History of the Russian Church (Page 1 of 11)

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History of the Russian Church

“We knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth, for surely there is no such splendor or beauty anywhere upon earth. We cannot describe it to you: only this we know, that God dwells there among men, and that their worship surpasses the worship of all other places. For we cannot forget that beauty”.

The Baptism of Russia: IX-XI Centuries

These words, quoted from the twelfth-century Tale of Bygone Years (more commonly referred to in English as the Primary Chronicle), were relayed back to the pagan ruler of Kievan Rus Prince Vladimir around the year 988 by envoys sent to enquire as to the suitability of faiths for the emerging Russian state. The Russian envoys pointed to the central place that beauty occupied in worship, a beauty of holiness that laid the foundation of a thousand-year culture that arose from the adoption of Byzantine Orthodox Christianity by Vladimir, later canonized as a saint by the Church. 

AD 988 is conventionally regarded as the year that Christianity came to the Russian people as the religion of the realm. However, before Vladimir’s option for Christianity there had existed among the Russians Christian communities and rulers. The first mention of the Rus or Ros people occurs in seventh century Arab chronicles, describing them as a warlike nation with an eye for trade. Archaeological finds in ancient Russian cities such as Staraya Ladoga and Gorodische (later to become Novgorod) indicate that the Rus were Viking raiders from Scandinavia (mostly likely from Birka in Sweden) who set up trading posts along the rivers running along a north-south axis across the plains of present-day European Russia to the capital of the Byzantine Empire, Constantinople. The Viking Rus ruled over a number of Eastern Slav tribes – the Drevlians, the Radomichi, the Severians and the Vyatichi, introducing Scandinavian customs and military retainers and organizing the occasional raid on Byzantium. By the time of the earliest Russian literature in the eleventh century it had become clear that these erstwhile Viking rulers had adopted the medieval Slav language, while Scandinavian names now became recognizably Slav: Vladimir (the Viking Valdamar), Olga (Helga), Igor (Ingvar). The Russians had now appeared on the scene as a nation.

Which gods did the Russians worship?  The Slavs had a well-developed pantheon of pagan gods akin to those of the Vikings: pride of place was taken by Perun, the god of fire and lightning, and whose cult was actively promoted by Vladimir. However, Christianity was a far from unknown entity in the land of the Russians before 988. Indeed, the tradition of the Russian Orthodox Church has it that the hilltop upon which the city of Kiev would later arise was visited by the Lord’s disciple St. Andrew as early as the first century and who prophesied that the Gospel would be preached in these lands. The story of St. Andrew as the first evangelizer of Russia most likely belongs to the realm of pious legend, a legend which, however, had an effect in the popular choice of the name ‘Andrei’ (Andrew) among Kievan princes and notables.

Historically, the most important event to have consequences for the taking of root of Christianity in Russia was the evangelizing mission undertaken by two Greek brothers from the Balkans, Ss. Cyril and Methodius. Part of their mission to the Slav lands of Moravia and Bohemia in the ninth century embraced a fundamental aspect of Eastern Christianity: the reception of the faith in the culture and language of the local people. To this end the service books of the Byzantine Church and those parts of the Bible used in worship were translated into the Slav language for which a new alphabet (Glagolithic, later to be replaced by the more familiar Cyrillic) had been devised. The elevation of a vernacular to a sacred language of worship heralded the advent of a new language – Church Slavonic, which became the ecclesiastical lingua franca of the Slavs, most especially the Serbs and Bulgarians, from whom the Russians would import the texts of worship.

The ancient Russian realm centered around the city of Kiev displayed a measure of religious tolerance towards its inhabitants. Jews and Muslims resided in the land of the Rus, as well as Christians, yet it is hard to determine to what extent the Viking Rus or their Slav subjects may have adopted the faith or in what form, Latin or Byzantine. The Primary Chronicle relates that in the late ninth century two Viking warlords, Askold and Dir, were brutally slain by a relative of Ryurik, the semi-legendary founder of the Russian Viking state, and a church was built on the site of their burial mound, thus indicating that they may have received Christian baptism, possibly during a raid on Constantinople. The seeds sown by these two protomartyrs of Russia bore little fruit as the subsequent ruler of Kiev, Oleg, remained a fierce pagan. However, the story of Askold and Dir does have resonance in the later martyr’s death of the princes Boris and Gleb in the eleventh century.

During the reign of Igor there is evidence that Christians played a full role in the life of the fledgling Russian state, the Primary Chronicle indicating that they were active in the prince’s army and administration. Yet it was left to his widow, Olga, to quicken this process. Anxious to strengthen trade links with Byzantium, Olga traveled with her suite to Constantinople, most probably in 946, to entreat favors from Emperor Constantine VII. Part of the deal was to accept Christian baptism, with which Olga complied in the imperial capital. Constantine acted as godfather to the newly-Christian princess, somewhat ill-advisedly as it later transpired: when he let know his marital designs on Olga, she in turn let him know that Church canon law forbade this. ‘You have outwitted me, Olga’, lamented the emperor.

Baptism remained, however, little more than Olga’s personal initiative. No mission of Greek priests from Byzantium took root; indeed, Olga in 959 turned to King Otto I of the German lands with a request to sent a bishop and priests. The Saxon king’s enthusiasm for sending missionaries to the land of the Russians transpired to be less than fervent. The Christianization of the Rus people seemed to stall again when Olga’s resolutely pagan son Svyatoslav inherited the throne of Kiev. Attempts were made to convince this ferocious warrior to convert, but to no avail: ‘I will be the laughing stock of my retainers’, he objected. So Kievan Russia experienced something of a pagan revival in the tenth century, a revival continued by Svyatoslav’s son Vladimir.

Vladimir’s motives for eventual conversion to Christianity – as well as the events leading up to it – are shrouded in mystery. Why should this proud warrior and reveller (referred to by the German chronicler Bishop Thietmar of Merseburg as a fornicator immensus et crudelis) adopt a faith that he and his father had rejected as going against the grain of pagan manliness? First of all there are the political considerations. By becoming Christian, Russia would be the youngest nation to join a powerful Byzantine commonwealth on equal term: the Eastern Roman empire would have acquired a civilized ally rather than having to live with a huge yet barbarian enemy. The political element in the adoption of Christianity was symbolized by Vladimir’s marriage to the Byzantine Princess Anna. And then there are the spiritual and cultural reasons. Christianity had already existed in Kievan Russia for several generations and there was a danger of becoming alienated from his subjects should Vladimir cling tenaciously to the old pagan gods. One could indeed argue that after rigorous enquiry into the viability of other faiths (among the contenders for those wishing to satisfy Vladimir’s spiritual search were Khazar Jews and Bulgar Muslims), Vladimir opted to speed up and complete a process that had become irrevocable in previous generations. So Vladimir accepted Christian baptism from the Byzantine Church c.988 at the southern Greek trading town of Chersones on the Black Sea.

The consequences for the further development of Russian culture and statehood were momentous. Russia had been transformed from a pagan country with Christian communities to a Christian state, yet with a strong resistance to parting with the old paganism. This ‘dual faith’ of the coexistence of Christianity and paganism in medieval Russia would continue to plague the Church’s mission in centuries to come: later chronicles would relate uprisings of pagan sorcerers against the Christian Church, while Kievan Christian priests inveighed regularly in their sermons against pagan practices.

There is a far from clear picture of how the Church in Russia was formally organized. Worship assumed the Byzantine form with the regular celebration of the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, most likely in Greek, although texts in Church Slavonic were available from the earlier converted Bulgarians and Serbs. Vladimir had built next to the imperial palace in Kiev a Tithe (Desyatnnaya) Church, so called as Vladimir promised to dedicate a tenth of the income from his lands and newly built churches to the Mother of God in whose honour the church had been built. The church was destroyed during the Mongol invasion. The earliest mentioned head of the Russian Church was the Greek Metropolitan Michael (988-992). Further Greek prelates (Leontius, John I, Theopemtus) headed the largest of the ecclesiastical provinces of the Church of Constantinople, which nominated and elected them to their position. Dioceses numbered approximately half a dozen and would be centred around such princely realms as Novgorod and Turov. There were no formally organized monasteries during the reign of Vladimir, although chronicles do indicate the existence of small groups of monks. Vladimir is believed to be the author of the first Statute of the Russian Church which regulated tithes and the appointment of clergy, thus giving an indication of a measure of autonomy within the Church. It has even been suggested that as there is no definite picture of chronological succession of metropolitans in the Russian Church then the Russian Church may have formed part of the Bulgarian metropolitanate in Ochrid or may indeed have been governed from Rome. Be that as it may, the sixteenth-century Nikon Chronicle does mention an exchange of envoys between Kiev and Rome at the turn of the millennium, while the missionary bishop St. Bruno of Querfurt was received in 1007 by Vladimir as a brother in the faith. Vladimir’s conscience choice of Byzantine Christianity did not blind him to the universality of the Christian religion and there are no indications of hostility between Latin and Eastern Christians during his reign. Under Vladimir Russia had entered the family of Christian nations.

The period immediately following Prince Vladimir’s death in 1015 was one of violent succession to the throne of Kiev. The first Christian ruler of Russia had left no system by which his kin would become rulers. His sons Boris and Gleb died as “passion-bearers”, showing Christian serenity in the face of a violent death at the hands of their half brother Svyatopolk “the Cursed”. Boris and Gleb were venerated for their humility when confronted by an evil destiny and their example has been upheld as an image of a peculiar “kenotic” type of Russian Christian spirituality whereby evil is conquered not through pragmatism or forced response but by a self-emptying to the point of death.

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