« 10.9- The Third Rome | Main | Episode 10.11 Delay »

04 August 2019


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.


Normally I don't like to continue on discussions from prior episodes but the comment period expired and I felt George L deserved a reply regarding the Orthodox Church in imperial Russia.

I admit that my choice of words describing the reaction to the fall of the Orthodox Church were not chosen well. Your first paragraph (discounting the opening sentence) described the Revolution's offensive against the church, which did indeed go into an underground period and is now regaining strength. I've also had the pleasure of working with Slavic churches here in the USA and found them to be well organized and charismatic, often more so than their long-entrenched American brethren.

However, I stick with my point that the Russian Orthodox church was a relatively quick casualty of the Russian Revolution. I often wondered how the church responded to the revolution in my Russian studies, to find out that the church - in its organized form - was knocked out relatively quickly and was not a prime mover of counter-revolution. I then learned of the church's role in Russian society and the esteem in which it was held (and the important distinction here is the church organization itself - I am NOT referring to people of faith). I offer quotes from Pipes:

"Unlike the other churches, [the Russian Orthodox church] failed to carve out for itself an autonomous sphere of activity. It had nothing to call its own, and identified itself to such an extent with the monarchy that when the latter fell, it went right down with it." Pipes, pg 223.

Pipe's stance is that the church failed to claim spiritual or moral authority separate from the crown, and therefore did not oppose the excesses of Russian society that basic Christian values would have opposed (i.e., serfdom). According to Solzhenitsyn as quoted in Pipes, "Russian history would have been 'incomparably more humane and harmonious in the last few centuries if the church had not surrendered its independence and had continued to make its voice heard among the people, as it does, for example, in Poland.'" Pipes, 245.

Pipes, Richard. Russia under the Old Regime. Second edition, Penguin Books.

Shame Doherty

Surprised Peter's abandonment of "Tsar" as an official title in favour of the Western (and higher ranked) "Emperor" didn't get a mention. Kinda sums up his reign, even if everyone still called them Tsars afterwards.


Mike, excellent episode as always. I was wondering if you could give some background on who/what the Cossacks are. They were mentioned as key players in at least two of the rebellions and if there was any background on them, I missed it.


Great episode!

As an American trying to understand Russia and the revolution, the keys always eluded me until I read a psychology of the Russian peasant - and then it all came together. I'd recommend diving into the mind of the peasant/serf as the groundwork for the revolution is built.


I really love this podcast series. Great work!

A while back, you asked for suggestions for where to go after Russia. Can I suggest China? It changed the rule of more people than any other revolution in world history, and Mao Zedong's ideas are an interesting offshoot of Marx and Lenin's. Of course, there's also Sun Yat-Sen and the rest whose earlier revolution removed the Qing dynasty's hold on power, which leads up to the later communist revolution. The whole era is really complex, but also really interesting and very relevant to the world today.

Anyway, that's my two cents. I'll likely keep listening no matter where you choose to go after Russia.


I second Liz's suggestion - China would be a great topic.


I second Shame Doherty's note on the importance of the change to Western "Emperor" nomenclature - the Russian language actually takes the original Latin term directly: "imperator", meaning there's a continuity to what figures from Nicholas II, to Peter the Great, to Julius Caesar, to Scipio Africanus would have called themselves.

An even more glaring omission, in my opinion, was no mention of the Battle of Poltava of 1709 - "like the Swede at Poltava" is still a popular Russian saying for situations of utter defeat. Charles XII may have been an impressive military leader overall, but he was the first great Western European (with Napoleon and Hitler to follow) who crashed his country's empire by thinking that invading just a little deeper into Russia would win him the war. The prestige Peter won by personally leading his army to such a great victory over an army led personally by Charles was part of why Peter was able to enact the reforms that he did.

I finally wish to heartily support Gregory W Levitsky's comment from the earlier thread. (Though I must disagree with Gregory too - the Church and religiosity overall have not returned to anything like the same degree in modern Russia, which I personally find fortunate. The majority of people went from answering polls "atheist" to "Orthodox Christian" because of social expectations, but secularism still reigns, though the religious minority has grown and is vocal about it.)

I caution Brandon (Smith) against making such sweeping generalizations about history: comparing the Medieval Varangians to English and Dutch colonists of the Age of Exploration, claiming that a concocted idea of Medieval legalism still affects Russian mindsets today, imagining that the 15th century Byzantine Orthodox Church somehow fled to Russia - when in fact it remained in Constantinople, while the various national autocephalous Eastern European Orthodox churches had been growing for centuries with only loose connections to the Byzantines, and using severely dismissive language to describe the Russian Orthodox Church, which was a fundamental part of Russian society for over a thousand years. There's no nice way to put this - these are all misleading caricatures bordering on absurdity.

Brandon - quoting Richard Pipes might be your problem: he's a Cold War polemicist (who was in the hawk wing of the hawkish Reagan administration, by the by), not an honest historian. Pipes' hatred of the Soviet Union permeates his writing about Russia: he takes an Orientalist approach and juxtaposes everything Western (which he thinks is good) to everything Eastern (which he thinks is bad), and then cherry-picks Russian history to fit that view. You will not get the nuanced and complicated truth from the likes of him.

Gregory W Levitsky

Mike, excellent episode, although I do agree with some of the comments that a little bit was missing. I don't know if you need to rush. An extra 5-10 minutes to flesh out some ideas and events (without getting too into the weeds!) will not turn away any listeners, I assure you. We've all been waiting for this, some for years, so take your time!

I was dismayed at your unchallenged assertion that Paul I was not fathered by Peter III. Not only is this a totally baseless rumor, but there are two huge factors that weigh against it: 1) Paul looked like Peter. There's no escaping genetics. 2) Paul was born while Elizabeth was still alive. She was a zealous devotee of her father's lineage, and fought to ensure its survival. If there had been even a hint of bastardy around Paul, he and Catherine would have been arrested and internally exiled like Ivan VI and his mother. The sole reason Catherine would not have been executed for high treason was Elizabeth's oath not to execute a single person when she came to power, an oath that she kept. Elizabeth would have made sure that Paul was legitimate.

It also would bear noting the *reason* for Pugachev's great success, and why people believed him and followed him even despite his very obviously not really being Peter III. The institution of serfdom was "justified" as layers of semi-feudal service to Russia. The serfs "served" by working the land for the landlords, who in turn "served" in the military and civil service. After Peter III quit the Seven Years' War and forfeited all of Russia's gains, he freed the nobility from this obligatory service in order to maintain some degree of popularity. The thinking at the bottom then went, that since the nobility were no longer obliged to serve, their privileges over the serfs would be abolished. And then, POOF, the nobility overthrow the "good tsar" before he can help free the people from bondage. It was all nonsense, but it made perfect sense to the peasantry, and explains why backing "False Peter" (Pugachev) was, in a way, a method of exercising their feudal rights.

To circle back around to Brandon's comment, it is simply historically untrue to say that that Church "fell." In fact, the first thing that the Church did after the fall of the monarchy was to summon a great Local Council in Moscow, which restored the Patriarchate of Moscow, glorified several saints that would not have been approved by the monarchy, and established a series of new canonical rules that still guide the Russian Church to this day. The Church also signaled its willingness to work with the Provisional government and then even the Bolsheviks, so it was unlikely that it would have been a powerful counter-revolutionary force regardless. But as I mentioned, the Bolsheviks were good students of history, and didn't take the chance. For example, New Jerusalem Monastery and the Holy Trinity-St. Sergius Lavra were forcibly closed in 1919, as were many other major religious sites.

What push-back did exist from the Orthodox Church was not against the Bolshevik state, but against attempts against the holy sites. But rather than simply fall, the Church fell prey to a sustained campaign of persecution, peaking in 1937 (if it fell, why is it still being attacked 20 years later?), from extrajudicial killings to outright seizures of property to, as I mentioned, tacit support of the "Living Church" schism, all while forbidding children from being baptized or even taken to church. There is a very famous photo from the early Soviet period of a child writing down the names of classmates who had been sighted at the Easter service: https://i.ytimg.com/vi/1f6OMKc6tbU/hqdefault.jpg

If you mean to say that the Orthodox Church should have been more of an official, standing institution, something like the Catholic Church, that would be to misunderstand the nature of Orthodoxy. The first function of the Church was to minister to the faithful without compromising the tenets of the Faith - this was the main goal of hierarchs like Patriarch Tikhon, NOT to war against or undermine the Bolshevik state. Despite its inherent conservatism, the Russian Orthodox Church would have been able to coexist with the Bolsheviks, had not the latter insisted upon state-sponsored atheism, the murder of clergy, and the desecration of churches.


Greetings Konstantin;

Thanks for your comments. Regarding the initial post about the Church, I admitted in my post above that my initial comments were not well chosen. Also, this limited format for discussion prevents us from getting deep into academic discussion - although it would be certainly enjoyable! I admit that general statements about topics rob them of their many rich nuances, and my post above had to be distilled down from several pages. You are right that a dismissive statement about the Russian Orthodox Church is much too short of a treatment for the long history it had.

However, when looking at the Russian Orthodox Church - not its neighboring counterparts - and regarding it the institutional level, could you put forward a counterpoint to my thesis above about its collapse in the Revolution? That it didn't fall quickly along with the monarchy, or maybe had a commanding role in the civil war? As George L mentions in his post above (thanks George for your reply!), it was still being persecuted 20 years later, but my position would hinge on this question - was it still an institution (i.e., a recognized bureaucracy) by the late 1930s? My thesis is that the institution of the church was a quick casualty of the revolution - not groups of faithful who held on (bravely) for decades after.

Also, regarding Pipes, I admit that most of his books are in my library. He contributed several enormous works on imperial Russia, the Revolution and life in Russia shortly thereafter, and evidently Harvard thought he was a learned historian enough to teach there for almost four decades. I've found his descriptions of this period of Russian history to be very nuanced and complicated because, simply, the base issues are enormously nuanced and complicated, and his works are certainly not one-dimensional by any means. When this podcast series started I re-read Russia under the Old Regime and am still swimming in all of the factors and personalities at play. I would enjoy hearing your critique of this book, since it parallels the current podcast nicely.


Yeah Catherine herself claimed Paul was not Peter III's son but it is rather weird how they look exactly the same if they are not related.


I keep seeing people bring up China as a future topic. And I agree, a Mike Duncan-style podcast series on the Chinese Revolution would be awesome!

But I hope everyone clamoring for a China series thinks seriously about what a commitment for him it would be, especially if he goes into the historical and ideological background that's been the focus of his Russian series so far. The Xinhai Revolution erupted in 1911; I don't think we can really say the Chinese Revolution was "over" until after Mao's death and the fall of the Gang of 4 in 1976. Sixty-five years. There are major historical figures whose entire lifetimes fit into that period.

How long would it take for Mike to do the Chinese Revolution "properly"? It would take him a very long time. Even if he just focused on the Communist Revolution, he'd still need to cover the Xinhai Revolution of 1911-12 as background, and then he'd need to include the background to *those* events... the Communist Revolution alone might well be the longest series of Revolutions he's ever done.

And make no mistake, I think it could be great and I would really enjoy listening, but it would just occupy ever so much of his time going forward.

Anyway, I've been really enjoying the Russia series!


Mike, I admire your courage... describing more than a thousand years of Russian history in two episodes is a daunting task. That said, I hope you realize that the version of events that you gave in episodes 10-9 and 10-10 is largely the version carefully cultivated first by the Russian Empire and then by the Soviet Union. Other interpretations exist, and they differ substantially from the official position of Russian historiography.
I'll give three examples:
1. Alexander Nevsky. His role in crushing an anti-tatar rebellion of Russian princes and towns as well as his expulsion from Novgorod for authoritarian tendencies are purposefully omitted by official Russian historiography. Some historians also argue that the Battle of Neva and as well as the Battle on the Ice were but border skirmishes and that Novgorod and Pskov just as frequently raided west as the Northern crusaders raided East.
2. Desolation of the Kievan Rus cities in the West after the Mongol invasion. This assertion is not substantiated by any primary sources. The cities of the West and North-west were quickly rebuilt and flourished under the protection of Poland-Lithuania. Many of these cities operated under Magdeburg rights, whereby Moscovy systematically crushed any attempts to establish or maintain city self-government.
3. Expulsion of "nomadic" people from Crimea under Catherine II. It is mainly Orthodox Christian farmers and merchants, who were forcefully relocated from Crimea to the area of Mariupol on Azov sea. This operation was led by Alexander Suvorov, who was later harshly criticized by Russian intellectuals for his role in this shameful affair.


Dear Konstantin;

I've often wondered about your point #1. Nevsky did have his famous victories. But...at the same time he was a vassal of the Mongol overlords. Such titles didn't become earned because you were a nice guy - it is because the Mongol leadership thought you were the most effective at delivering tribute/slaves to them, even more effective than if they placed their own in the position. So I've always wondered at the Russian historical perspective of Nevsky. To the Russian peasant, shouldn't he have been as feared as a Mongol prince?


Hi Brandon,
Unfortunately, we do not have any primary sources that would give peasants' perspective, however, we do have city chronicles that characterize Alexander's raid as a calamity akin to the Mongolian invasion.


A little more on the cities' perspective... I am referring to the anti-Mongolian uprising of 1262 in Rostov, Vladimir, Suzdal, Yaroslav, and Novgorod. The most detailed account of this event comes from the Suzdal Chronicle, which cites extreme brutality of Alexander Nevsky's men, comparing their atrocities to those of the Mongolian raid under the command of Nevruy ten years earlier.
I think this citation answers Brandon's question...

Konstantinos XI Monomachos

Serves me right for picking a non-unique name - I was the first to post as "Konstantin" in this thread, but then someone else came along and used the same username. *siiiigh*

Brandon - I'm sorry, but I have no interest in reading Pipes. I know enough about him to see him as too biased to provide a fair account.

As to Nevsky being a "Mongol vassal" - calling him this creates a misleading picture. The Mongol forces never went as far north as Novgorod. He paid them tribute (in money, not in slaves) and formally acknowledged their supremacy and thus avoided war with them - they recognized his power that he had already achieved independently, they didn't grant him his position.

The Tatar Yoke represented a payment of tribute and exposure to bloody raids by the steppe nomads against the settled people. It was not the same as Western feudal vassalage, where the counts served the dukes and the dukes served the kings and all participated in the same systems, traditions, and ceremonies. The Tatar nomads and the settled Rus lived in separate worlds that intersected rarely, mainly when the Tatars came for their money and chose to give titles to those who'd deliver the payments on time. While the payments were a burden and were resented by the population, the successful princes were able to balance the interests of their people against the interests of the Mongol-Tatars. The sheep was never skinned and the tribute collection actually helped the Moscow Princes develop a more regular system of taxation that eventually made them enough money to challenge Tatar rule.

Second Konstantin - while the alternative theories you mention are welcome additions to the discussion of historiography, some go too far in trying to shatter existing conceptions - especially for an overarching summary of Russian history.

Alexander Nevsky's victories were certainly exaggerated in importance and became world famous only after the invasion by Nazi Germany, but Alexander is still worth highlighting because he was a character that exemplified his time. He survived and thrived in the chaos of the Mongol invasion, he fought off the German and Swedish crusaders, he maintained peace with the Mongols by paying tribute, and his descendants went on to rule Moscow and reunite Russia. By contrast, Daniel of Galicia, another great prince of the time, tried to obtain the Catholic powers' help to resist the Mongols by force, but having received only Papal blessing, not military help, he had to submit to the Mongols anyway. His nascent kingdom struggled on for another century, but was eventually split by Poland and Lithuania. The Galicians and Volhynians fell under the direct rule of peoples with whom they shared neither culture, nor religion; they were eventually either assimilated or fought for independence in reaction to their second-class citizen status (only to be absorbed by Russia) - saying they "flourished under the protection of Poland-Lithuania" is a bit of a cute distortion. Alexander represents the successful continuity between pre-Mongol Rus and post-Tatar Russia: he didn't succumb to the invaders from the West or the East, preserving Russia as its own thing.


This week's episode gives me a chance to tout not one but two relevant songs (plus a bonus song) by historical folk rocker Al Stewart.

The Coldest Winter in Memory covers the Russian campaigns of Charles XII.
Background: https://www.songfacts.com/facts/al-stewart/the-coldest-winter-in-memory
Song: https://youtu.be/ldtvKNTvqFI

Peter on the White Sea covers a near-disaster in 1694
Background (see comment at the bottom): https://songmeanings.com/songs/view/3530822107858927297/
Song: https://youtu.be/Fvw68dsKqt8

Out of our timeline is Roads to Moscow.
From Wikipedia: "Roads to Moscow" is 1973 song by Scottish rock singer Al Stewart. It appeared on his album Past, Present and Future, and tells the story of the German invasion of Russia during World War II, as seen through the eyes of a Russian soldier who is described by one source as being Alexander Solzhenitsyn.
Song: https://youtu.be/BAqP35A9Oi8

The comments to this entry are closed.

Support Revolutions

  • If you are enjoying Revolutions, please support the show so I can keep doing it full time. Click the link, head over to Paypal and pay any amount you like. Thanks!