Kievan Russia: The introduction of Christianity



So little is known about Kievan Russia that it has been easy to surround it with the glamour of mystery and opulence. It is true that Russian life, to the extent that any generalizations about it have meaning, centered in Kiev for centuries; it was in fact more than three and a half centuries between the advent of the Scandinavian Varangians and the far more important, enduring and fateful inundation of all Russia by the great Mongol conquests of the 12th century.

Yet the word ‘Kievan’ itself is merely a handy catchword to cover our basic ignorance, still further heightened by the tendentious approach to the question on the part of practically all historical sources.

Construction of the Assumption cathedral on the Red Square

Construction of the Assumption cathedral on the Red Square

Perhaps the most definite thing that can be said of Kievan Russian civilization is that it led to the introduction of Christianity, in its eastern branch, promoted the creation of a literary language and engendered the first fruit of Russian art, which at this stage may justly be called a branch of Byzantine art. It need hardly be said that the last two events were above all a reflection of the same primordial socio-historical factor – the introduction of Byzantine Christendom among the pagan barbarians of the south Russian steppe. From a political point of view Kiev was to prove a blind alley; the sovereignty of its grand dukes evaporated well in advance of the Mongol invasion, and it would be impossible, indeed, to speak of a genuine unification even of the territories the Grand Dukes of Kiev laid claim to. However, in the spiritual realm it cannot be denied that Kiev laid the foundation of a culture that was later to be reflected in the authentic movement for the centralization of Russia that was to be linked to the names of Moscow and St. Petersburg.

The Christening of Grand Duke Vladimir (c.956-1015)

The Christening of Grand Duke Vladimir (c.956-1015)

Kiev itself seems, in the 11th and 12th centuries, to have excelled any city in Western Europe both in size and splendour; its great stone churches were celebrated, and as a hive of commerce it exercised a magnetic effect on all the other trading centres of the scattered Slav communities.

It is trade, indeed, that explains the abrupt introduction of Greek Christianity into Kievan Russia. For in the close business relations between Kiev and Constantinople, slaves were the most important commodity taken to Constantinople by the early Kievan princes: indeed, the very word ‘slave’ comes from the word ‘Slav’. The slaves of the Kiev princes were a lucrative source of revenue from both Constantinople and the great markets of the Muslim east. The source of the slaves was the unflagging internecine warfare between the princes themselves, and even though the Kiev trade in the west increased and agriculture kept growing substantially throughout the forest areas, the slave trade remained the most important branch of the Kiev economy.

Establishment of Kiev Yaroslav vylykoknyazhomu table

Establishment of Kiev

Although the Grand Duke of Kiev never imposed his power on the other princes in this period, he did manage to achieve a position of primacy; it was the support of the Greek Orthodox Church that gave this sovereign position of the Grand Duke of Kiev its theoretical justification. The aspect of Byzantine Christianity that found full expression in the earliest political theory of Kievan Russia was the idea of the divine right of rulers; the idea struck firm roots in Kievan Russia, though local conditions made it impossible to force its acceptance down the throats of fractious princelets. Under the Mongol invasion, with the example of the Mongol rulers to fortify it, and still more under the extravagant centralization of State power that characterized the late Moscow period of Russian statehood that was to follow the Mongols and to achieve its greatest expression under the Bolshevik dictatorship, the theory of the untramelled right of Russian rulers to rule became the cornerstone of the State.

Saint Olga, also called Olga the Beauty, was the first ruler to convert to Christianity

Saint Olga, also called Olga the Beauty, was the first ruler to convert to Christianity

Christian notions began penetrating Kievan Russia as early as the 9th century, as far as we can tell, but not much headway was made against the unorganized mass of pagan Slavdom, which was enthralled by the usual pantheon of countless local deities. These were personification of the vegetative cycles and the power of nature on which man has always been dependent, and resembled various pagan creeds that Christianity in its day had digested, streamlined, dramatized, and organized.

Medieval Moscow

Medieval Moscow

Kievan Russia comes to us through the slightly misty medium of the ecclesiastical chronicles compiled centuries afterwards in churches and monasteries, largely in the 15th and 16th centuries; these chronicles claim to be based on an earlier and more basic chronicle, itself composed, however, in the 12th century. It seems likely that against a background of primitive coarseness and cruelty the early Church exercised a somewhat civilizing and softening influence. Wedded to a theory of the rule of law, and based on training in letters, however primitive it may seem to us, the Orthodox Church provided Russia, in its Kievan beginnings, with a standard. Yet the fact that Russia was to receive much of its civilizing material from Greek sources had a fateful effect on its destinies. By selecting the idiom of Church Slavonic – a Bulgarian dialect made current throughout Greek Orthodox Slavdom by two Greek brothers, Cyril, after whom the Russian, Bulgarian and Serbian alphabets still current are named, and Methodius, the ‘apostles of the Slavs’ – the religious leaders made Russian expression wholly dependent on Greek sources, that is, the Greek scriptures and liturgies that were to underlie the native product that evolved with painful sluggishness.

Grand Duke Yaroslav the city resumes after the devastation of the Tatars of Russia

Grand Duke Yaroslav the city resumes after the devastation of the Tatars of Russia

Kievan Russia, fundamentally empty of people and on the lowest possible cultural level, was altogether dependent for its intellectual life on the Church, the sources of both letters and arts. After the rulers had accepted Christianity in a formal way by the end of 10th century, the population of the cities and towns was forces or persuaded into baptism. Though the overwhelming majority of the people was illiterate, and was to remain so for almost millennium, some preachers, generally monks, were trained in the few clerical schools that gradually grew up. Though armed with no more than a smattering of memorized information, they were able to act as educators for the masses, whose paganism was not touched, to be sure, for a very long time to come.

Belozersky monastery, 17 century manusript

Belozersky monastery, 17 century manusript

Yet the backwardness of society as a whole, which is so easy to make light of, did not act as a brake on individual talent, and indeed genius. Byzantine tradition inspired great numbers of painters of frescoes and icons, makers of jewellery, and creators of resplendent mosaics; immense originality was attained in the art of enamel-working especially. None of this was merely handed down lifelessly; it was reshaped in accordance with the taste of the artist and of the audience. The result was an unmistakable flavour in the arts of Kievan Russia. In the beginning especially, while the craftsmen and artists were still carrying on their work under the direct influence of original Greek and Italian models, the achievements of Kievan Russia were marked by technical finesse, artistic originality and an overflowing liveliness.

Russian icon of Saint Nicolas

Russian icon of Saint Nicolas

It was not until later, after the church had finally consolidated its paramount position in Russian society, that the liveliness of its first period of efflorescence was ironed out of Kievan art, and it achieved the museum-like, motionless quality it was to become known for after ecclesiastical homogeneity had managed to standardize the expression of the artistic impulse.

 

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