The Birth of Russian Orthodoxy

The Birth of Russian Orthodoxy

Posted on 16th June 2020 under The Rectory Bulletin


Worship the LORD in the splendour of holiness; tremble before him, all the earth! (Psalm 96:9)

There is a grand tale told of Vladimir the Great (c. 958 - 1015), who ruled much of the Rus’ from his base in Kiev. Although his grandmother was a Christian, he himself had been raised as a pagan and had collected many gods and many concubines. He had built a temple overlooking Kiev which was dedicated to the tribal deities, and was at times a persecutor of Christians. This pagan ruler was, however, surrounded by nations who insisted there was only one God and they began to petition him to adopt their religion. Vladimir received and listened to these emissaries, some being more attractive to him than others. For instance, whilst he liked the idea of choosing from “seventy fair women” in the afterlife he was less keen on the Muslim abstinence from wine, exclaiming: “Drinking is the joy of the Russes. We cannot exist without that pleasure.”

In order to help him come to a decision, Vladimir sent out envoys to investigate these religions, to see what they were like in practice. When they returned, the prince called his nobles together and they together heard the reports. According to the Primary Chronicle, compiled in Kiev in around 1113, this was their experience of Muslim Bulgars, Catholic Germans and Orthodox Greeks:


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, but instead only sorrow and a dreadful stench. 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 knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth. For on earth there is no such splendour 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.

“We knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth.” Vladimir was convinced, and so was born Russian Orthodoxy.