May 01, 2011

A 20,000 Candle Party



On May 11, 1791, one of the most extravagant and sumptuous parties of Catherine the Great’s reign was held in the Tauride Palace, the St. Petersburg residence of Prince Grigory Potyomkin. The celebration marked the successful capture of the Izmail Fortress from Turkey. Yet as significant as this victory was, what was really being celebrated was something much greater.

There were many layers of meaning underlying the celebration at the Tauride Palace, but first and foremost among them was that the victory marked yet another step toward the fulfillment of a grandiose, semi-utopian scheme that had been conceived many years before by Potyomkin and the Empress. It was the dream of advancing southward, to the Bosporus, to Istanbul, or, as Russians preferred to call it, to Constantinople, to the great city where once upon a time Byzantine emperors ruled and from whence Christianity came to Rus. This was the dream that drove many Russian politicians. Despite the illusoriness and irrationality of the idea, its echoes still reverberate today.

In the early sixteenth century, Philotheus, a monk at the Yelizarov Monastery north of Pskov, submitted an epistle to Moscow’s Grand Prince Vasily III. This epistle formulated an idea that would become a catalyst of Russian history over the coming centuries. As Philotheus explained it, the sack of Rome by barbarians (410 ad) was a form of punishment of the emperors for having allowed themselves to fall under the influence of heretics. This led to the rise of Constantinople – the Second Rome. And the defeat of Constantinople by the Turks (1453 ad) resulted from the Orthodox Byzantine emperor entering into a union with the “heretical” Roman pope, the head of the Catholic Church. What city could now take its place? Philotheus had no doubt that Moscow was the answer to that question. “Moscow is the Third Rome, and a fourth shall never be.” These famous words have since been repeated by philosophers, poets, and politicians.


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See Also

The Tsarina's Pen

The Tsarina's Pen

Catherine the Great was a prolific letter writer and her missives offer a uniquely intimate view of her personal life and political development (to say nothing of her humor and passion).

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