Friday, April 25, 2008

The Fourth Crusade, Vladimir Putin and George W. Bush

I've been reading Queller and Madden's masterful and scholarly work on the most important event in European history between the collapse of the Western Roman Empire and the present - the sack of Constantinople in April of 1204 by the noble knights of the infamous Fourth Crusade. This work traces the improbable series of events that led the Crusaders away from their original intention to reclaim the Holy Land from the Muslim infidels and instead, destroy the greatest city in Christendom and worthy successor to Rome. The orgy of rape, murder and plunder that took place in Constantinople from April 13th to 15th of 1204 resulted not only in the destruction of a millenium of priceless cultural treasures but very likely changed the course of history in a way that deeply affects the world we live in today. Although the Latin West and its cultural descendants are largely ignorant both of the event itself and of its long term historical impacts, this event remains a critical part of history and culture in the Orthodox East.

To understand the long term effects of the sack of Constantinople, one first needs to look at a map showing the extent of the Eastern Roman Empire around the time of the sack of Constantinople:

This is a map of southeastern Europe centered on the Eastern Roman Empire c. 1180 or about a quarter century before the sack of Constantinople. The above map is found in Freeman's Historical Geography, edited by J.B. Bury, Longmans Green and Co. Third Edition 1903. You may find it here on the web. I have color enhanced the areas occupied by the Eastern Roman Empire and by the Turks in the map for better readability. Note that the Eastern Empire occupied much of what is now western Turkey as well as a large territory in southeastern Europe. It was a major player on the global stage at this time.

After the sack of Constantinople, the Empire was divided into a number of pieces with the Latin's in control of the largest portion of the former Empire. Although the Latin's were driven out of Constantinople in 1261 and the Empire restored to Greek control, the city and the Empire never recovered from the sack and Latin control. The defenses of the weakened Empire began to give way to the onslaught of the Turks later in the 13th century and the Turkish advance gathered momentum in the 14th century. The Turks gained their first toehold in continential Europe in the mid-14th century and made their way deep into Europe during the second half of the 14th century. The famous Battle of Kosovo in 1389 was just one of many battles between various Orthodox forces and the Turks during this time. Support from the Latin West for their Orthodox Christian counterparts during the Turkish advance was halfhearted at best and predicated on Orthodox religious subjugation to the Roman Catholic pope in Rome. The 15th century saw the final defeat of the Eastern Empire; by 1500 the Ottoman Turks controlled virtually all of Orthodox southeastern Europe including the Greek peninsula, Bulgaria, Albania, Serbia, and Bosnia. Although the Ottoman's would advance as far as the gates of Vienna during the 17th century, Orthodox Christians felt the brunt of the Muslim advance. The Turks remained in control of the bulk of formerly Orthodox territory until the 19th century; during the nearly half millenium of Ottoman control a significant share of the population in many of these places became Muslim either through immigration from Muslim lands or through conversion to Islam. Thus were the seeds of modern conflict planted in the Balkans during this period.

It is difficult to imagine that the Turks would have advanced so far and with such lasting effect had the sack of Constantinople not taken place. It is also difficult to imagine that the Western and Eastern halves of Christianity would have been pulled so irrepairably apart had it not been for the sack.

But of course, the culture of the Eastern Empire did not disappear with the destruction of Constantinople by the Latin West and the subjugation of much of Orthodox Christianity by the Muslim Turks. Russia, converted to Christianity by the Greeks and from whom they received their written language, deeply absorbed the culture of the jeweled city of the Bosporus. Within decades of the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453 and as a result of Islam's advance to much of the Orthodox world, Russia took on the mantle of Orthodox civilization and the Orthodox world in turn looked to the Russia for its inspiration.

With this historical and cultural context in mind, one can understand, for example, Russia's support for the Serbs in the latter's determination to retain the province of Kosovo as part of Serbian territory. In fact, given this historical context, it is difficult to understand how the West can be so naive to believe that separating Kosovo from Serbia could in any way be accepted by Russia. This is not to condone the actions of nationalistic Serbs in what was an unmistakable campaign of genocide against the Albanian Muslim majority in Kosovo in the 1990's but ignoring the historical and cultural events that created the situation in Kosovo as it currently stands, as the West does, shows both an ignorance and insensitivity on the part of the West towards the East. Given Russia's resurgence during the past decade, such ignorance and insensitivity has a dangerous potential.

The above historical and cultural context also makes clear the monumential stupidity and ignorance of history demonstrated by U.S. President George W. Bush in his recent attempt to bring two Eastern Orthodox nations, Ukraine and Romania, under the umbrella of NATO. That the European members of NATO were at least intelligent enough to table such a ridiculous proposal suggests at least a modicum of historical understanding and cultural sensitivity by the West in this regard. The world became the slightest bit safer as a result of their refusal to consider Romania and Ukraine's membership into NATO.

Post Script - A recent article in the New York Times discussing discrimination by the Russian Government against the efforts of Protestant churches to expand their numbers in Russia, highlights the Western ignorance of Orthodox history. The article focuses on the difficulties Protestants face in attempting to operate in post-Soviet Russia. While the concerns and feelings of Protestants facing such discrimination should not be ignored, this lengthy article touched on the historical and cultural importance of the Orthodox religion to Russia in only the briefest and superficial terms. Such is how cultural misunderstanding is perpetuated.

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