chapter  5
25 Pages

The Russian reaction

Nonchalant is the way one historian has characterised the Russian attitude to the fall of Constantinople, 1 but this fails to do justice to the complexity of the Russian reaction. This stemmed from the distrust felt for the Byzantine emperor and patriarch in the wake of the council of Ferrara Florence, which came to be seen as a betrayal of Orthodoxy. However, it was impossible for Russians to be indifferent to the fate of Constantinople, because it was the religious centre to which over the centuries they had looked for guidance. 2 It was a place of pilgrimage, as the numerous late medieval pilgrim narratives attest. 3 The pilgrims gravitated towards the shrines, relics and icons of Tsar’grad, as they called Constantinople. The emperor and his court scarcely fi gure in their narratives. The Russians showed very little interest in the Byzantine emperor. When at the end of the fourteenth century Vasilii I, Grand Prince of Moscow (1389-1425), informed the patriarch of Constantinople that ‘we have a church, but no emperor’, he was being realistic. The patriarch protested that however reduced the emperor’s material circumstances might have become, he remained the God-given guarantor of the unity of the Orthodox faith. The Grand Prince appeared to give this claim grudging acceptance, though this may only refl ect an improvement in relations with Byzantium secured through the good offi ces of the Greek archbishop of Russia, Photios (1408-31). In 1414 the Grand Prince’s daughter Anna married John VIII Palaiologos, heir to the Byzantine throne. The relationship between the Grand Prince and the Byzantine imperial house was given visual form on Archbishop Photios’s embroidered sakkos or episcopal tunic. This showed John VIII Palaiologos and his Russian empress facing the Grand Prince and his consort. A nimbus is used to underline the superior status of the Byzantine pair. 4

Association with the Byzantine emperor may still have imparted a modicum of prestige, but its inconveniences became apparent after the death of Archbishop Photios. According to custom, whereby Greek alternated with Russian as archbishop of Russia, a Russian should have succeeded Photios, but the patriarch prevaricated. At last, in 1435 Grand Prince Vasilii II (1425-62) had Iona (Jonah), bishop of Riazan’, elected archbishop without fi rst obtaining the approval of the patriarch, although he then sent him to Constantinople to receive the patriarch’s blessing. Iona arrived to discover that there was a new archbishop of Russia in the shape of Isidore, the future cardinal. The patriarch had his own reasons for fl outing convention: the forthcoming union council in Italy required that he had somebody he could trust in charge of the Russian Church, which was known to be suspicious of negotiations over the Union of Churches. Iona accepted the fait accompli and returned late in 1436 with the new archbishop to the Russian lands. Isidore stayed in Moscow just long enough to organise a delegation to the council, where he played a leading role in bringing about a Union of Churches, for which he received his cardinal’s hat. Before returning to Moscow he spent nearly a year trying to implement the union in the regions dominated by the Lithuanians. Such activities aroused the suspicions of Russian prelates, who understood that a Union of Churches might well work to the advant age of the Lithuanians in their efforts to extend their control over Russian lands. The Russian Church united behind Iona, still bishop of Riazan’, who was effectively at its head while Isidore was away at the council. The latter’s proclamation of the Union of Churches in the cathedral of the Dormition at Moscow united the opposition against him. Doubts have been raised as to the truth of the story that the Grand Prince Vasilii II had him confi ned in the Chudov monastery to await trial as a heretic. But it is diffi cult to see Isidore yielding to opposition within the Russian Church, unless it had the active support of the Grand Prince. What is certain is that the latter put no obstacles in the way of his return to Rome. 5

The Grand Prince hoped that Iona, his original candidate as archbishop of Russia, would now receive the traditional blessing of the patriarch in Constantinople, but his letter to the patriarch was never sent, once it became clear that the new patriarch was as much a unionist as Isidore. These ecclesiastical complications helped to weaken the Grand Prince’s political position. His cousin Dmitrii Shemiakha seized Moscow in 1446 and captured him, but thanks to, among other things, the support of the Russian Church led by Iona the situation was quickly reversed and Vasilii II returned to power. One of his fi rst actions was to have Iona elected once more archbishop of Russia. There remained the question of seeking Byzantine approval. Vasilii II decided

to approach the Byzantine Emperor Constantine XI Palaiologos. He had a letter drafted, in which he announced the appointment of Iona as archbishop of Russia and explained that this had been done not out of arrogance, but out of necessity. As it happened, the letter was never sent for reasons that can only be guesswork, but it does contain a pointer. The Grand Prince believed that properly notifi cation of the appointment should have gone to the patriarch, but ‘he did not know whether there was a patriarch or not’ at Constantinople. 6 Such uncertainty refl ects the state of doubt and distrust which characterised the Russian attitude to Byzantium on the eve of the fall of Constantinople. The union with Rome undermined Russian confi dence in the Byzantine emperor as a guarantor of Orthodoxy, a role which, in a Russian context, the Russian Church increasingly looked to the Grand Prince of Moscow to perform. Vasilii II was hailed after the event for the way he had preserved the Russian people from Latin heresy.