The Fall of an Empire: The Lesson of Byzantium (2008)
by Archimandrite Tikhon
Archimandrite Tikhon - "The Fall of an Empire - The Lesson of Byzantium"
By Demetrios Rhompotis
Russian Greek-Orthodox Archimandrite Tikhon (born 1958 in Moscow Georgi Alexandrovich Shevkunov) studied film production before entering the clergy, and when his first work as a director and narrator was released earlier this year in “The fall of an Empire - The Lesson of Byzantium” documentary (http://vizantia.info/docs/73.htm),it created an uproar! The film deals with the Empire’s degradation and how it lost its “ability to respond to the calls of history.” A Greek version has already been released and an English version is underway. Due to a reference to the Emperor Constantine as The Drunkard, not a few critics saw in the film a portrayal of the late President’s Yeltsin’s crumbling Russia and considered the documentary an attempt to help President Putin’s hand-picked successor and current President Dmitri Medvedev win the election.
In an electronic (conducted through email) interview with NEO, his first for the Greeks in the US, Tikhon dismissed the allegations. He admitted, however, that “the analogy with Russian history was more than obvious” and that “this film arose out of my pondering over the history of Byzantium and of Russia.” Tikhon’s advent in the ecclesiastical and political limelight seems to be a natural consequence of a path that has led him to become for some time now one of the most influential people in Russia. Instrumental in the reunification process that brought part of the Orthodox Church outside of Russia back to Moscow and key person in organizing President Putin’s one and only historic visit to Athos (although he himself denies any connection,) Tikhon represents a new breed of leadership within the Russian Greek-Orthodox Church that takes history seriously, especially as it relates to today’s reality. On the hottest point of contention in Orthodoxy today, the status of the Ukrainian Church, he points out to well-founded historical reasons that make the case so sensitive to Russians. “This is in fact part of an old Roman Catholic project worked out during the tragic Union of Brest in the Ukraine back in the 16th century.”
Rev. Tikhon entered the Pskov-Caves Monastery as a novice in 1984 and today he is the Superior of the Moscow Sretensky Monastery, one of the most influential in the country, and Rector of the Sretensky Theological Seminary. Multi-tasked and extremely active, he is Editor-in-Chief of the Sretensky Monastery Publishing House, one of the largest in Russia, Editor-in-Chief of “Pravoslavie.ru,” one of the leading Orthodox Internet sites in the country, and an Associate Member of the Russian Academy of Natural Sciences. Reminded of the upcoming 39th Biennial Clergy-Laity Congress of the Greek-American Orthodox Church (Washington DC, July 13-18, 2008,) Rev. Tikhon, who has been to the US many times, says he considers this traditional congress a model for something similar in Russia. Energetic and open to new ideas, he sees changes “into the external spheres of Church life” as inevitable, but “they must be conducted in a spiritually talented way, and not superficially, primitively, or basely. Otherwise, the Church will fatally consign itself to cruel divisions and suffering.”
How did you come up with the idea of this documentary?
When I had the opportunity to visit Constantinople for the first time two years ago, I was amazed by what I saw. Even after these many centuries, the magnitude and grandeur of a Christian empire's fall, shows through. Because the analogy with Russian history was more than obvious, I was exceedingly interested as to how this extraordinarily vital, capable, and enlightened empire, far surpassing all other nations of its time, suddenly lost its life forces and finally collapsed. Why did this great nation, enlightened with the light of the Gospels, lose its historical home to another, more primitive state and people? This film arose out of my pondering over the history of Byzantium and of Russia. Work on this film went on for a year and a half. The idea consisted in showing the process and causes of degradation, how the Empire lost its ability to respond to the calls of history. This was the main subject of my research, and attention was paid first of all to those historical facts connected with this matter.
In this country, during the last decade mostly, we have witnessed the meddling of certain Christian sects in partisan politics putting in danger the separation of Church and state and compromising, sometimes irrevocably, Christianity’s integrity. Is there a similar situation in Russia? In fact, you have been accused of doing so by releasing the film right before the Russian presidential election.
Yes, such accusations were directed at the film. However, some said that the film supported Putin's successor, while others said that it was aimed against him. I pay no attention to such criticism.
There was criticism that the film modernized Byzantine history by introducing such terms as “oligarchs” and “corrupt politicians.” Yes, this is true. History was consciously reconstructed to our contemporary reality, and terminology was used with a large audience in mind. Nevertheless, all the facts presented in the film are absolutely true. Or, for example, there was criticism that nothing was said about the overblown Western concept of “byzantine deceitfulness.” There was an obvious attempt by the Western Europeans after the vicious fourth Crusade to accuse their victims, the Greeks, in order to justify themselves. It would be more appropriate to speak of how the motives and behavior of a highly developed Byzantine state were rarely fully understood by the simpler inhabitants of Medieval Western Europe, just as the inhabitants of a large city seem cunning to a simple country boy.
Archbishop Demetrios of America, during his recent visit to Russia, spoke of the “unchurched people” in the US and in other western societies. Can today’s Orthodoxy appeal to them, is our Church able to “speak their language,” to offer a spiritual and yet realistic alternative?
After 80 years of militant atheism, Russians have gained unique experience not only in preserving Orthodoxy under the conditions of a totalitarian state, but also of an active contemporary Orthodox mission within one's own nation, in a society which is often called “post-Christian.” The main bearers of Orthodox spirit were the new martyrs and confessors of Russia. Amongst those confessors were those who have lived even to our own days. One of these was my spiritual father, Archimandrite John (Krestiankin), who lived through the Stalinist camps. He remained unbroken, and was an example of the greatest Christian love and faith to the end of his life. He also had an amazing gift of discernment, which the Holy Fathers call the crown of spiritual ascetic life. His remarkable pastoral letters were recently published (they have also been translated into English,) and were distributed throughout Russia by the thousands. The problem of missionary work in the contemporary Russian Church is of the utmost importance. I can say that we are gradually finding the right language of communication with the modern, ecclesiastically uneducated individual, to which the million-fold printings of our missionary apologetic brochures and books can testify. In Sretensky Monastery, which is located in the center of Moscow, half of the parishioners are under 40 years of age. They are high school and elementary school students, government officials, scholars, public servants, workers, and cultural activists. Answering to the last part of your question, I will say that for these people, a spiritual and realistic alternative to the corrupt secular world which is increasingly senseless without God are the Gospels and Holy Fathers, as they have been throughout all times.
Many of those “unchurched people” and many of the “churched” as well, resort to kinds of New Age “spiritual” options that we thought gone forever. Magicians, astrologists, fortune-tellers, wizards are in vogue, a phenomenon reminiscent of Europe’s Dark Ages. Does there exist a void that established religions are not filling and does the religious version of Orthodoxy fall in the same category?
We ran up against this problem in the beginning of the ‘90’s, but in general, this is nothing new. The same thing happened in Byzantium, especially during its period of decline. The spectrum was very broad: from the sophisticated pagan teachings of Gemistos Plithon to the most crude and blasphemous superstitions. In Russia today, we have with God's help been able to convince our flock of the incompatibility of any kind of superstition with life in the Church. Although of course this sickness flares up here and there, it is localized, while the Church as a whole does not suffer from it.
People say that Orthodoxy, with all its beauty and transcendental qualities, is antiquated in many ways. It seems to have stopped developing a couple of centuries ago, resembling the Amish in that sense. On the other hand, efforts to modernize it are greeted with suspicion and hostility. As a new generation clergyman – and a very talented film director, I should add – what are your thoughts on this vital question?
We have firmly assimilated from the great Greek Fathers the teaching of the eternally young Church. Russia is now in a period when a huge number of people are entering the Church, especially young and educated people. The Russian Athonite Elder Silhouan wrote about this back in the 1930's. He spoke of the future of Russia, that there would come a time when mostly educated people would be coming to God.
As for the modernization of Orthodoxy (I will emphasize that this concerns only the ritual side of the Church and not Evangelical and Patristic side,) that life and times are bound to introduce their necessary changes into the external spheres of Church life. The most important thing is that those reforms be truly necessary to life and introduced with love for Orthodoxy, and not with high-minded contempt for “routine and Orthodox limitation.” Another very important point is that these changes be conducted in a spiritually talented way, and not superficially, primitively, or basely. Otherwise, the Church will fatally consign itself to cruel divisions and suffering.
Although you don’t belong to any “anti-Hellenic” group within the Russian Greek-Orthodox Church, certain points in your documentary can be rendered as hostile to Hellenism. In your opinion, can there be an Orthodox Catholic and Apostolic Church without the Greek – spirited Church Fathers and the Hellenic tradition in which they and the early church was steeped in?
I must admit that this is the first I have heard of an “anti-Hellenic” group in the Russian Church. The vast majority of Russians have always related to the Greek Church as to their spiritual mother, toward whom we feel sincere love and reverence. Greek Holy Fathers and ascetics of piety, from St. John Chrysotom to St. Paisius the Athonite are published in Russian by the hundreds of thousands of copies. Very many students of theological institutions study the ancient and Modern Greek language. The Russian Church is penetrated with Greek spiritual patristic tradition. As for the film, the subject of the sad phenomenon of neo-paganism which arose amongst the Greeks in Byzantium does in fact come up in the context of understanding the many causes underlying the Empire's collapse, especially during the final century of its existence. This is an important subject for Modern Russia, because neo-paganism is raising his ugly head here as well. It is stated that, by force of many factors, Byzantium, in the person of its ruling elite, gradually denied its own governmental and spiritual foundations and traditions, and later its Divine calling. Similar processes have taken place in Russia, and it is very important for us to see the consequences of these processes in history. It is stated in the film that Greek nationalism did a great disservice to the Empire at one point, making enemies out of former friends. This same thing is happening, unfortunately, in Russia. But these sad historical facts should help us to think about our contemporary life. As the Russian historian Kliuchevsky said, “history is not a kind, old teacher, but a stern instructor; it does not ask about lessons, but it cruelly avenges their negligence.”
Russian and other eastern European churches have suffered and are suffering from the activities of Uniats, a very treacherous process sanctioned by the Vatican, in which appearances are kept intact while the Faith is essentially compromised. This is one of the major obstacles in the dialogue – really, what kind of a dialogue can you sustain with someone who claims to be infallible – between the schismatic Rome and the Ecumenical Patriarchate. What is your take on that?
I will return once again to the film. Many critics reproach the film as being “anti-Western.” This is not true. Two things are very clearly stated about the Roman Catholic West: “Of course, it is senseless to say that the West was to blame for Byzantium’s misfortunes and fall. The West was only pursuing its own interests, which is quite natural. Byzantium’s historical blows occurred when the Byzantines themselves betrayed their own principles upon which their empire was established ...The Byzantines were supposed to get the point that the West needed only complete and unconditional religious and political submission. Not only the Pope was to be recognized as infallible, but the West itself as well.” These two postulates—the exclusiveness of their own interests and their infallibility, as it seems to me, remain unchanged in the Vatican's policies even now. It would be naïve at the least not to take these two basics constants of Roman Catholicism into consideration. As for the Uniates, those who now talk today, for example, about autocephaly for the Ukrainian Church, forget that this is in fact part of an old Roman Catholic project worked out during the tragic Union of Brest in the Ukraine back in the 16th century. Later, the leader of the Ukrainian Greek-Catholics, Metropolitan Andrei Sheptitsky, wrote in his letter to Emperor Franz Joseph in 1914 that, in order to make the Ukraine Roman Catholic, it is necessary to separate it from the Russian Church, create a “Kiev-Galich Orthodox Patriarchate” and then, soon afterwards, transfer it to the “bosom of the Catholic Church” through the Uniate process. Of course, one could say to me in the words of Heraclitus, that “you can't go down the same river twice.” This is true, of course... But you can easily jump into one and the same puddle.
What message would you like to convey to the American Greek-Orthodox people as this year’s Clergy-Laity Congress is about to commence?
Much of what is important to me and many priests in the Russian Church has already been mentioned in this discussion. I would only like to add that our experience of life and witness of the Church during the era of a totalitarian regime belongs not only to us, but to the entire Orthodox Church. Your experience of the Church's existence in a pluralistic society is very important to us, as is your experience of pastoral service. For example, we do not have such annual conferences of clergy and laypeople as you have in America. It would be extremely interesting and important for us to take on this tradition and experience. Greek Orthodoxy has always been for Russia not only an instructor, but also a special spiritual orientation. Thus do we highly value our spiritual unity in our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and in His Holy Church.