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Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

The origins of Christianity in Rus’-Ukraine: a bit of history and geography

The legend of Prince Volodymyr’s “choice of faith”
18 June, 2013 - 09:27
Photo by Kostiantyn HRYSHYN

This year marks 1,025th anniversary of the baptism of Rus’. As is known, “looking for a faith” for his country, Prince Volodymyr chose Byzantine Christianity in 988. This made it possible to embrace high Byzantine culture and become an international power to be reckoned with by other states. The choice of the “Byzantine vector” was also caused by the proliferation in Rus’ of the Cyril and Methodius religious tradition and the Old Church Slavonic language which Rus’ people understood well and which was used in liturgy and in the sphere of high culture. In the conditions, when there was a strong Rus’-Ukraine in the 11th-12th centuries, this promoted the creation of a powerful Rus’ civilization which continued to exist, in one form or another, until the 18th century. The 11th-12th-century Rus’ was ahead of Latin West in many spheres.

Before telling the story of the adoption of Christianity by Prince Volodymyr, The Tale of Bygone Years gives a long and legend-like account of this prince’s “choice of faith.” A large number of books have dealt with this subject, but they usually focus on such thing as baptism of Rus’. Authors rarely discuss other possibilities of “choosing a faith” (pagan, Muslim, Judean, or Western Christian). Most of them believe that these possibilities had no prospects.

However, it is not exactly so. The very fact that The Tale of Bygone Years pays so much attention to “choosing a faith” and criticizing non-Orthodox beliefs is quite noteworthy. Naturally, the “choice of faith” stories in The Tale… are legends. Yet there is some reality behind any legend. So if there had been no possibility of “choosing a faith,” these legends would not have emerged and Christian chroniclers would not have highlighted them so much. They wanted to market the idea that Byzantine-rite Christianity was the right and the only possible choice for Rus’.

This postulate of Christian chroniclers (in a modified, “secularized,” form) was and still is dominant, one way or another, among the academics who research Ancient Rus’ history. The reason is that, firstly, they were usually educated in a Christian (often Orthodox) culture and, secondly, they mostly used very trustworthy Christian sources. As for the non-Christian sources that spotlighted Prince Volodymyr’s “choice of faith,” they either have not survived or have been treated critically or used very seldom.

Let us first quote the abovementioned tale. An entry dated 6494 (986 A.D.) says: “The Mahometan-faith Bulgarians came, saying: ‘Thou, Prince, art wise and clever, but thou dost not know the law. Believe in our law and worship Mahomet.’ Volodymyr asked: ‘What is your faith?’ And they said: ‘We believe in God, and Mahomet teaches us to do circumcision, not to eat pork and not to drink wine, and to commit lecherous fornication with women after death. Mahomet will give everybody seventy women, choose a beautiful one, add the beauty of all them to her, and this woman will be this man’s wife. He says that any lust should be gratified here. And if one is wretched in this world, he will be the same [in the other world]. But if one is rich here, he will remain the same there.’ Volodymyr relished listening to them, for he himself loved women and fornication. But he loathed what he was told about circumcision, pork meat, and, especially, drinking. He said: ‘Gaiety is part of life in Rus’, we cannot do without it.’

“Then the Germans came from Rome, saying: ‘We have come on the Pope’s orders.’ And they said to him: ‘The Pope said to thee: ‘Thy land is the same as our faith. And our faith is light. We worship God who created the sky, the earth, the stars, the moon, and all kinds of breathings, while your gods are wooden.’ Then Volodymyr asked: ‘What is your commandment?’ And they said: ‘To observe a fast if possible. ‘Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of

God,’ our teacher the apostle Paul said.’ Volodymyr said to the Germans: ‘Go back, for our ancestors did not accept this.’

“When the Khazarian Jews heard this, they came, saying: ‘We heard that Bulgarians and Christians had come to teach thee their faiths. But Christians believe in the one we crucified, whereas we believe in the single god of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.’ And Volodymyr asked: ‘What is your law?’ They said: ‘To circumcise, not to eat pork or rabbit meat, and to keep the Sabbath.’ He asked then: ‘Where is your land?’ And they said: ‘In Jerusalem.’ He also asked: ‘Is it still there?’ And they said: ‘God visited His wrath upon our ancestors and scattered us throughout the lands for our sins, and our land was given to Christians.’ Volodymyr said then: ‘So how can you teach others if you yourselves were abandoned by God? If God had loved you, He would not have scattered you across strange lands. Do you think we should also suffer this woe?’

“And then the Greeks sent a philosopher [Cyril] to Volodymyr, who said as follows: ‘We heard that the Bulgarians had come to teach you into embracing their faith. But their faith defiles the sky and the earth, for they were cursed more than any other people for being similar to Sodom and Gomorrah onto which God cast hot stones and drowned them altogether. Likewise, the day of death awaits these people, when God comes down to Earth to exercise judgment and destroy all those who commit lawless acts and filthiness. These people wash their bottoms with water, use it in the mouth, and smear their beards with it, pronouncing the name of Mohamet. Their women do even filthier things: they eat the copulation wastes of their men.’ On hearing this, Volodymyr spat on the ground, saying: ‘This is an unclean thing.’

“The philosopher said then: ‘We heard that the Germans had come from Rome to teach you their faith. Their faith does not differ much from ours, although they use unleavened bread, i.e., wafers, when offering a prayer, but God ordered them to do services on bread, instead of giving them a testament. He commanded the apostles to take bread and say: ‘Take this and eat it: it is my body.’ Likewise, he took a chalice and said: ‘This is my blood of the New Testament.’ These people do not do so, and they do not adhere to the rules of their faith.’

“Volodymyr said then: ‘The Jews came to me, saying: ‘The Germans and Greeks believe in the one they crucified.’ The philosopher said to this: ‘In truth we believe in the one, for their prophets predicted that God would be born and others would crucify and bury Him but He would resurrect three days later and ascend to heaven. They had killed those prophets and also destroyed others. When the prophecy came true – He descended to earth and, having been crucified, resurrected and ascended to heaven, – he waited for forty and six years for them to repent, but they never repented. And He set the Romans on them: they ruined their cities and scattered them across the lands, and they were in slavery in [various] lands.’

“Volodymyr asked then: ‘Why did God come down to earth and take such a suffering?’ And the philosopher said in answer: ‘If thou, Prince, wantest to listen, I will tell thee from the very beginning why God came down to earth.’ Volodymyr said to this: ‘I will be glad to listen to thee.”

Then comes a long “Tale of the Philosopher.” It is in fact an account of the biblical story, from the Old to the New Testament. Some may ask why the Christian preacher is called philosopher in The Tale of Bygone Years. The point is that the Byzantine and then the Ancient Rus’ tradition regarded philosophy as love for wisdom and, at the same time, love for God. Therefore, a philosopher is, above all, a person who can read and interpret the Holy Writ, which the abovementioned Christian preacher in fact is.

At the end of his sermon, the philosopher suggests that Volodymyr get baptized. “And Volodymyr took this into account, saying ‘I shall wait a little,’ for he wanted to know more about all the faiths,” the chronicle says.

This means that, as it follows from The Tale of Bygone Years, in spite of his eloquence, the Christian preacher failed to persuade Volodymyr. The prince exercises caution and wants to “test” the proposed faiths by sending his envoys to various peoples to conclude which faith is the best. For example, the Tale of Bygone Years entry dated 6495 (987 A.D.) says the following: ‘Volodymyr summoned his boyars and town elders and said to them: ‘The Bulgarians came to me, saying ‘Take on our law.’ Then the Germans came and hailed their law. Then the Jews came. After them, the Greeks came. They reviled all the laws and exalted their own one, and they spoke at length about the period from the creation of the world onwards. They speak wisely and say that there is also the other world, and it is interesting to listen to them. And if one converts into their faith, he will rise again after death and he will not die again. But whoever adopts another law will be burning in the fire of the other world. So what will you advise me? What is your answer?’

“And the boyars and elders said: ‘Thou knowest, Prince, that one praises, not reviles, what belongs to him. If thou wantest to know more, thou hast men. Send them to find out the way people serve their God.’

“And this advice was much to the liking of the prince and all people. They chose ten good and clever men and said to them: ‘First go to the Bulgarians and find out about their faith and service.’

“So they went and when they came there, they saw nasty misdeeds and worship in a mosque, and they came back to their land. And Volodymyr said to them: ‘Go to the Germans and see things over there, and then go to the Greeks.’

‘They came to the Germans and, after visiting their church and service, went on to Constantinople, where the Caesar [Basil] received them. The Caesar asked [them] why they came, and they told him everything. On hearing this, the Caesar was pleased and duly honored them on that day. And the next day he sent [a message] to the patriarch [Nicholas], saying: ‘The Rus’ envoys have come to test our faith. So prepare the church and the clergy and vest thyself with a chasuble. Let them see the glory of our God.’ Hearing this, the patriarch ordered the entire clergy to be gathered and conducted a festive service. They lighted censers and sang in chorus.

“And the Caesar took them to the church [of St. Sophia], put them at an honorable place, showing them the church’s beauty, the chants, the episcopal service, and the deacons who stood in front, and telling them about the way they served their God. Enchanted and surprised, they praised their service. Then the Caesars Basil and Constantine said to them: ‘Go to your land.’ And Basil let them go, bestowing lavish gifts and honors on them.

“When they came back to their land, the prince summoned his boyars and elders. And Volodymyr said: ‘The men we sent have come back. Let us hear from them what it was like.’ And he said to them: ‘Tell this to me and my warriors.’

“So they said: ‘We first went to the Bulgarians and saw them worshiping in a temple, a mosque, without a belt on. After bowing, everybody will sit down and look around like a madman, and there is no joy in them. There is a lot of stench, and their law is bad. Then we went to the Germans and saw them offering a service, but we did not see any beauty. And then we went to the Greeks. And we were taken to where they pray to their God, and we did not know whether we were in heaven or on earth. For there is no other spectacle and beauty like this in the world – and we are unable to express ourselves [about this]. All we know is that [their] God must be living among the people and their service is better than elsewhere. We cannot even forget that beauty because whoever has first tasted the sweet will never take the bitter. Likewise, we should not live here as pagans.’

“The boyars said in answer: ‘If the Greek law were bad, thy grandmother Olha, the wisest among the humans, would not have accepted baptism.’”

As we can see, according to this tale, the esthetic side is perhaps the main factor in the choice of faith. They chose the faith that was more beautiful and esthetically attractive. It should be noted here that the Ukrainians, as well as the Ancient Greeks, regard the esthetic as something inseparably linked with the ethic. For example, something beautiful is also regarded as good. When Ukrainians say “good person,” they mean that he or she is good-looking and, at the same time, kindhearted. So when a faith is beautiful, it is also good and worthy of being accepted.

In spite of the esthetic side of this tale, Volodymyr’s choice of Christianity still seems to be a rational option. The prince first listens to representatives of various religions (Muslims, Judaists, and Christians). He is not exactly rushing to make a choice. Then he listens to his envoys, leaning towards Christianity. In other words, his choice is the result of longtime reflections.

After all, Volodymyr attacks Korsun in order to conquer this Byzantine city and undergo baptism, marrying a sister of Byzantine emperors. For this reason, the baptism of Volodymyr and that of Rus’ emerge on the chronicle’s pages not as a “Byzantine grace” but as a deliberate and purposeful action of the Rus’ ruler.

The story of Prince Volodymyr’s “choice of faith” occurs not only in The Tale of Bygone Years. The Greek Banduri Tale, found in the Paris Royal Library in the second half of the 18th century, offers a somewhat similar legend. It alleges that the Rus’ king sent his envoys to find out which faith was the best. They visited Rome and Constantinople. The latter made a better impression on them. So they advised the Rus’ king to convert into the Byzantine faith, which their ruler did. He requested the Byzantine emperor to send him people who could teach him faith. The emperor sent Cyril and Athanasios (probably, Methodius) who baptized people and drew up the alphabet.

It is almost clear that the story of Prince Volodymyr’s “choice of faith” is of a legendary nature. Moreover, we can even say that it is a compilation. There are at least two similar legends about the “choice of faith” by Khazar khagans. For instance, in about 790 the Khazar Khagan Obadiah embraced the Judaic faith. Before doing so, he heard not only a Jewish rabbi, but also representatives of Islam and Christianity. Each of them tried to win over the khagan to their side. Obadiah noticed during the debate that both the Christian and the Muslim referred to Judaism as the source of their religions. So he decided to talk with each of them in private. The khagan asked them which faith they would choose in addition to their own. They both preferred Judaism. This finally persuaded Obadiah to choose this very faith.

To tell the truth, it is mostly the Khazar top rulers who embraced Judaism. This religion existed there side by side with Islam and Christianity as well as some old tribal faiths. As it was said above, there was another debate between the Judaists, Christians, and Muslims in 860 at the Khazar khagan’s court. Cyril also took part in this discussion without too much success. The Judaic rabbi emerged victorious again.

   Like Kyivan Rus’ later, Khazaria faced the question of choosing a faith between Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. The point is that Khazaria was on the boundary of two – Muslim and Christian – civilizations. At the same time, this state played a noticeable role in transit trade which was, to a considerable extent, in Jewish hands. It was quite logical for Khazar rulers to choose Judaism. This enabled the khaganate to take part in the international trade and, accordingly, to reap more benefits from it. But there was also the other side of the coin. In this situation, Judaism stood no good chances to become a “mass-scale religion” which could be the integrator of the country’s population. This was the religion of the top strata involved in trade business. Therefore, judging by historical sources, the Khazar Khaganate functioned as a multidenominational state. This was one of the main factors that caused its disintegration and fall.

   Kyivan Rus’ inherited, in a way, the Khazar Khaganate’s legacy. This state, which bordered on and partially “swallowed” the territory of Khazaria, was also on the boundaries of the Christian and Muslim worlds. Trade, in which Jews were involved, also played an important role in its life.

Therefore, although the stories of the “choice of faith” in the Khazar Khaganate or Kyivan Rus’ were basically a legend, they were not a pious fable – they had a serious foundation and may have partially reflected some real facts. Indeed, the Khazar and Rus’ rulers had to make a difficult choice in the question of faith. And the destiny of their states depended, to a great extent, on this choice.

   As for Prince Volodymyr, he had to choose not only between Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. He also faced the problem of which of the Christianities (Western or Eastern) to lean to. For his grandmother maneuvered between the “Greeks” and the “Germans.” After all, Prince Volodymyr had an opportunity to opt for one more variety of faith – paganism, – which he did at the beginning of his rule in Kyiv.

(To be continued)