This last decade has witnessed changes on the world scene which would have seemed unimaginable, even to informed observers, throughout most of this century. At the center of these dramatic changes have been events in Russia, the heart of the old Soviet Union. For those with vivid memories of the Cold War days of the 1950s and 1960s, the peaceful lowering of the red hammer and sickle flag from above the Kremlin was a sight they never expected to witness. Yet lowered it was.
In its September 2, 1991 issue, U. S. News & World Report proclaimed on its cover, "Russia Reborn." Describing the optimistic hopes and aspirations of those heady days, the magazine went on to declare, "Following the failed coup, a new age has dawned in the Soviet Union. The Communist Party is effectively dead, Gorbachev is no more than a figurehead and Boris Yeltsin is the hero of the new Russian Revolution" (p. 27).
Much has happened since that momentous day in August 1991 when Boris Yeltsin climbed up on a tank in Red Square and faced down the Communists. The Soviet Union splintered into 15 independent republics, and there were high hopes for prosperity, democracy and harmony with the West. The Cold War was over and "we won," declared many editorial writers and pundits.
Somewhere on the road to "living happily ever after," something happened. Russia’s economy has imploded and been riddled with corruption. While some few have become fabulously wealthy and billions of dollars have been deposited in Swiss bank accounts, the average Russian has seen his standard of living actually decline. In 1999, Russia had to stand by impotently and watch its traditional ally, Serbia, be pounded by the West. A sure sign of how far its prestige and great-power status had fallen was seen in how easily the Western alliance shrugged off Russian protests and proceeded to do as it wished.
More recently, Russia has been bogged down in a civil war in Chechnya, a Russian province in the Caucasus Mountain region. But the problem is not simply Chechnya. The entire Caucasus area is a hotbed of unrest and nationalistic strife. Though it is still confronted with ethnic unrest within its borders, and a feeble economy, Russia now has a newly elected President, replacing the ailing Boris Yeltsin.
What does all of this portend for the future of Europe and the future of the world? What kind of role is Russia destined to play in the years ahead? Also, what about Bible prophecy? Does it mention Russia, and if so, what does it tell us? In order to understand the future, we need to first understand the history and background of the modern Russian state and then see what the Bible actually has to say about tomorrow’s news events.
Heir to an Empire
The hammer and sickle insignia of the Communist Party gave way to the old double-headed eagle of Imperial Russia early in the last decade. What is the significance of this old imperial symbol and what does it say about the way that the Russians have viewed themselves? To understand this, we must go back to the original East-West divide and to one of the defining moments in world history.
The East-West divide of the 20th century had its origin about 17 centuries earlier in a decree issued by a Roman Emperor. By the third century ad, the Roman Empire stretched from Britain and the Atlantic coast of Spain all the way east to the Euphrates River. It included both North Africa and the Balkan region of Europe. Because of its vastness, Emperor Diocletian decided to divide it, for administrative purposes, into the Eastern Roman Empire and the Western Roman Empire. One of his subsequent heirs, Constantine, erected a new capital for the Eastern Empire on the site of ancient Byzantium and christened it New Rome. His followers dubbed it Constantinople. After the time of Emperor Constantine this administrative division became permanent. When the Western Empire collapsed in 476ad with the death of its last emperor, Romulus Augustulus, the Eastern Empire continued on.
The ancient Hebrew prophet, Daniel, writing about 1,000 years earlier in Babylon on the Euphrates, foresaw all of this. In Daniel 2 the prophet recounted a dream that King Nebuchadnezzar had experienced a few days earlier and explained its significance. In the dream the king had seen a huge statue with a head of gold, chest and shoulders of silver, thighs of brass, two legs of iron, and feet of an iron and ceramic mixture. The head of gold, Nebuchadnezzar was informed, symbolized his own Babylonian kingdom. After him was to arise another kingdom, historically the Medes and the Persians, who overran Babylon in 539bc. The Medo-Persian Empire was to be followed by a third kingdom, the Greek realm of Alexander the Great and his successors. The fourth kingdom was symbolized by two legs of iron and can be none other than the Roman Empire. It is in the days of the final ten kings who are the heirs of ancient Rome, symbolized by the toes on the feet of iron and clay, that the God of Heaven will intervene and set up a Kingdom that will never be removed (v. 44).
The Roman Empire’s East-West divide is clearly symbolized by the two iron legs. In Western Europe, the Latin, Germanic, Catholic realm was the heir of the Western Roman Empire. In Eastern Europe, the Greek, Slavic, Orthodox realm was the heir of the Eastern Roman Empire. This produced a religious, cultural, and political divide that has affected the history of Europe to this day. The divide started with a political demarcation that resulted in a cultural distinction. In the West the Latin language and culture spread outward from Rome and shaped much of Europe. Emanating from Constantinople, it was Greek language and culture that shaped much of the Slavic east.
In 861, Prince Rostislav of Moravia applied to the Byzantine Emperor at Constantinople for missionaries. The emperor sent two brothers from Thessaloniki: Cyril and Methodius. Since the Slavs did not have an alphabet to fully express their language in writing, one of the brothers developed one modeled after the Greek alphabet. To this day the alphabet used in Russia, Serbia, and Bulgaria is known as Cyrillic.
Over the next couple of centuries there was intense rivalry in the eastern part of Europe between Rome and Constantinople. Moravia, Slovakia, and later Hungary and Poland were won to the Latin Church and its rite. In the meantime, "Bulgaria, Serbia, and Russia accepted the Slavonic liturgy and alphabet, gave their allegiance to the Greek Church, and took their culture from Byzantium" (The Age of Faith, Will Durant, pp. 535–536).
In 1054, during the pontificate of Pope Leo IX, the rupture between the Orthodox Church of the East and the Catholic Church of the West became official. The real reasons for the rupture were more political than religious. In 800ad the Pope had crowned the Frankish King Charlemagne as Roman Emperor in the West, thereby rejecting the Eastern Emperor’s claim which had been exercised since Justinian’s Imperial Restoration in 554. As historian Will Durant put it, "...the papal coronation of a rival Roman emperor, the papal drive into Greek Italy—these galling political events, and not the slight diversities of creed, severed Christendom into East and West" (p. 544).
Then, in 1453, Constantinople fell to the Turks and the Eastern Roman Empire came to an end. The niece of the last emperor fled to Rome where she spent her adolescence. Several years later she was married to Ivan III, Grand Duke of Muscovy, in a ceremony performed by the Pope himself. The Pope desired that the marriage would contribute to a reunification of the Orthodox and Catholic churches under the Roman Pontiff. "As a descendant of the great East Roman imperial family, Sophia was the driving power behind Ivan’s rise to supremacy and behind Russia’s claim to Constantinople’s heritage... Since Constantinople had fallen to the Turks, she also led him to lay claim to the title of ‘Tsar’..." (History of Russia, Walter Kirchner, p. 35). Tsar (or Czar) was the Russian form of Caesar. The ancient Russian name for Constantinople had been Tsargrad, "City of Caesar."
It was at this time that the imperial double-headed eagle, symbol of the Byzantine Caesars, passed to the Russian Grand Dukes. From that time on, the Russian rulers viewed themselves as the heirs of the eastern Caesars and the protectors of the Orthodox Church.
The Origins of the Russian People
We need to understand who the Russian people are and where they came from. In order to recognize Biblical prophecies about them, it is necessary to know their origin. Actually, several related tribes anciently migrated into European Russia and became the ancestors of the three branches of the Russian peoples: the Great Russians, the Little Russians and the White Russians. History, culture and language unite these people, though they initially sprang from different ancestors.
In earliest times we find two nations, identified in the Bible as Meshech and Tubal, dwelling in the easternmost part of Asia Minor along the southeastern shore of the Black Sea. These closely related nations were called Mushki by the Assyrians and Moschi by the Greeks. To their east were a related people, the ancient Medes, who dwelt between the Black and Caspian Seas. These peoples, under the leadership of the Medes, played a prominent role in the destruction of the Assyrian capital, Ninevah, in 612bc.
The fifth and fourth centuries bc saw increasing conflict between the Persian and Greek realms, with peoples such as Meshech, Tubal, Lud (Lydia), Medes and Elamites being drawn into the fighting. By the close of the fourth century bc the Greeks, under Alexander the Great, had triumphed over Persia. It was the subsequent Greek invasion of eastern lands that resulted in pressure on people living between the Black and Caspian Sea to migrate north into the Scythian plains. Many different peoples, including remnants of the exiled northern ten tribes of Israel, inhabited the vast plains of Scythia during the coming centuries.
According to the Cultural Atlas of Russia and the Soviet Union, by the second century bc an "...Iranian nomadic people...[whose] federation of tribes eventually seems to have included a strong Slavonic element..." (p. 34) were settled north of the Black Sea. This confederation of peoples was drawn from Elamites and Medes, together with Meshech and Tubal. By this time they must have been speaking a common language, proto-Slavic, akin to Old Persian. The name the Slavs call themselves comes from slovo, which means "word," and stresses the sense of a linguistic community that is distinct from "non-understanders," the meaning of nemets, the general Slav designation for Germans.
From north of the Black Sea the Elamites gradually spread west and south, giving rise to the Slavic population in central and southern Europe. The tribes who traced their descent from the ancient Medes moved a little north and west to lay claim to the rich farmland of Little Russia, the Ukraine. From Meshech and Tubal came the Great Russians, who spread north and east, eventually establishing Moscow and the principality of Muscovy. The River Moskva, named for the people of Meshech (called Mushki or Moschi anciently), gave its name to the city and principality.
For many centuries there was a trading route that stretched from the Baltic Sea down the Dnieper River to the Black Sea and thence to Constantinople. The Slavs traded furs, wax, honey and amber in the markets of Constantinople for the luxuries of the Greek world. The Greeks heavily influenced the Russian Slavs for hundreds of years. In 989 the Russian prince Vladimir officially adopted Orthodox Christianity and married the sister of the Eastern Roman Emperor, Basil II. As historian Will Durant notes, "...thereafter, till 1917, Russia, in religion, alphabet, coinage, and art, was a daughter of Byzantium" (p. 448).
In 1223, the armed Mongol horsemen of Genghis Khan swept all the way to the Volga River. By 1240, all of Russia, including the Ukraine, was under Mongol domination. This yoke was not thrown off till 1480. In the aftermath, Russia began a massive expansion, settling the vastness of Siberia throughout the 16th and 17th centuries and also expanding south into the Central Asian lands of the Mongols themselves. By the dawn of the 18th century, Tsar Peter the Great had turned his eyes west and sought to learn western skills so that Russia might modernize and become a truly great power. Playing a crucial role in the Napoleonic Wars, Russia was drawn into the European vortex of the 19th century.
In 1917 the defining moment in Russia’s 20th century history occurred with Lenin’s successful communist revolution. For almost 75 years Russia and communism seemed synonymous. Yet in the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s breakup almost a decade ago, Russia has found itself shorn of great-power status and in the humiliating situation of having to beg economic aid from the West. Russia retains the world’s second-largest nuclear arsenal, but because of its economic situation, is politically impotent on the world scene. On the home front, squabbling factions blame each other as well as alleged Jewish and American conspiracies. Wounded pride coupled with military power and economic and political impotence is a dangerous combination and has produced seething resentment, as the world will no doubt learn in the months and years ahead.
Bible prophecy shows that there is to arise on the world scene, in the years immediately ahead of us, a European superpower, which will supplant the dominance of the English speaking nations. This will be a seventh and final revival of the old Roman Empire. This time, as Daniel 2 makes plain, it will not only be a revival of the Empire in the West, but will also include nations which are heirs of Byzantium as well. Ten future European rulers will give their power to one great super-leader, who will be viewed as the only one who can save the world from impending disaster. At the head of this German-dominated union of nations, he will work in alliance with a charismatic religious leader to bring the whole world under his sway. This union will offer promises of worldwide economic prosperity, as well as centralized military and political power, to ensure peace and security. A coming revival, led by a powerfully charismatic religious leader, will provide the common identity needed to weave a fractured world into a global unit.
However, this ten-nation European union of the heirs of the Eastern and Western Roman Empires will have inherent fatal flaws. Daniel likens it to an attempted mix of iron and ceramic clay. The Expositor’s Bible Commentary makes some interesting observations in this regard. "The text clearly implies that this final phase will be marked by some sort of federation rather than by a powerful single realm... Out of this mixture of iron and clay come weakness and confusion... The iron and pottery may coexist, but they cannot combine into a strong and durable world-order" (Vol. 7, pp. 47–48). For a short time, however, there will be a worldwide trading combine that will certainly include the Russian nation (Ezekiel 27:13), the modern nations descended from ancient Israel and Judah (v. 17), as well as many others. The merchants of the earth will grow fabulously wealthy as a result (v. 33, cf. Revelation 18:11, 15). But after a European-led conquest of America and Britain and an occupation of Israel in the Middle East, deep-seated suspicions and distrust will begin to surface within this alliance (cf. Daniel 11:41–45).
From the days of Charlemagne there have been several ill-fated attempts by Rome to reunite the Eastern and Western Roman Empires under her sway. The Papacy has long desired to restore the fractured unity of the professing Christian world by bringing the Orthodox and Protestant communities back under its wings.
In the last 200 years, both Napoleon and Hitler failed in efforts to conquer the English-speaking nations, largely because they were fighting with Russia at the same time. This will not happen next time! Though this coming seventh revival of the old Roman Empire will initially appear to be far more successful than all such previous attempts, this final effort to reunite Rome and Byzantium is also doomed to failure.
The ten leaders who will give up power to the coming super-leader will ultimately realize that they have been betrayed by the religious system in which they placed confidence. They will turn on it with intense fury (Revelation 17:16). Jeremiah 51:7–11 indicates that the Ukrainian Russians, descended from the ancient Medes, will be in the forefront of what will probably be a nuclear attack on Rome itself (cf. Revelation 18:9–10).
There are other prophecies, in Ezekiel 38 and 39, which describe an alliance of the Russians with the Mongol-descended nations of China and the Far East. The timing of this particular prophecy, with its description of an invasion of regathered Israel, is actually a few years after Christ’s return, not before it. This is made plain when we see in Ezekiel 38:11–12 that Israel (all 12 tribes, not just the Jews) is described as having been regathered from the nations. They are settled in a land of prosperity and peace without any apparent defenses, or for that matter, even locks on the doors.
After the returning glorified Christ destroys the armies that had gathered at Armageddon (Revelation 16:16, 19:19–21). He will regather the remnant of captured Israelites and bring them back to the ancient land of their fathers. He will establish a Kingdom headquartered at Jerusalem, which will ultimately spread out to the whole earth. This will evidently take place over a period of a few years and it is clear that some people will need some extra convincing! The future alliance described in Ezekiel refers to this time period, and not to the immediate future.
The Russian people have had a long and turbulent history. Ground down and exploited by oppressive, autocratic rulers and hollow and bankrupt ideologies, they have had to struggle to endure and survive. The time will come when, like all nations, they will no longer be deceived, but will finally experience the good news of the Kingdom of God. Not until that time will the Russians undergo a real religious, cultural, political and economic rebirth. Finally, Russia’s sad and difficult history will have a happy ending!