July 15, 2010

The Impact of Christianity Upon Kievan Russia: A Protestant Observation

by Ellen Myers

There are special, blessed moments of joy in the study of history. They occur when we meet in the distant past, unexpectedly and in awe, a people and a spirit to which we find ourselves related in fundamental kinship and faith. As a Christian believer in the Bible as God's inerrant self-revelation, and hence in biblical creation, I found such kinship and common faith with the people of Kievan Russia (eleventh and twelfth century A.D.) within their first generations after conversion to Christ (ca. 988 A.D.).

I am greatly drawn, for example, to Kievan church architecture. These clusters of whitewashed or wooden buildings with their narrow window slits, their curved roofs and their helmet-shaped domes embody for me the earth-bound, homely, humble and awkward, yet also "vertical," other-worldly, joyful and reverent communion of man with the Triune God of the Bible which we call Christian worship. The warmth, variety, "irregularity" so to call it, and vitality of the personhood of our God, and also of each uniquely created human being and uniquely created national personality (a recurring theme in Russian literature to our own day) is irrepressibly evident. For example, Kiev's Hagia Sophia cathedral, built 1036-46,

"appears to rise like some great natural growth... the Kievan Hagia Sophia's accord with its setting is the earliest example of the irresistible effect which the Russian environment and Russian taste exercised over the foreign architects and artists who found employment there... even the fully formed artists produced from the start works which... differ completely from everything that these artists had created in their native lands before going to Russia[1]."

The multitude of churches built in Kiev within a few decades after the country's conversion (Thietmar of Merseburg who visited Kiev in 1018 A.D. said their number ran to almost four hundred)[2] shows the eagerness of princes and people "not just to profess the faith but to testify in deeds their devotion to the living God... not for decorative effect, but for Christian witness[3]." Yet the "decorative effect"—the splendor and beauty of church worship—is everywhere sought after, from cathedral to the Russian peasant's icon corner in his poor izba (peasant hut). This splendor and beauty actually was the decisive factor in prince Vladimir's, and hence Kievan Russia's, adoption of Byzantine Christianity in the late 980s. We went on to Greece," Vladimir's envoys sent out to examine various religions told him, "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... We know only that God dwells there among men... "[4]

God dwelling among men—here, I believe, we see the fundamental faith and reality of Christian blessedness motivating Kievan Russia. The emphasis in communal worship lay on making God's person and Real presence visible and touchable. "The same desire to see spiritual truth in tangible form"[5] is embodied in Kievan Russia's icons or paintings of Christ, His blessed mother, and the saints. Protestant Christians rightly fear and proscribe the idolatry incipient in man-made images of holy things and human "saints." Yet among a people converted but recently from serving pagan "nature gods," as were eleventh-century Kievans, their Christian art including icons probably did an indispensable service of Christian nurture. We must remember that "there were no complete versions of the Bible, let alone independent theological syntheses, produced in early Russia."[6] Some early Kievan art nurtures and even converts human hearts and minds in our own time. What Christian, what student of the Bible can look at the early twelfth-century icon of the Virgin of Vladimir and not be touched by Mary's tenderness toward her Holy Child Jesus? Is not the lesson at hand —that we, too, should thus tenderly care for Jesus conceived and growing in our hearts after we have been visited by the Holy Ghost and overshadowed by the power of the Highest (Luke 1:35)?

Tenderness is one prominent strand of Kievan Russian Christianity; another such strand is kenoticism, or humility. We already encounter it in Russia's first canonized saints, the princes Boris and Gleb, who refused to take up arms against their elder brother Sviatopolk and were put to death for their non-resistance in 1015. This was "the first instance in Eastern and Western medieval ecclesiastic tradition of the imitation of Christ as a humble martyr dying for the sins of men."[7] This humility is also an outstanding trait in the lives of St. Antonios, the founder, and St. Theodosios, the first abbot, of the Crypt Monastery, founded near Kiev in the eleventh century. Monk Nestor, Theodosius' biographer, tells us repeatedly how Theodosius spoke and acted "with humility." A monastic novice was called a "poslushnik" (obedient listener),[8] a reminder that humility was to be his greatest virtue[9].

The people of Kiev, after having newly come to Christ and having been inspired by the vision of God dwelling among men to worship Him in splendor and humility in "right praise" ("pravoslavie"—the Russian word for orthodoxy), also excelled in civilization and education. As a matter of fact they were further advanced in these two respects than the Western European countries of their time. The ruling princes of Kiev intermarried with the ruling houses of Western Europe[10]. After the English king Harold Godwinson was killed in the battle of Hastings in 1066, his family took refuge at the court of Kiev. Prince Vladimir took the children of the best families, and sent them to schools for instruction in book learning shortly after his conversion. We are told that by the time of Vladimir's son Yaroslav (1019-1054) there were already numerous schools, hospitals, and libraries. Despite the physical hardships of long, deadly cold winters, immense wild forests, and the rigors of subduing the northern land in an attempt to wrest a living from it, the people loved this hard and seemingly inhospitable land as their "mother." In their closeness to "mother earth" or to the Volga River as their "native mother," Kievan as well as modern Russians maintain man's ties to all God's creation so often mentioned in the Bible. These ties are expressly acknowledged in the liturgy of the Russian Orthodox Church from the very earliest recorded times at Kiev, as shown, for instance, in the beautiful Sermon on the First Sunday After Easter by Bishop Cyril of Turov[11]. We also find awareness of these ties in Kievan Russian epics and heroic tales. An example is the conversation of prince Igor with the Donets River in The Lay of Igor's Campaign[12], written about Prince Igor's unfortunate campaign against the heathen Kumans in 1185 A.D. We find this awareness in the Ode on the Downfall of the Russian Land, written between 1237 and 1245 and lamenting the conquest of Russia by the Mongols. Its opening lines are not about battles or "human events," but rather about the land itself:

"O Russian land, brightest of the bright,
most beautifully adorned,
thou art marvelous to us, with thy many beauties.
Marvellous are thy numerous lakes,
thy rivers and venerated springs,
steep mountains, high hills,
oak forests, beautiful fields,
many beasts and countless birds[13]."

Only after this eloquent praise of the land itself and its plant and animal inhabitants does the thirteenth-century author speak of the

"great cities, wonderful villages, and monastery gardens,
honorable boyars and countless lords,
Christian churches and stern princes.
Thou, Russian land, art rich in wealth
and in the Orthodox Christian Faith[14]."

Kievan Russia was eventually invaded and conquered by the Tatars under the heirs of Ghengis Khan in 1237-40. There had been earlier raids upon Kievan territory in the south by various Mongol tribes such as the Pechenegs and the Kumans (or Polovtsians). But the disunity among Kievan Russian princes after the death of Vladimir Monomakh in 1125 A.D. was perhaps the deepest contributory cause for Kievan Russia's shortness of existence. Frequent warnings against this disunity occur in the chronicles, epics and stories of the time, and we may suppose that the people writing these warnings did what they could. It was not enough.

Seen across many centuries, Kievan Russia seems like a lost paradise 'where the people were one integrated whole with their land, their rivers, their animals - wild animals almost as much as tame ones - and their God Who dwelled among them as Creator, Sustainer and Lord.


[1] Tamara Talbot Rice, A Concise History op Russian Art (Praeger. New York 1963. Fourth Printing 1974) pp 18- 19.

[2] Ibid. p 26

[3] James H Billington, The Icon and the Axe (Random House New York First-Vintage Books Edition. September 1970) p. 11.

[4] Serge A Zenkovsky, Medieval Russia s Epics, Chronicles, and Tales (E. P Dutton. New York 1963. Second Edition 1974). p. 67

[5] Billington. op cit . p 9

[6] Ibid. p. 7

[7] Zenkovsky. op cit . p 37.

[8] Billington. op cit . p 8.

[9] Humility towards unjust and godless oppression has been the unbiblical reverse of godly humility.

[10] Zenkovsky. op cit . p 5.

[11] Zenkovsky op c~t . pp. 90-92

[12] Ibid pp 169-190: cited passage is on p. 188

[13] Ibid p 196

[14] Ibid . p 197