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The Relations between Byzantium and Russia (11th-15th Century)Dimitri Obolensky,
The history of Russo-Byzantine relations, in the study of which Russian scholars, before and after 1917, have understandably played the leading role, has in recent years attracted the attention of Byzantinists in many countries. Its importance was demonstrated again in 1966, when it formed one of the main topics on the agenda of the XIIIth International Congress of Byzantine Studies, held in Oxford. I do not wish to repeat the arguments and conclusions voiced by the authors of papers on this subject presented at the Congress - notably G.G. Litavrin, A.P. Kazdan, Z.V. Udalcova, I. Sevcenko, F. von Lilienfeld, D. S. Likhacev and J. Meyendorff1 - nor to summarise the earlier findings of Soviet authorities in this field, such as M.V. Levcenko and M.N. Tikhomirov. Nor could I attempt in this brief paper, even if I wished, a comprehensive survey of the relations - political, religious, economic, cultural and artistic-between the Byzantine Empire and Russia during four and a half centuries.
It seems preferable, in the circumstances, to set myself a 'more limited aim. I propose to consider three problems which, in my opinion, deserve fuller investigation. They can be put in the form of questions: 1) What reasons impelled the ruling classes of Byzantium and Russia to maintain and develop relations between their respective countries? 2) How far was the Byzantine theory of the Empire's universal hegemony compatible with the political sovereignty of the Russian rulers? 3) How did the different social groups in medieval Russia respond to Byzantium's cultural impact?
In the brief remarks that follow I cannot, of course, claim to provide a complete answer to these questions. Their aim can be no more than to stimulate further discussion.
I. The Motivation of Russo-Byzantine Relations
The motive forces behind these relations will be rightly understood only if it is recognised that those who promoted them were often impelled by genuine and disinterested personal beliefs. It is inconceivable, for instance, that Russia's conversion to Christianity could ever have been achieved had not her ruling and educated classes included men and women whose minds and hearts were taken captive by the spiritual and 'moral doctrines preached by the Byzantine missionaries, and had not many of the latter been fired by the example of the early apostles of Christianity who followed their Master's command to go and teach the Gospel to all nations (Matthew XXVIII, 19). At the same time, however, there can be no doubt that the relations between Byzantium and Russia were determined by motives of self-interest. At all times powerful political and economic reasons impelled the statesmen of Byzantium to cultivate good relations with the Russians. The military threat which the latter had so often presented to the Empire between 860 and 989 was not removed by their conversion to Byzantine Christianity: the Russian naval attack in 1043 proved quite as perilous to the security of Constantinople as the earlier raids on imperial territory launched by the princes of Kiev2. Only by reaching a permanent political agreement with the Russians could the danger of its repetition be removed. This was largely achieved by the treaty of 1046, cemented by a marriage alliance between the ruling houses of Byzantium and Kiev3: never again did the Russians wage a major war against the Empire. Their ability to do so, it is true, was impaired by the attacks of the Cumans (or Polovtsy) on their southern borders, which began in 1061, and by the fissiparous tendencies which appeared in the Russian realm soon after 1054 and which, in the following century, caused it to break up into several virtually autonomous principalities. This new situation was ably exploited by the Byzantine government which, in the reign of Manuel Comnenus (1143-1180) used with some success the principalities of Kiev, Suzdal and Galicia as pawns on the chessboard of its European diplomacy4. Then as in the eleventh century (when the Varangian Guard, partly recruited from Russia, played an important part in the Empire's armies5) mercenary troops as well as military help from Russia were highly valued in Constantinople. About 1200, for instance, an attack of the Cumans against Constantinople was prevented by the military action of the prince of Galicia; and a contemporary Byzantine writer acknowledged the Empire's debt to «the most Christian nation of the Russians», whose «God-mustered phalanx» relieved the pressure on the imperial capital6.
The importance which the Byzantines attached to their political relations with Russia was demonstrated again in the late Middle Ages when, after a period of eclipse which followed the sack of Constantinople by the armies of the Fourth Crusade and the Mongol conquest of Russia, these relations revived once more. In the second half of the fourteenth century Byzantium, faced with an acute political crisis, economic ruin and the Turkish advance, was fighting for its life. It was clear that only foreign aid on a massive scale could save the dying Empire. Naturally enough, the eyes of its statesmen turned once again to the north, where Muscovy, whose economic and military power were on the increase, had embarked on the task of «gathering» eastern Russia under its sway. In 1400 the patriarch of Constantinople wrote to the primate of the Russian Church, urging him to raise funds for the defence of Constantinople; he was to assure his flock that it was more meritorious to contribute money for this purpose than to build churches, to give alms to the poor, or to redeem prisoners7.
There is no evidence that the rulers of Moscow ever accorded military assistance to the Empire at this time of desperate need. But on several occasions in the fourteenth century, they sent gifts of money to Constantinople8. The value of this financial aid may be gauged by the fact that the Byzantine authorities were reduced to pawning the crown jewels and to using leaden and earthenware goblets for the feast of the emperor's coronation in 13479, and by the complaint of a contemporary that the imperial treasury contained nothing but «air, dust, and Epicurean atoms»10. Russia's economic value to the Empire was enhanced by trade. Commercial relations between the two countries are first clearly attested in the tenth century, and the staple articles of Russian export-slaves, furs, wax and honey- continued to be shipped to Constantinople in later times. In exchange, articles of luxury intended for the ruling classes-silken fabrics, jewellery, fruit and wine-as well as icons and other objects for the use of the Church, were exported from Byzantium to Russia. The same basically «colonialist» commercial policy was pursued by the Empire towards Russia in the late Middle Ages, with the Russians supplying Byzantium with raw materials in exchange for manufactured goods. Although the benefit which this trade brought to the Empire was reduced by the fact that much of it was then controlled by the Genoese and the Venetians, food supplies from the northern hinterland of the Black Sea remained of vital importance to Constantinople11.
Trade was an important factor, too, in the Russians' determination to maintain their relations with Byzantium. The privileges accorded to the Russian merchants in Constantinople had, it seems, been significantly curtailed since the early tenth century; but they were still welcome there and, thanks to the goods which they brought back to Kiev and other Russian cities, the ruling classes of their native land were able to appreciate the sartorial and culinary delights of Byzantine civilisation and to indulge their taste for luxurious living. The prestige which came from political association with Byzantium, greatly valued by Russian princes of the eleventh and twelfth centuries, does not seem to have been any less appreciated by them in the late Middle Ages, when the Empire was but a shadow of its former self. Finally, the desire to possess the fruits of Byzantium's civilisation, and especially to be guided by the doctrinal authority and spiritual experience of its Church, must be reckoned among the essential reasons which impelled the Russians to keep open the channels of communication with the cities and monasteries of the Empire.
II. Russia's position in the Byzantine Commonwealth of Nations
In the Byzantine view, the relations between the Empire and other countries, particularly those whose rulers had accepted the Eastern Orthodox form of Christianity, were not, and could not be, relations between equals. It was axiomatic to the political thinking of the Byzantines that their emperor was the kosmokrator, whose authority, ideally coextensive with the Oikoumene, the civilised world, extended in practice over those lands of Eastern Europe which from the religious and cultural standpoint lay within the Empire's orbit. By the tenth century, as we see from the Book of Ceremonies, they had evolved the concept of a hierarchy of subordinate states, revolving in obedient harmony round the throne of the universal autocrat in Constantinople. This international society of nations, conceived of by their political philosophy, may, I believe, legitimately be termed the Byzantine Commonwealth. Entry into this Commonwealth was secured for a given country by its ruler's acceptance of Byzantine Christianity, and implicitly thereby of the emperor's sovereignty.
Medieval Russia was, in the eyes of the Byzantines, no exception to this rule. Byzantine claims to political hegemony over the country are attested in a number of documents. In 867 the Patriarch Photius asserted that the Russians, by accepting Byzantine Christianity, had become «subjects» (hypekooi) and «friends» (proxenoi) of the Empire12. The same type of relationship, in which the concepts of subjection and alliance were combined, is, in my opinion, implied in the term hypospondos used by Cinnamus to define the status occupied in the mid-twelfth century by the prince of Galicia vis-à-vis the Emperor Manuel Comnenus13, and in the symmachia offered in 1165 by the same emperor to the prince of Kiev14. I have argued elsewhere that all these technical terms can best be understood in the light of the Roman conception of «foederatio» which defined the status of the «socii populi Romani», autonomous subjects of the empire who, by virtue of a treaty (foedus) concluded with Rome, guarded her frontiers in exchange for a regular subsidy, imperial protection and the right of selfgovernment15. The most eloquent and explicit assertion of the Byzantine claims to sovereignty over Russia was made between 1394 and 1397 by the patriarch of Constantinople, Anthony IV. In a letter to Basil I of Moscow, in which he rebuked him for removing the emperor's name from the commemorative diptychs of the Russian Church and for declaring «we have the Church, but not the emperor», the patriarch stated: «It is not possible for Christians to have the Church and not to have the emperor». «The holy emperor», he goes on to say, «is not as other rulers and governors of other regions are... he is consecrated basileus and autokrator of the Romans - that is, of all Christians»16.
What was the attitude of the Russians to these grandiloquent claims? It seems to me that to answer this question correctly we must distinguish not merely between politics and ideology, but also between different conceptions of sovereignty held, at least in Eastern Europe, by the men of the Middle Ages. In terms of political power there is no evidence that the Russian princes in this period ever behaved as subjects of the emperor of Byzantium; nor is it likely that they would ever have tolerated, except in ecclesiastical matters, his direct intervention in the internal affairs of their principalities. It is equally obvious that the emperors lacked the military and political means to impose their dominion over the Russian princes, as the khans of the Golden Horde were able to do between 1240 and 1480 by imposing tribute and conferring investiture upon them. Nor could the metropolitans of Kiev and Moscow, even when they were Byzantine citizens and thus to some degree the emperor's political agents, ever hope to enforce his direct sovereignty over their Russian flock. Geographical distance, the power wielded by the Russian princes in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, the Mongol domination, and the growing weakness of the Empire in the late Middle Ages-these facts prevented Russia from ever becoming in any meaningful sense a political dependency of Byzantium.
And yet there is evidence to show that at different times between the conversion of Russia to Christianity in the late tenth century and the fall of the Empire in 1453 the belief that the basileus was the supreme head of the Christian Commonwealth, and that as such he possessed a measure of jurisdiction over Russia, was accepted by the rulers of that country. The emperor's supreme position in Christendom was emphasised in the Nomocanones, the manuals of Byzantine canon law, which formed the constitution of the Russian Church17, and also in the «Hortatory Chapters» of the six-thcentury Byzantine writer Agapetus which, in a Slavonic translation, enjoyed some popularity in medieval Russia18. The authors of the Russian Primary Chronicle, in accordance with this outlook, ascribed to the emperor the highest rank in Christendom, superior to that of local princes19. Vladimir I assumed at his baptism the name of the reigning emperor of Byzantium, Basil II, thereby acknowledging that within the family of Christian rulers the latter was his spiritual «father». In the frescoes which Prince Yaroslav caused to be painted about 1045, in his cathedral of St. Sophia in Kiev, and which represented him and his family, the prince's head is unnimbed and his clothes, while depicted with some splendour, lacked some of the attributes of the Byzantine emperor20; by contrast, in another cycle of frescoes painted in the same church during the first quarter of the twelfth century, the emperor is shown presiding over the games in the Hippodrome in Constantinople, and his head is surrounded by a nimbus, a characteristic feature of imperial iconography21. In the late thirteenth or early fourteenth century a Russian ruler is said to have borne the Byzantine court title of ό έπ'ι της τραπέζης (of which the Russian equivalent was possibly stolnik), and his envoy to Constantinople, a Byzantine writer asserts, conveyed his master's «reverent homage» to the Emperor Andronicus II22. In a letter written in 1347 to Symeon, the grand prince of Moscow, the Emperor John VI Cantacuzenus wrote: «Yes, the empire of the Romans, as well as the most holy Great Church of God [i.e. the Patriarchate of Constantinople] is-as you yourself have written-the source of all piety and the teacher of law and sanctification»23. This clearly implies the existence of an earlier-not extant-letter written by the Russian sovereign, in which he explicitly acknowledged the emperor's legislative authority over Russia. And in 1452, the year before the fall of Constantinople, the grand prince of Moscow, Basil II, wrote to the Emperor Constantine XI in these terms: «You have received your great imperial sceptre, your patrimony, in order to confirm all the Orthodox Christians of your realm and to render great assistance to our Russian dominion and to all our religion»24. The idea that the emperor enjoys certain prerogatives in Russia. though veiled in diplomatic language, is clearly apparent in these two late medieval texts.
The apparent conflict between «political reality», a plane on which medieval Russia was wholly «independent» of Byzantium, and the «sphere of ideology» in which the Empire's universalist claims were in some measure accepted by the Russians, has often been pointed out by historians. Sometimes, it seems to me, this contradiction has been made to appear more intractable than it need be by a tendency - whether conscious or not - to view Russo-Byzantine relations from the standpoint of modern interstate relations or else in terms of a struggle between Russian «nationalism» and Byzantine «imperialism». It may be doubted whether these are very helpful criteria with which to approach this problem. On both sides of the Black Sea medieval statesmen were actuated by a mixture of Realpolitik and more abstract conceptions rooted in the political thought of the time. A basic axiom of this thought was the existence of a single Christian community, whose centre was in Byzantium, destined to foreshadow on earth the heavenly kingdom. It did not follow that every nation within this Commonwealth owed direct political allegiance to the emperor. The Byzantines were not such pedantic doctrinaires as to claim that the Russian princes were in fact their emperor's servants. Even the title of βασιλεύς των 'Ρώσων assumed in the middle of the fourteenth century by the Emperor John Cantacuzenus25, .must have been little more than a psychological compensation for Byzantium's present impotence and perhaps a pious hope for the future. As for the Russians, they too were perfectly capable of thinking of their country's relations with the Empire on two planes. To conceive of different types of sovereignty was .not so very difficult for men of the Middle Ages. In his own lands the Russian prince was a fully sovereign ruler, a true samoderzhets (at least before the Mongol invasion); in relation to Byzantium, as αρχών 'Ρωσίας, he occupied a subordinate position in the hierarchal structure of the Commonwealth. In the last resort, although it would be vain to attempt to define the political relations between Byzantium and medieval Russia in precise legal or constitutional terms, it is not, I believe, misleading to suggest that from the country's conversion to Christianity to the fall of Byzantium in 1453 the Russian rulers-with the sole recorded exception of Basil I of Muscovy - acknowledged, at least tacitly, that the emperor was the head of the Christian Commonwealth.
III. The Cultural Impact of Byzantium upon Russia
My aim in this concluding section is not to attempt a general assessment of medieval Russia's debt to Byzantine civilisation, but to raise a few questions, some of them methodological, which deserve to be more fully considered by students of Russo-Byzantine relations. In recent years historians have shown a growing interest in the problems of cultural diffusion and «acculturation»26. These forms of culture-contact are usually highly complex phenomena, and the historian, who still lacks the objective criteria for the comparative study of cultures which are today being evolved by anthropologists and sociologists, can rarely hope to grasp them in their entirety. One thing is certain, however: the process of cultural borrowing is seldom if ever a purely passive one. The diffusion of Byzantine civilisation to Russia, for instance, was made possible by the Russians' willingness to «reach out» for its fruits. Moreover, in its new Russian environment this civilisation was adapted to local needs and conditions, through a process of selection whereby its various elements were accepted, rejected, or transformed. Several factors played their part in this double process of cultural transmission and creative borrowing: among them were the trade routes, along which Byzantine missionaries, painters, architects, diplomats and material goods travelled northward from Constantinople: intermediaries such as the Varangians who, in their constant travels between Constantinople and the Russian cities, became carriers of Byzantine ideas and customs; and communities whose geographical location or cosmopolitan nature brought citizens of both countries into prolonged personal contact: such were the Russian colony in Constantinople and the leading monasteries of the Byzantine world, especially Mount Athos. Another important factor were the social, political and economic conditions which prevailed in Russia at the time of the «reception» of Byzantine civilisation. It is an observable fact that this civilisation was assimilated most rapidly and effectively in those East European countries which had evolved or were evolving a centralised form of government. Thus Vladimir I ruled over a realm with relatively well developed monarchical traditions, and was therefore able to impose new cultural and religious patterns upon his subjects by personal example and the use of force. The relationship between the growth of monarchical institutions and the acceptance of Byzantine culture was often a reciprocal one; not only did political centralisation pave the way for Byzantinization; the reverse was equally true. Christianity, together with the social ideology and material trappings that came with it, enabled the Russian monarchs of the early Middle Ages to claim divine sanction for their sovereignty, to unite their subjects by the common profession of an exclusive faith, and to exalt their own status by royal dress and state ceremonial partly modelled on the ritual of the imperial court. The response of the aristocracy to the social changes that came with Byzantine influence seems to have been ambivalent. On the one hand, the import of goods from the Empire satisfied their growing consumer needs and enabled them to share with their sovereign in the social prestige attendant on greater wealth and education. On the other hand, the new religion threatened to undermine their ancient privileges whose origin and justification lay in the pagan way of life. An instance of social pressure exerted by the privileged classes in order to keep their prince in the straight path of paganism is provided by the story of Svyatoslav of Kiev, who is said to have declared that he could not become a Christian because he feared that his retainers (druzhina) would laugh at him27. Another example of a resistance-passive and ineffectual this time-offered to the invasion of the traditional culture by Byzantine civilisation was the despair felt by women of the leading families of Russia, whose children were forcibly conscripted by Vladimir I for purposes of Christian education28. A more powerful resistance to the new religious and social order, this time originating in the peasant classes, was recorded in the eleventh century in different parts of Russia, particularly in outlying famine-stricken districts of the northeast. A series of militantly anti-Christian, «revivalist», movements were led by «magicians» (volkhvy) claiming to possess supernatural powers and the gift of prophecy, who persuaded their followers to massacre local landowners, on the grounds that they were hoarding food29, These pagan revolts, which spread to Kiev and Novgorod and were violently suppressed by the state authorities, show that nearly a hundred years after Russia's official conversion the new patterns of faith and behaviour brought from Byzantium could still provoke aversion and fear in peasant communities whose traditional ways of life were threatened with extinction.
These outbursts of hostility seem to have been sporadic and impermanent. The new Byzantine culture, for reasons already explained, held a strong appeal for many Russians. In all classes of the population there were those on whom the Gospel teaching, with its message of spiritual regeneration, had a genuine impact and whose hearts were softened and held captive by the beauty of liturgical worship perceived through eye and ear. And among the more educated, whose religious and social preoccupations had centered hitherto on family, clan, tribe or kingdom, there must have been not a few to whom the universal perspectives of the Christian religion offered a new and exciting experience.
Next to what might be termed the «sociological» aspect of Byzantium's impact upon medieval Russia, a problem which requires further study is the degree to which Byzantine civilisation was adapted or transformed on Russian soil. The problem is too vast to be discussed even in a summary manner here. I must be content to identify its nature and to describe some of its difficulties. The Russians of the Middle Ages borrowed from the Empire, directly or indirectly, its religion, its law, its literature and its art. Within each of these fields Byzantine civilisation gave rise to local peculiarities and variations. These perhaps can be most easily identified in the realm of literature, where the relative abundance of the sources allows fairly precise conclusions to be drawn both about the types of writing selected for translation from Greek into Slavonic and about the views by Russian authors on their country's relationship with Byzantium. In the field of art, where princely, ecclesiastical, and merchant patronage, and the tastes of local workshops tended in some degree to offset the cosmopolitanism of art forms imported from Byzantium, the problem is more difficult; and the student of East European medieval art has to tread warily between the conflicting views of native scholars who have sometimes tended to overemphasise the originality of their countries' products and of some Byzantinists who regard them as provincial forms, not to say servile imitations, of Constantinopolitan art. Although Russian secular law shows little sign of direct Byzantine influence, any attempt to distinguish it from the pre-existing legal traditions is bound to be tentative so long as our knowledge of Slav customary law remains rudimentary. The difficulties which face the student of Russian religion are possibly greater still, for the very nature of the religious patterns inherited from Byzantium permitted of no essential variations: Orthodox Christianity was conceived of as a sacred and indivisible unity, no part of which might be abstracted without damage to the whole. The history of medieval Russian monasticism, to take one example, reveals an unswerving fidelity to Byzantine models. Yet it can scarcely be denied that Byzantine Christianity did, in the course of time, acquire in Russia a distinctive local flavour, not indeed as the result of any arbitrary selection, but mainly because the Russians were inclined to emphasise some features of this tradition, singling out some special virtue or type of behaviour as worthy of special admiration. The widespread and popular cult of the saintly princes Boris and Gleb, which rested on the belief that the innocent victim of assassination may be regarded as a martyr - a cult which finds no analogy in Byzantium - may perhaps be taken as an instance of that pity for human suffering which was not the least of the qualities valued by the Russian people throughout their history.
I would suggest in conclusion that the attempt to identify and describe the local «recensions» which Byzantine civilisation underwent in medieval Russia is, like the recognition of distinctive styles in art, a worthwhile undertaking, however tentative its outcome may be. In the last resort, however, these local variations may well prove, from the historian's viewpoint, to be less significant than the pattern of values, beliefs, and intellectual and aesthetic experience which, in common with other peoples of Eastern Europe, the Russians of the Middle Ages acquired from Byzantium.
Dimitri Obolensky. The Relations between Byzantium and Russia (11th-15th Century) / Ñåðâåð âîñòî÷íîåâðîïåéñêîé àðõåîëîãèè, (http://archaeology.kiev.ua/pub/obolensky.htm).
Dimitri Obolensky. The Relations between Byzantium and Russia (11th-15th Century) // XIIIth International Congress of Historical Sciences. Moscow, 1970. Ñ. 1-13.