In his recent op-ed in The New York Times, Russian president Vladimir Putin's objected to the idea of American "exceptionalism." This is ironic because the nation whose state tradition is based on a claim to exceptionalism is not the U.S. but Russia.
In his speech calling for a military strike against Syria, President Obama said that America was exceptional because it is not indifferent to human suffering. This is quite different from making a claim to inherent superiority. Under both tsars and communists, however, Russia insisted that it had a right to remake the world because of the monopoly on truth contained in its ruling doctrine. In the post-communist era, Russia no longer has an ideology. But it glorifies its past and frequently acts as if the rights of others do not exist.
The key to Russia's sense of exceptionalism is a belief in the quasi-divine status of the Russian state. It is this notion that is responsible for the absence of the rule of law in Russia and the low value that is attached to human life. The deification of the state in Russia has deep roots. The dominant religion in Russia is Orthodox Christianity. Orthodoxy however, came to Russia from Byzantium, and, in Russia, it showed a tendency toward fanaticism that, according to Tibor Szamuely in The Russian Tradition, "far outdid the worldly attitudes of the mother Church."
When Byzantium fell in 1453 to the Ottoman Turks, Russia was left as the only Orthodox state, and Russians, under siege from infidels on the edge of the civilized world, began to see the state, in so far as it was the protector and expression of what they decided was the only true form of Christianity, as semi-divine. It was out of this belief that there arose the notion of Russia as the "Third Rome." In 1510, the monk Philotheus composed an address to the tsar, describing Moscow as the successor to Rome and Byzantium:
Know then, O pious Tsar, that... Thou art the only Tsar of the Christians in all the universe... all Christian Empires have converged in thy single one... two Romes have fallen but the third stands, and no fourth can ever be. The Christian Empire shall fall to no one.
Over the years, the state steadily subordinated the Orthodox Church which was its only potential competitor for spiritual influence, stripping it of independent authority and reducing it to the status of a department of the state bureaucracy. In the state that emerged the Tsar became the country's godlike political and spiritual ruler.
When the Tsarist regime fell, the communists took over the Russian state tradition and made it all encompassing. Under Tsarism, the state had a messianic mission but the ostensible goal was spiritual. Under the communists, the new god was socialism. The spiritual doctrine that had conferred some sense of human worth to the individual was removed. This untied the hands of the Russian communist rulers. They were now free not only to destroy all freedom of expression but to murder millions in the pursuit of their utopian goals.