The Russian World and the Hellenic World

by Christopher Howell | български | ελληνικά | Română | Русский | Српски

We are in the midst of a few anniversaries of note in the Greek world. Last year, of course, was the bicentennial of the war for independence. This year, it’s the centennial of the July 1922 founding of AHEPA, in Atlanta, and far more ignominiously, the conclusion of the Greco-Turkish War in September 1922. These events, especially the war, still affect the Greeks today, and the Greek Orthodox with them, but they are also directly relevant to the frightful issues raised by the Russian invasion of Ukraine—questions of nationalism, irredentism, and religion.

The connection has not gone unnoticed. After the publication of the “The Declaration on the ‘Russian World’ Teaching” on Public Orthodoxy, Fr. John Whiteford argued that, within Greek Orthodoxy, “One hears a very similar concept to ‘The Russian World’ fairly frequently, only it is called ‘Hellenism’.” Fr. Whiteford was not alone in drawing this connection. In a friendly critique of the Declaration published in Public Orthodoxy’s own pages, Andrey Shishkov described the Russian World as less a theological heresy than “an ordinary national doctrine, which is very similar, for example, to the Hellenistic Μεγάλη Ιδέα”—the ideological basis for the Greek incursion into Turkey after WWI and the dreams, in Shishkov’s words, of “restoring a Christian Byzantine Empire.” These are important points to consider. In the wake of just criticisms of the subordination of Russian Orthodoxy to the aims of the Kremlin and the Russian world, we must ask: what is the relation of Hellenism to Orthodoxy? Can there be one? If so, how?

A little personal background is apposite here. I write on this not as a scholar of these events, and I hope not to step on toes regarding emotionally-laden pieces of history. I have some Greek ancestry on my mother’s side, but I’m more accurately Greek-adjacent than Greek. I grew up around but not in the Orthodox Church (though I have since joined it officially). My knowledge of the language at best is, as they say, έτσι και έτσι. I hope that as someone straddling the line as both an outsider and insider, I might be able to shed light on the issues raised above.

What is a Hellene? And Hellenism? And what was the Μεγάλη Ιδέα (the Grand Idea)? According to the historian Roderick Beaton, through the Byzantine and later Ottoman period, no Greek would have called themselves a Hellene. The Hellenes were ancients—pagans; they were not Christian. Byzantine and Ottoman Greeks understood themselves as Romioi (Romans), not Hellenes (the Turks called them the Rum), and until relatively recently their language was labeled ‘Romaic.” But during the 18th century, Greek elites and Enlightenment outsiders both became interested in ancient Greece and revived the Hellenic term. There was a corresponding shift in the understanding of Greekness—one characterized less by religion and more by the Greek language and ethnic identity. Tension between Hellenism and “Romaic” Orthodoxy grew. Early Greek nationalists like Adamantios Korais (who advocated for the reappropriation of “Hellene”) famously disparaged Byzantine history. As Richard Clogg writes, Korais claimed reading “a single page of a particular Byzantine author was enough to bring on an attack of gout.” Philip Sherrard observed Korais’s heavenly pantheon, instead of the Church Fathers, included ancient Greeks as well as George Washington and Benjamin Franklin. But Korais’s emphasis on language and ethnicity helped pave the way for the Grand Idea.

Upon its independence, the modern kingdom of Greece was christened Hellas. But the kingdom was small, and most Greek-speaking Orthodox still lived in Ottoman lands. So, who were the Hellenes, then? The subjects of the Greek kingdom? Or the Grecophones throughout the world? In 1844, at the promulgation of the constitution, Prime Minister Ioannis Kolettis, suggested an answer. Hellenism, as Michael Lewellyn Smith writes, was more than Hellas. It was the people—wherever they were found. “The Kingdom of Greece is not Greece,” said Kolettis, “it is merely a part, the smallest, poorest part of Greece.” The oracular phrase “Grand Idea,” which soon took on permanent capital letters, became a “shorthand,” writes Beaton, for a new mission and foreign policy, one that sought to “extend the borders of the state to encompass all the members of the nation, wherever they might be found.” “Why,” Beaton imagines these figures asking, “should not the young Greek kingdom grow up to become an empire like its ancestor the Byzantine, an eastern Christian power with its capital at Constantinople?” The recapture of Constantinople and the celebration of the liturgy once again under the gleaming gold dome of the Hagia Sophia would be the destiny of the Greek nation. Images of these dreams, and the slogan “two continents and five seas” proliferated throughout Greece. Such foreign policy was ambitious, to say the least, and one outside observer commented that Greece’s imperial desires combined “the appetite of Russia with the dimensions of Switzerland.” It was not insignificant that, upon the ouster of King Otto and his replacement with George I, that the throne-bearer was no longer “King of Hellas” but rather “King of the Hellenes.”

The lure of the Grand Idea was great, and Greece would suffer mightily in its pursuit. As Winston Churchill chronicled, “This story carried us back to classic times. It is true Greek tragedy, with Chance as the ever-ready handmaid of Fate…. The scene and the lighting are the Great War; and the theme, ‘How Greece gained the Empire of her dreams in spite of herself, and threw it away when she awoke’.”

The details of the Greco-Turkish War (1919-1922) are too complicated to explain here in anything other than a criminally simple sketch. The interested reader is urged to consult Michael Llewellyn Smith’s Ionian Vision, the standard English volume on the conflict. The long and short of it is that, at the end of World War I and the fragmentation of the Ottoman Empire, the Greek kingdom seized its chance to realize the Grand Idea. Led by the controversial Eleftherios Venizelos (armed with the moral but not material support of David Lloyd George), the Greeks assumed military and political control over Smyrna and the area surrounding it. Though the allies retained Constantinople, a hold in Asia Minor was in Greece’s grasp at last. Turkish nationalists—intensified by the landing in Smyrna and humiliated by the capitulation of the Sultanate—would not acknowledge the 1919 Treaty of Sevres, and so the Greek army attempted to enforce compliance by marching all the way inland, nearly to Ankara, where they attempted a “knock-out blow.” Instead, they were held up in stalemate after the Battle of the Sakarya in 1921.

The domestic and political background to this conflict was nothing short of a fiasco. The National Schism, a virtual civil war, engulfed the Greek kingdom, with repeated collapses and rebuilds of the Greek government as the Venizelists struggled with the Royalists and King Constantine I. An assassination attempt on Venizelos in Paris on August 12, 1920, led to a reciprocal assassination (this one successful) of the Royalist Ion Dragoumis the next day in Athens. Incredibly, at a crucial moment that October, Venizelos lost control in no small part due to the puppet King Alexander getting killed by a pet monkey. His death allowed Constantine to return and oust the Prime Minister. As all this was going on, the Greek army was advancing through Turkey, in a role reversal as historically preposterous as if Ireland had invaded the British Empire. But, Roderick Beaton argues that success was at least a possibility, had things played out differently (less incompetence and hesitancy in the military leaders, for instance, and less instability at home). However, after the stalemate at Sakarya, the Greeks held on for the winter and then collapsed after a Turkish counter-offensive in August 1922, fleeing all the way back to Smyrna. The Great Fire would be the culminating event in this catastrophe, when the city was burned and its citizens were massacred by the victorious Turkish army.

Nationalistic violence was sadly not exceptional for the war. The historian Arnold Toynbee, the first occupant of the Korais Chair of Modern Greek and Byzantine History at King’s College, London, traveled to the front to witness it. While he was, at first, a supporter of the Greek cause, he became disillusioned and described the conflict as a “war of extermination.” In his The Western Question in Greece and Turkey, written in 1922 before the war ended, he blamed the West for fostering nationalist Hellenism in Greece and nationalist Young Turks in Turkey—all part of a ludicrous game being played by the Great Powers without care for the consequences on the ground. To illustrate his point, he recounted the violence he personally witnessed, including his discovery of a Turkish mass grave and the massacre at Yalova (during which Toynbee wrote that he saved 700 Turks from death). He was horrified by reports that Greek soldiers sang songs as they killed Turkish peasants. Llewelyn Smith describes the proliferation of atrocities as an “epidemic,” and those initiated by Greek soldiers stemmed partly from a desire for revenge after centuries of colonial oppression. Not to be outdone, Turkish militants responded in kind—and in greater quantity. When Toynbee returned to England, he remained inexcusably silent as the genocide of Pontic Greeks became more widely known and did likewise when the Turkish army advanced on Smyrna and exterminated the Greeks and Armenians there. Later, as his biographer chronicles, Toynbee resigned the position under pressure.

Despite his public reticence, Toynbee was accurate in isolating nationalism as a chief cause of violence. He predicted, before Smyrna, that things would get worse. “Nationalism has been the will-o-the-wisp enticing them to destruction,” he argued. The “political romance” of causes like Hellenism or Turkification were “essentially unhistorical, being an attempt to telescope past and present into one another, and it has an unlimited capacity for ignoring what is inconvenient.” Toynbee also lamented the fall of the Orthodox Church in all this, as it was one of the few institutions that could have resisted the siren song of nationalist violence. “The almost complete triumph of political nationalism in the remnants of the Ottoman Empire,” he wrote, “portends the final extinction of an ecclesiastical institution [the Ecumenical Patriarchate] which, however accommodating, is in the last resort incompatible with the national principle.”

If Hellenism is defined and described as the nationalism covered here, it should be obvious that it is incompatible with Orthodoxy. Whether it takes the form of the Grand Idea or the Russian World, the Venn diagram of nationalism and Christianity is simply two separate circles. It must be resisted, not embraced. As the statement of solidarity on Public Orthodoxy articulated, “Drawing upon Scripture, reason, and the rich traditions of the Christian churches around the world, 21st-century Christianity needs to nourish its reflection on theology and political thought, specifically investing in an ecumenical ‘Theology after Christendom’.” In my opinion, the Orthodox could turn to a Latin source for help with this: St. Augustine.

The ongoing war in Ukraine has often been described as “fratricidal.” It was ever thus. St. Augustine, in The City of God, argued that fratricide was the basis of the City of Man. It began with Cain slaying Abel, and it manifested outside sacred history in Romulus’s murder of Remus (15.5). The “lust for rule,” which characterizes the City of Man, makes slaughter like this unavoidable, when it would be far better, and would lead to greater happiness, for kingdoms to forsake their obsession with size, might, empire. “What prudence,” Augustine asks, is there in “wishing to glory in the greatness and extent of the empire,” when all it leads to a “fragile” joy that is paralyzed by constant fear “lest it should be suddenly broken in pieces”? Better to have a small, peaceful kingdom. “I know not whether any one can be such a fool,” he wrote, “that he dare hesitate which to prefer” (4.3). What good does nationalist conquering achieve? “They have received their reward,” wrote Augustine. Imperial expansion does not lead to safety, good morals, nor dignity, “except that it yields them that most insane pomp of human glory” (5.17).

Christian loyalty is, in the end, to the City of God, not the City of Man. They are intermingled now, and will be throughout history, but the City of God are essentially pilgrims and will be until the eschaton. They “sojourn till the time of its reign arrives, when it shall gather together all in the day of resurrection” (15.1). Its mystical name is the Vision of Peace (19.11), and it is “a society of pilgrims of all languages, not scrupling about diversities in the manners, laws, and institutions whereby earthly peace is secured and maintained” (19.17). If it spreads, it spreads by martyrdom and not by war—after all, the martyrs die for Christ, and who ever died for fratricidal Romulus? (22.6). The Declaration on the Russian World affirms this, explaining, “We firmly condemn every form of theology that denies that Christians are migrants and refugees in this world,” with loyalty not to “Holy Rus’, Sacred Byzantium, or any other earthly kingdom.” This is a hard lesson to learn, but it is one the Greek Orthodox have had to accept. The Church does not need to rule Constantinople, Moscow, or Kyiv to survive (or Washington, D.C., for that matter). Instead, Augustine wrote, the City of God “is a stranger in this world” (18.2).

Where does that leave us regarding Orthodoxy and Hellenism, then? The stranger is key. There is a particular kind of Hellenism that is, I believe, not only compatible with Christianity, but is essential to it. It is not the kind that promotes the Grand Idea, or any kingdom, language, or nationality, but instead one that embraces the stranger, the pilgrim, the foreigner. It is φῐλοξενῐ́ᾱ—“the love of the stranger.” It is the common hospitality that is rooted in the country, and it is this which is, in my view, the great glory of Hellenism, the modern Greek people, and their culture. It manifests the City of God on Earth as we sojourn through time. I have been fortunate to experience it in travels to Greece to visit family and friends. I saw it in Doliana, Arkadia, when my family there orchestrated a huge feast with music and dancing to commemorate our return to our ancestral village and my aunt’s marriage there. I saw it in Epiros, when a man named Andreas dropped everything and drove me and my wife around the region for four days so that we could see every beautiful inch of Zagori. And I see it on the news, when the ordinary men and women of Lesvos were nominated for the Nobel Prize in 2015 for rescuing refugees from the sea. It was the antithesis of the City of Man’s fratricide. “I feel like I have helped a brother or sister,” said nominee Aimilia Kamvisi. This was also history coming full circle, as it brought back memories of Greek refugees fleeing Smyrna in 1922. This is a Hellenism worth not only preserving but promoting.

In 1950, the poet George Seferis went back to Smyrna, the land of his birth, for the first time since the fire. The image of the city rises up—“So clear in my memory, so unrecognizable now. My God, what am I going to do?” The sights of the city, the memories of his childhood—it’s too much to bear. There are disasters of war, he writes, but:

It is even more painful to feel in your vitals the sudden disappearance of a complete and living world, with its moments of light and shadow, its rituals of joy and sorrow, the closely woven fabric of its whole existence: to hear in your ears the cracking its joints at the moment of extinction. And the shameful actions of that time. It is another thing again that this destiny, which you carry in your blood, should have become mingled, as was inevitable, with the fate which terrifies the world today.

He wrote in 1950, but it could apply to 1922 or 2022, and likely to 2122. It is enough to overwhelm with sorrow. The wars today, and of yesteryear, can make the City of God feel powerless. What can we do? “If this journal has a moral for the world,” Seferis wrote, “it might be the remark which my diplomatic companion made to me last July: ‘The Greeks say it was the Turks who burned down Smyrna. The Turks say it was the Greeks. Who will ever discover the truth?’” History testifies that it was the former, but that was not as interesting to Seferis as the future. He wondered about the reciprocal violence of human history, and we can wonder with him—of the ceaseless violence of the past, of the atrocities of the ongoing war in Ukraine, and of the earthly mission of the pilgrims of the heavenly city. “The wrong has been committed,” he concluded, “the important question is who will redeem it?”


Christopher Howell holds a PhD from Duke University in Religion.

Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.