Why Ukraine? As the war of Russian aggression against Ukraine continues, one might question why it is taking place. The answer to that question can be found over five centuries ago in a letter written by an Orthodox monk to the then Muscovite ruler, Ivan III, better known as Ivan the Great.
The monk was the Abbot Philotheus of Pskoff, an Orthodox cleric from what is now northeastern Russia. In Philotheus’ time, Ivan III was annexing or conquering neighboring territories in order to enlarge the Muscovite state.
In the process, Ivan began using the title “Tsar” which was a corruption of the Latin word “Caesar.” He is known as “The Gatherer” because of his aggrandizement of Muscovite territory, bringing together under his rule many of the lands that bordered on Muscovy.
In 1489 Philotheus wrote a letter to Ivan in which he said, “Two Romes have fallen. A Third now gloriously stands. A Fourth there cannot be.” The two Romes that he referenced were Rome and Constantinople, the latter called the Second Rome following its founding in the fourth century on the site of the ancient city of Byzantium by the Roman Emperor Constantine, who recognized that the Roman Empire had grown too large to be governed by Rome alone.
In 476 true Rome fell to the German hordes led by Odoacer, who deposed the last Emperor, Romulus Augustulus, after which no one claimed the imperial title in the West. In the East, the Empire lived on for nearly a millennium, but it was constantly shrinking over the centuries with the loss of Northern Africa, the Middle East and Asia Minor (modern day Turkey), until all that remained basically was a Greek City State on the Bosporus.
In the beginning of the 15th century, the East appealed to the West for help against the rising Turkish menace. To that end a council of the Church met at Florence in Italy, to attempt to bring about a reunification of the Greek Orthodox East and the Latin Catholic West in an effort to project a united front against the Turks. In 1415 the Union of Florence brought back together the two principal forms of Christianity, which had been apart since the Great Schism of 1054.
All the Orthodox communions present at Florence accepted the reunification, except for the two representatives of the Muscovite church. The reunion proved to be brief, as Constantinople fell to the Turks in 1453. In his letter to Ivan III, Philotheus spoke of the two Romes having fallen, with Moscow remaining as the sole bastion of Orthodoxy and the inheritor of the Roman imperial tradition, thereby justifying Ivan’s gathering of Moscow’s adjoining lands.
But if Moscow thus was the Third Rome, why did he say that “A Fourth there cannot be?” The answer here lies in the medieval Christian concept that “three” was the perfect number. The Trinity consists of three Persons in one Godhead. The Holy family consisted of three people, Jesus, Mary and Joseph. The three theological virtues are Faith, Hope and Charity. Philotheus transposed the religious significance of the number three into the political realm, asserting that a Fourth Rome there could not be.
This philosophy became the guiding spirit of the Muscovite state, which two centuries later Peter I, the Great, transmogrified into the Russian Empire. That state lasted until 1917 when it was replaced briefly by the Provisional Government, and then by V. I. Lenin and the Bolsheviks, who rejected the Orthodox religion, but readily accepted the imperial legacy in an updated, Marxian format.
The concept has persisted through the centuries that Russia is the “Mother of the Slavs.” Today, in its Putinistic form, Russia is again asserting its hegemony over other peoples. In this instance we also can see the necessity on Russia’s part to retake its former “Breadbasket,” as Russia needs both the great plains of Ukraine to feed its population and the country’s vast mineral resources to support modern Russian militarism.
One of Lenin’s books is entitled, Imperialism, The Highest Stage of Capitalism. The former Soviet Union, and now its Putinistic legacy, are proving that it is the highest stage of Communism as well. Philotheus provides a significant perspective from which to answer the question, “Why Ukraine?”