The decision of St. Vladimir, the Grand Prince of Kiev, to convert both himself and his people to Orthodox Christianity in 988 is arguably the most important event in the history of Russia and one of the most important in the history of Christianity. Vladimir’s conversion, ostensibly the result of an exhaustive search for truth and a prolonged deliberation, altered the course of the history of Russia by fundamentally metamorphosing the culture of the East Slavs. In so doing, it also significantly affected the course of Christianity’s history in a number of important ways.
Early in his life and reign as Grand Prince, Vladimir was, in the words of historian Bernard Pares, “a savage and zealous heathen” who “began his reign with an orgy of paganism,” building statues of and temples to pagan gods throughout Kiev and ordering lavish pagan festivals.1 In addition to his devotion to the pagan deities, his appetite for cruelty and for worldly pleasures was insatiable. According to John Julius Norwich, he “killed his own brother and … boasted at least four wives and 800 concubines: a fact which in no way discouraged him from creating havoc among the matrons and maidens of any town he happened to visit.”2
What caused Vladimir to abandon the Slavic paganism he passionately practiced early in his reign in favor of a very different faith is a matter of debate among historians. Pares locates the primary impetus in a particular incident not long after Vladimir’s accession. To celebrate his triumph, Vladimir ordered the sacrifice of nearly a thousand people to the pagan gods. One victim chosen as a sacrifice was the son of a boyar, a member of the Kievan aristocracy, who had converted to Christianity. The child’s father vehemently protested and refused to hand over his child to be sacrificed, mocking and deriding the pagan gods. The offended pagan crowd responded by killing both the boyar and his son in an angry frenzy. After witnessing this, according to Pares, “Vladimir himself came to be convinced of the need of choosing a new faith.”3
Whether or not it was indeed this particular event that prompted Vladimir to search for another faith, the story does contain some clues as to what was going on in Vladimir’s mind. Kiev stood at the crossroads of a variety of nations which had adopted various forms of ethical monotheism, including the Judaism of the Kazars, the Roman Catholic Christianity of the Poles and the Germans, the Islam of the Volga Bulgars, and the Orthodox Christianity of Byzantium. Just as with other pagan religious systems which had disappeared before it, Slavic paganism, as a loose set of semi-mystical superstitions and coarse rituals with no developed theological, moral, or philosophical system, could not long survive under the pressure of these more highly-developed ideas. Vladimir seems to have recognized this and saw the need for a new direction for his people.
Whatever the impetus, in 987 Vladimir set out earnestly on a search for “a respectable religion” “for himself and for his people.”4 In addition to inviting missionaries to his court to plead their case, according to the famous account of the Russian Primary Chronicle, he also sent out emissaries to the nations around Kiev to witness their religious practices and investigate their beliefs. In the course of their research, Vladimir and his agents found reasons to reject each faith about which they heard, except for one.
Vladimir immediately rejected the Jews as a stateless people, concluding that their loss of their homeland meant they had been abandoned by God. He found the Muslim bans on pork and alcoholic beverages objectionable, as well as the Islamic practice of circumcision. In describing their religious rituals in the mosques, Vladimir’s emissaries said that the Muslim at prayer “bows, sits down, looks hither and thither like one possessed, and there is no happiness among them, but instead only sorrow and a dreadful stench.”5 They concluded, “their religion is not good.” After visiting the Bulgars, the emissaries continued on to observe the Roman Catholic religious practices of the Germans. While there, the emissaries reported, they “saw them performing many ceremonies in their temples; but we beheld no glory there.” Finally, they traveled to Constantinople where they attended the Divine Liturgy with the Byzantine emperor. While there, they told Vladimir,
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 know only that God dwells there among men, and their service is fairer than the ceremonies of other nations. For we cannot forget that beauty. Every man, after tasting something sweet, is afterward unwilling to accept that which is bitter, and therefore we cannot dwell longer here.6
Though Vladimir responded favorably to his emissaries’ impressions, he continued to wait to accept baptism.
The Russian Primary Chronicle seems to record some hesitation or perhaps indecision on Vladimir’s part following the reports of his emissaries. On three separate occasions over the succeeding year, the Primary Chronicle records, Vladimir agreed to accept Christianity contingent upon some desired event. During the siege to take the city of Cherson, he prayed that if he were granted victory he would be baptized. Later, in a dialogue with the Byzantine emperor, he agreed with him to be baptized if the emperor would give his sister, Princess Anna, to be Vladimir’s wife. And yet again, after the arrival of the Byzantine princess, he stated that he would finally believe in the God of the Orthodox Christians if his baptism cured him of a disease of the eyes from which he had begun to suffer. All three requests were granted and Vladimir converted to Christianity.
When he did finally accept baptism and the Christian faith, there can be little doubt that he did so sincerely and that he practiced his new faith with at least as much zeal as he had formerly indulged in paganism. After his own baptism, he sent out the priests who had accompanied Princess Anna to “immediately set about proselytizing and converting towns and villages en masse.”7 He also knocked down and destroyed the numerous pagan idols he had erected early in his reign, replacing them with “monasteries and a great many churches, some of them quite magnificent.”8
The remarkable change in Vladimir’s character following his acceptance of Christianity is also noteworthy. He renounced “the previous wives and the concubines,” taking Princess Anna as his only wife, and “henceforth he was to spend his time supervising conversions, standing godfather at baptisms and building churches and monasteries wherever he went.”9 According to David Bentley Hart, he also
built schools, hospitals, almshouses and orphanages; he established ecclesiastical courts and monastic shelters for the aged and infirm; he instituted laws designed to protect the weak against the powerful; and he came to be known as a friend of the poor, a just and gentle ruler and a fervent champion of the faith.10
According to Timothy (now Metropolitan Kallistos) Ware, “nowhere else in medieval Europe were there such highly organized ‘social services’ as in tenth-century Kiev.”11
The conversion of Vladimir and his subjects also prompted what can only be called the first flowering of knowledge, culture, and the arts among the Slavs. As the historian Fr. George Florovsky, himself a Russian Orthodox priest, pointed out, “Christianization was the awakening of the Russian spirit.”12 Vladimir “devoted himself quite earnestly to creating a Christian Kievan culture on the Byzantine civic model.”13 In addition to building numerous churches and importing the Byzantine iconographic tradition, according to the Primary Chronicle, immediately after ordering his people to be baptized, “he took the children of the best families, and sent them to schools for instruction in book learning.”14 The results of this “book learning” as well as its Christian inspiration are apparent in the archaeological record; the oldest surviving manuscripts in Church Slavonic, the language of the period of Kievan Rus’, both date from shortly after the time of Vladimir and both consist of portions of the Bible.15 As historians Nicholas V. Riasanovsky and Mark D. Steinberg point out, “Kievan written literature … developed in close association with the conversion to Christianity.”16
Riasanovsky and Steinberg also claim, however, that “theology and philosophy found little ground on which to grow in Kievan Rus and produced no major fruits. In fact, Kievan religious writings in general closely followed their Byzantine originals and made a minimal independent contribution to the Christian heritage.”17 On the contrary, according to historian Jaroslav Pelikan, though “at first” Russian “religious culture … continued to be heavily dependent upon Byzantium,” ultimately “something new came into existence when Byzantine Christianity was exported to Russia.”18 Just as with Russian architectural developments, which “follow[ed] their Byzantine models in their basic form” but developed uniquely Russian traits from a very early point and more over time,19 Russian theology and philosophy relied upon its Byzantine predecessors, but developed into something new to the history of Christianity and with a uniquely Russian character. This indigenous Russian Christianity, initiated by, as he is remembered by Russian Christians to this day, St. Vladimir the Great, continued to thrive for many centuries afterward and to, in turn, exert its own influence on other Christian cultures in the same way that Byzantium had influenced it during its own infancy. Vladimir, in a search for faith, had created a new, powerful, and perennially influential culture.
2 John Julius Norwich, A Short History of Byzantium (New York: Vintage Books, 1997), 208.