The Sweep of History (Part II)

The profound Russian thinker and founder of the Slavophile movement Aleksey Stepanovich Khomyakov (1804-1860) continues his survey of how Europe’s peoples developed their civilizations in the early Middle Ages. His analysis of the religious, ethnic, and cultural roots of the struggle between East and West is just as relevant to events today as at the time of its writing. Translated by Mark Hackard.

Read Part I.

The Slavic land of the Getae and Dacians on the banks of the Danube received a new name with a new influx of kinsmen moving together with the Huns from the banks of the Volga – the Bulgars. Vengeance for the oppression of the Danube basin’s original inhabitants by the Romans at the time of their dominion, the new movement given by the Huns to the entire Slavic world, and finally the indisputable admixture of Turkic elements in the Bulgar tribe forced it to enter into fields of conquest wholly alien to the Slavs. Pitilessly the Bulgars attacked the Eastern Empire, which only just barely withstood their onslaught.

During the time of this doubtful struggle, there came forth from the foothills of the Caucasus westward a nomadic horde of warlike Avars, equally foreign to the Germans and the Slavs. They threatened the Slavs with war while simultaneously offering their force of arms as protection against neighbors. The weakest clans and those less accustomed to combat accepted the offer. The stronger and more warlike Antes and Bulgars were defeated and coerced into an alliance against their will. The uninvited protectors soon turned the Slavs into instruments of their conquests. Once-peaceful tribes fell upon a weakened Byzantium like an unstoppable current. From the Adriatic to the Aegean Sea, from the Danube to the southern tip of the old Greece disappeared villages and cities, the people and the monuments of the ancient nation.

The Empire was perishing. She was first defended by the Avars themselves, who did not allow the Slavs to finish a conquest which would place them in dependency upon their false allies; but she was finally saved by other Slavic tribes, the Serbs and the Croats, who had been invited by Heraclius into the Danube’s wastelands. The enslavement of the deceived and oppressed Slavs continued around a century. The violence of the Avars and their brazen violation of the conditions of alliance exhausted the patience of the Carpathian clans, and a general revolt of the subjugated out an end to Avar power – the people that had stormed all southern and middle Europe disappeared almost without a trace.

Again arose the power of the Bulgars in the form of a state that was already stable and ready to accept the grace-filled principle of enlightenment. The waves of the raging sea subsided. And the Slavs, the conquerors of ancient Hellas, soon fell away from the warlike ways given to them from without and returned to the pacific existence of their ancestors. They gave new names to the rivers and mountain ranges, and they called the old Peloponnese their seaside (Morea); but soon, taken with the Hellenic culture and illuminated by the light of its gentle faith, they adopted both the language and customs of the conquered nation. History points to the Slav in the Moreot; the modern world sees in him the Hellene.

Saints and brothers: Cyril and Methodius.

Saints and brothers: Cyril and Methodius.

After long and bloody feuds, there came a time of peace and alliance between the Slav and the Byzantine. From the walls of Byzantium, from mountain monasteries, and from small Slavic tribes that already adopted Christianity, there set forth gentle conquerors armed with the good news of faith. With joyous submission they were accepted in the free communes of the Slavic world. From house to house and region to region, eastward, westward, and to the Far North went the preaching of the Gospel, triumphing in the spirit of love and speaking the language of the people. Bulgars and Croats, Czechs, Moravians, and Poles all joined one brotherhood of the Church. The limitless newly-born Rus, still connected only by the conditional union of sole authority in the prince’s war-band, received in the unity of faith a seed of vital unity expressed through the name of Holy Rus.

The Western patriarchate, having already broken away from universal equality, did not want to concede to Orthodoxy the latter’s new and expansive gains. Missionaries sent by Rome entered into competition with the preachers sent unto their feats at the inner behest of a warm faith and spiritual love. The difference in confessions was unnoticeable for the newly-converted Christians, and Western doctrine little by little was installed in the Orthodox sphere. The Western clergy, following their longtime policy, chose new inroads for their activity. And meanwhile, as Orthodoxy addressed the tillers of the earth, Catholicism entered through the wealthy courts of landowners and princes of clans, promising not only spiritual rewards, but also the strengthening of worldly power. Orthodoxy organically created Christian communities, leaving the election of a bishop as the last wreath for already completed communities; Catholicism sent a missionary-bishop as a conqueror summoning a regiment of proselytes.

In such a way, together with the Western confession there also crept in seduction by the Western aristocratic element that easily tempted national rulers in Western Slavic communities. The Czech lands, Moravia, and the less purely Slavic Poles were subordinated to the Roman court, having forgotten their first teachers, men who would neither gratify the pride of human passions nor promise any rewards besides those of heaven. Rome distorted the spiritual principle; Germany distorted the communal. Fortunately, the temptations of the West did not penetrate into Russia, Serbia, and Bulgaria, regions far from the Germanic world, and they weakly affected the mountain tribes in the Illyrian and Croatian lands. As a result, a part of these areas was torn away from the Orthodox Church by the unheard-of violence of the Latin Crusaders, the stories of whose cruelties are barely believable.

In the South the tribe of the Serbs gained ascendancy over the Bulgarians and consequently founded a strong state that would lose its independence under the Turkish advance, but maintain its vital elements and the security of its future development.

To the north of Serbia, the rich plains along the Danube and the slopes of the Carpathian Mountains went under the dominion of the Finno-Turkic tribe of the Magyars, and the ancient native Slavs were deprived of their sovereignty. But even still, like the Serbs, they lost neither their national character nor their rights to communion with the Slavic world.

Moving further along, the Czech lands and Moravia, intermittently fusing into a unitary state system or dividing again, continued for several centuries running an obstinate, and not inglorious, but vain struggle against the assault of the German world and the most ruinous inroads of their kinsmen the Poles. There is no doubt that the mighty state of Svyatopolk of Moravia could have easily withstood the disjointed exertions of a Holy Roman Empire forever prey to internal conflicts: the fall of the Czech lands and Moravia depended not upon the power of foreign enemies, but upon the inner distortion of society itself, which had at one time accepted the alien element of German aristocracy and a Western spiritual doctrine that subordinated faith to the rationalism of the Roman world and the church to the structure of the princely retinue and all the passions of the Germanic world. Svyatopolk’s kingdom vanished in the system of German states; but even before its final collapse, through the principle of spiritual reform personified by Huss and the aspiration to return to the bosom of Orthodoxy, it dealt a grave blow to the Roman court that had once repressed the original development of the Czechs and Moravians.

Druzhina Grafov

The Prince’s Druzhina, by Vitaly Grafov

Still further, the warlike tribe of the Lechites [Poles], more than others assuming the admixture of foreign elements (Celtic and Sarmatian) and therewith the character of aristocratic war-bands, fell fully under the influence of the Roman clergy and consequently the Western world, from which it received its one-sided direction. Not unwillingly and not resulting from violence, Poland agreed to join Germany and degrade itself to the state of a vassal, being made the instrument of Roman and German lust for power – but according to the internal sympathies of the upper classes, who had long been ashamed of the Slavic name and took pride in the title of Sarmatian conquerors.

Catholicism, alien to the remaining Slavic tribes, found in Poland, or it is better to say in its governing military elites, fervent and simultaneously deceived upholders. Beyond all that, Poland’s false and un-Slavic tendency depended not so much upon the native tribe of the Lechites as upon foreign elements that mastered them. It decided the historical destiny of Poland, but it itself must disappear therein inasmuch as the true national and Slavic character strengthens, just as, despite an age-old struggle, the Saxon element is gaining the upper hand against the Norman oppressor. The dominance of the Romano-German element in Poland decided the fate of her northwestern neighbors.

In the 10th century, the Germanic world, triumphing throughout West except the on the Iberian Peninsula, began to advance in force upon the Slavs of the Elbe Basin. A distorted Christianity, disguising its self-interest with obliging hypocrisy, raised the banner of the cross before conquering bands of warriors. The Church, washed in the blood of the martyrs and founded on their bones, took up the sword of the Roman Caesars. The Slavs, martyrs for their motherland and freedom, came to hate Christianity; they could not know it in a church that had forgotten its holy beginnings. A blind and fierce struggle commenced on the Elbe between the worlds of the Slavs from the East and the Teutons from the West.

At first victorious by their experience in battle and then vanquished by the power of a mighty tribe standing for truth and the liberty of their race, Germany under Henry II awaited its fall with trembling. The Baltic Wends coalesced into a strong alliance. The Czechs called upon their brothers for a final fight with the Teutonic oppressors. And then Poland, having forgotten her duties to her kinsmen and at that time engrossed with the ambitions of her rulers and the even greater ambitions of the Roman clergy, gave over her military strength to the service of the Germans, having reserved herself the right only to destroy her brothers. The Empire accepted the proposed conditions, and the Western Slavs perished. The community that betrayed a fraternal alliance and twice saved Germany, first from the Slavs and then from the Turks, reaped in consequence the fruits of its false tendency and its treachery, but the Wendish coast and the clans of the Elbe were lost and never to return.

It may be that by not blessing the exploits of the Wendish land, Providence saved the Slavic element from perversion. Conquerors of the Germanic sphere, Slavs, would have repeated in the history of our world those very same phenomena that accompanied the triumph of the Teutons over Rome, and would have distorted within them the human principle.

Long suffering but finally saved in fateful struggle, more or less in all its communities corrupted by foreign admixture but nowhere branded with the mark of transgression and unrighteous gain, the Slavic world maintains for humanity if not the germ of renewal, then its possibility.