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History of the Christian Church, Volume IV: Mediaeval Christianity. A.D. 590-1073.
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§ 37. The Christianization of Russia.


Nestor (monk of Kieff, the oldest Russian annalist, d. 1116): Annales, or Chronicon (from the building of the Babylonian tower to 1093). Continued by Niphontes (Nifon) from 1116–1157, and by others to 1676. Complete ed. in Russ by Pogodin, 1841, and with a Latin version and glossary by Fr. Miklosisch, Vindobon, 1860. German translation by Schlözer, Göttingen, 1802–’9, 5 vols. (incomplete).

J. G. Stritter: Memoriae Populorum olim ad Danubium, etc., incolentium ex Byzant. Script. Petropoli, 1771. 4 vols. A collection of the Byzantine sources.

N. M. Karamsin: History of Russia, 12 vols. St. Petersburg, 1816–29, translated into German and French.

Ph. Strahl: Beiträge zur russ. Kirchen-Geschichte (vol. I.). Halle, 1827; and Geschichte d. russ Kirche (vol. I.). Halle, 1830 (incomplete).

A. N. Mouravieff (late chamberlain to the Czar and Under-Procurator of the Most Holy Synod): A History of the Church of Russia (to the founding of the Holy Synod in 1721). St. Petersburg, 1840, translated into English by Rev. R. W. Blackmore. Oxford, 1862.

A. P. Stanley: Lectures on the Eastern Church. Lec. IX.-XII. London, 1862.

L. Boissard: L’église de Bussie. Paris, 1867, 2 vols.


The legend traces Christianity in Russia back to the Apostle St. Andrew, who is especially revered by the Russians. Mouravieff commences his history of the Russian church with these words: “The Russian church, like the other Orthodox churches of the East, had an apostle for its founder. St. Andrew, the first called of the Twelve, hailed with his blessing long beforehand the destined introduction of Christianity into our country. Ascending up and penetrating by the Dniepr into the deserts of Scythia, he planted the first cross on the hills of Kieff, and ’See you,’ said he to his disciples, ’those hills? On those hills shall shine the light of divine grace. There shall be here a great city, and God shall have in it many churches to His name.’ Such are the words of the holy Nestor that point from whence Christian Russia has sprung.”

This tradition is an expansion of the report that Andrew labored and died a martyr in Scythia,135135    Euseb. III. 1. and nothing more.

In the ninth century the Russian tribes, inhabiting the Eastern part of Europe, were gathered together under the rule of Ruric, a Varangian prince,136136    The Varangians were a tribe of piratical Northmen who made the Slavs and Finns tributary. who from the coasts of the Baltic penetrated into the centre of the present Russia, and was voluntarily accepted, if not actually chosen by the tribes as their chief. He is regarded as the founder of the Russian empire, a.d. 862, which in 1862 celebrated its millennial anniversary. About the same time or a little later the Russians became somewhat acquainted with Christianity through their connections with the Byzantine empire. The Eastern church, however, never developed any great missionary activity, and when Photius, the patriarch of Constantinople, in his circular letter against the Roman see, speaks of the Russians as already converted at his time (867), a few years after the founding of the empire, he certainly exaggerates. When, in 945, peace was concluded between the Russian grand-duke, Igor, and the Byzantine emperor, some of the Russian soldiers took the oath in the name of Christ, but by far the greatest number swore by Perun, the old Russian god. In Kieff, on the Dniepr, the capital of the Russian realm, there was at that time a Christian church, dedicated to Elijah, and in 955 the grand-duchess, Olga, went to Constantinople and was baptized. She did not succeed, however, in persuading her son, Svatoslav, to embrace the Christian faith.

The progress of Christianity among the Russians was slow until the grand-duke Vladimir (980–1015), a grandson of Olga, and revered as Isapostolos (“Equal to an Apostle”) with one sweep established it as the religion of the country. The narrative of this event by Nestor is very dramatic. Envoys from the Greek and the Roman churches, from the Mohammedans and the Jews (settled among the Chazares) came to Vladimir to persuade him to leave his old gods. He hesitated and did not know which of the new religions he should choose. Finally he determined to send wise men from among his own people to the various places to investigate the matter. The envoys were so powerfully impressed by a picture of the last judgment and by the service in the church of St. Sophia in Constantinople, that the question at once was settled in favor of the religion of the Byzantine court.

Vladimir, however, would not introduce it without compensation. He was staying at Cherson in the Crimea, which he had just taken and sacked, and thence he sent word to the emperor Basil, that he had determined either to adopt Christianity and receive the emperor’s sister, Anne, in marriage, or to go to Constantinople and do to that city as he had done to Cherson. He married Anne, and was baptized on the day of his wedding, a.d. 988.

As soon as he was baptized preparations were made for the baptism of his people. The wooden image of Perun was dragged at a horse’s tail through the country, soundly flogged by all passers-by, and finally thrown into the Dniepr. Next, at a given hour, all the people of Kieff, men, women and children, descended into the river, while the grand Duke kneeled, and the Christian priests read the prayers from the top of the cliffs on the shore. Nestor, the Russian monk and annalist, thus describes the scene: “Some stood in the water up to their necks, others up to their breasts, holding their young children in their arms; the priests read the prayers from the shore, naming at once whole companies by the same name. It was a sight wonderfully curious and beautiful to behold; and when the people were baptized each returned to his own home.”

Thus the Russian nation was converted in wholesale style to Christianity by despotic power. It is characteristic of the supreme influence of the ruler and the slavish submission of the subjects in that country. Nevertheless, at its first entrance in Russia, Christianity penetrated deeper into the life of the people than it did in any other country, without, however, bringing about a corresponding thorough moral transformation. Only a comparatively short period elapsed, before a complete union of the forms of religion and the nationality took place. Every event in the history of the nation, yea, every event in the life of the individual was looked upon from a religious point of view, and referred to some distinctly religious idea. The explanation of this striking phenomenon is due in part to Cyrill’s translation of the Bible into the Slavic language, which had been driven out from Moravia and Bohemia by the Roman priests, and was now brought from Bulgaria into Russia, where it took root. While the Roman church always insisted upon the exclusive use of the Latin translation of the Bible and the Latin language in divine service, the Greek church always allowed the use of the vernacular. Under its auspices there were produced translations into the Coptic, Syriac, Armenian, and Slavic languages, and the effects of this principle were, at least in Russia, most beneficial. During the reign of Vladimir’s successor, Jaroslaff, 1019–1054, not only were churches and monasteries and schools built all over the country, but Greek theological books were translated, and the Russian church had, at an early date, a religious literature in the native tongue of the people. Jaroslaff, by his celebrated code of laws, became the Justinian of Russia.

The Czars and people of Russia have ever since faithfully adhered to the Oriental church which grew with the growth of the empire all along the Northern line of two Continents. As in the West, so in Russia, monasticism was the chief institution for the spread of Christianity among heathen savages. Hilarion (afterwards Metropolitan), Anthony, Theodosius, Sergius, Lazarus, are prominent names in the early history of Russian monasticism.

The subsequent history of the Russian church is isolated from the main current of histoy, and almost barren of events till the age of Nikon and Peter the Great. At first she was dependent on the patriarch of Constantinople. In 1325 Moscow was founded, and became, in the place of Kieff, the Russian Rome, with a metropolitan, who after the fall of Constantinople became independent (1461), and a century later was raised to the dignity of one of the five patriarchs of the Eastern Church (1587). But Peter the Great made the Northern city of his own founding the ecclesiastical as well as the political metropolis, and transferred the authority of the patriarchate of Moscow to the “Holy Synod” (1721), which permanently resides in St. Petersburg and constitutes the highest ecclesiastical judicatory of Russia under the caesaropapal rule of the Czar, the most powerful rival of the Roman Pope.




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