January 24, 2000

Kievan Rus' and the Church


Kievan Rus' and the Church

The Rurik Dynasty began in ca. 862 when the Varangian prince Rurik was asked to rule over the city of Novgorod. His descendants controlled Kiev Rus' and, later, Muscovy {Moscow} until 1598. Rus refers to the ancient peoples who inhabited, what we now know as, Russia. Historians believe the Rus were a group of Vikings known as Varangians who migrated south from the Baltics and mingled with the eastern Slavic peoples of the region.

This theory is supported by the only credible, known document covering the history of the time. The Primary Russian Chronicle; a history written in the 12 th century, regarding the years 852-1110; states that the Rus were Norman and invited by the people of Novgorod to come and govern their city. The reason for this request was many years of, evidently, unresolved feuds between the various clans.

Other historians, primarily Soviet scholars, believe the Rus was a Slavic tribe living on the Ros {Rus} River, which, for a brief time, was under Varangian control. They denounce the credibility of The Primary Russian Chronicle. Either way, the Rus, most probably, became a combined group of Varangian Vikings and Eastern Slavs. There is no doubt that the center of the Rus culture was Kyiv {Kiev}, in modern day Ukraine.

Rurik was succeeded by Oleg {d. 912} who conquered Kiev in ca. 882. Oleg established a lucrative trade route from Novgorod to the Black Sea. Oleg was succeeded by Igor who, legend has it, was Rurik's son. Igor ruled from Kiev from 912-945. Upon his death, his wife, the regent of Kiev; Olga; and their son, Svyatoslav, reigned till 969 and 972, repectfully. Svyatoslav's son, Yaropolk, ruled without much note, till 980.

In 956, another son was born to Svyatoslav. His name was Vladimir who inherited the crown in 980, ruling until his death in 1015. Vladimir composed the first law code for Kiev Rus. He unified his realm by making it a confederation with key cities in each region ruled by his sons. The princes were to move from city to city, working their way up to becoming prince of Kiev. The system created frequent civil conflicts as the people of the key cities, from time to time, did not like the prince assigned to rule over them. Vladimir is best known for introducing and establishing Orthodox Christianity in Kiev.

Vladimir's grandmother, Olga, received Christianity and was Baptized in Constantinople in 957. Her son, Svyatoslav, thought her foolish and rejected any attempts to convert him. His son, Vladimir, followed Olga's lead and embraced Christianity, was Baptized and married Anna, the sister of the Byzantine emperor, in ca. 988. Vladimir's son, Yaroslav the Wise {1019-1054}, advocated translations of the Bible into the various vernaculars and the building of churches and monasteries. The first monastery was Kyiv Pechersk Lavra, {The Monastery of the Caves} established in 1051 and operational to this day. Aside from its historical significance, this monastery is unique in that most of it is contained in underground caves.

How did Christianity, specifically the Byzantine Orthodox, form the foundation of the later Russian Orthodox Church? The Primary Russian Chronicle tells the story. Vladimir wanted to know which of the world religions was the true one. So, he sent a group of loyal subjects to the Muslims in Volga. They reported back to Vladimir that they thought these people were possessed. Next, they traveled to Germany and Rome. The Church of Rome was more to their liking, however, they found it to be without much spiritual beauty. Lastly, they visited Constantinople, the center of Byzantium. After attending a Divine Liturgy, the travelers reported, "We knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth, for surely there is no such splendour or beauty anywhere upon earth. . . God dwells there among humans." It is typical of Byzantine and, as a result, Russian Orthodox Christianity to stress the beauty of the spiritual world and express this in their liturgy and holy places. In fact, their Liturgy is designed to reflect heaven on earth. Thus, Vladimir embraced Byzantine Orthodoxy and introduced it to Kiev Rus in ca. 988. This date is also known as the Baptism of Russia.

Vladimir was determined to convert his realm. He imported priests, relics, Byzantine ikons and a patriarch was appointed. Huge Baptisms were conducted in the rivers, a system of tithes established and the pagan idol, Perun, destroyed. Perun, the greatest of the Slavic gods, was the god of the world and portrayed with thunderbolts and flying across the sky. As in many other cases when Christianity replaces an ancient pagan religion, Perun's image was replaced with that of the prophet Elijah, seen ascending to the heavens in a chariot of fire.

The idol of Perun was, ceremoniously, thrown off a hill above Kiev. Probably the most commendable aspect of Vladimir's conversion was his personal application of Christian ethics. He is credited with having, by far, the most extensive system of social services of any medieval ruler. For example, whenever there was a feast at the royal court in Kiev, Vladimir had food distributed throughout the land to the poor and ill. This philosophy was carried on by later Kievan rulers. Vladimir Monomachos {1113-1125} wrote 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."

Sts. Boris & Gleb; mid-14th CenturyVladimir's law code was heavily influenced by Byzantine and Christian principles. It was a code based on mercy, forgiveness and restoration of the individual. It strictly prohibited the death penalty, torture or mutilation which was used excessively in Byzantium.

 Another story, which reflects Vladimir's conviction to his faith, involves his sons; Boris and Gleb. Vladimir died in 1015. The eldest son, Svyatopolk {the Damned; 1015-1019}, tried to take over the cities or principalities of his younger brothers, Boris and Gleb. Following Gospel teaching, the younger brothers refused to go to war against their elder sibling. They were both murdered by Svyatopolk's soldiers. The Russian Church considers the brothers' innocent blood and sacrifice, for the sake of peace, in keeping with the example set forth by Christ. As a result, they were canonized, as was Vladimir.


Please note that Rus' is not in Russia. It is located in present day Ukraine. This article offers historical background for what became the Russian Orthodox Church.

Images courtesy of LVL Computer Communications Group.

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