How Russia Became Christian (Part II)

From CH&B’s website, How Russia became Christian (Part II)

c. 987 — Vladimir summoned together his boyars and the city elders, and said to them: “Behold, the Bulgars came before me urging me to accept their religion. Then came the Germans and praised their own faith; and after them came the Jews.”

Finally the Greeks appeared, criticizing all other faiths but commending their own, and they spoke at length, telling the history of the whole world from its beginning. Their words were artful, and it was wondrous to listen and pleasant to hear them. They preach the existence of another world. “Whoever adopts our religion and then dies,” they said, “shall arise and live forever. But whosoever embraces another faith, shall be consumed with fire in the next world.’ What is your opinion on this subject, and what do your answer?” The boyars and the elders replied, “You know, oh prince, that no man condemns his own possessions, but praises them instead. If you desire to make certain, you have servants at your disposal. Send them to inquire about the ritual of each and how he worships God.”

Their counsel pleased the prince and all the people, so that they chose good and wise men to the number of 10, and directed them to go first among the Bulgars and inspect their faith. The emissaries went their way, and when they arrived at their destination they beheld the disgraceful actions of the Bulgars and their worship in the mosque; then they returned to their country.

Vladimir then instructed them to go likewise among the Germans, and examine their faith, and finally to visit the Greeks. They thus went into Germany, and after viewing the German ceremonial, they proceeded to Tsar’grad, where they appeared before the [Byzantine] emperor. He inquired on what mission they had come, and they reported to him all that had occurred. When the emperor heard their words, he rejoiced, and did them great honor on that very day.

On the morrow, the emperor sent a message to the patriarch to inform him that a “Russian” delegation had arrived to examine their Greek faith, and directed him to prepare the church and the clergy, and to array himself in his sacerdotal robes, so that the Russes might behold the glory of the God of the Greeks. When the patriarch received these commands, he bade the clergy assemble, and they performed the customary rites.

They burned incense, and the choirs sang hymns. The emperor accompanied the Russes to the church, and placed them in a wide space, calling their attention to the beauty of the edifice, the chanting, and the pontifical services, and the ministry of the deacons, while he explained to them the worship of his God. The Russes were astonished, and in their wonder praised the Greek ceremonial. Then the Emperors Basil and Constantine invited the envoys to their presence, and said, “Go hence to your native country,” and dismissed them with valuable presents and great honor.

Thus they returned to their own country, and the prince called together his boyars and the elders. Vladimir then announced the return of the envoys who had been sent out, and suggested that their report be heard. He thus commanded them to speak out before his retinue.

The envoys reported, “When we journeyed among the Bulgars, we beheld how they worship in their temple, called a mosque, while they stand ungirt. The Bulgar bows, sits down, looks hither and thither like one possessed, and there is no happiness among them… Their religion is not good.”

“Then we went among the Germans, and saw them performing many ceremonies in their temples; but we beheld no glory there.”

“Then we went to Greece, and the Greeks led us to the edifices where they worship their God, and we know not whether we were in heaven or on earth. For on earth there is no such splendor or such beauty, and we are at a loss how to describe it. We only know that God dwells there among men, and their service is fairer than the ceremonies of other nations, for we cannot forget that beauty. Every man, after tasting something sweet, is afterward unwilling to accept that which is bitter, and therefore we cannot dwell longer here.”

Then the boyars spoke and said, “If the Greek faith were evil, it would not have been adopted by your grandmother Olga who was wiser than all other men.” Vladimir then inquired whether they should all accept baptism, and they replied that the decision rested with him.

At this point Vladimir’s religious search ceased for a year while he lay siege of the Byzantine city of Kherson. When he received a mysterious message that told him how to cut off the city defenders’ water supply, Vladimir told God that, should he end up taking the city, he would be baptized in gratitude for God’s help. Upon entering the city, he began negotiating with Byzantine Emperors Basil and Constantine for the hand of their sister Anna, thereby intending to cement his possession of the city and a peaceful co-existence with the Byzantine empire. But the two emperors delayed, insisting that he could have their sister only if he were baptized. He insisted that she bring priests with her to baptize him, and they agreed. She went to Kherson, where the narrative picks up:

c. 988—By divine agency, Vladimir was suffering at that moment from a disease of the eyes, and could see nothing, being in great distress. The princess declared to him that if he desired to be healed of this disease, he should be baptized with all speed, otherwise it could not be cured.

When Vladimir heard her message he said, “If this proves true, then of a surety is the God of the Christians great,” and gave order that he should be baptized. The Bishop of Kherson, together with the princess’s priests, after announcing the tidings, baptized Vladimir, and as the bishop laid his hand upon the him, he straightway received his sight. Upon experiencing this miraculous cure, Vladimir glorified God saying, “I have now perceived the one true God.” When his followers beheld this miracle, many of them were also baptized.

The Chronicle alleges that this took place in Kherson, but that “those who do not know the truth say he was baptized in Kiev,” or “in Vasil’ev, while still others mention other places.” When the prince returned to Kiev, according to the Chronicle:

[H]e directed that the idols be overthrown, and that some should be cut to pieces and others burned with fire. He thus ordered that Perun [the chief idol of the Kievan pagans’ pantheon] should be bound to a horse’s tail and dragged down Borichev [Street] to the stream. He appointed 12 men to beat the idol with sticks, not because he thought the wood was sensitive, but to affront the demon who had deceived man in this guise, that he might receive chastisement at the hands of men. Great art thou, oh Lord, and marvelous are thy works! Yesterday he was honored of men, but today held in derision. While the idol was being dragged along the stream to the Dnieper, the unbelievers wept over it, for they had not yet received holy baptism. After they had thus dragged the idol along, they cast it into the Dnieper. But Vladimir had given this injunction, “If it halts anywhere, then push it out from the bank, until it goes over the falls. Then let it loose.” His command was duly obeyed. When the men let the idol go, and it passed through the rapids, the wind cast it out on the bank, which since that time has been called Perun’s sandbank, a name that it bears to this very day [whenever the chronicler was writing].

Thereafter Vladimir sent heralds throughout the whole city to proclaim that if any inhabitants, rich or poor, did not betake himself to the river, he would risk the prince’s displeasure. When the people heard these words, they wept for joy, and exclaimed in their enthusiasm, “If this were not good, the prince and his boyars would not have accepted it.” On the morrow, the prince went forth to the Dnieper with the priests of the princess and those from Kherson, and a countless multitude assembled. They all went into the water; some stood up to their necks, others to their breasts, and the younger near the bank, some of them holding children in their arms, while the adults waded farther out. The priests stood by and offered prayers. There was joy in heaven and upon earth to behold so many souls saved. But the devil lamented, “Woe is me! How am I driven out hence! … I am vanquished … and my reign in these regions is at an end.”

The Chronicle’s next several pages contain accounts of the people almost unanimously accepting this new Christian faith, and of Vladimir’s oversight of the Christianization of his entire nation, including his initiating the education of the nation’s children and in other ways encouraging the spread of the gospel of Christ throughout his realm.

The Russian Primary Chronicle was edited and translated by Samuel Hazzard Cross and Olgerd P. Sherbowitz-Wetzor (Medieval Academy of America: Cambridge, MS), 1953.

[Part I is here.]

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