Moscow: “third Rome” or “fourth Jerusalem”?

In the 16th century, a Russian monk, Filofej, coined the expression “third Rome” to emphasize the spiritual role assumed by Moscow following the fall of Constantinople (1453) and the marital union between the Grand Prince of Moscow, Ivan III, and Sophia (Zoe) Paleologue, niece of the last Byzantine Emperor Constantine XI. «Two Romes have fallen (those of Peter and of Byzantium)» the monk wrote to the Muscovite Grand Duke Vasilij III. «The third (Moscow) stands and the fourth will not be». Since then, the Christian imperial ideology built around the central role of Moscow has substantially evolved. Surely, it was supported by the de facto autocephaly of the Russian orthodoxy that took place in 1448 still officialized de iure only in 1589 by the Patriarch of Constantinople, Jeremias II Tranos. Other Russian places have been associated with Rome though: before Moscow this was the case of Tver and Novgorod; later on, at the beginning of the 18th century, it was the turn of Saint Petersburg.

In the 15th century, the monk Foma not only considered Prince Boris Alexandrovič of Tver, at the time a rival of Moscow, as “the new Jacob”, “the new Joseph”, “the other Moses”, but he also used to compare him to the Roman Emperors Tiberius, Augustus, Justinian and Theodosius. Foma would hail Prince Boris with the title of Emperor and would call the town of Tver “new Israel”. In addition, Dimitrij Gerasimov, aid to the Archbishop Gennady of Novgorod, wrote the “Story of the white mitre”, in 1490, where he stated that Novgorod was the real descendant of Constantinople and the new centre of Orthodoxy. The term “third Rome” appeared in this latter text, for the first time, although it referred to Novgorod, and not to Moscow. It was only later, with the accession of Peter the Great, that Saint Petersburg came to be considered as the see of the “new Rome”.

But the idea of the translatio imperii must be understood as a purely propagandist ideology during the Byzantine and Tsarist periods and also of the Sovietism, or is there a hidden higher symbolic meaning?

As a matter of fact, until the 17th century, not only did they mention the term “third Rome”, in common usage nowadays, but also “new Israel”. Moscow was considered as the imperial heir of Rome as well as the spiritual heir of Jerusalem. British historian and expert in Russian history, Prof. Perrie[1], reminds us of the importance of the year 1666, in this regard. «The [author’s note: ecumenical orthodox] council of 1666–1667 influenced the status of the concepts both of the Third Rome and of the New Israel: it suppressed the ‘Tale of the Novgorod White Cowl’, which contained a version of the Third Rome theory; and it criticised Nikon for describing himself as ‘Patriarch of the New Jerusalem’». Perrie also points out that the year 1666 was regarded as a particular year, at the time, because to many Christians that year meant the end of the world or Apocalypse.

Boris Godunov

Tsar Boris Godunov appears to have given much importance to Moscow as the new Jerusalem. He became the first de facto Regent of Russia (1585-1598) and was to become also the first Tsar (1598- 1605) not to be a descendant of the Rurik Dynasty (the first great dynasty of Russian rulers before the Romanov’s who reigned for about three centuries (1613-1917)). Godunov decided to create a new Holy Sepulchre inside the Kremlin, based on the one in Jerusalem, but did not manage to complete that project. A related and intriguing theory brought forward by a Russian art historian and byzantinist, Alexei Mikhailovich Lidov, affirms that the famous onion domes that can be found in numerous Muscovite architectural works were not inspired either by Tatar, Persian or Indian buildings. They were meant to mirror the dome of the ciborium of the Holy Sepulcher, in Jerusalem, instead; in line with the specific shape that the dome began to have from around the middle of 11th century and onwards. The adoption of this symbol was meant to emphasize the idea of Moscow being the new Jerusalem and, in a wider sense, of Russia being the new Israel and see of the second Advent or Parousia.

The first explicit reference to Rome dates back to the coronation of Ivan IV as the first Tsar (1547). Later, Peter the Great was the first to assume the role of Emperor, making a direct reference to the Roman tradition and discarding the pre-petrin Russian titles. Moreover, several texts of the 16th century mentioned a link between the Roman Empire and the land of Russia. For instance, in the Poslanie (epistle) of Spiridon-Savva and in the Povest’ o knjaz’jach vladimir-skich (The Tale of the Princes of Vladimir), the authors relate Rurik to the descendance of Prus, brother of Augustus. Rurik (or Rjurik) [2] lived in the 9th century and is the forefather of the Russian Royal Dynasty of Rurik.

The idea of Moscow being the third Rome implied a double meaning, as was the case earlier with the idea of Constantinople being the second Rome. On the one hand, it reflected the spiritual continuity through Byzantium, on the other hand the imperial and political continuity of the by-then defunct Byzantine Empire. After the fall of Byzantium, Moscow became both the spiritual heir of Jerusalem and the imperial heir of Rome. Therefore, Moscow had a double link and a double role, just as Rome and Byzantium had had theirs: metaphysical and physical, spiritual and political. After the fall of Constantinople, Hagia Sophia ceased to be the most important church for the Russians as it was replaced by the Church of the Resurrection (Church of the Holy Sepulchre) of Jerusalem. It is not by chance that the above-mentioned Patriarch Nikon built a monastery, not far from Moscow, in 1656, named “New Jerusalem”, also known as the monastery of the Resurrection, which mirrored the one in Jerusalem. The profanation of Jerusalem by the Saracens, the conclusive victory over the Tatars in the Russian territory (1480) and the fall of Constantinople (1453), all probably contributed to root this idea, in the Russian thinking, of the translation of the new Jerusalem to Moscow.

Hence, it can be understood that Moscow can be comprehended on two different reality planes: on the one hand, as a spiritual centre and on the other hand, as a political centre. Coming back to present time, it seems clear to us that the direction followed by Moscow, in politics, is heading to a multi-polar world. In our opinion, this  very same trend excludes any “hegemonic” will as the founding idea of the Russian political thought. Rather, that which conveys the impression of such willpower is the political stance of the modern overseas-based parody of the Roman Empire. On the contrary, considering the vigor and the vitality of the post-Soviet Russian orthodoxy and the well-grounded religious tolerance on the vast and multiethnic territory of the Federation, we feel that Moscow should be viewed as a prospective spiritual centre of worldwide influence in the future. In this sense, Moscow could be a “fourth Jerusalem” or “third Rome”, according to a universal metaphysical vision harking back to the Augustan pax romana; a vision already brought forward, in the essence and philosophically speaking, by several Russian intellectuals in the second half of the 19th century[3].

When referring to Moscow as the “fourth Jerusalem”, we implicitly include Rome and recognize her as a successor of Israel as a global centre of spiritual influence. By this, we are referring to a translatio exclusively of place, specifically of place of spiritual influence, with its own peculiar genius loci, and not to a central see of one or more religions. Therefore, we are making a reference to a strictly metaphysical and esoteric vision and not to a religious and exoteric one. Unfortunately, the relevance of essentially metaphysical ideas such as Fas and Ius and the spiritual significance of the mos maiorum, in the ancient Rome, are often underestimated by scholars. This can be explained by a lack of an appropriate understanding of the traditional metaphysics which goes way beyond each single religious manifestation in time and space.

Anyway, it must be said that the movements supporting the resurgence of monarchy are far from being defunct in the Russian territory. Recently, one of the most prominent representatives of the Russian orthodoxy after Patriarch Kirill, Vsevolod Chaplin, pleaded in favour of the restoration of monarchy, claiming that Putin or one of the heirs of the Romanov royal family would be the most suited to become Tsar.  Nonetheless, remaining faithful to the Justinian’s “theory of symphony” between State and Church[4], without going back to the Costantinian’s caesaropapism as it was  the case in the imperial Russia and still is nowadays, albeit formally only, in the United Kingdom[5]. The concept of caesaropapism refers back to the traditional king-priest exemplified by the figures of Melchizedek in Jerusalem and of Augustus in Rome.

In this perspective, we can better understand the attempt being made to reconcile the Orthodox and the Catholic Christian Churches. Albeit the recognition of the importance of the synodality and the honorary primacy of Rome[6], the decisions of those Christian churches reflect more and more the “spiritual weight” of Moscow and its influence on the political scene of Russia. A similar attempt of reconciliation took place during the Council of Florence, in 1438-1439, and the related papal bull of Eugene IV, Laetentur Coeli, which reported the impending reconciliation between the Western and the Eastern Christian Churches. Except for those millions of Ukrainians and Belarussians who joined the Catholic Church through the Union of Brest-Litovsk (1596), the above-mentioned Council was of no real consequence. Nonetheless, this event came to be crucial for the emergence of the Italian Renaissance: it was because of that Council of 1438 that George Gemistus Plethon went to Florence, as Advisor of the Byzantine Emperor John VIII, along with other scholars the likes of  Bessarion.

[1]    M. Perrie, Moscow in 1666: New Jerusalem, Third Rome, Third Apostasy, 2014.

[2]    Because of his Varangian (Viking) origins and being the Ruler of the Rus’ of Kiev, according to Henry Spelman and other supporters of the Nordic Israelism, Rurik would be a descendant of the Israelite Tribe of Dan. This latter tribe apparently moved (also) to Ireland and to Scandinavia during the pre-Christian period.

[3]    See our Putin e la nave dei filosofi (Putin and the philosophers’ ship).

[4]    The Justinian’s “theory of symphony” between imperium and sacerdotium was rooted in the Roman ius publicum and already outlined by Titus Livius (“Quis dubitat quin in aeternum urbe condita, in immensum crescente, nova imperia, sacerdotia, iura gentium hominumque instituantur?”, Ab urbe condita, 4.4.4.). The same theory was resumed by the Council of Russian bishops in 1551 even though it was already renowned in the Muscovite area at the time. Already back in about 1500 the abbot of Volokolamsk, Iosif of Volotsk, created a monastic movement that supported a strong link between Church and State, a sort of “political theocracy”. Nevertheless, at the time it was actually more of a dominion of the tsarist power over the religious one than an actual symphony.

[5]    In the United Kingdom since the 16th century, following the separation from the Roman Catholic Church, the political sovereign is also the religious head. Queen Elizabeth II is Head of State of the United Kingdom (and of other 15 countries of the Commonwealth) and at the same time Head (Supreme Governor) of the Church of England, although with limited powers.

[6]    See our Ecumenismo cristiano: ritorno alla Tradizione ed al primato di Roma (Christian ecumenism: back to the Tradition and to the primacy of Rome).

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