Saying outrageous, verifiably untrue things has sort of become Patriarch Kirill of Moscow’s brand. The chief Russian Orthodox cleric had a history of outrageous statements before the Russian invasion of Ukraine (including calling the concept of human rights a heresy), but he’s certainly stepped up his game since the illegal war began, like his claims that the invasion was necessary to stop “gay parades.”
Increasingly, his rhetoric has turned to the idea that Ukraine isn’t actually a sovereign nation, but simply a part of Russia. Last Tuesday, he took this claim to the next level. Gone were the veiled references; instead, in a sermon at the Kremlin’s Archangel Cathedral, the Patriarch of Moscow declared that “Russia has never attacked anyone. It is amazing that a great and powerful country has not attacked anyone, it only defended its borders.”
What’s clear is that Kirill doesn’t see this as a lie easily caught by any child with a map, but instead thinks it’s the map that’s lying. Ukraine doesn’t exist and thus Russian military action in Ukraine is Russian military action to defend its borders.
This isn’t just a political supposition but a theological one, underwritten by Moscow’s centuries-long claim to be “the Third Rome,” a belief that’s not only powerful in Russia, but helps simultaneously to foster both pro-Russian sympathy and to elicit anti-Russian fear in other parts of the Orthodox world. It’s also a self-conception that Russia shares with many American Christians, whether these American Christians are aware of it or not.
The continuous succession and perpetual survival of the Roman Empire is an important concept that runs throughout the whole of European and Eastern Mediterranean history, a testament not only to the power and prestige of the Roman Empire but to the religious significance attached to the Empire after its conversion to Christianity. In this conception, the Roman Empire had existed by divine will to facilitate the spread of the Christian faith; it had been baptized and had in turn baptized the world.
This divine mission made the Empire’s collapse theologically problematic—thus claims to be the inheritor of the Roman legacy were always less about political prestige (though that has certainly played a part), than about carrying on the divine destiny of a baptized Rome.
Moscow has been the most persistent modern claimant to the Roman legacy in the Christian East. Even before the fall of Constantinople in 1453, Rus princes, like Boris of Tver, were beginning to play with the notion that they were heirs to the Roman legacy. These efforts only amplified after the Byzantine Empire fell at last to the Ottomans. With Constantinople—a.k.a. “the New Rome”—now in the hands of Muslim rulers and the West in the grips of perceived papal heresy, Moscow and her Grand Princes increasingly sought to place themselves in the role of successor to the Empire.
Part of this claim involved a tradition of predictions and prophecies declaring that Russia would ultimately liberate Constantinople (modern day Istanbul) and return it to Christian rule. The earliest written evidence of this idea comes from Nestor Iskander’s Tale on the Taking of Tsargrad, which dates from the late 15th or early 16th century (so, very close to the actual fall of Constantinople). It’s a prophecy that’s been frequently repeated, including most famously in recent history by St. Paisios of Mount Athos, an influential late-20th-century Greek cleric.
The liberation of Constantinople has then taken on further significance. No longer merely a single political or military act, for some the reclamation of Constantinople signifies a much broader type of liberation, a near-cosmic event which will see Orthodoxy triumph over a sinful world. Thus Russia, in this view, isn’t just a military power on the side of the Orthodox Faith, but is (like the baptized Rome) a divinely chosen baptizing, Christianizing agent in an immoral world.
For example, since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the controversial Cypriot bishop Metropolitan Neophytos of Morphou, probably most famous in the West for claiming that women who enjoy anal sex have gay children, declared his support for the Russian invasion as a necessary purging of the Earth on account of the fact that we live in an age with “a lot of sin, a lot of disrespect and a lot of infidelity.” He has importantly reiterated the liberator role of Russia, as prophesied by Elder Paisios.
He’s made subsequent statements, including a claim that the Virgin Mary has appeared to inform “a pious man” that the war in Ukraine has been allowed by God to continue because of unrepented for sexual immorality and abortion. Russia is, in this paradigm, re-baptizing Ukraine and bringing it back into the fold of a holy Roman Empire. Furthermore, Ukraine is within the borders of Russia, because, as a contemporary Rome, the world is its border.
While this idea is apparently comforting to some in the Orthodox world, it is extremely disconcerting to others. For example, from where I sit in Iasi, Romania, the old capital near the Romanian-Moldovan border, the idea of a Russia with borders ordained by God is a very disconcerting notion.
To be clear, both Romania and Moldova remain deeply conservative and unquestionably religious nations. But they’re also countries, particularly Romania, that over the past two decades have increasingly looked westward. Romania is a member of the European Union and NATO. It held the European Council presidency in 2019, a fact still celebrated in the Bucharest airport.
If anything, for these western-facing Romanians, like their Greek counterparts, the new Rome isn’t Moscow, but Brussels. Russian claims that the borders of nation-states—most of which are notably less than two-hundred years old—don’t have any significance, are dangerous claims for these kinds of Orthodox nations and people that are looking to modernize, and, ultimately, to Westernize.
Americans, particularly Protestant ones, often scoff at the succession of Romes that still capture the imagination of Eastern Christians, and even some particular types of Western Christians. But American white evangelicals and other parts of the Christian Right aren’t far off from holding these same ideas about America, even if they don’t tend to identify it as such. Most obviously, the Latter-day Saint movement traditionally views America as the site of the Garden of Eden and the future New Jerusalem, a new Holy Land.
Just as early Christians believed Rome existed to facilitate the spread of the Christian Gospel, many Mormons today believe the United States exists to facilitate the Restoration. Furthermore, many American evangelicals believe American exceptionalism derives from the fact that America has been given a special mission from God. In addition to describing “Christian Nationalism,” these are both ways of saying America is the new Rome for people whose religious sympathies are not quite as enthusiastic about Late Antique and Medieval Christianity as the Orthodox and Catholics.
And this similarity should serve as a warning. Patriarch Kirill believes that borders don’t ultimately matter because Russia has a global mission. Some Americans believe the same. Both want to be Rome, whether they say it or not. And for a world on the brink, that is very bad news.