enthronement of the new Tsar Nicholas I for the establishment of constitutional reforms. Inspired by Western ideas they had picked up during the Napoleonic wars, they led their regiments to St Petersburg’s Senate Square and demanded the assumption of Nicholas’ elder brother Constantine and the introduction of a constitution. The revolt was quickly put down, after Constantine had already relinquished the throne. The ideas of the relatively small circle of noblemen had never found a wide echo among the majority of the Russian people. The actual prospective of the rebels’ program is best illustrated by the fact that the slogan “for Constantine and a constitution” (Russian: za Konstantin i konstitutsiia) shouted during the rebellion had apparently been gravely misunderstood by the majority of the rank and file soldiers in the regiments. As has been reported, most of them understood the slogan as indicating that the campaign wanted the assumption of Constantine and his wife called “konstitutsiia” to the throne.20 The new tsar, Nicholas I, soon became known throughout Europe as a reactionary, suppressing all kind of dissent. The Decembrists, many of whom were deported to remote Siberia, added stories of the heroic fate of exile to Russian history books. This, however, also marked a preliminary end to influence of the nobility on state affairs. Just a few years after the revolt, the new Deputy Minister of national education, count Sergei Uvarov (1786–1855), created the threefold formula of “Orthodoxy, Autocracy, Nationality” (Pravoslavia, Samoderzhavie, Narodnost’) denoting what he and the regime would come to see as the pillars of both the Russian state order and public education.21 Public debate about Russia’s place in post-revolutionary Europe, usually roughly summarized as the Slavophiles vs. Westerners debate, took place in – often clandestinely published – newspapers, letters and memorandums and was cut off from the tsarist court. Since the time of Radishchev at least several generations of a patriotic (in whatever sense) noble elite remained largely unheard. The stereotype of the “unnecessary man” (lishnyi chelovek) emerged in the further course of the 19th century: an individual deprived of both a defining task according to his talents and of contact with real life due to his isolation. It has been argued that the origins of the Russian intelligentsia, including the inherent radicalism of ideas prevailing in those circles, have to be found in 18th-century nobility.22

So, the tsarist system might have been “modernized” and further developed in terms of law, institutionalization, bureaucracy, but in fact the tsar relied exclusively on himself and an entourage of loyal officials. At the same time, the tsar remained in theory the ultimate source of any existing right. In praxis, the complete absence of any constitutional background allowed several peculiarities of the tsarist system and for some time Russian legal culture in general. Because whatever the legal system granted, be it privileges for the nobility, the appointment of a particular officer (state secretary, local governor) or the correction of a particular judicial error (like an unjustified court sentence) was ultimately a matter not of right but of the tsar’s favor. Until its end, the Russian tsarist system contained only rather elementary elements of what the Western model came to know as a Rechtsstaat (rule of law), i.e., a system of objective legal assessments, rights and duties to which ultimately the tsar himself could also be held accountable. Consequently, people approaching the otherwise “righteous” (pravednyi) tsar were supposed not to claim any rights (which they did not possess in the true sense), but to “beat their forehead” (bit’ chelom23 ) devotionally and ceremonially and ask the tsar for his favor. As a matter of fact, there are those (like contemporary human rights activists) who pretend that this fundamental difference, the lack of any notion of objective rights and the concomitant motivation to claim them in the face of erring or misusing authorities is a certain pattern in Russian civil culture to this day.24 To what extent such long-term explanations seem appropriate and how much of the Soviet experience after 1917 they would ignore are also questions worth being asked. Any possible answer, however, will probably have to reckon with this aspect of the tsarist system.


At any rate, if the tsar acted as the just and righteous tsar he was supposed to be, he acted in accordance with pravda. In most dictionaries, this Russian term is usually rendered (in English) as either “justice” or “truth.” In fact, the term belongs among those which are impossible to translate adequately into other, at least Western, languages.25 To start with, current Russian uses the term spravedlivost for “justice,” but this denotes a semantic shift. “Justice” – certainly in the sense of “equivalence, balance,” with the usual connotations of equal distribution or adequate treatment probably first entering the mind of a Western observer – entered the Russian language not earlier than the early 18th century, most probably as an adaptation of the Polish sprawiedliwość. To put it briefly, in a transitory phase covering the decades before and after 1700, pravda was a moral, semi-religious principle, whereas spravedlivost pertained at best to the legal system. It was only much later that the latter term, by the way, made it into the high literary style of Russian language. Reports of foreign visitors issued at this time still sometimes point to the fact that the Russian language did not have any equivalent to, for example, the French word justice.26 If, then, the tsar was – or was expected to be – “just,” than he was not spravedlivyi (“just”), but pravednyi (“righteous”). This is what indicated his connection with, and the rootedness of his government, in the principle of pravda.

The term probably already had a history of its own in ancient Kievan Rus’, as can be presumed with a view to early legal codices, like the famous Russkaia Pravda, a legal corpus conceived by Prince Iaroslav the Wise in the early 12th century. On the other hand, here we also have to take into account a certain Byzantine influence that became even stronger the more the Muscovite Principality and later Russian Empire grew into the self-assigned role of the successor to the “Second Rome.” Common knowledge renders pravda as simply the ancient Russian (Slavonic) translation of the Greek term aletheia (“truth”). There is still reason to presume that pravda does indeed cover a semantic field and an array of Byzantine political vocabulary and can equally be rendered as “order.” From this angle, the Byzantine predecessor of the term is not – or not only – aletheia but also taxis, the term for “order, ceremony, liturgy.”27

The quasi-liturgical sense of pravda also hints at the most important implication of the term, which had pivotal significance for the Russian political or “tsarist system.” The basic idea of this principle is – simply speaking – that there is a preformed order and universal harmony in God’s creation and that this harmony needs to be adequately reflected not only in the Divine Liturgy but also in inter-human relations and in the political order of a community. In this view, the tsar becomes something like an intermediate personality, a translator of God’s will for the benefit of the political system he presides over.

Realizing the principle of pravda is regarded essential for the durability and welfare of every political entity by early Russian authors. Ivan Peresvetov, an early 16th-century writer, explained the decline and fall of Byzantium by the latter’s loss of the sense for pravda.28 At the same time, pravda has a strong mystical component; as the secret harmony in divine creation that lies behind all things, it is not always obvious and can only partly be translated into written law. Viewing pravda as the order of creation implies a kind of religiosity that religious science has qualified as primary religiosity. It includes notions of “cosmological-theopolitical order” that are repeatedly found in the Old Testament.

That does not mean that there is no exceptional role for the individual human being. On the contrary, pravda can be translated into hymns about the glory and exceptional dignity of the human being – early modern Russian Orthodox anthropology is in fact much more positive about human nature than Protestant or Catholic anthropology in the West.29 At the same time, this is hardly to be understood in an abstract and individualistic sense. Every human is part of a prefigured natural order in his relation to creation, to other human beings, and within a quasi-natural hierarchy. Quite similar to Byzantine ideas, this also includes patterns of social hierarchy, with the emperor or tsar at the top. To move outside this prefigured divine order would threaten both the stability of the system and human individuals themselves.

Just as was the case with the office and position of the tsar, pravda denotes more an ideal than an actual state of affairs. Political hierarchy, legal systems and social interaction can all be fixed, to some extent, in accordance with pravda but can hardly ever be considered a complete expression of all the mysteries of the divine harmony prevalent in the whole of creation. So, there is constant effort required not only by the tsar (as pointed out above) but by all political dignitaries, right down to the common people, to realize the divine order and live according to this principle.

This might introduce a certain dynamic element into every given political and social order, which can and always needs to be improved. On the other hand, this approach once again excludes systematic critique and the possibility of alternatives and radical system changes. Even if a current state of affairs by alert contemporaries would be regarded as being extremely deficient or even “unjust” for the majority of the state’s inhabitants, the advisable consequence is not a system change but rather a return to the true path, the righteous order already long established. Debates about the correct interpretations and actual requirements of the pravda principle might occur, but they will never go beyond the surface of a certain consensus and reach the foundations. In other words, there is little if any space for aspects otherwise regarded as essential for modern democracy: if a culture of discussion is regarded as the basic element of democracy, in the pravda perspective this is connoted rather negatively as endless struggle and discord. In contrast to this, in ancient Russia, there was a quite dominant preference for unity and social harmony among social theorists as well. It has been argued that this predilection for patterns of unity and social harmony forms the root of a certain distance that modern Russian Orthodoxy takes towards central elements of political modernity, like the secular state, civil society and pluralist democracy.30

This view of political issues on the eve of the tsarist system in the late 19th century generated a variety of philosophical derivations, most of them falling within the main theories of Russian conservatism. But the spectrum was actually wide. Perhaps the most adept philosopher of pravda, at the same time critical of contemporary tsarist autocracy, was the “Narodnik” Nikolai S. Mikhailovskii, who saw pravda as the exclusively Russian term for reconciling the ideal and reality, theory and practice, divine will and human existence.31 On the other hand, a conservative theorist like Konstantin Pobedonostsev, the legal theorist and tsarist oberprokuror (the tsar’s representative at the Orthodox Holy Synod), developed a vision of an organically structured society that displayed more than superficial borrowing from, or at least a striking concurrence with, the pravda principle.32 At any rate, there was little latitude for deviating opinions in this system – to question implicitly this kind of order, sanctioned by divine principles, could only be done by questioning the divine order itself and necessarily required a radicalism that the guardians of this order could only see as demonic. As noted before with regard to the office of the tsar, perhaps this explains the radicalism of late 19th-century political opponents, as well as the image of them encountered in some of Dostoevsky’s novels.

These are examples, and there is also a possibly more positive aspect to it. What needs to be explored is in what sense this ancient understanding of the human being as part of a larger whole leads to Russian and Orthodox views of the human as not an atomized individual but a person, with all the mystical and theological implications this concept might have. Orthodox personalism in fact puts a strong accent on the relatedness of the human being to his social environment on the one hand and to the divine Creator on the other. Since late 19th century, Orthodox thinkers have taken pride in juxtaposing notions of “personhood” to an allegedly isolated individualism they saw dominant in Western ideologies of their time.33

It would need yet another shift of the focus, the oft-mentioned “anthropological turn” of Russian religious philosophy of the Silver Age, to make such concepts actually fruitful. This entails, in other words, not speaking about a prefigured ideal of harmony that was supposed to prevail in the totality of human interactions but reflecting, again as a way to realize God’s will, on appropriate virtues in order to realize this harmony in inter-human relations by mutual respect and love. It is important to note that this “anthropological turn” had its final breakthrough only after the tsar had gone. Thinkers advocating this kind of approach, however, like the Parisian diaspora around such profiled and peculiar thinkers as Nikolai Berdiaev, Sergii Bulgakov or Georges Florovskii, already preferred a vision of society that could do, if necessary, without a tsar. In the decades after the 1917 events, this was their way of understanding the message of God’s providence – but this is another story.


See, e.g., the first page of the Holy Synod’s official journal, published after a two months’ hiatus, Tserkovnye Vedomosti, nos. 9–15 (April 1917): 57 (translation mine).


For further insight into discussions among Russian clerics about the tsarist system and alternatives prior to 1917 see M. Babkin, ed., Rossiiskoe duchovenstvo i sverzhenie monarkhii v 1917 godu; Materialy i arkhivnye dokumenty po istorii Russkoi pravoslavnoi Tserkvi (Moscow: Indrik, 2008); John D. Basil, Church and the State in Late Imperial Russia: Critics of the Synodal System of Church Government (1861–1914) (Minneapolis MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2005).


Florovsky’s ideas are found in various essays, such as his “Christianity and Civilization,” St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly 1, no. 1 (1952): 13–20; later reprinted in his Christianity and Culture, Collected Works, vol. 2 (Belmont MA: Nordland Publishers, 1974), 121–30; see also Alfons Brüning, “The Empire and the Desert: Eastern Orthodox Theologians about Church and Civilization,” in The Law of God: Exploring God and Civilization, ed. Pieter Vos and Onno Zijlstra (Leiden/Boston: Brill, 2014), 84–104; Paul L. Gavrilyuk, Georges Florovsky and the Russian Religious Renaissance (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), especially 201–20, 232–58.


Eusebius Pamphilus of Caesarea, “The Life of the Blessed Emperor Constantine,” in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, vol. 1, 2nd Series, ed. P. Schaff, H. Wace (Edinburgh: repr. Grand Rapids MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1955); also online, the Medieval Sourcebook, (accessed 22 December 2020).


See, e.g., Marie T. Fögen, “Das politische Denken der Byzantiner,” in Pipers Handbuch der politischen Ideen, vol. 2, ed. Iring Fetscher and Herfried Münkler (Munich/Zurich: Piper, 1983), 41–85.


For a modern English translation, cf. Peter N. Bell (trans., introd.), Three Political Voices from the Age of Justinian: Agapetus, Advice to the Emperor, Dialogue on Political Science; Paul the Silentiary, Description of Hagia Sophia (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press 2009), 99–121.


Cyril Hovorun, “Is the Byzantine ‘Symphony’ Possible in our Days?” Journal of Church and State 59, no. 2 (2016): 280–96.


Cf. Marshall Poe, “Moscow, the Third Rome: Origins and Transformations of a ‘Pivotal Moment’,” in Jahrbücher für Geschichte Osteuropas 49, no. 3 (2011): 412–29 (quotation on p. 416); still important is Hildegard Schaeder, Moskau – Das Dritte Rom: Studien zur Geschichte der politischen Ideen in der slawischen Welt, 1st ed. (Hamburg: Friederichsen, de Gruyter, 1929).


See the classical study by Boris A. Uspenskii, “Tsar’ i Patriarkh: Kharisma vlasti v Rossii (Vizantiiskaia model’ i ee russkoe pereosmyslenie),” in: Izbrannye Trudy 1, ed. Boris A. Uspenskii (Moscow: Gnozis, 1996), 184–204.


Josif Volotskii, Prosvetitel’, ed. A. Volkov (Kazan’: Tipografiia Kazan’skoi Dukhovnoi Akademii, 1869), 287; English translation according to Daniel Rowland, “Did Muscovite Literary Ideology Place Limits on the Power of the Tsar (1540s-1660s)?” The Russian Review 49, no. 2 (April 1990): 125–55, here 127. The “fox” in this passage relates to the biblical image of King Herod, the persecutor of Christ and murderer of children.


Cf. Russkaia Istoricheskaia Biblioteka (RIB), vol. 13 [Pamiatniki drevnei russkoi pis’mennosti otnosjashchiesia k smutnomu vremeni] (St. Petersburg, 1892). See also Rowland, Ideology, especially pp. 131–42; M. A. Korotchenko, “Pisateli o Smutnom Vremeni,” in Istoriia drevnerusskoi literatury. Analiticheskoe posobie, ed. A. S. Demin (Moscow: Iazyki slavianskikh kultur’, 2008), 150–203, especially 159f.; Alfons Brüning, “Symphonia, kosmische Harmonie, Moral: Moskauer Diskurse über gerechte Herrschaft im 16. und 17. Jahrhundert,” in Gerechtigkeit und gerechte Herrschaft vom 15. bis zum 17. Jahrhundert: Beiträge zur historischen Gerechtigkeitsforschung [= Schriften des Historischen Kollegs. Kolloquien, 101], ed. Stefan Plaggenborg (Berlin/Boston: De Gruyter, 2019), 23–52.


Rowland, Ideology, 151. Cf. Hans-Joachim Torke, Die staatsbedingte Gesellschaft im Moskauer Reich: Zar und “zemlja” in der altrusssischen Herrschaftsverfassung (Leiden: Brill, 1974).


Rowland, Ideology, 132.


Cf. Vitalij Fastovskij, Terrorismus und das moderne Selbst: Religiöse Semantiken revolutionärer Gewalt im späten Zarenreich (1860–1917) (Goettingen: Vandenhoek & Ruprecht, 2018), 153f., 170f.


Cf. Hans-Joachim Torke, “Moskau und sein Westen. Zur ‘Ruthenisierung’ der russischen Kultur,” in Berliner Jahrbuch für osteuropäische Geschichte 1 (Berlin: Akademie-Verlag, 1996), 101–20; idem, Die staatsbedingte Gesellschaft (n. 12), 13; Brüning, “Symphonia, kosmische Harmonie, Moral,” 46–9.


Cynthia H. Whittaker, “The Reforming Tsar: The Redefinition of Autocratic Duty in Eighteenth Century Russia,” Slavic Review 51, no. 1 (Spring 1992): 77–98.


Cf. Jaroslava Stratii, “Idei pryrodnoho prava i suspil’noho dohovoru na sluzhbi petrovs’koho absolutism (‘Pravda voli monarshoi’ Feofana Prokopovycha),” in Ukraina XVII stolitija: Suspil’stvo, Filosofiia, Kul’tura, ed. Larisa Dovha, Natalia Jakovenko (Kiev: Krytyka, 2005), 128–51. Earlier studies emphasize the still important Byzantine features in Prokopovich’s system. Cf. Hans-Joachim Härtel, Byzantinisches Erbe und Orthodoxie bei Feofan Prokopovič (Wuerzburg: Echter, 1970).


See already Günther Stökl, “Gab es im Moskauer Staat ‘Stände’?” Jahrbücher für Geschichte Osteuropas 11 (1963): 321–42.


Aleksandr Radishchev, A Journey from St Petersburg to Moscow, transl. Leo Wiener, ed. and introd. Roderick P. Thaler (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1958).


Cf. Valentin Giterman, Geschichte Russlands 2 (Zurich: Büchergilde Gutenberg, 1945), 396.


Sergei S. Uvarov, Gosudarstvennye osnovy (Moscow: Institut russkoi tsivilisatsii, 2014). The edition also testifies to a continuing attractiveness of such conservative ideas in some circles in modern, post-Communist Russia.


Marc Raeff, Origins of the Russian Intelligentsia: The Eighteenth-Century Nobility (New York: Harcourt, 1966). Recently, more sketches have been added to the image and self-understanding of the nobility; cf. Martin Aust, Adlige Landstreitigkeiten in Russland: Eine Studie zum Wandel der Nachbarschaftsverhältnisse 1676–1796 (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 2003).


The Russian term for a petition to the tsar, the so-called chelobitiie, is derived from this phrase.


Cf. Tatiana Artemyeva, “From ‘Natural Law’ to the Idea of Human Rights in 18th-Century Russia: Nobility and Clergy,” in Orthodox Christianity and Human Rights, ed. Alfons Brüning and Evert van der Zweerde (Leuven: Peeters, 2012), 111–24.


See Constantin Sigov, s.v. “Pravda,” in Dictionary of Untranslatables: A Philosophical Lexicon, ed. Barbara Cassin, Emily Apter, Jacques Lezra, Michael Wood (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 2014), 813–9; Wilhelm Goerdt, “Pravda: Wahrheit (Istina) und Gerechtigkeit (Spravedlivost),” Archiv für Begriffsgeschichte 12 (1968): 58–85; Stefan Plaggenborg, Pravda: Gerechtigkeit, Herrschaft und sakrale Ordnung in Altrussland (Munich: Wilhelm Fink Verlag, 2018).


See Natalja Pečerskaya, “Spravedlivost’ [Justice]: The Origins and Transformations of the Concept in Russian Culture,” Jahrbücher für Geschichte Osteuropas 53, no. 4 (2005): 545–64; Christoph Schmidt, “Von Gottes und Rechts wegen oder zu einigen Charakteristika von Gerechtigkeit in Russland: Ein Kommentar,” Jahrbücher für Geschichte Osteuropas 53, no. 4 (2005:): 565–8.


Sigov, “Pravda,” col. 813; Goerdt, Pravda, 59–63. See also Brüning, “Symphonia, kosmische Harmonie, Moral.”


Andrei L. Iurganov, “Vera christianskaia i ‘pravda’,” in Kategorii russkoi srednevekovoi kul’tury, ed. Andrei L. Iurganov (Moscow: Institut “Otkrytoe Obshchestvo,” 1998), 33–116, especially 34, 42–9.


Cf. Mikhail V. Dmitriev, “Humanism and the Traditional Orthodox Culture of Eastern Europe – How Compatible Were They in the 16th and 17th Centuries?” in Brüning and van der Zweerde, Human Rights, 85–110.


See Regina Elsner, Die Russische Orthodoxe Kirche vor der Herausforderung Moderne: Historische Wegmarken und theologische Optionen im Spannungsfeld von Einheit und Vielfalt (Wuerzburg: Echter, 2018).


On Mikhailovskii and other philosophers referring to pravda for modern concepts, see Goerdt, Pravda, 65–85; cf. also Sigov, Pravda, col. 814–9.


John Basil, “K. P. Pobedonostsev and the Harmonius Society,” Canadian-American Slavic Studies 37, no. 4 (January 2003): 415–26.


Cf. Ruth Coates, “Theosis in Early Twentieth Century Russian Religious Thought,” in The Oxford Handbook of Russian Religious Thought, ed. Caryl Emerson, George Pattison and Randall A. Poole (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020), 240–56.

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