Baptism of Russia: The Kiev period (988-1237)

By: Timothy Ware ( Bishop Kallistos of Diokleia)Read time: 7 mins6338 Hits

The baptism of Russia: The Kiev period (988-1237)

Photius also made plans to convert the Slavs of Russia. Around 864 he sent a bishop to Russia, but this first Christian foundation was exterminated by Oleg, who assumed power at Kiev (the chief Russian city at this time) in 878. Russia, however, continued to undergo a steady Christian infiltration from Byzantium, Bulgaria, and Scandinavia, and there was certainly a church at Kiev in 945. The Russian Princess Olga became Christian in 955, but her son Svyatoslav refused to follow her example, saying that his retinue would laugh at him if he received Christian baptism. But around 988 Olga’s grandson Vladimir (reigned 980-1015) was converted to Christianity and married Anna, the sister of the Byzantine Emperor. Orthodoxy became the State religion of Russia, and such it remained until 1917. Vladimir set to in earnest to Christianize his realm: priests, relics, sacred vessels, and icons were imported; mass baptisms were held in the rivers; Church courts were set up, and ecclesiastical tithes instituted. The great idol of the god Perun, with its silver head and gold moustaches, was rolled ignominiously down from the hilltop above Kiev. “Angel’s trumpet and Gospel’s thunder sounded through all the towns. The air was sanctified by the incense that ascended towards God. Monasteries stood on the mountains. Men and women, small and great, all people filled the holy churches” (Quoted in G.P. Fedotov, The Russian Religious Mind, p. 410). So the Metropolitan Hilarion described the event sixty years afterwards, doubtless idealizing a little; for Kievan Russia was not at once completely converted to Christianity, and the Church was at first restricted mainly to the cities, while much of the countryside remained pagan until the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.

Vladimir placed the same emphasis upon the social implications of Christianity as John the Almsgiver had done. Whenever he feasted with his Court, he distributed food to the poor and sick; nowhere else in medieval Europe were there such highly organized “social services” as in tenth-century Kiev. Other rulers in Kievan Russia followed Vladimir’s example. Prince Vladimir Monomachos (reigned 1113-1125) wrote in his Testament to his sons: “Above all things forget not the poor, and support them to the extent of your means. Give to the orphan, protect the widow, and permit the mighty to destroy no man” (Quoted in G. Vernadsky, Kievan Russia, New Haven, 1948, p. 195) Vladimir was also deeply conscious of the Christian law of mercy, and when he introduced the Byzantine law code at Kiev, he insisted on mitigating its more savage and brutal features. There was no death penalty in Kievan Russia, no mutilation, no torture; corporal punishment was very little used. (In Byzantium the death penalty existed, but was hardly ever applied; the punishment of mutilation, however, was employed with distressing frequency).

The same gentleness can be seen in the story of Vladimir’s two sons, Boris and Gleb. On Vladimir’s death in 1015, their elder brother Svyatopolk attempted to seize their principalities. Taking literally the commands of the Gospel, they offered no resistance, although they could easily have done so; and each in turn was murdered by Svyatopolk’s emissaries. If any blood were to be shed, Boris and Gleb preferred that it should be their own. Although they were not martyrs for the faith, but victims in a political quarrel, they were both canonized, being given the special title of “Passion Bearers”: it was felt that by their innocent and voluntary suffering they had shared in the Passion of Christ. Russians have always laid great emphasis on the place of suffering in the Christian life.

In Kievan Russia, as in Byzantium and the medieval west, monasteries played an important part. The most influential of them all was the Petchersky Lavra, the Monastery of the Caves at Kiev. Founded around 105I by Saint Antony, a Russian who had lived on Mount Athos, it was reorganized by his successor Saint Theodosius (died 1074), who introduced there the rule of the monastery of the Studium at Constantinople. Like Vladimir, Theodosius was conscious of the social consequences of Christianity, and applied them in a radical fashion, identifying himself closely with the poor, much as Saint Francis of Assisi did in the west. Boris and Gleb followed Christ in his sacrificial death; Theodosius followed Christ in his life of poverty and voluntary “self-emptying.” Of noble birth, he chose in childhood to wear coarse and patched garments and to work in the fields with the slaves. “Our Lord Jesus Christ,” he said, “became poor and humbled Himself, offering Himself as an example, so that we should humble ourselves in His name. He suffered insults, was spat upon, and beaten, for our salvation; how just it is, then, that we should suffer in order to gain Christ” (Nestor, “Life of Saint Theodosius,” in G.P. Fedotov, A Treasury of Russian Spirituality, p. 27). Even when Abbot he wore the meanest kind of clothing and rejected all outward signs of authority. Yet at the same time he was the honored friend and adviser of nobles and princes. The same ideal of humility is seen in others, for example Bishop Luke of Vladimir (died 1185) who, in the words of the Vladimir Chronicle, “bore upon himself the humiliation of Christ, not having a city here but seeking a future one.” It is an ideal found often in Russian folklore, and in writers such as Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky.

Vladimir, Boris and Gleb, and Theodosius were all intensely concerned with the practical implications of the Gospel: Vladimir in his concern for social justice and his desire to treat criminals with mercy; Boris and Gleb in their resolution to follow Christ in His voluntary suffering and death; Theodosius in his self-identification with the humble. These four saints embody some of the most attractive features in Kievan Christianity.

The Russian Church during the Kievan period was subject to Constantinople, and until 1237 the Metropolitans of Russia were usually Greek. In memory of the days when the Metropolitan came from Byzantium, the Russian Church continues to sing in Greek the solemn greeting to a bishop, eis polla eti, despota (“unto many years, O master”). But of the rest of the bishops, about half were native Russians in the Kievan period; one was even a converted Jew, and another a Syrian.

Kiev enjoyed relations not only with Byzantium but with western Europe, and certain features in the organization of the early Russian Church, such as ecclesiastical tithes, were not Byzantine but western. Many western saints who do not appear in the Byzantine calendar were venerated at Kiev; a prayer to the Holy Trinity composed in Russia during the eleventh century lists English saints such as Alban and Botolph, and a French saint, Martin of Tours. Some writers have even argued that until 1054 Russian Christianity was as much Latin as Greek, but this is a great exaggeration. Russia was closer to the west in the Kiev period than at any other time until the reign of Peter the Great, but she owed immeasurably more to Byzantine than to Latin culture. Napoleon was correct historically when he called Emperor Alexander I of Russia “a Greek of the Lower Empire.”

It has been said that it was Russia’s greatest misfortune that she was allowed too little time to assimilate the full spiritual inheritance of Byzantium. In 1237 Kievan Russia was brought to a sudden and violent end by the Mongol invasions; Kiev was sacked, and the whole Russian land was overrun, except the far north around Novgorod. A visitor to the Mongol Court in 1246 recorded that he saw in Russian territory neither town nor village, but only ruins and countless human skulls. But if Kiev was destroyed, the Christianity of Kiev remained a living memory:


Kievan Russia, like the golden days of childhood, was never dimmed in the memory of the Russian nation. In the pure fountain of her literary works anyone who wills can quench his religious thirst; in her venerable authors he can find his guide through the complexities of the modern world. Kievan Christianity has the same value for the Russian religious mind as Pushkin for the Russian artistic sense: that of a standard, a golden measure, a royal way (G.P. Fedotov, The Russian Religious Mind, p. 412).

From the book The Orthodox Church by Timothy Ware (Now  Bishop Kallistos of Diokleia)