Lost in Byzantium

Nina L. Khrushcheva teaches international affairs at the New School. She is the author of "Imagining Nabokov: Russia Between Art and Politics."

The Byzantine Empire fell in 1453. But you wouldn’t know it in Russia, where Vladimir V. Putin has been behaving as though the 15th century never ended, as though he is the direct descendant of the Byzantine kings and Moscow remains the “Third Rome” it declared itself to be in 1472.

Just like the leaders of Byzantium centuries ago, Putin and his supporters talk about Russia today as if it were a divinely ordained power, destined to withstand the decay and destruction of the West. The “double eagle” emblem, originally adopted in Russia about the time of the Byzantine demise, was brought back after 1991 as a state symbol, once again meant to signify the country’s dream of domination over Europe and Asia.

Under Boris Yeltsin, the double eagle got little play, but in the Putin years its significance has come to equal that of the Communist red star. Byzantium and its symbols are discussed on talk shows, their imperial grandeur cited as an example for Russia’s own future glory; Orthodox priests with distinguished beards read sermons on how Russia, if it is to achieve greatness, must look into its Christian predecessor’s past. An hourlong film called “The Destruction of the Empire: a Byzantine Lesson” has been rerun many times on Russian state TV and has become the talk of Moscow.

The not-so-subtle idea behind all this Byzantium nostalgia is that Russia can (and should) exist only in opposition to the West, which supposedly hated Byzantium in the past just as it hates its spiritual heir, Russia, today.


But all this is fanciful thinking. The old ideas and symbols that Putin has employed to strengthen Russia’s self-image no longer correspond to today’s global realities, nor do they reflect Russia’s present capacities. Yes, the double-headed eagle once signified imperial power. But today it seems more emblematic of the country’s split personality, like a desperate attempt to cover up a sense of deep insecurity -- the anxiety of a former superpower torn between the old world and the new one.

The truth is, Russia today is neither a power state (like the old Russian empire) nor a welfare state (like the now-defunct Soviet Union) but something in between -- ingloriously living off income from the energy and raw materials sector. And the desire to keep this rentier state going (under the mythic guise of great Byzantium) helps explain the charade of last month’s power transition: Putin’s move from the presidency to the prime ministership and former Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev’s installation as president.

Those moves -- basically an office swap between the two men -- were Byzantine in their opacity, like the succession of power from one czar to another, with no clear explanation of how society would benefit.

In the weeks since, Russians have tried desperately to decipher the hidden meanings behind the Kremlin moves. Will Medvedev come into his own, declaring his independence and turning into Khrushchev or Gorbachev rather than Stalin or Brezhnev? Does Putin hope to come back as Russia’s president in four years? What are we to make of the ongoing bureaucratic shuffle? Which of Putin’s people are out, which of Medvedev’s are in? And are the changes meaningful or of a purely technical nature -- more office swaps, in effect?


One thing seems certain: It’s still Putin who pulls all the strings. So the important question really isn’t what Medvedev will become as much as what Putin will allow him to become.

In the end, I suspect that Putin is too smart to really believe all this talk about a new Byzantium. He must understand that trying to re-create the 15th century -- or even an empire along Soviet lines -- in the quest for renewed superpower status would be strategic suicide. Not only would the U.S. oppose it but so too would rising giant China, which abhors the prospect of a “Soviet Reunion” along its border.

In recent years, Russia’s “window into the West” has widened to its greatest point since Peter the Great sought to reorient the country westward. The Iron Curtain was all but demolished in the 1990s, and today’s Russians are free to travel and live, on average, better than ever before. Under Putin and his predecessor, Yeltsin, the country’s role in world politics and the global economy has generally been that of partner rather than adversary. Is that all in vain? Will Putin seek to reverse that progress?

I hope not. Putin has a genuine opportunity to reject the xenophobic, inward-looking approach of Byzantinism -- and to embrace globalization. He did ultimately choose not to become a traditional autocrat -- he didn’t, in the end, amend the constitution to brutally usurp the power of the Kremlin, but allowed at least an appearance of democracy by stepping down from the presidency. That’s not a small thing for a guy like Putin.


With all his chastising of the West for its world domination, I suspect that Putin still understands that there is no other choice than to be a part of the global community. He doesn’t want to go down in history as a dictator but as a leader who, over eight years, transformed his country from a bankrupt and desperate punching bag of the West into a wealthy nation.

If modern Russia is truly to become a global power, it cannot afford to be isolated, with one aspiring satellite, Serbia; one marriage of convenience, China; and an unsavory collection of clients in Central Asia, the Near East and Latin America.

To achieve the international recognition it so badly desires, Russia has no choice but to move toward an honestly competitive political system, to continue working cooperatively with the West -- and to give up once and for all the charade of Byzantium.