The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Some observers mistakenly blame Putin’s invasion on an old doctrine

The dangers of misreading the “Third Rome” as the cause of the conflict in Ukraine

A man walks past a destroyed Russian armored personnel carrier in Bucha, Ukraine, on April 4, 2022. (Alexey Furman/Getty Images)
6 min

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, unprovoked and brutal, has led to discussions about Russia’s putative 500 year history of imperial aggression. Frequently, these histories begin with the concept of the “Third Rome,” first articulated clearly by а Russian monk in the 1520s, which was supposedly the center of a Russian imperialist ideology that sought, and continues to seek, to conquer the world.

But this narrative misconstrues history and the relationship of Christianity to dreams of empire 500 years ago. At the time of its conception, the “Third Rome” idea had nothing to do with conquest of the world, but rather with theological claims made by Russian Orthodox Church leaders about Moscow’s place in the Orthodox world. In the past 100 years, that idea has been co-opted into a narrative of “eternal” Russian expansionism.

Such false tales threaten to distort policy toward Russia by obfuscating Putin’s real motivations for attacking Ukraine, which have more to do with modern forms of Russian nationalism and revenge for the collapse of the Soviet Union. Bogus theories about an innate Russian drive to expand will only complicate negotiations with Moscow, especially a possible post-Putin Moscow.

The story of the “Third Rome” begins with the Roman Empire and its acceptance of Christianity in the early 300s. Within two generations of that conversion, the empire had divided in two: a western half with its capital in Rome and an eastern one centered in Constantinople (today Istanbul). The west collapsed in the early 400s under multiple assaults by “barbarian” armies, but the empire continued for another millennium in the east. Today, it is generally known as Byzantium.

After the empire split, the western church, centered on Rome and the Latin language, and the eastern church, centered on Constantinople and Greek, diverged culturally and theologically. The Roman church evolved into what we know as Catholicism, while the Greek church became what we know as Orthodoxy. The formal separation is usually dated to 1054, when leading figures in each camp excommunicated one another.

In the view of the Orthodox, the Roman Catholic Church had lost its way, and their own capital, Constantinople, became the “New Rome,” or the “Second Rome,” which stood at the center of true Christianity.

In 1453, the Islamic Ottoman Turks completed their conquest of the eastern Roman empire by capturing Constantinople. They renamed the city Istanbul, but for the Orthodox it remained Constantinople. The cultural capital of the Orthodox world was now under Islamic rule.

All of this led to a crisis in the Orthodox Church. Though the leading authority in the church remained the patriarch of Constantinople, some Orthodox authorities began to ask who the earthly protector of Christians might be, now that the Byzantine emperor was gone.

After 1453, the only state in the world still ruled by an Orthodox monarch was Moscow, a rising power on the eastern fringe of Europe. The idea that the czar of Moscow might be the earthly defender of all Orthodoxy was first clearly articulated in the 1520s by a Russian monk named Filofei. In a letter to an official in the retinue of Czar Vasilii III, Filofei wrote that “two Romes have fallen and a third (Moscow) stands.”

But recent work by experts (particularly Marshall Poe and Donald Rowland) shows that Filofei was not drawing a blueprint for world domination by Moscow. Rather, he was reminding Vasilii of his special duty, as ruler of the Third Rome, to protect and sustain the true Christian church. Otherwise that realm would fail, just as Rome and Constantinople had before. Filofei also implied that in the end even Moscow would fail, as the great empires of the Old Testament had. That eventual failure would bring on the end times.

For two generations, the czars ignored the Third Rome formula. They began using it from time to time only in the early 1600s. Even then it had nothing to do with designs for world conquest but with enhancing the status of the Muscovite church leadership within the Orthodox world.

In the 1660s, central Russian church authorities actually rejected the Third Rome doctrine, as they tried a different approach to increasing their status within the Orthodox world — bringing their religious practices in line with those in Constantinople and the most prestigious Greek monasteries. Only the Old Believers, a breakaway group of Russian Orthodox who sought to maintain what they saw as the purity of the Moscow church, held on to the concept.

It was not until the 1800s that Russian historians unearthed the Third Rome doctrine and claimed that it was an ideological justification for the expansion of the Russian state. By 1900, Russian commentators were reading it in many different ways — as a statement of Russia’s special mission to unite the Asian “East” with the European “West,” of its special role in uniting all Slavs or of its messianic mission to bring true Christianity to the entire world.

This last interpretation entered Cold War discussions of Soviet aggression through the writings of Russian philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev. In the 1930s, Berdyaev had argued that the Bolsheviks’ promotion of world revolution was simply another manifestation of Moscow’s messianic ambition, supposedly encapsulated in the Third Rome doctrine. During the Cold War, Western commentators took this even further, reading the idea as part of a centuries-old Russian plot for world domination.

A monk’s meditation on the czar’s role as protector of Orthodoxy had been re-envisioned as an inherent Russian urge toward universal empire. With the invasion of Ukraine, a number of commentators have revived this anachronistic reading of the Third Rome.

The misreading of the Third Rome concept is dangerous. The idea arose in a world where people thought of politics in terms of Old Testament precedents, Judeo-Christian prophecy and the role of earthly rulers in defending the one true church. Taking it out of that context and interpreting it as a sign of an inborn Russian aggressiveness prevents us from grasping the essentially modern context for the invasion of Ukraine.

Revanchism for the collapse of the Soviet Union, an exaggerated fear of NATO expansion and new forms of Russian nationalism motivate Putin’s assault, not some supposed eternal messianic mission. Essentializing “Russianness” with fairy tales about the Third Rome precludes the realistic appraisal of Putin’s policies necessary for dealing with the Russian government.