The winning of the Scandinavians in Russia and the beginnings of Russian Christianity

It was not only in Western and North-western Europe and in islands in the North Atlantic that the Scandinavians became Christians. Almost simultaneously there was a movement towards the faith led by the Scandinavian rulers of a state which centred in Kiev, on the Dnieper, and which is usually regarded as the beginning of one of the numerically largest bodies of Christians, that of Russia. As was natural from the geographic location, this was not through the Latin but through the Byzantine or Greek wing of the Catholic Church.

In the ninth century in the great Viking movement, Scandinavians, must of them Swedes, made their way southward across the plains and along the rivers of what was later western Russia and became masters of the local, largely Slavic, populations. They were known as Varangians or Rus and their chief settlements were Novgorod in the north and Kiev in the south, in the later Ukraine. Never more than a minority of the population, eventually they adopted the Slavonic tongue of the subject majority.

Christianity had long been present on the northern shores of the Euxine or Black Sea. Christians were there at least as early as the fourth and fifth centuries. To be sure, in the south of what is now Russia the rulers of the dominant people, the Khazars, had adopted Judaism, but in the second half of the ninth century the famous Patriarch of Constantinople, Photius, of whom we heard in an earlier chapter, organized a mission for the Russians which was so far successful that the latter asked for a bishop. Slightly later, also in that century, the Emperor Basil I, "the Macedonian," and the Patriarch Ignatius, whom we have also met, sent as a missionary to the Russians a bishop who is said to have made many converts.

Through these or other channels, by the middle of the tenth century Christianity had entered Kiev and at least one church building had been erected in that city. In the 950's, Olga, the dowager regent, was baptized and sent to Otto I of Germany for missionaries. These seem to have had no very marked success.

It was under Vladimir, the grandson of Olga, that the mass conversion of Kiev and the territory which was dependent on it began. Precisely when and how Vladimir became a Christian we do not know. An oft-repeated story declares that he was visited by representatives of Islam, Judaism, Latin Christianity, and Greek Christianity, each of whom sought to win him. It is further said that of all the delegations that of the Greeks made the greatest impression on him and that he took the decisive step after a deputation appointed by him had visited Constantinople and had reported the overwhelming splendour of a service in the cathedral of Saint Sophia at which they had been present. While this story is almost certainly a later fabrication, it at least reflects the choice which faced Vladimir as he saw the disintegration of the inherited religion of the Varangians and cast about for a faith to take its place. Islam, Judaism (popular among his neighbours, the Khazars), and the Latin and Greek forms of Christianity were the viable possibilities. The last may have won his support because it was the faith of the most powerful, the wealthiest, and the most civilized of the states which bordered on his domains. It will be recalled that the Byzantine Empire was not only near by but at that time was also approaching one of the heights of its might. Vladimir received delegates from the Pope and sent representatives to Rome, but it was to the Greek wing of the Catholic Church that he adhered.

In accepting Greek Christianity, Vladimir seems deliberately to have made it clear that for him baptism was not a token of submission to the then expanding Byzantine realm. He captured a Byzantine town in the Crimea and as a price of peace exacted the hand of a Byzantine princess to add to his collection of wives and concubines. It was after his return from the Crimea that he actively undertook the conversion of his people. The exact date is uncertain, but it was towards the close of the tenth century. It has been said, but this is questioned, that he required the populace of Kiev to betake themselves to the river for collective baptism and that he ordered the destruction of all the idols in the city. It is certain that he encouraged baptisms, built churches, founded monasteries, and sent clergy to other centres to spread what had been begun at Kiev. It was in 991 that the population of Novgorod was baptized by the bishop of the Crimean town which Vladimir had seized. By the end of his reign (1015) there were three bishoprics in his domains, but with characteristic independence he would not submit to ecclesiastical control from Constantinople.

After Vladimir and under the impulse given by him and with the encouragement of his successor, Christianity continued to spread in Russia. Still later it was carried to new areas. In the twelfth century, for example, monks from Novgorod planted it on the upper reaches of the Volga.

As in Western Europe, most of the active missionaries were monks and it was monastic Christianity which was held up as the ideal. Fully as much as in Western Europe, the Christianity of the masses was very superficial. Several generations passed before the majority would sufficiently conform even to so slight a degree as to attend the services of the Church and receive the sacraments. The dioceses were huge, the Metropolitan of Kiev, for centuries the head of the administrative structure, was appointed by the Patriarch of Constantinople and was usually a Greek and unfamiliar with local conditions, and a substantial minority of the bishops were from abroad and understood little of the customs or language of their flocks. The clergy were poorly trained and at best were too few for the size of the country. They were usually chosen by their parishioners and the bishops were selected by the local princes.

Superficial though much of this early Russian Christianity undoubtedly was, it began to take root. An extensive Christian literature was made available in Slavonic, the speech of the majority. This was partly through fresh translations from the Greek and partly by utilizing translations which had already been made for Bulgaria and which, as we have seen, were indebted to the initiative of Constantine (Cyril) and Methodius in the second half of the ninth century. A majority of the bishops and presumably almost all the parish priests were of the indigenous stock. Monasteries multiplied and from the outset were a normal part of the life of the Church. A famous one on the outskirts of Kiev had a profound influence.

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