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Day of Christening of Russia
June 15, 2010 11:47

Recently Russian government has introduced another official memorable date – the Day of Christening of Russia that is to be marked on July, 28th. The new holiday, however, is not a day off for Russians. So, what is it all about, this date?

It is interesting to note that Christianity which arose in the 1st century was adopted by Russia not until the 10th century.

The Christening of Russia was traditionally marked on August, 14th (the 1st of August in the old style). The newly established memorable date - July 28th - corresponds to the day of Prince Vladimir: Old Russian annals relate the christening of Russia to the name of Kievan Prince Vladimir Svyatoslavich, by whose initiative Russia adopted Christianity as the state religion in 988. On that day in 988 thousands of Kiev dwellers were baptized by the Byzantine Metropolitan and priests in the Dnieper River.

However, the Christianity was known in Russia long before the year 988 and chronicles state that before Prince Vladimir’s christening of Russia the Orthodox religion had had the history more than a century long. The adoption of new religion had its own preconditions and did not happen in a day, but was a centuries-long process.

Eastern Slavs were pagans who revered the powers of nature and their supernatural patrons, such as the god of sky Svarog, the god of fertility Rod, the god of sun Dazhdbog, etc. They prayed in sacred groves, set up idols of gods and sacrificed to them. The polytheism was in accord with the old clan system but contradicted to the ambition of Kievan princes to strengthen their power and authority over entire Rus’.

As for Prince Vladimir himself, initially he is shown in the chronicles as a person completely sharing pagan norms of behaviour. The annals tell about his five lawful wives and an improbable number of concubines. Behind his court yard in Kiev the prince had ancient idols of the most revered gods of various tribes headed by Perun. In 980 Prince Vladimir attempted to reform pagan beliefs and to make a state religion out of them. The patron of Prince’s armed forces – god Perun – was declared the highest god of Rus’. The reform, however, failed and had no serious impact. Though Prince Vladimir spent time in wars, feasts and hunting, but, probably, under the influence of his grandmother, Princess Olga, he started religious searches.

The foreign policy interests of the Kievan Rus’ demanded denial of old beliefs and adoption of one of the religions established among its western, northern or eastern neighbors. The Russian Primary Chronicle tells a legendary story about Vladimir’s choice of new belief. Having turned down the Western Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, Prince Vladimir preferred the Byzantine (eastern) version – Orthodox Christianity.


 This decision was preconditioned by long trading, cultural and dynastic relations of Rus’ with the Byzantine Empire. Princess Olga, the grandmother of Prince Vladimir, is considered to be the first known Christian in Russia. The chronicles evidence the construction of Saint Elias the Prophet Church in the yet pagan Kiev. The christening of Russia was preceded by marriage of Prince Vladimir and Byzantine Princess Anna in the city of Chersonese. His baptizing was a prerequisite for the dynastic marriage.

By throwing down idols of Perun and other pagan gods, by baptizing himself, his armed forces and dwellers of Kiev, Prince Vladimir started a most significant reform. After Kiev it was necessary to christen Novgorod, and Vladimir sent his priests there. The city population, however, met the baptizers as enemies and put up a persistent armed resistance to them. Only by September Novgorod surrendered and was christened. As for the eastern Slavic tribes that unified around Kiev, it took more than a hundred years to christen them all. So, for many decades and even centuries all the lands of the Old Russian state were conversed – somewhere peacefully but mostly by force – to the new religion.

Princely power found a reliable support – both spiritual and political - in the new religion and the Orthodox Church. The state was strengthening and overcoming old tribal differences. The new common religion offered a new feeling of national unity. Christianity with its monotheism and acknowledgment of God as the source of power and order in the society made a great contribution into strengthening of feudal relations in Kievan Rus’. Christening of Russia made it an equal partner among medieval Christian states and thus fortified its status in the world.

The impact of Christianity on Russian culture can hardly be overestimated. Religious books in the Old Slavic language came to Russia from Bulgaria and Byzantium, and the number of people literate in Slavic grew up. Direct consequence of Christening of Russia was the development of icon-painting, stone and wooden architecture, church literature, and education system. At the same time the church tried its best to suppress and eradicate folk culture based on ancient pagan beliefs and traditions.

According to some historians, the christening of Russia by Prince Vladimir was a great reform in the spiritual field, by its political consequences and overall meaning for Russian history comparable to the transformations by Peter the First.

Tags: Russian history religion    

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