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Christianity or Islam in Russian History (G.G.)

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This is an opinion article from a user of WikiChristian.

By Graham Llewellyn Grove, April 2007


The following is a 1,500 word essay answering the question: For some time, Russia stood poised between Islam and Christianity. In investigating the account of missionary expansion in Russia, give reasons for the choice of Christianity.


The spread of Christianity into Russia is historically unique in many ways. It occurred at a time when Islam was advancing rapidly out of the Middle East. Yet the Russian monarchy and her people embraced Christianity under the jurisdiction of Constantinople. The reasons for the initial choice of Christianity, rather than Islam, stem from many factors, including geographic, political, economic, moral and cultural factors. Over the subsequent centuries, despite occupation by a foreign power that adopted Islam, Christianity strengthened, partly because it acted as a unifying device of national identity.

In the years leading up to the state adoption of Christianity, geographical factors played an important role in preventing the spread of Islam to Russia[1]. Prior to Christianity, the people of ancient Rus' held pagan beliefs, worshipping a variety of deities, most commonly Perun[2], the god of thunder. In the seventh and eighth centuries, Muslim armies conquered much of the land south of Rus' imposing Islam on the peoples of these lands. Russia however was not invaded by advancing Muslim armies, and so its people were spared forced conversion. The Khazar Empire, directly south of Rus', acted as a buffer between Rus' and the Arab armies. The Khazars[3] were involved in numerous successful military campaigns against the Arab Caliphates. It has been suggested by some historians that these wars prevented an Arab invasion of Rus'[4] and thus an Islamic Russia.

Christianity was initially established as the state religion of the Rus' empire in 988 AD[5], during the reign of Vladimir. He was not, however, the first Christian in Russia. Legend has it that the Apostle Andrew took the gospel to Russia, although there is no good evidence supporting this[6]. Indeed, it is clear that pagan beliefs dominated the religious life of most of the Rus' until the time of Vladimir[7]. There is however, some documentation revealing that there were pockets of Christianity and some missionary activity in Russia from the 9th century onwards[8], including the mention of a church building in Kiev[9]. This shows that Vladimir did not introduce Christianity as a completely new idea to his people, and the pockets of Christianity already present may have helped contribute to the population's acceptance of Vladimir's decree to be baptized. Furthermore, Vladamir’s grandmother, Olga, had converted to Christianity as an adult, although her husband and son never became Christians. Vladimir was likely additionally influenced towards Christianity rather than Islam because of his grandmother’s Christian faith[10].

The choice of Christianity as the state religion of Rus’ was made at least partially on political motives. The Primary Chronicles[11], traditionally believed to be written one hundred years after Vladimir’s death by a monk called Nestor, describes the Grand Prince's choice of Byzatine Christianity as the national religion. Whether this account is accurate history or partially legend is debated[12]. Certainly a number of Arab texts from the same era give accounts contradicting parts of it[13]. According to The Primary Chronicles, Vladimir felt that the adoption of a state religion would reinforce the union between the different clans of his kingdom[14]. The chronicler recorded that a group of Bulgars, who were Muslims, approached the Prince extolling the virtues of Islam (Primary Chronicles, 84). This was followed by a succession of missionaries; German Papal emissaries proclaiming Latin Christianity, Khazars advocating Judaism and Byzatine missionaries promoting Eastern Christianity (Primary Chronicles, 85-106). Following the advice of his nobles, Vladimir sent an envoy to research each of these faiths (Primary Chronicles, 106). The envoy returned and advised that he adopt Byzatine Christianity. Although Vladimir accepted this counsel (Primary Chronicles, 108), he did not immediately act upon it and in the following year he became involved in military operations against the Byzatine Empire, laying siege to the city of Kherson. The Primary Chronicles record that Vladimir made a personal promise to God to become a Christian if he took the city (Primary Chronicles, 109). Vladimir was successful in conquering the city, and made an offer of peace to the Byzatine Emperor Basil, on condition of gaining Anna, the sister of Basil, as his wife[15]. Basil stipulated that Vladimir first become a Christian, and so Vladimir was baptized and married on the same day (Primary Chronicles, 111). On returning to Kiev, according to the Primary Chronicles, Vladimir commanded all his subjects in Kiev to attend a meeting at the local river, and ordered their baptism (Primary Chronicles, 117). These events suggest that Vladimir's embracing of Christianity, and rejection of Islam and Judaism, was at least partly a political decision[16]. Marrying Anna and converting to Christianity was a shrewd political move because he was creating an alliance with a strong neighbour.

Moral or legal requirements of Islam played a role in Rus’ choice against Islam, and thus towards Christianity. The Primary Chronicles describes numerous reasons why Vladimir rejected Islam, recording that “Circumcision, abstinence from pork and wine were disagreeable to him” (Primary Chronicles, 85). These specific moral requirements of Islam may certainly have swayed Vladimir, and the Russian people against Islam. There have been some historians who have suggested that the required abstinence of alcohol was one of the decisive factors against the spread of Islam into Russia[17].

Some scholars have suggested that Vladimir's choice of Christianity over Islam was a decision based primarily on economic judgement[18] and cultural identity. Even before the reign of Vladimir, Rus' was culturally closer to Byzantium, than it was to Islamic society in Arabia. Additionally, its natural trading partner was the Byzantine Empire, via the Black Sea and Dniper River. Thus by adopting Eastern Christianity, Vladimir increased the appeal of trade between Rus' and Byzantium by strengthening the cultural similarities.

The geographical, political, moral, economic and cultural factors already described begin to explain Prince Vladimir's and his people's choice of Christianity over Islam. However, Christianity was further consolidated as the religious choice of the people over the following century. Vladimir's approval of Christianity opened Rus' to government sanctioned missionary activity. Byzantine Christian missionaries and preachers were invited into Rus'[19] by Vladimir and Christianity spread rapidly throughout the land[20]. In a similar style to the baptism of the people of Kiev, mass baptisms were organized in villages and towns throughout the land. Not all of these were voluntary, and some of the populace were baptized under threat[21]. Nonetheless, this zealous missionary activity consolidated Christianity in ancient Rus'.

Additionally, literacy with the newly developed Slavic alphabet further strengthened Christianity in Rus'. One hundred years before Vladimir, the Byzatine monks Cyril and Methodius had been missionaries in Moravia, west of Russia[22]. Although they did not work as missionaries in Rus[23], they had created an alphabet and translated the Bible into the language of the ancient Rus' empire[24]. Vladimir, and his successor Yaroslav, oversaw the formation of schools and monasteries resulting in the dissemination of the Slavic alphabet throughout Rus'[25]. Most of the available literature in these schools and monasteries was translations of Christian writings and thus Christianity spread and was strengthened through the new school system. The fact that the church liturgy was in the vernacular also had a significant bearing on building up Christianity[26].

By the thirteenth century Christianity was very well established throughout Rus'. When the Mongols invaded in 1223 AD, the Rus' people did not adopt the pagan beliefs of their invaders. Christianity acted as a national bond for the Rus'[27], so that when the occupying Mongol army adopted Islam[28], the Rus' held to their Christian faith even more strongly. The Mongols were religiously tolerant, and it is likely that this tolerance was a factor in the Rus’ people maintaining their Christian beliefs[29], rather than choosing Islam. By the end of the Mongol occupation, the people of Russia had consistently shown that Christianity was the people’s choice of religion, not Islam. Christianity had become firmly entrenched in Russia, and early in the fifteenth century the Russian Church was declared autocephalus.

Finally, returning to the writings of The Primary Chronicles, it is apparent that the Rus' saw their choice of Christianity not only in terms of human decision. They believed that their countrymen's conversion to Christianity was part of God's pre-ordained plan[30]. The chronicles records his praise to God with the words, “Blessed be the Lord Jesus Christ, who has loved his new people, the land of Rus' and has illuminated them.”

Although, for some time the Russian people stood poised between Christianity and Islam, they ultimately made a choice for Christianity. This began with sporadic missionary activity in the ninth century, with small numbers of Russians converting. Vladimir’s choice of Christianity, after examining both Islam and Christianity, however, was the central milestone in the Christianization of Kievan Rus'. His choice was likely influenced by moral as well as political, cultural and economic factors. His decision for Christianity paved the way over the following centuries for the cementing of the people's choice for Christianity instead of Islam, despite a period of occupation by a foreign, Islamic power. Ultimately, as The Primary Chronicles note, it may be seen that God oversaw these events and the coming of Christianity in Russia.

References

  1. R. Fletcher, The Conversion of Europe: From Paganism to Christianity. (London: HarperCollins, 1997), 352
  2. P. Schaff, Mediaeval Christianity: AD 590-1073. 7 Vols, History of the Christian Church. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 1987)
  3. W. Van Den Bercken, Holy Russia and Christian Europe. Translator: Bowden J. (London: SCM Press, 1999), 9. The Khazars were a Turkic people who formed a kingdom in the Caucasus. Although not Jewish racially, they adopted Judaism in the seventh century as their state religion.
  4. Wikipedia Online 2007, “Khazars”, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Khazars
  5. K.F. Payton, “Christian History Timeline on The History of Russian Christianity”, Christian History Vol 7, No 2, Is 18 (1988): 16
  6. Schaff, Mediaeval Christianity
  7. Van Den Bercken, Holy Russia and Christian Europe, 9
  8. K. Ware. The Oxford Illustrated History of Christianity. Editor: McManners J. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), 152
  9. I. Kutash. “The Soviet Union Celebrates 1000 Years of Christianity”, Christian History Vol 7, No 2, Is 18 (1988): 13
  10. J. Gonzalez. The Story of Christianity. 2 volumes, (New York: Harper and Row, 1984), 264
  11. S.H. Cross & O.P. Sherbowitz-Wetzor, The Russian Primary Chronicle. Laurentian Text. Massachuset: Medieval Academy of America, 1968. An English Translation of The Primary Chronicles is contained within this book.
  12. K.F. Payton, “The Primary Source of the Millennium: Legends/Historical Events”, Christian History Vol 7, No 2, Is 18 (1988): 7
  13. Van Den Bercken, Holy Russia and Christian Europe, 20
  14. F. House. Millennium of Faith: Christianity in Russia 988-1988 AD. (New York: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1988), 6
  15. J.S.C. Abbott. The History of Christianity. (Portland: George Stinson & Co, 1883), 411
  16. Payton, “Primary Source”, 9
  17. Van Den Bercken, Holy Russia and Christian Europe, 29
  18. Wikipedia Online 2007, “Kievan Rus”, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kievan_Rus
  19. Abbott, The History of Christianity, 412
  20. K.A. Miller, “Vladimir Adopts Christianity”, Christian History, Vol 9, No 4, Is 28 (1990): 19
  21. Wikipedia Online 2007, “Kievan Rus”, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kievan_Rus
  22. D. Obolensky, Byzantium and the Slavs. (New York: St Vadimir’s Seminary Press, 1994), 205
  23. T. Ware, The Orthodox Church. (London: Penguin Books, 1993), 75
  24. Wikipedia Online 2007, “Old Church Slavonic”, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Old_Church_Slavonic. The language of the ancient Rus' and all of the surrounding Slavic peoples is now known as Old Church Slavonic. A number of distinct modern day languages have emerged from Old Church Slavonic, including Slovenian, Croatian, Serbian and Russian.
  25. Kutash, “Soviet Union Celebrates”, 13
  26. Ware. Oxford History, 151
  27. Gonzalez, Story of Christianity, 264
  28. K.S. Latourette. A History of Christianity. (London: Eyre and Spottiswoode Limited, 1964), 400
  29. Latourette, History of Christianity, 402
  30. Van Den Bercken, Holy Russia and Christian Europe, 37




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