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The Christianization of the Kievan Rus

Von Lars Karl
1. The appearance of Christianity in Russia:

On the territory of the later Russian Empire, Christianity appeared already in ancient times. The legend of St. Andrew says, that the apostle came from Sinope to Cherson on the island of Crimea, made a missionary journey to Kiev and Novgorod and returned via Rome to Sinope.
The Crimean city of Cherson is certainly not mentioned by chance. Also if we take into account the historical unreability of this legend, Crimea can be somehow regarded as the "cradle of Russian Christianity". As a result of internal ecclesiastical struggles within the Byzantine empire, the island was highly influenced by Greek Christianity during the 8th and 9th century. Banished monks founded dozens of monasteries at the periphery of the Greek world, which also led the Christianization of the Crimean goths.
Another source of Christian influence were the empires of Transcaucasia. Armenia took over the Christian belief already in the 3rd, Georgia during the 4th century. Christianity spread over the entire Caucasus and also found adherents among the vagrant inhabitants of the steppe, ex.g. among the population of the Chazar empire. But these phenomenas were only prior conditions and possible starting-points of later Christianization.
Although it is proofed that the Kievan Rus had been the object of an official missionary attempt, arranged by the Greek church. In two sermons of patriarch Photios, the Slavs were described as cruel barbarians which attacked the peaceful city of Constantinople in 860. The very same patriarch told his bishops in 876, that the Slavs are professing Christianity now and therefore have to be regarded as friends. He also mentioned the missionary activities of a Greek bishop and a priest among the inhabitants of the Rus. A missionary attempt would perfectly fit into the missionary-political concept of patriarch Photios. Under his rule, Cyrill and Method were send to Moravia (863) and the Bulgarian chan Boris converted to Christianity (864).
However, it is obvious that this attempt did not cause any recognizable results. It is true that from this time on, a small amount of believers as well as at least one church can be pointed out in Kiev, but the christening of the ruling dynasty and the christening of the population became relevant just a hundred years later, when the Kievan empire reaches a stage of development, during which the conversion to Christian religion was regarded as a political necessity.
The spirit of the age was highly impersonated by princess Olga, the wife of the decedent ruler Igor and female regent of her son Svyatoslav (+ 972). Her act of christening is a well proofed historical fact, also as time and place are highly controversial. It is generally supposed that Olga baptized in Kiev before her journey to Constantinople (957) and there are also some indicators which lead to the assumption, that the christening ceremony was not carried out by a Greek-Byzantine, but by latin-western missionaries. However Constantine Porphyrogennetos, depicting Olga's visit to Constantinople in his work "De cerimoniis aulae Byzantinae", didn't mention anything about a christening ceremony which could have been celebrated at such an occasion.
It is impossible to interpret Olga's christening only as an act of personal conviction. In medieval times, the conversion of the sovereign led inevitably to the conversion of the entire population of his empire. And this was certainly intended by the Kievan princess.
On the other hand, two important facts made the Christianization of the entire Rus under Olga's rule impossible:
At first, Olga was only the regent of her minor son Svjatoslav, who had to be the next ruler and whose permission was necessary in case of such a far-reaching decision. But Svjatoslav was not a sovereign who cared much about religious affairs. His reign was entirely penetrated by huge military campaigns and his thirst for conquest.
Secondly, Christianization was regarded as an act which had to be carried out with a large amount of political care. It was extremely important for 10th-century monarchs not to be turned to a vassal of another empire as a result of the Christianization. To avoid such a development, it was indispensable to establish their own ecclesiastical institutions, at least an own ecclesiastical hierarchy headed by a metropolitan. We know such cases, in which the establishment of an ecclesiastical hierarchy was the most relevant measure in the context of Christianization (Moravia, Bulgaria, Hungary, Poland) and it's possible that Olga spoke about this issue during her stay in Constantinople (957). It can also be regarded as a fact that she sent a legation to Otto I. in 959/60, to ask the German emperor for some missionaries and a bishop. This fact shows that Olga really had a serious interest in the conversion of the country and that Byzantium probably rejected her desire for ecclesiastical autonomy. Otto I. met Olga's wishes, but the mission of the monk Adalbert from the monastery of St. Maximin in Trier didn't achieve any success: when he arrived in Kiev, Svjatoslav was already in the reign and Olga's plan definitely postponed.
Nevertheless it is proofed that the propagation of western ecclesiastical ideas and beliefs functioned very well during this time and it must be mentioned as a very important fact that the possibility to move into the direction of western Christianity was still existing during the 10th-century.
The events which led to the definite Christianization of the Rus can be reconstructed with rather considerable precision. The conversion of the Kievan Empire was not - as it was often presumed in the past - a sudden and quiet unexpected event. "Underground Christianization" was going on for a long time and a large part of the ruling elite discussed the issue of introducing the new, Christian religion. Even Svjatoslav can't be characterized as an active paganist reactionary. His attitude towards Christianity can be described as a kind of conservative ignorance of religious innovations which was combined with practical tolerance.
It seems that his son Yaropolk, who was married with a Greek, revitalized the activities of his grandmother. In an existing, but not entirely reliable source Yaropolk welcomed a legation of the pope in 970. If this statement is true, this revitalization included the orientation towards Rome and western Christianity.
When Yaropolk's successor Vladimir came into power, the new ruler tried to reorganize the system of paganist traditions and beliefs, an attempt which was not crowned with success. The few informations we have about the paganist religion of the Slavs lead to the conclusion that it had been very primitive and lost its attraction entirely at the end of the last millennium.
Later sources - especially the legends of Christian martyrs - also provide particulars about persecutions of Christian believers during the first years of Vladimir's reign. But such stories fit too good into the frame of hagiographic historiography, which is to glorify Vladimir's decision for Christianity and therefore describes Vladimir's paganist period as cruel and disgusting as possible.

2. The christening of the Kievan Rus:

The oldest Russian chronicle (Povest' vremmenych let) doesn't provide us a very consistent view of Vladimir's christening and the conversion of his subjects. The entire chronicle can be regarded as a literal work of fastidious style referring very intensively to the Byzantine/Greek engagement in Russia's Christianization. The author of the chronicle relates to two legends which reflect the conversion of the Kievan Rus:
According to the first legend, legations of Muslim Volga-Bulgarians, catholic Germans, Jewish Chazars and a Greek "philosopher" were invited to Kiev to lecture on the advantages of their beliefs. After that Vladimir send out legations by himself, to gather informations about religions he was interested in. When the messengers returned, everyone of them was in a way dissatisfied with the religion he was asked to investigate, only the ones who took part in a Greek-Orthodox divine service didn't know if they had been on earth or in heaven. Of course Vladimir decided in favour of Greek Orthodoxy. This legend which reflects the church-historical background is connected with a second one relating to the historical event of Vladimir's military campaign against the city of Cherson: Vladimir succeeded in conquering the city and demanded the Byzantine emperors Basileos and Constantine to give him their sister Anna in marriage. They agreed on the premises, that Vladimir had to convert to Christianity. After a short period of sickness and miraculous recovery, he was baptized in Cherson.
Byzantine chronicles help us to clear up the context which is missing in the "Nestor-chronicle": At the beginning of 988, the young emperor Basileos II. (976-1025) found himself in a desperate situation. Two years before he had been defeated by the Bulgarian czar Samuel and expected a new Bulgarian offensive during the coming months. The circumstances in the eastern part of the empire were even worse: Bardas Phokas proclaimed himself rival emperor - being supported by the army and by the land owning nobility.
The legitimate ruler in Constantinople - fearing an imminent two-frontier-war without having any more troops in fighting trim, decided to ask prince Vladimir to help. The Byzantine legation arrived in Kiev during the first weeks of 988 and asked Vladimir to help Basileos in his fight against his enemies. In return for his support they offered him the purple-born princess Anna as wife. This was the highest price the ruling dynasty in Constantinople was able to pay.
At no time before a foreign prince had the opportunity to marry a daughter of a Byzantine emperor. The unusual offering attained its aim: Vladimir sent 6000 of his best warriors to Constantinople. Already in spring 988, this army defeated the troops of Bardas Phokas near the city of Chrysopolis and subdued the revolt of the usurper within one year.
The reasons for Vladimir's on-the-spot decision are evident: The conversion of his country would have been inevitable anyway - and in making this unavoidable step at once he had the unique opportunity to marry a Byzantine princess and accordingly gained a considerable rank between the other European rulers.
The levy of 6000 men did not seem to be heavy burden for him: Vladimir's warriors were not called back to Kiev at all, but stayed in Byzantium, where they formed the core of a varangian special force and body guard for the Byzantine emperor. This troop became a permanent institution which was constantly added with new warriors from their northern homelands.
Nevertheless there had been a conflict between Byzantium and Vladimir shortly after the intervention of his soldiers. Basileos II. repented his generous offering and tried to withhold his sister from prince Vladimir. Thereupon the latter conquered Cherson, forcing the Byzantine emperor to keep his word. Basileos agreed, Vladimir married Anna, and Russia became Christian.
According to the "legend of Cherson", Vladimir was baptized by a Greek priest in this town on the island of Crimea. Then he restored Byzantine rule over Cherson and brought the relics and priests he found in the city to his own capital. In Kiev, he ordered to smash and burn idols of the pagan deities and to build churches, especially on the places where the population used to worship pagan divinities.

l.k. / Februar 2003


Dvornik, F.: The Slavs, their early history and civilization. Boston 1959.

Torke, H.-J.: Lexikon der Geschichte Russlands: Von den Anfängen bis zur Oktoberrevolution. München 1985.

Vlasto, A. P.: The Entry of Slavs into Christendom: an introduction to the medieval history of the Slavs. Cambridge 1970.

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opy; 2003 Kultura-Extra (alle Beiträge unterliegen dem Copyright der jeweiligen Autoren, Künstler und Institutionen. Widerrechtliche Weiterverbreitung ist strafbar.)