In the ninth century AD, Kieven Rus’ was a pagan state with no official religion. Its ruler, Prince Vladimir, reigned for almost twenty years as a devout follower of Perun – the most important god in the Slavic pagan pantheon.
The Primary Chronicle, a glorious weave of mythology, legend and history, tells the story of how Christianity came to Russia. This record, sometimes translated with more poetry as the ‘Tale of Bygone Years’, is undoubtedly biased – it was compiled by series of Orthodox monks. It also mingles valid historical facts amidst more fantastic storytelling and is a crucial primary source for historians of pre-Tartar Rus’.
Kieven Rus’ had expanded far beyond the frozen boundaries of Novgorod, and its progress through the lands surrounding the River Dnieper ensured that it soon came into contact with powerful neighbours. The Chronicle tells us that in the year 987, Vladimir consulted with his most powerful lords and decided it was time that Rus’ adopted one of the religions of these bordering powers.
His neighbours were enthused by the prospect of proselytising this great pagan nation and each urged Vladimir to adopt their own religion. Vladimir sent envoys to study these different faiths, and the Chronicle records his blunt and pragmatically Russian response. Unsurprisingly, given the book’s Orthodox authors, the faith that emerges as the most compelling and alluring is the Greek Orthodox religion.
The Muslim Bulgarians of the Volga were dismissed as having “no gladness among them; only sorrow and a great stench”. If this wasn’t enough to cause Vladimir to reject conversion to Islam, the religion’s prohibition on alcoholic beverages and pork was an unacceptable condition. Vladimir is reported to have responded that “drinking is the joy of all Rus’. We cannot exist without that pleasure.”
The Chronicle then describes Vladimir’s consultation with Jewish envoys, and subjecting their faith to rigorous questioning. He ultimately rejected their wisdom, noting that their loss of Jerusalem was “evidence of their having been abandoned by God”.
There was little enthusiasm for the Roman Catholic missionaries, who were dismissed as having churches with no beauty. But their response to the Greek Orthodox church was quite different – the envoys were dazzled and enraptured by the glory of Constantinople and the rich, evocative rituals of the Byzantine Church.
Their Byzantine hosts exposed their visitors to Divine Liturgy at the Hagia Sophia, a level of ceremony appropriate for the holiest of Holy Days. The envoys reported its profound impact: “we no longer knew whether we were in heaven or on earth, nor such beauty, and we know not how to tell of it.”
A more cynical reading of the Chronicle and the history of this period would ignore the propaganda of its Orthodox writers and concentrate on the gains that flowed from conversion for Vladimir.
Kieven Rus’ was now allied to one of the most powerful empires in Europe and Asia and had secured lucrative trade concessions. In the years that followed, great merchant fleets bearing furs, timber and wax would turn the Dnieper into a trading highway between Kiev and Constantinople.