It was in the Lord’s Year MLII that the Great Schism took place that separated Western Christianity from Orthodox Christianity and created a fault line in Europe that is dangerous to this day, particularly for the Slavic peoples of Europe.
There had been conflicts both theological and political before between the Pope in Rome and the Archbishop of Constantinople but the rift had always been smoothed over. The Great Schism was caused by a number of basic disagreements: there was the Western practice of using unleavened bread for the Eucharist for example, but the main theological disagreement was over the relative positions of God the Son and God the Holy Spirit in the Trinity – known as the filioque controversy that resulted from the Latin Church’s tinkering with the Nicene Creed. For some details, click HERE .
The actual events on the ground that immediately triggered this dramatic split are the stuff of silent comedy with the Papal Legate and the Archbishop of Constantinople hurling excommunications around like Jovian thunderbolts. But, this time there would be no turning back. The result has been a painful fissure in the structure of European society that continues to this day and that even underlies the current crisis in Ukraine.
For the most part, Slavic peoples are in the Orthodox zone with some exceptions at the very Western end of the Slavic lands. Thus the Westernmost Slavs – Slovenians, Croats, Czechs, many Slovaks – were absorbed into Western Christianity. Western Christianity reached Poland by means of the dynastic marriage of Doubravka of Bohemia, a Catholic, with Mieszko I of Poland, a pagan; the result was that Mieszko himself converted and ordered his subjects to do the same – all circa 966. (The legend is that Doubravka used her charm to engineer the conversion, but scholars today think it was built into the pre-nuptial agreement with Bohemia.) The Baltic states – Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia – close politically to Poland for a long time adopted Western Christianity too.
Serbia was part of the Byzantine world and Orthodox Christianity was established there by the middle of the 9th Century. Further East the Christianization of Slavic peoples also began in the 9th Century with the Byzantine missionaries, the sainted brothers Cyrille and Methodius (“Apostles to the Slavs”) who brought a new Faith and alphabetism to (roughly) what is now Bulgaria.
But the big prize was the Kievan Rus, the great land of the Eastern Slavs; from its capital at Kiev, it spread from the Black Sea in the South to the White Sea in the North encompassing important cities like Rostov-on-Don and historic Novgorod – the city defended from the Teutonic Knights in 1242 by Prince Alexander Nevsky, the eponymous hero of Sergei Eisenstein’s film .
Indeed, the modern nations of Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine all claim Kievan Rus as their cultural ancestor and Belarus and Russia even derive their names from it. The conversion of Kievan Rus to Orthodox Christianity was not the work of missionaries or of foreign conquest. Rather, it followed the Polish model: the Duke of Kiev, Vladimir the Great (980–1015), entered into an alliance with the Byzantine Emperor Basil II aiding him in suppressing a revolt with the help of Kievan troops . The alliance included marriage with the Emperor’s sister and a conversion to Orthodox Christianity. With the non-chalance worthy of a great autocrat, Vladimir ordered the townspeople of Kiev to make their way down to the Dnieper River for a mass baptism, an event which has become iconic in the lore of the Christianization of the Eastern Slavs. In Kievan Rus and in Poland, however, there was resistance to this forced break with traditional Slavic paganism and its Indo-European gods, cousins to the Greco-Roman Olympians.
Nothing involving religion ever being simple, there are also the Ruthenians (aka Greek Catholics) who range from Slovakia deep into Ukraine – their rite is in Church Slavonic (a language which preceded the emergence of modern Slavic languages) but they recognize the authority of the Pope in Rome. Perhaps the best known American Ruthenian is Andy Warhol whose work shows the influence of Eastern rite mosaics and icons on his artistic imagination. BTW the village of his parents in Slovakia is now a tourist attraction – something he would doubtlessly find amusing.
Romania is a special case: the region became part of the Roman Empire with the Emperor Trajan’s conquest of historical Dacia in the 2nd Century A.D. The time-honored legend is that Christianity itself was introduced in Dacia by the apostle St. Andrew in the 1st Century. Because of the conquest, Romanian is a Romance language; nevertheless, the people turned to Orthodox Christianity with rituals celebrated in Church Slavonic, a practice that lasted into the 17th Century.
From the time of the Great Schism till today, the boundary lines separating duchies, countries, socialist republics, kingdoms and principalities in Orthodox Europe have been drawn, erased and drawn again over and over; the map of Slavic Europe is so confusing, always shifting and changing. By way of example, in 1914 the city of Lviv (which is much in the news today) was part of the Hapsburg edition of the Holy Roman Empire (HRE) with the German language name of Lemberg; then between the wars, it was in the newly created country of Poland with the name Lwow; then following WW II, it was assigned to the Ukrainian SSR with the name Lviv – so polyonymous is this town that it even has two different names in Yiddish.
For a remarkable evolving map illustrating boundary changes in Europe over time, click HERE .
On the map, one can see the city Mykolaiv built by Count Potemkin (but not a Potemkin Village this time) during the reign of Catherine the Great along the Black Sea coast of modern Ukraine. Mykolaiv and other cities which date from that era – Odessa, Dnipro, Kherson, Sebastopol – are also very much in the news today. On this map, Ukraine only appears as a demarcated political entity for a brief spell in the early 20th Century before it is swallowed up by the USSR following the October Revolution of 1917 and the peace treaties ending WW I. And the map does not show that Crimea only became part of the Ukranian SSR in 1954 (when Ukranian Nikita Kruschev was Premier of the Soviet Union).
Present day Moldova (aka Bessarabia) is part of the Romanian story from the point of view of organized religion; but in 1940, as part of the infamous Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, the area was ceded by the Kingdom of Romania to the Soviet Union to form the Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic forming a buffer between the Ukrainian SSR and Romania.
At the end of WW II in 1945, all of the Orthodox Slavic lands were in the Communist sphere of influence – either as part of the USSR, part of the Warsaw Pact or part of Yugoslavia. All this would come crashing down with the partition of Yugoslavia and the fall of the Soviet Union in the last decade of the 20th Century. The partition of the Kingdom of the Slavs saw Western Europe at its worst as Germany and others raced to disassemble the country and then failed miserably at containing the violence and slaughter that followed – violence and slaughter only accelerated by ancient unforgotten enmities which ineluctably resurfaced.
Historically, the Russians have had reason to fear Western Europe – the Teutonic Knights of the 13th century, Napoleon’s Grande Armée, the Franks and Anglo-Saxons that humiliated Mother Russia in the Crimean War in the 19th Century (alas giving rise to that poem about that brigade), the Hapsburg Empire’s ultimatums against Orthodox Serbia which led Tsarist Russia to start WW I as “Big Brother to the Slavs,” the murderous German armies (with their “Eastern front mentality”) of WWII. The European Union (EU) is often called the new Holy Roman Empire (HRE) – a revival of the historic imperial structure of Western Christianity. Today the EU and NATO can look to Russians like an expanded Western Christian force of Franks and Germans augmented with Anglo-Saxon auxiliaries. Since the 1990s, this new Holy Roman Empire has been pushing relentlessly East both militarily with NATO expansion (despite assurances to the contrary once given) and culturally with the EU. Russian geo-political paranoia is not totally unfounded.
Orthodox Christianity is part of the Russian soul, even today despite 70 plus years of Communist rule. Alexander Solzhenitsyn wrote that Orthodox Christianity provided Russia and the Slavic world a buffer against the individual liberalism of the West, something that earned him the reputation of being a “reactionary” in the West.
For someone like Putin who presumably takes the long view, the penetration of Western mores into Orthodox Eastern Europe is a threat to civilization itself. Organized religion provides a framework for social organization and for an individual’s path in life. Orthodox Christianity is entrenched in Russia, a symbol of Russian nationalism and a useful help in legitimating the regime. On the contrary, in Western Europe, Christianity is in disarray. Not incidentally, Italy, Spain and Malta– bastions of tradional Roman Catholicism – have the lowest birth-rates in the EU, well below the level required to maintain the population, despite Church prohibitions of birth-control. It is not so funny that Anglicans quip that they go to Church only for “hatch, match, and dispatch”. (N.B. Anglicans both use the Oxford comma and put the quotation sign inside the period – one must respect that when writing about them.) For a deep look into the religious crisis in Western Europe, there is Chantal Delsol’s mordant analysis La Fin de la Chrétienté, 2021. (For a NYTimes piece on the book, click HERE .)
Not to say that Putin is especially religious (though he does attend church regularly and maintains excellent relations with the Russian Church) but he would not be alone in thinking that the godless, neo-liberal capitalist model of Western Europe is much more threat than benefaction for the Eastern Slavs; indeed, the social and human price of “progress” is admittedly very high.
From the Russian point of view, the situation in Ukraine deteriorated greatly with the Maidan protests of 2014-15: the pro-Russian president Yanukovych who had stepped back from an accord with the EU and favored economic integration with Russia and Belarus was deposed and the new regime quickly signed an association agreement with the EU. The takeover of Crimea, the incursion into Donbas soon followed. The refusal/failure of current Ukrainian president Zelensky’s government to declare publicly that Ukraine would not join NATO made it easy for Putin to ignite the slow fuse that set off the present conflict. One European nation that did not immediately join in the condemnation of the insane Russian invasion was Serbia, the Orthodox state that Russia had gone to war to defend in 1914; however, Serbia is in the process of applying for membership in the EU and so, under pressure from that new HRE, their delegation recently voted to condemn the invasion in the General Assembly of the UN – one can hear Putin cry “Et tu Illyricum.”
A special sort of madness, called até by Homer and Aeschylus, seems to take over the minds of leaders and makes them blind to reality and the consequences of their acts. Recent cases include Dick Cheney, George W. Bush, Boris Johnson. Putin is but the latest in this list of victims of até , a list that goes back to Agamemnon. Nothing in any long-term view of Russian paranoia justifies the horrors of this invasion of Ukraine. But it does speak to the blindness of world leaders and the rest of us to deep structures that embody conflicts which linger on beneath the surface, so hard to see.