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Christianity: 1020 years of Russian faith

Published time: July 16, 2008 09:17
Edited time: July 16, 2008 09:17
Part of a fresco from the Baptism of Saint Prince Vladimir by Viktor Vasnetsov

Part of a fresco from the Baptism of Saint Prince Vladimir by Viktor Vasnetsov

This is the start of a series of RT reports on Christianity’s arrival and development in Russia.

Christianity had made its way to Russia by the early 900s. But it was a pagan prince, who decades later decided to embrace a new faith and led to the Christianisation of the Ukrainians, Russians and Belarusians. It’s the year of 988 that became pivotal for the Russian Christians.

The man who single-handedly changed the fate of his country was Vladimir I of Kiev. By the time he came to the throne, Vladimir was a staunch pagan. A warrior, a keen hunter, womaniser and feast-lover, he hardly seemed the person to spread a new religion in Russia. But as his state, dominated by the city of Kiev and hence called Kievan Rus, grew, the need to unite Vladimir’s people under one religion became clear. At first, he tried to reform Slavic paganism by establishing one god – the thunder-god Perun – as a supreme deity. But the new ways didn’t catch on, so, ever the pragmatic, Vladimir went shopping for a new church. Around 988 he sent envoys to explore the faiths of neighbouring countries. The choice was between Islam, Judaism, the Catholic Christianity of Western Europe and the Orthodox Christianity of Eastern Europe, although as yet there was no official break between the Orthodox and Catholic Christians.

The story of Vladimir finally choosing Orthodox Christianity is part legend, part fact. He was apparently tempted by Islam because it allowed men to have several wives. But he eventually decided against it, reasoning that his people would be unhappy under a religion that prohibits wine. In the churches of the Germans Vladimir’s envoys saw no beauty. Ultimately, it was a dazzling Byzantine worship his ambassadors described seeing in Constantinople that impressed him most.

It seems political gains of the Byzantine alliance had their part to play too. As legend has it, after a military victory in the Crimea in 988, Vladimir boldly negotiated for the hand of the Byzantine emperor’s sister Anna. But marrying her off to a pagan Slav was impossible. So Vladimir swiftly got baptised to go ahead with the wedding. After his triumphant return to Kiev, he destroyed pagan monuments and established many Christian churches, converting the whole of Kievan Rus to Christianity.

After its conversion, Kievan Rus propelled itself to the rank of top European powers. No longer seen as a barbaric state, it turned into an international player to be reckoned with. Respected by both Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches, Vladimir has been known since as Vladimir the Great. In Russia, his memory lives on in numerous folk ballads and legends, which refer to him as Krasno Solnyshko or the Fair Sun.