The Baptism of Rus

from Paul D. Steeves, Keeping the Faiths. Religion and Ideology in the Soviet Union (New York, 1989), 18-22.

A tale from the Russian treasury of the past that is told over and over again is the story of how Prince Vladimir (Volodymyr in Ukrainian) of Kiev chose Byzantine Christianity as the religion for his people. Tradition says that happened in the year 988, one millennium ago.

In 988, Kiev was the chief city of a loosely united federation of tribes and urban trading centers which bore the name Rus. Vladimir claimed to be a descendant of the Viking princes who had asserted political control in the late 800s over the native Slavic inhabitants of the land of Kievan Rus, a geographical area roughly equivalent to the present-day regions of Ukraine, Belorussia, and northwestern Russia. Little is known of the religion of the tribes of the tenth century Rus. Apparently it was animistic, with a multitude of deities and spirits associated with the meadows and woodlands. Each tribe honored those spirits which inhabited the locale where tribe members lived.

For a short time around the middle of the 900s, a woman, Princess Olga (Olha in Ukrainian) ruled the Rus confederation. (Olga had taken over as chief after her husband was killed in a rebellion.) She acted quickly and firmly to restore order in Rus and to consolidate her control, which she maintained until 962 when she turned power over to her son, Vladimir's father. In about 955, Olga became a Christian and was baptized in Constantinople. For the next five years, she tried unsuccessfully to promote Christianity as a religion for all her subjects but failed to persuade even her son to become a Christian.

After Vladimir became prince of Kiev in 978, he tried to impose a uniform religious system upon the people of Rus, with gods modeled after those worshipped by the Vikings. The chief god, for example, was Perun, who was much like Thor, the Viking god of thunder and war. Vladimir set up a shrine in Kiev with images of the gods he wanted his subjects to respect. It appears, however, that Vladimir's pantheon failed to replace the tribal animism of his subjects.

In the aftermath of this failure, Vladimir turned to Christianity and ordered his subjects baptized into Eastern Orthodoxy. The timing of Vladimir's conversion suggests that he adopted the new religion to serve his political interests, thus beginning a tradition that has run virtually unbroken throughout the history of the Russian Orthodox Church. The church has generally been willing to serve the interests of the government, even when the government has infringed upon the interests of the church. That precedent has continued to the present, even with a government fostering an atheistic ideology that views the traditional principles of the church as socially harmful.

The story of Vladimir's conversion, recounted below, need not to be read as a literal account. In fact, the story was not even written down until almost 100 years after Vladimir's death, and we cannot be certain that any single detail of it is precisely true. National legends are easily changed and embellished in oral retelling, and Nestor, the Christian monk who authored the first written version, obviously let his Christianity bias his report. We cannot tell whether Vladimir's consideration of what religion to pick for his people involved events even remotely like the ones in the story. But the power of this tale for the Russians lies not in the details of what actually happened but in the way the national memory has preserved it.

6486-6488 (978-980) ...Vladimir then began to reign alone in Kiev, and he set up idols on the hills outside the castle with the hall: one of Perun, made of wood with a head of silver and a mustache of gold, and others of Khors, Dazhbog, Stribog, Simargl, and Mokosh. The people sacrificed to them, calling them gods, and brought their sons and their daughters to sacrifice them to these devils. They desecrated the earth with their offerings, and the land of Rus and this hill were defiled with blood. But our gracious God desires not the death of sinners, and upon this hill now stands a church dedicated to St. Basil....

6491 (983) At this time the Russes were ignorant pagans. The devil rejoiced thereat, for he did not know that his ruin was approaching. . . .

6494 (986)[Prince] Vladimir [son of Sviatoslav] was visited by Bulgars of Mohammedan faith, who said, "Though you are a wise and prudent prince, you have no religion. Adopt our faith, and revere Mahomet." Vladimir inquired what was the nature of their religion. They replied that they believed in god and that Mahomet instructed them to practice circumcision, to eat no pork, to drink no wine, and, after death, promised them complete fulfillment of their carnal desires. . . . They also spoke other false things which out of modesty may not be written down. Vladimir listened to them for he was fond of women and indulgence, regarding which he heard with pleasure. But circumcision and abstinence from pork and wine were disagreeable to him. "Drinking," said he, "is the joy of the Russes. We cannot exist without that pleasure."

Then came the Germans, asserting that they were come as emissaries of the Pope. They added, "Thus says the Pope: 'Your country is like our country, but your faith is not as ours. For our faith is the light. We worship God, who had made heaven and earth, the stars, the moon, and every creature, while your gods are only wood.'" Vladimir inquired what their teaching was. They replied, "fasting according to one's own strength. But whatever one eats or drinks is all to the glory of God, as our teacher Paul has said." Then Vladimir answered, "Depart hence; our fathers accepted no such principle."

The Jewish Khazars heard of these missions, and came themselves saying, "We have learned that Bulgars and Christians came hither to instruct you in their faiths. The Christians believe in him whom we crucified, but we believe in the one God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob." Then Vladimir inquired what their religion was. They replied that its tenets included circumcision, not eating pork or hare, and observing the Sabbath. The Prince then asked where their native land was, and they replied that it was in Jerusalem. When Vladimir inquired where that was, they made answer, "God was angry at our forefathers , and scattered us among the gentiles on account of our sins. Our land was given to the Christians." The Prince then demanded, "How can you hope to teach others while you yourselves are cast out and scattered abroad by the hand of God? If God loved you and your faith, you would not be thus dispersed in foreign lands. Do you expect us to accept that fate also?" Then the Greeks sent to Vladimir a scholar, who spoke thus: "We have heard that the Bulgarians came and urged you to adopt their faith, which pollutes heaven and earth. They are accursed above all men, like Sodom and Gomorrah....We have likewise heard how men came from Rome to convert you to their faith. It differs but little from ours, for they commune with wafers, called oplatki, which God did not give them, for he ordained that we should commune with bread. For when he had taken bread, the Lord gave it to his disciples, saying, 'This is my body broken for you.' ... They do not so act, for they have modified the faith."

Then Vladimir remarked that the Jews had come into his presence and had stated that the Germans and the Greeks believed in him whom they crucified. To this the scholar replied, "Of a truth we believe in him. For some of the prophets foretold that God should be incarnate, and others that he should be crucified and buried, but arise on the third day and ascend into heaven. For the Jews killed the prophets and still others they persecuted. When their prophecy was fulfilled, our Lord came down to earth, was crucified, arose again, and ascended into heaven. He awaited their repentance for forty-six years, but they did not repent, so that the Lord let loose the Romans upon them.". . .

(987) Vladimir summoned together his boyars and the city-elders, and said to them, "Behold the Bulgars came before me urging me to accept their religion. Then came the Germans and praised their own faith; and after them came the Jews. Finally the Greeks appeared, criticizing all other faiths but commending their own, and they spoke at length, telling the history of the whole world from its beginning. Their words were artful, and it was wondrous to listen and pleasant to hear them. They preach the existence of another world. . . . What is your opinion on this subject, and what do you answer?" The boyars and the elders replied, "You know, oh Prince, that no man condemns his own things, but praises them instead. If you desire to make certain, you have servants at your disposal. Send them to inquire about the ritual of each and how he worships God."

Their counsel pleased the prince and all the people, so that they chose good and wise men to the number of ten, and directed them to go first among the Bulgars and inspect their faith. . . .

When they returned to their own country, the Prince called together his boyars and the elders. Vladimir then announced the return of the envoys who had been sent out, and suggested that their report be heard. He thus commanded them to speak out before his retinue. The envoys reported, "When we journeyed among the Bulgars, we beheld how they worship in their temple, called a mosque, while they stand ungirt. The Bulgar 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. Their religion is not good.

"Then we went among the Germans, and saw them performing many ceremonies in their temples; but we beheld no glory there.

"Then we went to Greece, and the Greeks led us to the edifices where they worship their God, and 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."

Then the boyars spoke and said, "If the Greek faith were evil, it would not have been adopted by your grandmother Olga who was wiser than all other men." Vladimir then inquired where they should all accept baptism, and they replied that the decision rested with him. . . .

Thereafter Vladimir sent heralds throughout the whole city to proclaim that if any inhabitants, rich or poor, did not betake himself to the river, he would risk the Prince's displeasure. . . . On the morrow, the Prince went forth to the Dnieper with the priests of the Princess and those from Kherson, and a countless multitude assembled. They all went into the water: some stood up to their necks, others to their chests, and the younger near the bank, some of them holding children in their arms, while the adults waded farther out. The priests stood by and offered prayers. There was joy in heaven and upon earth to behold so many souls saved. But the devil groaned lamenting, "Woe is me! How am I driven out hence! For I thought to have my dwelling-place here, since the apostolic teachings do not abide in this land. Nor did this people know God, but I rejoiced in the service they rendered unto me. But now I am vanquished by the ignorant, not by apostles and martyrs, and my reign in these regions is at an end."

When the people were baptized, they returned each to his own abode. . . .