The Pole of the Russian Circle: Moscow’s Place in the Sacred Geography of Russia

Contours of the country in “depth psychology”

Questions of geography are very tightly linked to psychological archetypes. Every people, every civilization, every culture sees and understands space in its own unique way. There always exists a kind of code that serves as a distinctive trait of the national territorial myth.

Reconstructions made by modern historians of religions, sociologists, and anthropologists allow us to speak of an entire science (sacred geography) that predetermined our ancestors’ perception of the surrounding world in its spatial dimension. The norms of this sacred geography formed the foundations of epics, biographies, legends, traditions, myths, and fairy tales.

As the rational aspects of life developed, this sacred geography became part of the unconscious, thus determining deep psychic archetypes, rudimentary reactions, and the typology of slips and dreams. Having disappeared from the ancient stage, the geography of the myth passed into the sphere of subconscious reactions; however, this does not mean that it lost its hypnotic power.

There are peoples who visualize their homeland, their country, as an island. Others see it as a plain hemmed in by mountains. Still others see it as a space between two or more great rivers, or as an uninterrupted mountain range, or as a coastline, and so on and so forth. It is on the basis of this sacred geography of the homeland that an idea of the entire cosmos is formed.

As ordinary (non-sacred) geography develops, these ideas become things of the past; however, as the studies of Gustav Jung’s “depth psychology” school have shown, these ideas have kept their influence on the structure of the human soul. And even in modern society, which is founded on exact knowledge and technological rationalism, old ideas make their presence known in full force.

The Russian harp of the Kiev period

The sacred geography of Rus has three fundamental formulae which correspond to the three stages in the development of Russian political thought. The oldest model of sacred geography, that of Kievan Rus, saw the Russian space as a circle, a gigantic plain, surrounded on all sides by a ring of mountains. There were legends about one of the Russian heroes (Ilya Muromets, etc.) completing a heroic feat by cleaning the Russian plain of rocky avalanches, forests and men of different faiths by moving all of them to the edge of the world. This ordered and cleansed the space, beyond the edges of which were situated dark, evil forces and landscapes which had an enormous influence on the national psychology of the Russian people, defining the fundamental traits of the Russian popular character and finding manifestation in folklore, culture, and civilizational, social, and political clichés. The Russian Circle is, on this basic level, seen as a field, that is, etymologically as a harmonious void (the word “поле” [“field”] comes from “полый”, “пустой” [“empty”]).

Kievan Rus was not strongly centralized. Several poles, several capitals existed within it in parallel: Kiev, Novgorod, Chernigov, Vladimir, etc. In legends and tales, these poles of the Russian Circle are likened to the strings of a harp or other stringed instrument with roads drawn between the strings. All of Rus stands like a harp played by the will of the people and through which the harmonic quivers of national history are sung.

This entire territory is collectively opposed to the worlds of the periphery, and internally there is a difference similar to that between the modes and chords of the same instrument. Peace and quiet meant harmonic melody. Hostility and bloodshed were a cacophony, a disorderly racket.

The sacred geography of Kievan Rus was distinguished by its polycentricity and the parallel nature of its lines of power, which often correspond to the flow of the great Russian rivers. The fundamental spatial “string” is drawn between the North (Novgorod) and South (Kiev).

This model of sacred geography developed from the very beginning of Rus’ history as a state, from the period when the predominantly Slavic tribes of the Russian Plain became cognizant of their cultural and social unity.

The Moscow wheel

With the Tatar-Mongol advance, this picture begins to transform. The unity of the Russian Circle was disrupted from the inside (internal strife), which gave the successful conquerors the opportunity to embed Rus in the context of another territorial construct. In a certain sense, it is possible to say that during the period in which the Mongols were present, the Russian people acknowledged the historical inadequacy of the polycentric, parallel structure of the Russian space, a structure that had been too plastic to resist a fierce and centralized enemy.

Influenced by what they saw of the Tatars’ social institutions, Russians gradually reached the conclusion that a new configuration of sacred geography was necessary. The Russian Circle should have a hard core. It was necessary to transition from parallel “strings” to a wheel model. This is the contraction of space towards a centre, and this strong link forms the second and most important archetype of the national territorial formula: the Tsardom of Muscovy.

A new point rises between the North (Novgorod) and South (Kiev) in Vladimir, which is later followed by Moscow. This is a totally new element: a united axis, a sole pole.

This new configuration of Holy Rus is historically bound to our Russian “Reconquista” with the recapture of independence and reverse wave of Russians moving to Tatar lands: toward the East and the South, to the steppes and Siberia.

The inadequacy of the old circle without a center was rectified. Muscovite Rus is a circle with a center. A new Rus. A Great Rus that entered the apogee of its civilizational flourishing.

It is in the period of the Tsardom of Muscovy that the Great Russians definitively developed into an independent ethnos of a totally different quality and with a different nationalist psychology. Much had been drawn from the Tatars, the imperial ideal of Byzantium shone with a new strength, and Slavic genius flourished in the continental Eurasian Empire of the Third Rome.

The ethnopsychology of the Russian people reached its final forms precisely in this period, and, strictly speaking, it is the Tsardom of Muscovy that must be called “Holy Rus”.

The sacred geography of this period is a circle with a center. The pole is Moscow the Third Rome, from which rays shoot out in all directions.

All roads lead to the Third Rome. Together with the dominant ethnos (the Great Russians, proper “Russians”), a new worldview develops.

Russian national psychology is deeply Muscovite, or Moscow-centric. It is by this factor that the cultural type of the man we call “Russian” is conditioned.

The “Russian Babylon” of the Romanovs

The Moscow model of sacred geography came into crisis during the raskol and the subsequent rule of Peter the Great.

The balance of Moscow as the absolute pole of Holy Rus and the axis of Orthodoxy was disturbed in favor of its Western element. The wheel of the Russian Circle broke off of its providential axis. The clarity and harmony of the Great Russian flourishing ended. Cultural-religious life broke apart and became decentralized. The rigid orthodox followers of the Muscovite idea, the Old Believers, took the great formula of Holy Rus with them through escape and immolation. It was not a passionate exposer of the new order who was burnt in Pustozersk, but a great symbol of loyalty to the optimal image of sacred geography [1].

The Old Believers developed the concept of the “Russian Babylon”, the Russia of Peter and the Western monarchs who had substituted the Tsar’s power and ecclesiastical mysteries with agents of heretical, Western influence. They are fully correct in their diagnosis: a change of paradigm of sacred geography was taking place and the Moscow-centric structure of national psychology was destroyed.

From this point forward, the center was moved to Saint Petersburg. But this is not a new pole. Rather, it is a passive gravitation towards the West, a demonstration of the center not being located within, but without, beyond Russia’s western borders. Romanov Russia saw itself as a province of the West. The aristocracy adopted the manners of a colonial administration. The Russian people, their national psychology, their legends, and their deep ideas of sacred geography were now seen by the higher estates as “savage preconceptions.” In negative cases, this idea manifested itself in open loathing and Russophobia among the Westernized nobility. But even the “Russophiles” saw the “common people” as butterfly collectors see their specimens. “The people are but a child”, they said, “they must be taught and educated.” Indeed, the deep psychological layers of popular life and the mythology of ideas are not seriously examined by anyone.

The Petersburg period did not yield any kind of new image of sacred geography. Among the aristocracy the center moved to Europe, i.e. the truly Russian space lost its symbolic independence.  At the level of the common people, who were either drawn to open Old Ritualism en masse or plainly loyal to the commandments of the past in a more general sense, life continued and the ancient beliefs and old images of Russian sacred geography continued to be passed down. Holy Rus was the great Russian Circle, with Moscow as its holy center.

Moscow became a secret capital, a kind of Kitezh [2], the refuge of those estates and layers of the Russian people that continued to safeguard their loyalty to ancient ideas, who transmitted the secrets of the national tradition and the sacred formula of the Russian space down through the generations.

The Bolshevik restoration of sacred geography

Paradoxical as it may be, it is with the Revolution that a return to the Moscow-centric model took place. It would seem that the Bolsheviks, who were raised on Western authorities, would have to continue even further along the Petersburg path of the essentially Russophobic, faux folkish Romanovs. In practice, however, the popular layers of the elite carried with them the sleeping forces of Russian national geography. When hopes for the Revolution’s quick victory in Europe were dashed, the construction of “socialism in one country” awoke the old forces of the Russian soul. The capital was not only moved to Moscow, but the unconscious structuralization of psychological space was reborn on a new level. As in the times of the Muscovite Tsars, in the new Bolshevik Russia, the role of the political, spiritual, psychological, and social center was concentrated in a single, ancient pole. The Third Rome became the capital of the Third Internationale, and the idea of general salvation through the true Faith, which remained unspoiled only within the boundaries of Holy Rus, was replaced with the mission of building communism for the entire world with the unique historical experience of the Russian socialist government as its starting point.

The seemingly even more rationalist and “progressive” communist government actually awoke sleeping archetypes. On the level of the collective unconscious, Soviet Russia resembled the ancient Russian Circle with its center in Moscow far more than an eastern, semi-colonial appendage of Europe, as it had been in the Romanov era. Muscovite Rus’ hatred of the Latin heresy and the papacy and categorical rejection of the religious, cultural, and civilizational apostasy of the West appeared in the Russian communists’ rejection of the capitalist world and bourgeois system of values. Once more as it had been in ancient times, the enormous wheel with its center in Moscow began to be seen as a stronghold of harmony and order, as a chosen ark surrounded by the forces of darkness, chaos, and evil.

The myth of the Bolshevik Revolution, of the socialist Fatherland, and the new communist order, was perfectly superimposed on the ancient layers of the collective unconscious.

In this context, Soviet Moscow, Red Moscow was a symbol, the most important, central element of a strong, forceful, active myth.

The anti-Muscovite character of the reforms

We are currently living through a very serious crisis. The deep archetypes of national psychology are once again subjected to breakage. As is always the case in critical moments of history, images of sacred geography and ancient figures that predetermine the structure of our national and cultural type rise up from the depths of the collective unconscious.

Under these conditions, Moscow cannot be seen merely as an administrative centre, as a capital in the prosaic, utilitarian-technical sense. Her role, her importance, her symbolic content go far beyond the boundaries of pragmatics.

Rus is once again faced with a choice. Which model of sacred geography must we choose? What historical period must we take as our point of departure? To what orientation must we adhere? What model must we strive for?

At the beginning of the reforms, the choice seemed simple. Moscow-centrism looked explicitly evil. Socialist as well as national tendencies were decried as “red-brown”, “forces of reaction” etc. “Westernism” became the dominant ideology, and every debate was only about with what speed the country should be embedded in the liberal-democratic world.

What is more, the reformers were divided into openly radical Russophobes, who openly acknowledged their hatred for everything Russian (history, statehood, culture) and proposed to throw away everything in favor of the uncritical copying universal, average Western examples, and the moderate Westernisers who had a positive evaluation of the Romanov period and were tolerant of the idea of an “enlightened monarchy.” In principle, both types of reformers acted under the auspices of the same special paradigm, one that equally rejected Moscow-centrism.

In other words, on the level of sacred geography and depth psychology, we can say that Perestroika and the first stage of liberal reforms bore an openly anti-Muscovite character.

Moscow today: a negative image on three levels

Currently, Moscow’s functions in the collective unconscious are divided into three different realities. On the one hand, Moscow is the federal centre. This means that it is the focal point of the administrative, political, and strategic life of our entire country. Such a “federal Moscow” is an abstract category, its main characteristic being its location as the base of the Russian bureaucratic leadership. As the general social and cultural climate in the country is negative and critical, the other regions directly identify “federal Moscow” as a negative institution, the fiefdom of corrupt, egoist bureaucrats who are responsible for all the country’s disasters and misfortunes.

The negativity of this image of “federal Moscow” is equally present in the minds of those who do not accept the liberal reforms, as well as those who show solidarity with them. Opponents of the reforms from the provinces see in the “federal centre” that institution, which, for the sake of abstract liberal principles, is destroying the organized economic system on the ground and, what is more, is plundering the regions, blocking up the budget and limiting the regional economy in all kinds of ways. In other words, in the eyes of the “conservatives”, “federal Moscow” is fulfilling a function that is contrary to the one “patriotic Moscow” should be fulfilling. Enmity towards such a Moscow is in a certain way parallels the Old Believers’ idea of Moscow’s transformation into Babylon. In this situation, the young reformers are fulfilling the functions of “papist agents” (the historical Arsenius the Greek, Paisios Ligarides, and other activists for the Nikonian reforms) and the president as the apostate Tsar who has fallen under the influence of the “servants of the antichrist.” The main right-wing claim against “federal Moscow” is that such a Moscow is insufficiently Moscow.

On the contrary, the reformers themselves think that Moscow is still too Muscovite and that the current administration is still under the influence of old, centralist methods. In the provinces, this position is most often expressed through demands for economic independence and the drive to establish direct contacts with foreign partners, bypassing the center’s control.

We must acknowledge that in both cases, the image of a “federal Moscow” is entirely negative, and it is on this idea that the processes of Russia’s territorial collapse will be contingent, as they must be based on specific psychological archetypes as well as socio-economic and political causes.

The second level is political Moscow, Moscow as Russia. Here, we are not speaking about the internal, but about the external image of our capital. In general, we see a repeat of the same unattractive image that we saw in the latter case. Countries, regimes, groups and movements that traditionally held a Eurasian orientation and considered Moscow the leader of a coalition of all anti-Western, anti-Atlanticist forces see Moscow’s modern line as liquidationist and traitorous, as a refusal to fulfill its planetary-scale mission. Moscow is insufficiently Moscow.

The traditional opponents of the Eurasian project (as well as the Russian liberals), however, refuse to believe the “seriousness and irreversibility of the democratic transformations” and are every now and then waiting for tricks from their traditional enemy and competitor, a competitor that has recently made a full transition to the ranks of the West’s allies. Moscow is still too Muscovite. And its “hand” must still be feared.

Finally, the third Moscow. Regional Moscow, Moscow as one of the regions of Russia. This “Muscovite regionalism” is most often associated with the personality of Moscow’s mayor, Yuri Luzhkov. His idea views the city as a small country, examining it from the position of a region. Such an approach, combined with brilliant economic execution of his outlined plan, gives the mayor enormous dividends and unites people from the most difficult social and political orientations around him. “Luzhkov’s Moscow” to a certain extent opposes “federal Moscow”, and on this question, the mayor’s position draws closer to the position of the other regions. However, “Muscovite regionalism” cannot serve as a universal model for the development of the other regions, as the status of the capital and federal center plays an enormous role in the “Luzhkov miracle”, a status that the mayor is trying to maximally exploit for the strengthening of his regional position and its populace. Therefore, from a purely regional point of view, the Moscow experiment is seen as not fully objective and pure, but as a kind of egoistical exploitation of the energy and resources of the entire country by one privileged region. Against this backdrop, in a regional sense, all achievements of the Moscow economy change their character to a directly contrary one and only deepen the negative image of “federal Moscow”.

In other words, a large-scale crisis of the Moscow-centric model of Russian spatial organization is at hand, and this is a most serious threat to the territorial integrity of the entire country. What is more, the situation is worsened by the absence of any model of  conceptual-symbolic organization of the Russian space, even of the Petersburg example, which envisioned Russia as a secular empire, as a continuation of Europe in the East.

A conflict between social landscapes

From the point of view of sacred geography, the firmest and most operative construction is full-fledged and complete Moscow-centrism, the idea of Russia as a wheel turning around a center. Concentric psychology is deeply rooted in our people. In this case, Russia is the total opposite of the US, the mythological geography of which was from the very beginning fragmented and individualized. There is no qualitative difference between the center and the periphery. One-story America is America as such. The fragmentation of States, multipolarity, and the equal importance of every concrete locale in the US is the total opposite of the sacred geographical model of Rus. The space of North America has been totally demythologized and robbed of any quality. This also has an historical explanation: the US appeared as an artificial cultural, civilizational, and governmental formation, as an application of European rationalism and pragmatism to life itself. The US has no sacred prehistory and the autochthonous inhabitants of the continent became the first victims of the rationalist colonizers. In the US, the desacralization of space is far deeper than in Europe, where the process of decentralization also actively developed but, due to the presence of traditions and a mythological prehistory, did not attain the same results as in the New World.

In this sense, Russia is far more archaic than Europe, not to mention the US. If the space of the States is extremely homogeneous, then the space of Russia is extremely hierarchized. If there is an equality of States in America, then the Russian Circle is always measured by the degree of separation from the center. This is a particularity of our cultures, our history, and our special and sometimes contradictory development.

Russia will always continue to naturally gravitate towards Moscow-centrism, towards a circular, polar structure. If we set before ourselves the special task of moving Russia to the European or American ideal of spatial organization, we will have to spend enormous amounts of effort and will obtain a highly unstable construction. Perhaps the most “rational” way of reaching this goal would be to condemn the Russian people to the same fate as the North American Indians. In that case, however, the reformers will have to consciously recourse to genocide.

Who will restore the Sacred Circle?

Moscow is located in the center of our Homeland, our history, our culture. It is the heart of Russia, her secret nerve.

Moscow’s mission is beyond “federal Moscow”, “political Moscow”, or “regional Moscow.” It is a sacred and planetary mission with a spiritual meaning. From the point of view of sacred geography, Moscow is the center of the Sacred Circle, of the Circle of Salvation.

Who will become the harbinger of the idea of Moscow in its full amplitude?

Who will be brave enough to say a radical “YES” to the sacred space of Russia, to acknowledge and defend the uniqueness and secret meaning of its national geography in its spiritual, historical, and concretely pragmatic dimension?

Translator’s notes:

[1]: This is a reference to a group of prominent Old Believers who were martyred in Pustozersk by way of immolation. The group included protopriest Avvakum and priest Lazarus.

[2]: Kitezh is a location in Russian folklore. According to the legends, the town was founded somewhere in the early 13th century. When the Mongols came to sack it, the townsfolk prayed for salvation, which came in the form of the town being swallowed by the neighbouring Lake Svetloyar. Although the town may have been destroyed, the sounds of prayer and bells ringing can allegedly still be heard coming from the lake. In addition, the especially faithful can find a hidden trail to reach the city.

Translator: Yulian Orlov

Chapter 2 of Part II of Book 2 of Osnovy geopolitiki [Foundations of Geopolitics] (Moscow: Arktogeya, 2000).