The origins of the Christian Faith in Rus’ should be sought long before the enlightening activities of Holy Equal-to-the-Apostles Prince Vladimir. Christian tradition says that the very hills upon which the majestic city of Kiev would spread across in the future, were visited by the Holy Apostle Andrew the First-Called, as he preached the Resurrection of Christ, moving up the Dnieper.
Some Byzantine chronicles of the 5th century already mention the “Scythian diocese”. Holy Equal-to-the-Apostles Cyril (827–869) and Methodius (815–885) during their enlightenment mission among the Slavic tribes, also made a considerable spiritual contribution to the spread of Christianity and created all the prerequisites for establishing Orthodoxy as the culture-forming religion of our ancestors. It could not have been done otherwise, as by creating a new alphabet based on the Greek, the Holy Equal-to-the-Apostles brothers were able to utilise Byzantine liturgical books as textbooks in teaching literacy to the Slavs. There is every reason to believe that the holy brothers, along with their literary tutoring, consciously and purposefully, with the kindest and purest intentions, brought the light of the Orthodox Faith to our ancestors.
An indirect argument, testifying in favour of the existence of Christianity in Rus’ before the official date of its adoption, can be formed from the missionary activity of the monks, exiled in the 8th century from the Byzantine Empire to the Crimean peninsula. The fact is that during the seizure of power in Constantinople by iconoclastic heretics, the most zealous defenders of the Holy Icons (predominantly monks) were sent into exile, mainly to Crimea. It is possible that they went further inland and preached Christianity.
Holy Equal-to-the-Apostles Princess Olga (circa 920–969) is historically the first among the leaders of the Old Russian state to have accepted Holy Baptism. The princess tried to persuade her son, Prince Sviatoslav, to adopt Christianity, but he refused in every way possible and remained a pagan until the end of his life.
Meanwhile, before the Slavic tribes became accustomed with Orthodox Christianity, and especially before the historic Baptism of Rus’, they professed a pagan, “folk” religion, which essentially involved the worship of the forces of nature and visible idols — wooden or stone statues, representing the image of some pagan god “responsible” for a particular natural phenomenon. In paganism, one could often find cruel and, at times, far from pious customs. For example, if a distinguished grandee was dying, they could kill his wife and children, and bury them, along with the head of the family clan, in one mound. There were cases when human sacrifices were offered to false gods. However, this is not even the main point. Paganism is, by its nature, non-historical and elemental; it is a purely emotional, carnal, primitive religious phenomenon, that is even crude and barbaric in places. This is not the potential force that could have united the numerous people at that time, living on a vast territory, into a single whole.
Holy Equal-to-the-Apostles Prince Vladimir (947–1015), before his conversion to Christianity, made attempts to reform the previously existing religion. Pagan idols, responsible for one aspect of human life or another, were systematised. However, this did not bring about substantial results in strengthening the spirit and the state of the Slavic people. An effective transformative force was required. By Divine Providence, with such great spiritual power, enlightening human souls, and appealing for sacrificial love, creation, humility, and morality, Christianity appeared, arriving to us culturally from the Bulgarian lands, and canonically from Byzantium.
There is a legend that Prince Vladimir, before the events of 988, was busy searching for such a faith that would ideally suit the Slavs. Priority was given to Eastern Christianity, a wonderful, almost unearthly system of Divine worship which struck the princely ambassadors, and later Vladimir himself. According to the legend, before his own baptism in the city of Cherson (Chersonesus Taurica) the prince was struck with blindness, and after the baptism, upon leaving the baptismal font, Vladimir, as he testified, “saw the true God”. The pious prince himself gave all the people a personal example of repentance and the transfiguration of his own soul. After baptism, he left all pagan habits and the corresponding way of life in the past.
The baptism of Rus’ in 988 meant a massive change and even the eradication of almost everything that existed before the adoption of Christianity and led the Slavs to further spiritual resolution: pagan traditions, customs, morals. The September baptism of the people in the Dnieper (Kiev) and Volkhov (Novgorod) symbolised the intention of Prince Vladimir to transform the Russian Homeland and make it a stronghold of Orthodoxy.
It cannot be confirmed that with the adoption of Christianity, paganism in Rus’ ceased to exist. There are even cases of clashes and civil strife between Christians and pagans, but gradually paganism disappears from Slavic consciousness, and the old Russian people begin an amazing journey to create what their descendants would later call “Holy Rus'”.
The results and positive significance of the adoption of Christianity by Rus’ cannot be overestimated. The spiritual enlightenment of the people; the eradication of vices and immorality; the discovery of faith in the living God, the Trinity; spiritual life, love of neighbours; the struggle with passions and; salvation through the redemptive mission of the Lord Jesus Christ, which is perhaps the most basic and important value introduced to the Slavs with the spread and rooting of Christianity. However, the cultural contribution stemming from the Baptism presents an equally important component in the spread of Christianity in Rus’.
Russian cities were transformed with the burgeoning development of wooden, and later stone church architecture. Orthodox churches and monasteries were erected everywhere, acting as beacons of literacy and faith. The most famous among them are: the Church of the Protection of the Virgin on the Nerl; St. Demetrius’ Cathedral in Vladimir; St. George’s Cathedral in Yuryev-Polsky; the Church of the Transfiguration of the Saviour in Novgorod; the Saviour Church on Nereditsa; the Dormition Cathedral in Zvenigorod; the Cathedral of Archangel Michael in Mikulino; the cathedrals of the Moscow Kremlin; and many other churches and monastic architectural complexes erected in various parts of our Motherland.
The Orthodox saints of Ancient Rus’ provide us with a worthy example of living evangelical virtues, the preaching of spirituality, literary knowledge and readiness to stand up for the Faith to the end.
With the adoption, spreading and assimilation of Christianity by the Slavs, a particularly unique phenomenon of spiritual culture appears in its own way with religious literature. The written language inherited from the Holy Equal-to-the-Apostles Cyril and Methodius contributed to the spread of literary knowledge in Rus’.
Within the language and literature of every nation are imbued its highest spiritual qualities: piety, morality, love, reason, attitude toward the world and people. Familiarisation with the literary monuments of Ancient Rus’ contributes to the spiritual development of a person, their self-education, religiosity. Old Russian literature is a source of Christian piety; it is a human example of the development of the Christian qualities of humility and philanthropy, prayerful vigil and accomplishment of deeds for faith, respect for elders and preservation of historical commemoration and traditions.
The adoption of Christianity and its literary culture created favourable conditions for the emergence of literary masterpieces of Ancient Rus’, which made a colossal contribution to the development of global literature.
Similar literary texts existed in Rus’ even earlier, but it was with the adoption of Christianity that its development became widespread, global in scope.
Written language gradually transformed into a category of Russian spiritual culture known as “Knizhnost” (a collection of literature and a love of knowledge set forth in books). Distinguished by its inner ideology, abounding in artistic richness and at the same time, simplicity and clarity, Old Russian literature easily conveyed to the hearts and minds of the newly converted Christian people, the God-revealing Truths.
One of the first known Old Russian writers is the monk of the Kiev-Pechersk Monastery Nestor the Chronicler (1056–1114). His epoch-making work of our history, “The Tale of Bygone Years” has survived. On its pages, the Pechersk monk raises complex historical and philosophical questions related to the origin of the Russian Hhomeomeland, the Old Russian nation.
It is impossible to ignore the “Sermon on law and grace,” by metropolitan of Kiev and All Rus’ Hilarion. This literary and theological treatise conveys to the reader the Christian dogmatic tenet that God chose not only one particular nation, but all mankind.
The “Testament”, authored by Prince Vladimir Monomakh, is an organic synthesis of personal morality and the perception of national unity as an indispensable condition in the construction of a nation protected by God.
Dogmatic and polemical compositions were presented by such authors as Maximus the Greek, Nilus of Sora, Joseph of Volokalamsk, and others.
A book, in the mind of a Russian person, its form and purpose has always been perceived as being unearthly. A book, especially a manuscript, deserved a reverent attitude along with the Cross and the Icon, and was given special care, being kept in a corner specifically for Icons or a separate place. They touched a book only after washing their hands and completing a prayer. It is difficult to overrate the similar attitude toward the Divinely-inspired book that was preserved in the Old Belief.
Along with the literary culture in the pre-Raskol Russian Church, artistic culture also flourished, which became embodied within the phenomenon of the Old Russian Icon.
The Icon is a “window to the spiritual world”, an image that helps a praying Christian elevate his mind and heart to the Prototype. An Icon is not simply a picture, the purpose of which is to arouse our senses, and is not the subject of material worship. An Icon for an Orthodox Christian is part of God’s Revelation. Through the Holy Icon, God Himself opens the veil of the Kingdom of Heaven, hitherto hidden from man, but prepared for everyone who believes in the redemptive mission of our Lord Jesus Christ. Theology is not only speculative reasoning about Christian dogma. “The Spirit creates where it wants.” The Spirit, for the salvation of mankind creates even within church art, the most vivid manifestation of which is the Icon. The Icon has always been the “silent preacher” of Christianity.
In the pre-Raskol Russian Church, “Theology in paints,” as the phenomenon of iconography is called, had reached its heights. The iconographer monk Alypius and the hierarch of Moscow metropolitan Peter naturally experienced the influence of Byzantine iconography. Strict in character, majestic and unattainable. Everybody knows the image of the “Spas Yaroye Oko” (Saviour with the Strict Eye), painted by St. Peter.
The traditions of Byzantine iconography were also embodied by the famous Theophanes the Greek (1340-1410) in his spiritual creation. The faces that came out from under his brush seem as if to incinerate all sinful things in a person, burn out any manifestation of passion, which is visible in the Icons of Theophanes (dark, stern, almost “menacing faces”).
The Icons of Venerable Andrei Rublev (1360 – January 29, 1430) also carry within themselves the sense of the Uncreated Light-Fire. Only this Fire is no longer “menacing”, not destroying sin. The nature of the Uncreated Light-Fire in Andrei Rublev’s “Iconic Theology” is not the nature of incineration of sinful things, but of the Transfiguration of the penitent. It is the nature of the burning of the Gospel’s Light, which, according to the word of Christ, is the “Light of the world.” Rublev’s Saviour is no longer a strict and just Judge, but an all-forgiving, loving Father, the Lord Almighty, not remembering human sin, but accepting His lost children with love. In accordance with the sense of Rublev’s Icons, human nature is not “striving for salvation,” as with Theophanes’, but is now symbolising a higher spiritual perfection, a heavenly existence.
It is known that the work of Venerable Andrei Rublev was influenced by the greatest Russian saint, Venerable Sergius of Radonezh, who developed the Byzantine tradition of Hesychasm in Rus’ – contemplative theology, whose dogmatic meaning was laid out in the idea of the Transfiguration of the Lord on Mount Tabor.
The iconographer Dionisius (c. 1440-1502) as a whole continued the religious and artistic tradition of Andrei Rublev, enriching it with colourful artistic techniques, lightness and expressiveness.
To this day, Old-believers hold sacred the canons of Old Russian iconography. And the age-old traditions of immemorial orthodox icon-making have been sacredly preserved by the Old Orthodox Christians, in spite of any persecution and hardship.
The primates of the Russian church were metropolitans, who were appointed to the Kiev (followed by Moscow) cathedra from Byzantium. From 988 to 992, metropolitan Michael occupied the primate’s cathedra in Kiev, as is mentioned in the Life of St. Prince Vladimir. After Michael, Leontius was appointed to the throne, who ruled from 992 to 1008.
During the reign of Prince Yaroslav the Wise of Kiev (978 – February 20, 1054), Rus’ is experiencing an unprecedented civilizational rise. Churches are being built everywhere, schools and libraries are being developed, the Church is leading a decisive struggle against the remnants of the pagan past. The flourishing of culture and enlightenment of Kievan Rus’ is closely connected with the activities of metropolitan Hilarion – a talented spiritual writer. It is noteworthy that metropolitan Hilarion (1051–1054) was the first metropolitan of Kiev to be Russian-born and placed upon the cathedra without the canonical approval of Constantinople. By this, Yaroslav the Wise attempted to obtain canonical independence for the Russian Church. However, after the death of Yaroslav, they returned to the previous practice of appointing a metropolitan from Byzantium.
Another no less important figure of the young developing Russian Church was metropolitan Clement Smoliatich (1147–1155) – a church writer, theologian, and prominent medieval Russian thinker. The work of Clement, “A Letter, written by Clement, metropolitan of Russia, to Thomas the Presbyter, interpreted by Athanasius the Monk”, has survived. On its pages, the author, as per the Theological tradition of the Alexandrian school, proves the possibility of allegorical, figurative interpretation of the Holy Scriptures, and not their literal understanding.
Metropolitan Peter, hierarch of Moscow (1308 – December 21, 1326), was the first of the metropolitans who transferred his residence to Moscow. Hierarch Peter was a prominent iconographer, and the image of the “Spas Yaroe Oko” (Saviour with the Strict Eye), painted by the metropolitan, is a masterpiece in religious art of worldwide significance. It was on the advice of metropolitan Peter that Prince Ivan Kalita in 1326 laid down the foundation of a stone church in the name of the Dormition of the Most Holy Theotokos on the territory of the Moscow Kremlin – the renowned Dormition Cathedral. He was glorified in the rank of hierarchs by the Russian Church.
Hierarch Alexis of Moscow (1354 – February 12, 1378) possessed exceptional intelligence, phenomenal abilities and governing talent. He was the actual ruler of the Principality of Moscow under three princes, and pursued a consistent policy of strengthening and raising Moscow. Possessing hefty diplomatic abilities, he managed to establish good relations with the Golden Horde and was highly praised by the people.
Metropolitan of Kiev and All Rus’ Cyprian (1389–1406). An Orthodox writer, who knew several languages and was a scribe.
An extraordinary personality, original and controversial, possessing humility and not without obstinacy. He purposefully pursued a policy of solitude and was the only metropolitan of Vladimir-Muscovite Rus’ who refused to repair direct diplomatic relations with the Golden Horde.
The rule of metropolitan Cyprian is notable in that, during his reign the Russian Church carried out a relatively grandiose liturgical reform, the essence of which was to change the liturgical practice from the more “mundane” Studion rules to the Jerusalem usage, gravitating toward the monastic spirit. Henceforth, Orthodox Divine services in Rus’ became more prolonged, strict and reverent.
By its nature, the church reform of metropolitan Cyprian is a larger scale of transformation than the notorious events of the Nikon-Alexis era. However, under metropolitan Cyprian, the change of the Rules was done carefully, gradually and critically. In addition, the external forms of Divine worship continued to conform to the spirit of the Apostolic Tradition and the patristic religious experience. There was no heresy. Specifically, it was under metropolitan Cyprian that the Divine service in the Russian Church became almost identical to that which is being performed today in the churches of the Russian Orthodox Old-Rite Church.
It is worth noting that in Rus’, the Church and its representatives from among the clergy have always helped the authorities and the people in difficult and hard years. Thus, during the time of the Mongol invasion and the subsequent three hundred year oppression, the Church attempted in every way to smooth over, to pacify the cruelty of the Mongol-Tatars, which contributed to the weakening of their raids, and to bloodless collection of tribute. It is noteworthy that during the oppression, the Church itself suffered to a lesser extent, because the beliefs of the Mongol-Tatars at that time allowed for the worship of any religion that a particular people had, regardless of where they went. During the Mongol period, a whole host of famous pious warriors appeared on Russian soil. Among them are the Holy Right-believing princes: Alexander Nevsky (May 13, 1221 – November 14, 1263), who fought off German and Swedish crusaders; Dmitriy Donskoy (October 12, 1350 – May 19, 1389), the hero of the Kulikovo field; Michael of Tver (1271 – November 22, 1318), who was martyred in the Horde.
The patriarch of Moscow and All Rus’ Hermogenes (July 3, 1606 – February 17, 1612) came out in open opposition of the dominion of the Poles, and he reluctantly agreed to recognise the Polish prince Wladyslaw IV as Russian Tsar, only on the condition that he would adopt Orthodoxy. Also, one of the patriarchal demands was the absolute withdrawal of Polish troops from within the borders of the Russian state. When this did not happen, the patriarch began to openly call on the Russian people to gather militia and fight against the western occupiers. Letters written by the patriarch were sent to all ends of Rus’ with a call to fight, which achieved their results. Having imprisoned Hermogenes in a dungeon, and threatened him with physical violence, the Poles demanded that he pacify the people. However, the hierarch remained unmoved. Patriarch Hermogenes died in prison from starvation, unable to survive until the liberation of Moscow.
Patriarch Philaret Romanov (June 24, 1619 – October 1, 1633), father of the first Russian tsar of the Romanov dynasty, Mikhail Feodorovich Romanov (July 22, 1596 – July 23, 1645), is another significant figure from among the church leaders during the Time of Troubles.
He was a major public figure, a talented manager, politician, canonist and theologian. In fact, he was the actual ruler of the state instead of his young and not yet experienced son-king. Conducting a consistent national policy, defending the independence of the state, as the metropolitan of Rostov, he was arrested by the Poles and spent eight years in captivity. Following his release, he was solemnly met in Moscow by his son, Tsar Michael.
In 1619, metropolitan Philaret Romanov was elevated to the rank of patriarch of Moscow and All Russia.
It was under patriarch Philaret that the Large Potrebnik (a ‘Potreba’ is a need, so a ‘Potrebnik’ is a book with prayers, services and rites for various needs, e.g. the Mysteries) was compiled, in which particular attention was focused on the existential inadmissibility of a Christening in which water is poured over a person (as opposed to full body immersion – Baptism), being viewed as a heretical custom by the Church. It also stated the need to perform a three-immersion baptism of Catholics upon their conversion to Orthodoxy, since only the three-immersion baptism is recognised by the Church as valid, in accordance with the 50th apostolic canon.
The Old Russian Church is considered to be the citadel of monastic life. Monasteries in Rus’ arose almost immediately after its Baptism, and they bore within themselves not simply the function of a monastic dormitory and joint management.
The Old Russian monastery is a full-fledged spiritual centre with a rich liturgical life and prescribed traditions, as well as being a beacon of culture, education and spiritual upbringing. Furthermore, the image of a Russian monk has always been associated with an unearthly, angelic life. In addition to the immediate spiritual purpose, monasteries were of great economic importance to the state. The first communal-type monastery in Rus’ is considered to be the Kiev-Pechersk Lavra, which was founded at the beginning of the 11th century by a monk from the city of Liubech, Anthony, glorified among the rank of monks (983–1073). The disciple of Venerable Anthony, Venerable Theodosius of Kiev-Pechersk (1029 – May 3, 1074), a monk from the ancient city of Kursk, became a worthy successor to the pious deeds of his spiritual mentor.
However, the pinnacle of monasticism and spirituality in general in Rus’ is reached during the time of Venerable Sergius of Radonezh (May 1322 – September 25, 1392). He was the greatest Russian ascetic, one of the most revered saints in the Russian Homeland, a successor of the traditions of Hesychasm (“mental” prayer), and a talented diplomat and organizer. He was, in the literal sense of the word, revealed by the Lord as consolation and strength to the Russian people when Rus’ was shaken on the one hand by civil strife, and on the other – by regular Basqaq (Mongol tax collectors) atrocities. The monastery founded by venerable Sergius – The Holy Trinity Lavra of St. Sergius – became renowned worldwide. Thanks to Sergius, the fundamentals of the centralisation of the Russian lands were set; the legendary iconographer venerable Andrei Rublev worked under the influence of Sergius; it was Sergius of Radonezh who blessed Dmitriy Donskoy for the Kulikovo battle, expressing confidence in victory that was of immense ideological importance for the nation; and during the battle itself, according to legend, he commemorated the fallen warriors by name.
The glorification of Sergius “in the first generation” is an unprecedented occurrence in the history of Russian Orthodoxy and Russian holiness.
An important role in the development of Russian monasticism was played by the Venerable Joseph of Volokalamsk (November 14, 1439 – September 9, 1515) and Nilus of Sora (1433–1508). Each of them saw their own ideal of monastic life. The first – in discipline, with zealous observance of the church rules, and active public and missionary service. The second – in seclusion, solitude, “mental prayer”. Despite the external “difference”, the variants of monastic life proposed by Joseph and Nilus are two sides of the same coin and, when combined organically with one another, are equally pleasing to the Lord. Both Russian ascetics left behind valuable spiritual wisdom and rich literary heritage.
There are other well-known ancient monastic cloisters of Rus’. Among them are the Solovetsky monastery, the Pskovo-Pechersky Monastery, the Kirillo-Belozersky Monastery, Valaam, St. George Monastery in Novgorod, the Transfiguration Monastery in Murom and others.