Byzantium, Influence of

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Toward the end of the tenth centurythe conventional date is 988Prince Vladimir Svyatoslavich of Kiev made Christianity the official religion of his people, the Rus. In choosing his faith, he also had to choose between its two institutional structuresthat of the Western (Latin) Church under the authority of the pope in Rome, and that of the Eastern (Greek) Church under the authority of the Patriarch of Constantinople (Byzantium). Although the two churches were not formally in opposition at the timethe Great Schism occurred in 1054nevertheless they had grown apart over the centuries, and each had developed its own distinctive features. Vladimir chose the Byzantine version, a decision with consequences at many levels. However, the nature and extent of Russia's Byzantine heritage has been controversial. Some have argued that, since Christianity was imported into Rus from Byzantium, the culture that grew therefrom cannot be said to have been merely influenced by Byzantium: it simply was Byzantine, a local development from and within the broader Byzantine tradition. Others, by contrast, stress the active nature of cultural borrowingnamely, the adoption and adaptation of selected elements of Byzantine culture to serve local needs and hence to develop a native culture that, while indebted to Byzantium in superficial aspects of form, was indigenous in substance and essence. Such are the crude extremes. The more productive discussion lies in the nuances between the two.

For seven hundred years from the official Conversion, high-status cultural expression among the East Slavs of Rus and then of Muscovy was almost entirely limited to the celebration, affirmation, and exposition of Christianity, and hence was almost entirely limited to the appropriate forms inheriteddirectly or indirectlyfrom Byzantium. In painting this was the age of the icon: not really art in the modern sense (as the product of an individual artist's imaginative creativity), but a devotional image, a true and correct likeness according to the approved prototypes. In architecture, public spaces were dominated by churches, whose basic designmost commonly a cross-in-square or domed cross layoutwas Byzantine in origin. As for writing, 90 percent or more of all that was written, copied, and disseminated was ultimately derived from Church Slavonic texts translated from Greek. Over time, cultural production in all these media could of course acquire local featuresin the development and composition of the full-height iconostasis, for example, or in the elaboration of roof-tiers, the onion-shaped dome, or in the robust styles of native chroniclesand local perceptions of such cultural production could vary widely. Overall, however, the Byzantine links were explicit, and Byzantium remained the acknowledged source of authoritative example and precedent.

A Byzantine churchman visiting Rus would thus have found part of the surroundings familiar; but still he would not have felt entirely at home. Outside the explicitly ecclesiastical, the Rus reception of Byzantine culture was more patchy. For example, Byzantium itself maintained a tradition of classical Greek learning, but there is little or no sign of any Rus interest in this before the late seventeenth century. Byzantium possessed a large corpus of written law. Church law (canon law) was in principal accepted by Rus together with Christianity, but in practice could be assimilated only gradually and partially through accommodation to local custom, while Byzantine civil law (derived from Roman law) seems to have made not made an impact. The Rus did not, therefore, accept Byzantine culture as a complete package. The borrowing was partial, selective, and thus in a sense non-Byzantine.

The continuing Rus reception of Byzantine culture in the later Middle Ages is somewhat paradoxical: as the visual elements (e.g., styles of painting and building) became progressively diluted through local developments, so the non-visual elements (e.g., ideas, ideology) were more assiduously adopted into official culture. The Muscovite State of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was more Byzantine in its structures than any of the earlier Rus principalities, in that it was a relatively unitary empire headed by an autocrat supported by a growing administrative bureaucracy. Moreover, since the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453, it was self-consciously the only surviving Orthodox empire and thus could be projected as Byzantium's successor. Emblems of this new status were woven into the fabric of Muscovite self-presentation: in the formal adoption of the title of tsar for the ruler; in the establishment of a patriarchate in place of the old metropolitanate; in the construction of imperial genealogies linking the Muscovite dynasty with Imperial Rome; in tales of the transfer of imperial regalia from Byzantium to ancient Kiev; and in the articulation of the notion that Moscow wasin world-historical termsthe "third Rome."

Ostensibly the reforms of Peter the Great brought about a decisive break. Peter's new capital was a radical statement of non-Byzantinism in the physical environment, and Western Europe became the new model for prestigious cultural production, whether in architecture and painting or in writing, printing, performing, and philosophizing. The Church continued to produce icons and profess the ancient faith, but it no longer enjoyed its virtual monopoly of the high-status media. However, does this necessarily mean that the Byzantine component of Russian culture disappeared? Perhaps, and perhaps not. The question of the Byzantine legacy in post-Petrine Russia is periodically controversial. Some have regarded Russian Byzantinism as a feature only of the remote past, while others have seen it as pervasive even after Peter (whether in true Russian spirituality or, by contrast, in the long continuation of autocratic, authoritarian theocratic forms of government). Such, once more, are the two poles of a debate that can have no objective resolution, since the terms of reference are more ideological than historical. Yet through such debates Russia's Byzantine heritage remains very much alive, at least as an issue for discussion, after more than a thousand years.

See also: architecture; orthodoxy; peter i


Franklin, Simon. (2002). Byzantium-Rus-Russia: Studies in the Translation of Christian Culture. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate.

Meyendorff, John. (1981). Byzantium and the Rise of Russia: A Study of Byzantino-Russian Relations in the Fourteenth Century. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Obolensky, Dimitri. (1971). The Byzantine Commonwealth: Eastern Europe, 5001500. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson.

Obolensky, Dimitri. (1994). Byzantium and the Slavs. Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press.

Thomson, Francis J. (1999). The Reception of Byzantine Culture in Mediaeval Russia. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate.

Simon Franklin