No recent documentary film can boast of such a response among Russian viewers as the film by Archimandrite Tikhon, The Fall of an Empire—The Lesson of Byzantium. Some learned much that they did not know before, and drew conclusions from the history of Byzantium for their own lives. Some cast doubt upon Fr. Tikhon’s right to “teach” from the screen. But nearly no one who watched the “Lesson…” yawned and looked off to the side. We have invited the author of the film to a discussion within the walls of Isvestia.
Fr. Tikhon: Thank you for your interest. Twenty years ago, I shot footage about the elders of the Pskov-Caves Monastery on an amateur VHS. After the elders who had been filmed on these tapes had passed away, I considered it possible to show the footage to the general director of VGTRK, Oleg Borisovich Dobrodeev, and we decided that a film for television could be made from them. But the “Lesson from Byzantium” took a year and a half to make. It was exactly a year and a half ago that I first went to Constantinople, and I was totally amazed by its grandeur. I was traveling at the time with Fr. Andrei Kuraev. Later, to myself I called this trip, “Pilgrimage to Byzantium—a trip to the future?” Just like this, with a question mark. Upon returning to Moscow I simply lived Byzantium for a year and a half—I read everything I could find in Russian on the subject. Then I wrote a scenario. I showed it to Oleg Dobrodeev, and to his assistant, Sergei Shumakov. Saida Medvedeva, an excellent director and producer, put the material on the screen.
As for the Lesson of Byzantium, I would not call the film itself anything outstanding. But the response to it was more than interesting to me. Acquaintances have told me that people were talking about Byzantium in the markets, buses, and underground transport. Saida went to the hairdresser’s and called me up from there all excited—women were talking about Basil II, the Paleogues… Of all the responses, one of the best was without a doubt the review by Elena Yampolskaya in your newspaper. This was a huge support to me—in the sense of deep understanding. It was also simply much needed support, because there were many negative articles.
Vladimor Mamontov, Chief Editor: Just recently some leading political scientists came to our office. We were discussing your film. We began to argue about whether or not the DVD would be a financial success. One said, “Who cares about Byzantium?” Another said, “No, no. The DVD tents at the market are going to be filled with it.” My colleagues, journalists from other publishers, said, “We are not going to write about this; our readers will not understand it.” But their readers are those very people sitting in the city buses. The work turned out to be of very wide scope. Why were people so interested in it? Because certain holes exist in history. In any case, the film let us know that there is still a mass of room for study.
Fr. Tikhon: When even an educated person unexpectedly learns that Byzantium was for a long time the spiritual, cultural, and political center of the world, and that Western Europe was just a hinterland in comparison, this causes a real shock. In Constantinople, a megalopolis with a half a million in population, with wide avenues and multi-story buildings served by hydraulic elevators, there were also water and sewage systems. During the same period in history, Paris and other European capitals had populations of no more than 20,000 up until the 10th century. Europe’s main hygienic invention was a rough boot with a high sole so that one would not sink in the dirt. This is not to mention education, medicine, and the extraordinarily developed social system in Byzantium—orphanages, homes for invalids and the aged… When people hear about this, many of them are seized with doubt. “This cannot be; no one taught us this.”
But the most interesting thing for me was the extremely aggressive reaction from certain well-known historians. Yuri Afanasiev, for example, began his interview in New Times with the words, “a very, very disgusting film.” He goes on to say things that are more than strange to hear from a scholar, implying that Byzantium “was the product of Western culture.” It seems impossible to me that Yuri Afanasiev is unacquainted with the works of Sergei Sergeevich Averintsev, who showed that the sources of Byzantine culture lie in ancient Greek literature and Near-Eastern written culture. There is no mention even made of Western culture. Afanasiev also protests in the same article, “As if Byzantium was Orthodox from the very beginning.” Then what was Byzantium from the very beginning if not Orthodox?
Moscow State University’s Professor Sergei Ivanov, presented by the media as a leading Russian Byzantologist, said in the same New Times, on Echo of Moscow, and on Radio Freedom, that there were no “oligarchs” or “stabilization funds in Byzantium.”
Let’s look into this. The word “oligarchy” translated from the Greek means “the rule of a few.” Our oligarchs of the nineties were the younger brothers of the Byzantine oligarchs, who were then called “dynates,” meaning “the strong.” These were people from various levels of society, who took advantage of the opportunity to get rich quickly and fantastically, but whose claim was not only to wealth; they also sought to rule the country and influence the emperor. There were no laws written for them. It was with them that Basil II successfully waged war. The wiser dynates quickly renounced their desire to rule and fit themselves into the state’s mule team. Those who turned out to be political oligaphrenes (from the same Greek root as “oligarch,” and meaning “of small mind”) clung to power, but paid for it later. Nor is the stabilization fund an invention of modern Russia. Such huge government reserves were gathered at least twice during Byzantium’s history. In the sixth century under Emperor Justinian these reserves were used to build the famous Hagia Sophia and to recapture lands torn from the Empire. Basil II earmarked his reserves for the resolution of particularly important government tasks; first of all, the creation of a capable army.
Ivanov insists that in the film “it is said that emperors ruled on an average of four years and had no time to do anything. Where did this amazing number come from? It is only the term of presidency in Russia.” But in fact, in the film is stated the following: “There was a period when emperors in Byzantium changed on the average of every four years.” And there really was such a period. From 1025 to 1081, fifty six years, there were fourteen different rulers, who reigned for an average of four years. It was precisely during this period, after the death of Basil II, that the dynates made use of the rapid succession of rulers and the weakness of the emperors themselves, carried off the “stabilization fund,” as well as all the rest of treasury, destroyed the army, and brought the country to such a sorry state that it had to sign that very “Golden Bulla”—a humiliating agreement which resulted in all of Byzantium’s resources falling into foreign hands. This in turn served as the main reason for the siege and pillage of Constantinople by the Crusaders, which broke the Empire’s back.
Ivanov expresses his indignation that, “it never occurred to the film’s authors to film the Chora Church, where amazing images of Byzantine art are on display.” However, in the film several frescos of Chora are shown, even full screen and slowly. I find it hard to believe that a “leading Byzantologist” could not recognize or notice them.
It gets worse. Over the waves of liberal radio stations, they demand that the film be banned. The same Yuri Afanasiev, one of the fathers of Russian democracy, proposes that the directors of the television channel “Russia” be punished as an example to all. It seems that this is not just a matter of polemics for them. This only happens when some very deeply seated, cherished belief has been insulted. People only react with such vehemence about their faith.
But just what is this faith which compels serious scholars to behave themselves with such exaggerated impropriety? This very faith is mentioned in the film: “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.” Here it is—the Western “Creed:” a blunt faith in the West’s infallibility. Any attempt to doubt it evokes, as we have seen, an extremely unhealthy reaction; even an incompetent one.
Sergei Leskov, science columnist: I discussed your film with some historians whom no one could accuse of pro-western sympathies, as much as one would like to do so. They were put on their guard by a certain simplification of history. After all, there were periods in history when Byzantium attacked Rome with the same fury as the West attacked Byzantium. Yes, the Crusaders’ invasion was a tragedy of civilization. But there were times when the Byzantine Empire was very strong, and paid money to the barbarians to attack Rome.…
Fr. Tikhon: Byzantium never stirred up the barbarians against Rome! There were times when Romans were ransomed from barbarians; there were times when some were used against others. To be sure, relations between Byzantium and the West were many-sided and complex. And to be sure, they were more complex than was portrayed in the film. But the film, in my deepest opinion, is absolutely not anti-Western. It is emphasized in the film that, “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 came when the Byzantines themselves betrayed their own principles upon which their empire was established.” We are speaking of the West as a particular and unique phenomenon with which we must be very, very careful.
If we look through history we will see that the West’s development came about in a very particular way. In 1204, Western Europeans who are primitive in comparison with Byzantium take over Constantinople. They receive unprecedented means for the development of their countries and peoples. It must be said that these new opportunities were exploited with great talent. Europeans put much inner strength and creative energy into their culture and economy, which began to develop rapidly. But towards the end of the fifteenth century, when additional resources were needed, they set out to find a new source of wealth. While searching for a route to India, Columbus discovered America, which was then also robbed just as Byzantium had been its time. Again the Europeans used these treasures in the most talented, even ingenious ways: the Old World continued its unprecedented growth for the next few centuries. Then it was India’s, China’s and other countries’ and colonies’ turn. The result of a combination of robbery and ingenious scientific and economic creativity is before our eyes. Whether this is good or bad is another question. I only want to say that Western civilization develops in this manner. This includes today.
Vladimir Demchenko, editor of the news section: Why didn’t you just say at the beginning of the film that we are looking for parallels in the past, that we are trying to understand where Russians have gotten this Western-centeredness? Can’t we just calmly and normally re-evaluate the Western World and history?
Fr. Tikhon: Analogies with modern Russia not only are not edited out, they are accented. We have taken precisely such examples because we have looked at the most important thing that happened at one time in Byzantium, and what is happening now in our country. This is the choice of its path. What direction will we take, what vector in the oncoming world crisis will we choose?
S. Leskov: I think that the liberal intelligentsia is irritated by the servility of a position formulated by a clergyman. In this instance it is as if the entire Orthodox Church expresses in your person a point of view most advantageous to the civil authorities. And it should be noted that during all of the stages of our much-suffering country’s history, the Orthodox Church has almost always held to a middle position.
Fr. Tikhon: First of all I would like to emphasize that the film does not pretend to express the opinion of the Church. As for the film’s servility… The fact is that its critics missed the main point. Let us suppose that today we are lucky to have a strong Basil II. But luck does not save, as the whole history of Byzantium has shown. A governmental mechanism is needed which would not allow the opportunity for a weak ruler to come into power, and which would furthermore effectuate the promotion of talented, competent people who are ready to serve self-sacrificially.
I imagine that the Church consciously occupies, as you said, a “middle position.” Even in Soviet times, after the anathema by Patriarch Tikhon, after a multitude of new martyrs, when the Church understood that the godless, bloody regime would go on for a long time, it decided through prisons and exile, through humiliation and misunderstanding, to go together with its people to the edge of the abyss in order to save at least a few. The Church will always have its own approach to this question, and it does not depend upon the opinions of the liberal or conservative intelligentsia.
I am a man engaged, I’ll tell you honestly. I support those attempts that are being made today to come out of the crises following the country’s collapse.
Boris Klin, political columnist: You do not hide the fact that you consciously simplified history. But to what extent does the end justify the means? Where are the limits? Where do we need to cease manipulating historical facts?
Fr. Tikhon: As for the “manipulation” of facts—we, for example, took out the clip from a BBC film about the Crusaders, in order not to shock the public. A British scholar relates how the crusaders devoured human beings, and simply roasted infants on spits… As for the limits and criteria of choice… We all have a responsibility before God for our every action, word, and deed. I think that there are no other criteria.
Elena Yampolskaya, editor of the cultural section: Fr. Tikhon, doesn’t it seem to you that imperialism is the same organic quality of certain governments as is, let’s say, the color of a person’s eyes? And that by force of its geopolitical situation, Russia simply should be an empire?
Fr. Tikhon: I will say even more than that: Russia can only exist as an empire. We have begun to be shy about something that other countries highly value. Take a look at Washington—imperial symbolism is everywhere. There is no doubt that you are in the capital of a great empire. Capitols, imperial eagles, the senate… They are not ashamed to call things by their own name, to feel like what they are. And this awareness alone creates the people and the nation in many ways. When I travel abroad I always visit the farms in order to learn about them, since our monastery has a large agricultural property. Not long ago, when in the Swiss Alps, I was taken to a farm. The owner had three sons who had all graduated from the university, and none of them intended to work in agriculture. I asked, “Who will make the Swiss cheese?” The owner answered, “Who else? The Algerians and Moroccans.” And it is the same all over Europe. Something similar has happen to us as well. It seems that only the Americans do not have this tendency. In American farms seventeen-year-old boys ride on tractors. They are totally interested in what they are doing, and don’t give a hoot for New York. They know their Jordanville, for example, and will stay there until they die. And their grandchildren will do the same thing. Americans are self-sufficient. They are an imperial people. We should learn from them. This is the crime of our “liberals,” which won’t be forgiven for a long time.
Yes, reforms were needed. Western experience needed to be applied. But it was done without any talent, and basely. And now no one understands why Russian society views Western ideas negatively and defensively? It is because we have seen what they turn into here—collapse; and an attitude of “take all you can from life.”
Alexander Sadchikov, editor of the political section: Kipling said, “East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet.” Perhaps what I am about to say is politically incorrect, but there are certain situations when the Christian world—both Eastern and Western—unite. September 11, for example. Is it wise to break relations with the West in the face of a real threat from the East?
Fr. Tikhon: No normal person would argue with the fact that cooperation with the West is necessary. History shows us that both anti-westernism and “anti-easternism” are equally destructive. But immunity to both is also necessary. Not rejection, but simply the reaction of a healthy immune system.
Elena Yampolskaya: Your film is a rare example of a priest going outside the walls of his church and saying something about important social issues. As far as I understand it, the Russian Orthodox Church now finds itself between a rock and a hard place. No sooner does it raise its voice than the cries begin from free-thinking secular people that the Church is now separate from the State, and the former has no business giving its unsolicited advice. On the other hand, when you ask people why they are so critical of the Orthodox Church, many say, “What use is it? They just sit their cells…” It seems to me that priests should direct their attention not only to their flocks; they should occupy a place in society as moral authorities, because there is basically no one among the intelligentsia who can fill that role.
Fr. Tikhon: It is not fair to say that the Church does not raise its voice in the person of its hierarchs. It is another matter that by far not everyone hears it. There is nothing new about this. In the Holy Scripture it is written, By hearing ye shall hear, and shall not understand; and seeing ye shall see, and shall not perceive (Matt. 13:14). His Holiness the Patriarch makes his pronouncements on all serious problems that arise in the country and in the world. But some do not want to hear it, while others do not bring his words to the people.
You, for instance, have stated positively that priests need to go to the people. But more often one runs up against the opposite opinion, which proceeds from those same liberal circles. People have said concerning our film, “Who does that priest think he is? He should be sitting at home and serving in his church.”
If today we are talking about historical analogies, then we have to remember that once in Russian history there was a precedent of just such a relationship to the Church. It dictated that a priest should not dare to raise his voice anywhere other than in church. It’s only for the babushkas! This was the principle of Church politics laid down by Lenin and Trotsky. Those who are now saying the exact same thing should think a little about their outrageous lack of discernment over whose liberal ideas they are pronouncing for all to hear, and whose spiritual inheritors they really are—sad as is it is…
In conclusion I would like to say that I am sincerely grateful to all those people whose interest was aroused by this film, and who have considered it necessary to express their opinions on it.
16 / 05 / 08