The Orthodox Church was brought to Kievan Rus’ in 988, when Prince Vladimir converted to Christianity, and established it as the official religion of Rus’. His baptism and the subsequent perpetuation of Christianity in Rus’, are depicted in the Primary Chronicle, one of the oldest existing historical records of Kievan Rus’. The Primary Chronicle tells of the legend of the arrival of the Varangians, who are brought to bring order and prosperity to the lands of Rus’. Vladimir selected a single religion for Rus’ in the hopes of assimilating the heterogeneous tribes of Rus’ into a more unified society, while simultaneously legitimizing his power and decreasing the authority of tribal leaders and paganism. The Orthodox Church would grow to become one of the most powerful institutions in Kievan Rus’, and retain its power throughout Russian history, outlasting every dominating force, from Mongol rule in the Middle Ages to the Soviets in the 20 century.
Early Christianity in Kievan Rus’
Christianity existed in Kievan Rus’ for many years before it was formally adopted by Prince Vladimir as the official religion of Rus’. Byzantine missionaries began proselytizing to the people of Rus’ beginning in the 860s near the Black Sea (Evtuhov et al., 42). As early as 944, during the reign of Prince Igor, a small Christian church was founded for his wife Olga, who had been baptized in Constantinople (Martin, 32). A small but influential Christian population also lived within Rus’ prior to Vladimir’s conversion, including a small group of merchants, soldiers and missionaries.
The Primary Chronicle: Prince Vladimir and the Legend of Conversion
The legend of Prince Vladimir’s conversion to Christianity is a key focus of the Primary Chronicle. Aware of the importance of a religiously unified state, Prince Vladimir began a search for the perfect religion. The Chronicle describes his first attempts to select a religion; he dispatched envoys to consider Islam, Catholicism, Judaism and Orthodoxy. He quickly rejected Islam’s sobriety, forcefully claiming, “Drinking is the joy of the Russes. [They] cannot exist without that pleasure” (Primary Chronicle, Laurentian Text). He rejected Judaism, demanding, “How can you hope to teach others while you yourselves are cast out and scattered abroad by the hands of God? If God loved you and your faith, you would not be thus dispersed in foreign lands” (Primary Chronicle). After visiting Germany, Vladimir’s emissaries “beheld no glory” in the religious ceremonies of the European churches (Primary Chronicle). Only in Constantinople were his emissaries suitably impressed: “we knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth, for on Earth there is no such splendor or such beauty… We only know that God dwells there among men, and their service is fairer than the ceremonies of other nations” (Primary Chronicle). The ultimate rationale for adopting Constantinople’s Orthodox church lies in Vladimir’s desire for prestige and power, and in “Orthodoxy’s full acceptance of the drinking customs of northern, forest peoples, and [its] appreciation of beauty in its fullest scope” (Evtuhov et al., 43).
Following Vladimir’s investigation into potential religions, the Chronicle described Vladimir’s baptism and subsequent marriage to a Byzantine princess. After he and his boyars were baptized, Vladimir “ordained that churches should be built and established where pagan idols had previously stood. He thus… began to found churches and to assign priests throughout the cities, and to invite the people to accept baptism in all the cities and towns” (Primary Chronicle). Thus began the relationship between the Orthodox Church and the principalities of Rus’, a mutually beneficial one that would allow for the consolidation of wealth and power in Kievan Rus’, helping the state to move into a Golden Age. This relationship allowed for the transformation of Rus’ from a collection of disjointed Slavic tribes, becoming instead a comprehensive, bureaucratic society with social and cultural cohesion. Of course, Christianity was not accepted overnight, but Vladimir’s conversion helped begin the process of legitimizing “secular authority [through] religious institutions and clergy, whose authority and advice were eventually popularly respected” (Martin, 6).
Beliefs of Early Christianity
The structure of the early Orthodox Church was similar to the hierarchical political order in Kievan Rus’. The Patriarch (or Pope) held power and religious authority at the pinnacle, which filtered down to the Metropolitans of each state, then down through the hierarchical network of archbishops, bishops and ordained priests. At the base were the secular clergy, who assisted with the daily life of the Church, as well as rule-bound clergies comprised of monks and nuns, who serve God with vows of chastity, poverty and obedience (Evtuhov et al., 39). Religiously, the Church was responsible for the sacraments, guiding parishioners through daily life on a path to God. Beginning with baptism, the Church was involved in every stage of one’s life. Additionally, the Church also promoted the cult of saints and the widespread use of iconography, both of which would become fundamental aspects of the Russian Orthodox Church as they were part of the Byzantine Church. Despite resistance from iconoclasts, many believers held that “prayers directed towards icons and other hallowed things, such as crucifixes, actually went through them” to reach the Lord (Evtuhov et al., 40). These rituals and traditions helped put pressure on the populace to “adopt Christian norms of behavior as well as to accept conversion formally” (Martin, 85).
Orthodox Church in Kievan Rus’
The strength of Orthodoxy in Rus’ continued to grow, and by the 11th century, “every town of note possessed at least one major cathedral where the all-important liturgies were performed every day” (Evtuhov et al., 40). The churches, originally wooden structures, were replaced with elaborately decorated stone edifices. Inside, “mosaics, frescoes, icons, candles and incense” created a holy atmosphere, reminiscent of the Orthodox churches in Constantinople (Evtuhov et al., 40). As Christianity spread, “not only were monumental cathedrals erected in episcopal and princely capitals, but modest churches in pogost or parish centers were also scattered throughout the countryside” (Martin, 84).
The Orthodox Church soon evolved into one of the most powerful institutions in Kievan Rus’ society, holding jurisdiction over “sex, marriage, family life, beliefs, rituals and pure pagan holdovers” (Evtuhov et al. 45). The Church codified laws under Prince Vladimir, prohibiting “bride abduction, abortions, infanticide, and praying in oak groves” (Evtuhov et al. 45). The clergy even hosted modest welfare programs, extended to marginalized members of society, such as widows, orphans, and outcasts.
The church was involved as an essential actor in the judicial functions of the Kievan Rus’ state. The Primary Chronicle outlines the conversation between the Bishops of Kiev and Prince Vladimir concerning the role of the prince in the “maintenance of social order and in court procedures” (Martin, 79). Notably, it is the bishops who grant Prince Vladimir judicial authority, counseling his actions and carefully guiding the development of a legal system in Rus’. Later, in the Statute of Grand Prince Iaroslav, Vladimir’s son gives primary jurisdiction over matters of divorce, marriage, death, fornication, and other prominent social issues to Metropolitan Ilarion and his bishops. This legal system also provides financially for Orthodoxy, as all subsequent fines are paid directly to the Metropolitan (Kaiser & Marker, 54).
Economically, the Orthodox connection with Constantinople expanded trade opportunities, enabling the creation of markets for luxury products like spices, fruits and glazed tiles. Stronger trade relations also enabled expansion into both western and eastern markets; soon, Kiev developed into a “central transit center for trade” between Europe and the Black Sea ports (Martin, 72). The Orthodox Church collected taxes, shared judicial responsibilities, and imposed “guidelines for the “orderly conduct of economic and social activities and the power to enforce conformity to prescribed standards” (Martin, 85). The Church was also involved in Riurikid military ventures; members of the clergy “accompanied armies deep into the steppe, performed services along the way, and treated campaigns against pagans as a holy enterprise” (Martin, 31).
Finally, the growing strength of Orthodoxy within Rus’ also increased access to education and literacy. Following his baptism in the Dnieper River, Vladimir “took the children of the best families and sent them to schools of instruction in book learning” (Primary Chronicle). Later, Iaroslav’s reign “provided a fair environment for native literary talent” (Evtuhov et al, 47). Members of the clergy chronicled the lives of saints, sermons, and comprehensive accounts of history. Increased access to literacy also helped create the tradition of literature within Rus’; many examples of lyrical poetry and epic folklore accounts still exist. The most impressive is The Lay of the Host of Igor, which waxes eloquently about the successes of Igor of Novogorod-Seversk. The “sophistication of its poetics and imagery place is on par with some of Russia’s best eighteenth century” poems (Evtuhov et al, 49). The creation of a new literary tradition within Kievan Rus’ is certainly one of the greatest legacies of the Orthodox Church.
Russian Orthodoxy vs. Soviet Atheism
The conversion of the Russian Empire to Russian Orthodoxy was by legend, a simple affair. Emissaries of Vladimir of Kiev rejected Judaism, Islam, and Catholicism in the tenth century, and gave a more positive report on Orthodox Christianity (Husband, 14). However, the initiation of Eastern Orthodoxy was a complex process rather than an event. Princess Olga of Kiev became the first Kievan ruler to convert to Christianity and began the process of christening the entire empire. The Kievan Church attempted to impose new laws contrary to old pagan traditions in Kievan Rus society. In 968 AD Vladimir the First adopted Orthodoxy as the official Kievan religion. The ecclesiastical courts played a significant role using their revenue to pay the church, and wrote codes to promote the basic tenets of Christian aestheticism (Husband, 16). “Laws began to codify what state and church leaders wished to encourage” (Husband, 16).
The new institution also benefited from the Mughal Empire’s control of Kievan Rus (Husband, 17). Russian clergy negotiated directly with the Golden Horde avoiding certain taxes and conscription. As Muscovy began to rise in power against the Horde, the church patriarchs also began to ally themselves with the Muscovite Princes, legitimizing Russian Orthodoxy. Soon after Prince Ivan I came to power, the symbiotic relationship between church and state grew stronger. From the beginning of the rise of Muscovy until the reign of Peter the Great, Russian Orthodoxy greatly influenced Russian life. When Ivan IV declared himself a divinely appointed tsar of Muscovy, he sealed the relationship between Church and state. Russian Orthodoxy became an integral part of the “Russian Identity” that remained isolated from the West throughout the middle ages.
Peter the Great changed the idea of Russian Orthodoxy as an example of “Russian Identity”. His reforms aimed to westernize Russia to make it more like its European counterparts, “Peter contributed to the polarization of opinion. He too saw things in black and white, hating old Muscovy and believing himself to be creator of a new Russia” (Steinburg, 236). Peter wanted to modernize all aspects of Russian culture and life, including reforming Church administration and finance (Steinburg, 228). Peter considered himself to be servant to the state rather than Orthodoxy and saw that the highest authority was the law. Peter created the Governing Senate in 1711, which became responsible for supervising financial and administrative affairs (Steinburg, 228). The Governing Senate became one of the most important institutions for administering the law outside of the Church. “Peter’s Church reforms essentially made the Church into a branch of government, run along similar lines” (Steinburg, 230).
Peter also introduced colleges with their own governing body. He wanted these institutions to include a greater array of opinion. Under Peter’s authority, Archbishop Theophanes Prokopovich wrote and established a new organization of the Church. A Holy Synod made up of twelve clerics replaced the patriarch. This new organization of the church represented Peter’s opinion of the role of the Church; “He expected the Church to serve the public good and the interests of the state and empire as a whole” (Steinburg, 230). Peter gave the Church instruction to organize welfare institutions. He was also more tolerant and permitted intermarriage between Roman Catholics and Russian Orthodox. Peter’s reign represented a time when the state government attempted to initiate reforms to influence all aspects of Russian life. These reforms were designed to bring Russia up to par with modern and enlightened Europe, which meant allowing discourse and a new separation between the role of the church and the state. Peter’s policies in the subsequent years did not represent atheism, but a change in the relationship between the church and the state. However, the Soviet Union aimed to remove all aspects of religion from Soviet life.
The Soviet Union became amongst the first states that imposed and rejected all forms of public religion. The Communist party confiscated property, mocked religious leaders, and initiated a state educated atheism. This new state atheism was called gozateism After the revolution in October 1917, the new regime intended to transform Russia politically and socially. In 1921, the Bolsheviks administered a new economic policy that centralized the government. The policy attempted to restore peace introducing new economic practices. Soviet Atheism refers to this process of secularization, of removing from public all adherents of religious discourse.
Russian Orthodoxy saw its power and authority directly from God, and any attempt to deny or derail Church prerogatives was considered a sin. Therefore, the church opposed Bolshevik atheism. The Church stood as a pillar for an old order, which the Bolsheviks sought to destroy. The Bolsheviks believed that religious life in public should be eradicated (Husband, 47). The Soviet Union’s secularization targeted the Church institutions, wealth, and power. However, it is important to understand that the rapid secularization of the society in Russia did not originally warranted persecution against individual believers, private worship, or the use of empty buildings intended for a religious worship ceremony. “This distinction between marginalizing religion in order ultimately to render it irrelevant, as opposed to stridently imposing atheism, embodied the Bolshevik conception of free will at the time”(Husband, 48). Soviet Atheism was a process that came into fruition that both had a hold on the culture of Russia. The legitimization of Russian Orthodoxy moved toward defining Russia in its foundation. Soviet Atheism led to secularism and the separation of Church and state
- Catherine Evtuhov, Richard Stites, et al., Kievan Rus: Christian Society, 988-1240. A History of Russia: Peoples, Legends, Events, Forces (Boston, New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004.
- Janet Martin, Medieval Russia: 980-1584. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007).
- Edited by Daniel H. Kaiser and Gary Marker, Culture and Everyday life in Kievan Rus’. Reinterpreting Russian History: Readings 860-1860s. (New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994).
- Edited by Basil Dmytryshyn, Primary Chronicle. Medieval Russia: A Source Book, 900-1700. (New York: Nolt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc., 1967).
- William B. Husband Godless Communists. (DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2000).
- Nicholas Riasanovsky, and Mark Steinberg, A History of Russia, (Oxford University Press, 2011).
- Wikipedia, Russian Orthodox Church, Accessed February 23, 2012. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Russian_Orthodox_Church
- Wikipedia, State Atheism, Accessed February 23, 2012. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/State_atheism.