Third Rome. A Russian ideological concept created in the 16th century during the consolidation of Muscovy as a major power in eastern Europe and the early phases of its development into an empire. It was based on the doctrine that Muscovy was the spiritual successor to the legacy of ancient Roman Empire and Byzantium (the Second Roman Empire). Religion played an important role in the formula, and the decline of the Byzantine Empire (with respect to both its perceived fall from grace by the Church Union of Florence and the capture of Constantinople by the Ottoman Turks in 1453) helped to shape the notion that Muscovy remained the only true bastion of Orthodox Christianity.
The earliest articulation of the concept of the Third Rome is attributed to Filofei, a hegumen of the Eleazar Monastery, who sent a series of missives to the grand princes of Moscow in the early 16th century (the exact dates are a subject of debate, although they likely fall between 1510 and 1530) and established the classic formulation of the doctrine: ‘Two Romes have fallen, the third one stands, and a fourth will never be.’ The concept was not without precedent. The second Bulgarian Kingdom, under Simeon (925–7), had pretensions to having assumed the legacy of Byzantium. The notion was carried by priests and monks of Balkan origin through Ukraine to Novgorod the Great and Pskov (where it was regarded favorably) and finally to Moscow. The doctrine of Moscow as the Third Rome was further developed in writings such as The Tale of the White Cowl (later 16th century) and The Tale of the Origin of Moscow (early 17th century).
The idea of the Third Rome had been embraced by both the secular and the ecclesiastical authorities in Muscovy by the mid-16th century (by the time of the coronation of Ivan IV in 1547). It received further sanction from Metropolitan Makarii and was mentioned in the articles establishing the Moscow patriarchate (Ulozhennaia gramota, 1589). Although the doctrine was not adopted as an official state policy, it proved an influential guiding principle; it also complemented the claim to the historical legacy of the Kyivan Rus’ state that Muscovy was developing. The concept was particularly well suited to the needs of an autocratic and expansionist power (see Imperialism): it buttressed the position of the grand prince (now tsar) by making him not only the personification of the state but also the defender of the Orthodox faith and a figure who could invoke a lineage stretching (albeit indirectly) to ancient Rome; it elevated Muscovy relative to the states surrounding it; and it provided an ideological justification for Muscovy’s quest to acquire the lands of the former Rus’ state from the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (the ‘reunification’ of an Orthodox realm).
The doctrine of Moscow as the Third Rome had broad circulation until the fall of the Russian Empire in the early 20th century. It also carried with it the notion that the Muscovite realm was a unique entity with a special destiny, which was largely transmuted into the broader notion of Holy Russia. Echoes of those ideas can be noted in Russian literature, publicistic writings, and politics of the 17th to 20th centuries (eg, the writings of Fyodor Dostoevsky or the ideas of the Slavophiles). In the 20th century the idea of Holy Russia has been retained by Russian conservative thinkers, such as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Some observers have claimed that the idea of Moscow as a Third Rome was reflected in the messianic zeal of the Bolshevik regime that succeeded the Russian Empire.
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Poliakov, L. Moscou, Troisième Rome: Les intermittences de la mémoire historique (Paris 1989)
[This article originally appeared in the Encyclopedia of Ukraine, vol. 5 (1993).]