The Idea of Holy Russia

A state in place or a state of mind? Soviet historian Sergei Averintsev considers the claims on universality and divine legitimacy made by the Russia of the Tsars in response to previous legacies of empire.

The most beautiful and peerless capital of all the inhabited earth'. This was how Theodore Metochites, a Byzantine writer, described Constantinople, as late as at the beginning of the fourteenth century. And it was not empty rhetoric.

This was how the Byzantines genuinely felt, and not just they alone. One thousand years before there had been still more justification for such sentiments than remained in Metochites' time. In the tenth century the capital on the Bosphorus was undoubtedly, and incomparably, the most splendid city and dazzling centre of culture in the entire Christian world. 'They dreamt of Constantinople among the cold mists of Norway, on the banks of the Russian rivers, in the strong castles of the West and in the counting- houses of avaricious Venice', as U.L. Lazareu put it in his History of Byzantine Painting (1947). Most important of all, this state thought of itself not as the first but as the only one of its kind in the world – and its self-perception was internally quite logical, coherent and convincing. It was without com- pare, or peerless, as Metochites said. Only three criteria were cited. First, it professed the true, or Orthodox, Christian faith. Second, it managed its state affairs and diplomatic relations in a highly-civilised way that was supplemented by the literary and philosophical culture of classical antiquity. Third, it was the legal successor to the Christian-Imperial Rome of Constantine the Great.

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