The moment the first East Slavic state—the precursor of today’s Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus—began to coalesce was the same moment of its Christianization a thousand years ago. Therefore, Christianity has been central to Russian culture throughout its history. Russian Christianity, however, is frequently misunderstood and mischaracterized in the West. The religion of the Russian people has been caricatured as semi-pagan superstition, its clergy as ignorant or obscurantist, and its church as being little more than a “handmaiden of the state.” The characterization of the Russian Church as especially subservient to the state—as if churchmen were more concerned to serve the state’s interests than the Gospel—is particularly prevalent in interpreting both Russia’s past and its present. This type of exoticization of Russian Orthodoxy has served to reinforce the notion of Russia as “other” from the West. An upsurge of specialist research into the history of Russian Orthodoxy in recent decades has dismantled these stereotypes, though they still persist in popular depictions and are still perpetuated in general histories of both Russia and Christianity. From the perspective of world Christianity, Russia is its own distinct case of the broader phenomenon of inculturation, the way in which Christianity takes root and adapts to particular cultures and, in turn, shapes the development of those cultures. It is important to understand the development of Russian Orthodoxy on its own terms, from the nature of popular religiosity to church-state relations.
The Christianization of Kievan Rus (988–1240)
The official date for the conversion of the Eastern Slavs to Christianity is 988. In that year, Grand Prince Vladimir of Kiev (Kyiv) adopted Christianity not only for himself, but for his realm, in an event known as the “Baptism of Rus.” Kievan Rus was a federation of Slavic and Finnic tribes and city-states ruled over (according to the ancient chronicles) by Viking Norsemen who adopted the Slavic language and culture. At the height of its power, Rus stretched from the Baltic Sea in the north to the Black Sea in the south from the late ninth to the mid-thirteenth century. The modern peoples of Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus all trace their history back to Kievan Rus; it would therefore be anachronistic to speak of the “Christianization of Russia” in the tenth century.
There is a legend in the Chronicles that Christianity was first introduced into the region in the first century by the Apostle Andrew, who, on his missionary journeys around the Black Sea, traveled up the Dnieper River and planted a cross on the hills of the future city of Kiev. This account is clearly legendary, as no continuous presence of Christianity persisted in the region in the intervening centuries, but it gave the new Christians in Kiev the sense of having some apostolic roots, so the legend became embedded in Russian and Ukrainian memory.
Relatively little is known about pre-Christian paganism of the Eastern Slavs, which left no written records and few archeological remains; temples and idols were made of wood. Most of what is known about it is indirect, coming either from Christian sources or from nineteenth-century folklore. Slavic paganism shared basic similarities with other Indo-European (especially Scandinavian) paganism, including a prominent thunder god (Perun), but it also included an important mother-goddess figure (“moist mother earth” or Mokosh). Grand Prince Vladimir was not the first to embrace Christianity: since the Rus were on trading routes between the Baltic and Black seas, Christian traders and merchants were living in Rus, and there were also local converts. The most prominent convert was Princess Olga, Vladimir’s grandmother, although her choice was a personal one with no expectation that others would necessarily follow. Her son Sviatoslav regarded Christianity as weak and considered the old paganism as more appropriate for warriors.
Since Kievan Rus was a loose confederation of tribes and city-states, Grand Prince Vladimir of Kiev (r. 980–1015) sought to strengthen and consolidate the realm. The process of state formation required a more unified, monolithic, and institutionally strong form of religion than the more fragmented and localized polytheism. The main source for the story of the Baptism of Rus is the Primary Chronicle, written about a century after the events, which relates Vladimir’s “testing the faiths.” According to this account, Vladimir was visited by missionaries from the surrounding monotheistic faiths: from the Bulgar Muslims on the Volga River to the east, Jews from the state of the Khazars on the Black Sea, Western Christians from Germany, and Greek Christians from Constantinople. Vladimir listened to and questioned them. He rejected Judaism after the Jewish missionary told him that the Jews had been expelled from their homeland as punishment by God for their sins—not an appealing message for a ruler trying to consolidate his realm. Vladimir was attracted to Islam when he was promised seventy maidens in heaven (for, according to the Chronicle, Vladimir “was fond of women”). His attitude changed when he found out he would have to be circumcised and would be prohibited from eating pork and especially drinking alcohol because—according to what has become an oft-repeated phrase from the Primary Chronicle—“drinking is the joy of the Rus.” The Greek missionary, finally, gave a compelling account of salvation history.
Vladimir wisely stated that everyone claims their religion is the best, but the only way to really know was to see it for oneself, so he sent emissaries to each of the realms to come back and report to him. Vladimir’s emissaries were not impressed with the worship of any but that of Constantinople, which, they reported, was so remarkable that “we knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth. For on earth there is no such splendor or such beauty, and we are at a loss how to describe it. We only know that God dwells there among men, and their service is fairer than the ceremonies of other nations. For we cannot forget that beauty.” Although the account contains legendary elements and was certainly embellished, it is very significant that, for the Eastern Slavs, the intellectual arguments in favor of Christianity were less decisive than the beauty expressed in the splendor of its worship—calling to mind the Slavic term for Orthodoxy (pravoslavie) as the “right glory” of God. It is also noteworthy that, in the medieval period, the Russians developed spiritual life and the religious arts to a far greater extent than they did the intellectual pursuits of theology.
Legendary elements aside, the choice to adopt the faith from Constantinople was practical as well as strategic. Constantinople supported a century-old tradition of Slavic Christianity, which began in the ninth century with the Greek brothers Cyril and Methodius. As missionaries to Bohemia and Moravia (the modern-day Czech Republic), Cyril invented an alphabet (known as Glagolitic) for the previously illiterate Slavs and began translating the worship services and Scriptures into their language. Their efforts were continued by their successors in Macedonia, Bulgaria, and Serbia, who also created the Cyrillic alphabet by modifying Cyril’s alphabet to be closer to the Greek. The choice between Western and Eastern Christianity was, therefore, also a choice between receiving Christianity in Latin (which would have been totally incomprehensible to everyone, elites and commoners alike) or in Slavic, with texts already translated and an alphabet specifically designed to reflect the peculiarities of Slavic languages.
Finally, there was the political dimension: in the late tenth century, the Byzantine Empire was far more powerful, wealthy, and sophisticated than any of Rus’s other neighbors, and especially given their geographical location, it was in a sense inevitable that the Rus would have come into the Byzantine orbit. The specific circumstances of Vladimir’s conversion involved a military alliance with the Byzantine Emperor in exchange for marrying the Emperor’s sister—a rare instance of an imperial princess marrying a barbarian prince—which necessarily entailed his conversion to Christianity. According to the Chronicles, Vladimir changed after his baptism, giving up his harem with hundreds of concubines as well as his bloodthirsty ways. But for Vladimir this was not only an individual choice: he ordered the pagan statues cast down and destroyed, and the people of Kiev were instructed to come to the river for a mass baptism.
The Christianization of Rus did not happen overnight, of course. Nevertheless, the change was a significant one: promoting Christianity became a feature of princely rule, and none of Vladimir’s successors attempted to restore paganism. Formal pagan practice tied to temples, idols, and communal rituals disappeared. But the churches and clergy would have been established in the cities and towns first, and only gradually extended out to the villages. Thus the Christianization of the common people took time—decades or even centuries. Nineteenth-century Russian intelligentsia created a caricature of the Russian peasantry that characterized their faith as dvoe-verie or “dual faith,” meaning that they remained basically pagan with only a veneer of Christianity. This notion was uncritically taken over by Western observers and scholars. However, there was nothing particularly unique about the Eastern Slavs (or later the Russians) in the process of their Christianization that would have distinguished them from other northern Europeans in the Middle Ages (or in more modern times in Latin America), where there was a process of inculturation by which elements of prior beliefs and practices were Christianized. Only the Protestant Reformation declared such elements “superstition” and vigorously tried to root them out in Western Europe. Despite whatever “pagan” elements may have survived in Russian popular religion, the people considered themselves Christian, and paganism as a belief system disappeared.
In the century after Vladimir, Kievan Rus developed a rich Christian culture that included church architecture and iconography as well as literature. The age produced the first East Slavic saints: Boris and Gleb, two of Vladimir’s sons who were killed by their brother in his attempt to seize power. They were canonized as “passion bearers” because of the Christ-like way in which they accepted their deaths (by contrast with martyrs, who are killed for the faith). The church of the Rus remained subordinate to the Patriarchate of Constantinople, and the metropolitan bishops were mostly Greek. Other bishops were probably Greek or Bulgarian in the beginning, but gradually locals were elevated to all ranks of the clergy. The one East Slav metropolitan of Kiev in the mid-eleventh century, Hilarion (1051–1054), was the author of the first known piece of East Slavic literature, the “Sermon on Law and Grace,” a rhetorical masterpiece in which he spoke of the spread of the gospel across the world that had “finally reached” the land of the Rus. Although this text is sometimes misinterpreted as implying that the Rus were a “chosen” people, the intent is rather a “last but not least” motif: though late to joining the Christian family, they were nevertheless now equal members. Hilarion was metropolitan during the reign of Iarloslav the Wise (1019–1054), who was known for promoting Christianity by supporting the building of churches, the preparation of clergy, and the copying of books.
The development of Kievan Christianity included monasticism, which proved crucial to the spread of Christian culture. The first important monastery, that of the Kiev Caves, was established in the early eleventh century by Anthony, who became a monk on Mount Athos before returning to Kiev. Anthony began his monastic career as a hermit, digging a cave for himself on the banks of the Dnieper River to live in complete isolation from the world. Theodosius joined Anthony, but eventually he founded a cenobitic communal monastery (above ground) that would flourish into the most important monastery in Rus. The monastery mediated conflicts between rival princes, fashioned many religious leaders, and produced most of the important early monuments of literature, including the life of Theodosius and the Primary Chronicle, both attributed to the monk Nestor. It also served as a model for later monasteries. In short, Christianity in Kievan Rus flourished for two and a half centuries, developing rich expressions in architecture and religious literature as well as models of Christian living, from saintly princes to ascetic monks.
The Mongol Invasion and the Rise of Muscovy (1240–1550)
Despite its rich Christian culture, Kievan Rus was politically unstable and collapsed in the face of the Mongol invasion that culminated in the fall of Kiev in 1240. Widespread physical destruction resulted from the Mongol conquest—their policy was to level cities that resisted. But the Mongols, who were still adherents of traditional shamanistic religion, were religiously tolerant everywhere they conquered, and protections for the clergy and church property were enshrined in Mongol law. (This branch of the Mongols, the Golden Horde, accepted Islam later, in the fourteenth century.) The Mongols ruled indirectly, leaving the Kievan princes in place, who, in turn, owed taxes and military recruits to the Mongols. The century and a half after the Mongol conquest was a dark age for Rus, which produced little in terms of written or constructed religious culture. After the collapse of Kievan Rus with the Mongol conquest, the southwestern part of Rus was then conquered by Poland, while the northwest region was conquered by the Lithuanians. This geographical division and the differing historical trajectories of these regions of Rus over the next several centuries contributed to the emergence of three distinct peoples: the Russians in the ter...