How did Russia become primarily Orthodox?
People like to talk about Russia like it was a villain. After all, the bad behavior of its leaders creates lots of enemies for the Russian people.
Yet Russia does not deserve the harsh treatment which it receives. Nor should people look at its people as thought they were a wicked lot.
The truth of the matter is that Russia is a Christian country. It is filled with Orthodox Christians, and the harsh treatment which Christians in the West throw at it is thrown at their Christian brethren.
So I think it would be decent to write a bit about of Russia’s relationship with Christianity.
And I’ll begin with the question: How did Russia become primarily Orthodox?
Russia became primarily Orthodox when a Viking tribe called the Rus claimed Kiev and converted to Orthodoxy. They had been pagans beforehand. The Rus chose Orthodox Christianity because their emissaries were impressed by the worship which they observed when they went to Orthodox Constantinople.
Now, here’s a more detailed history of what happened.
Russia Before Christianity
For most of recorded history, the lands that became Russia were filled with nomadic horsemen. Famous tribes among them included the Scythians, Roxolani, Alans, and the Huns. These peoples had their own pagan religions.
The horse nomads would often invade Europe and the Middle East. Once, the Huns invaded Western Europe and drove the other horse tribes into the region as well. When they did so, the plains where they had previously lived were mostly empty.
Shortly after the horse nomads had abandoned their homelands, a group of people called the Slavs appeared from the Balkans region in Southern Europe. They began to expand and move northward.
So they entered the lands the horse nomads had abandoned. They built settlements there, and they lived in the Eurasian grasslands.
And these Slavs had their own pagan religions.
While the Slavs were living there, Vikings entered Eurasia. a tribe called the Rus traveled the Eurasian rivers and came to a town called Kiev. They conquered it.
And these Rus were the people who gave Russia its name.
So the people of Kiev were Slavic pagans, and they were rules by Viking pagans.
Kiev and the Byzantine Empire
During those years when the Vikings ruled the Slavs, the most powerful country in the area was the Byzantine Empire.
But Byzantium was surrounded by enemies. So although it was stronger than any one of its neighbors, the Byzantines were required to constantly divide their forces. This allowed weak neighbors to attack them.
Neighbors such as the Rus.
So the Rus watched the Byzantines at Constantinople and waited for them to abandon their capital to fight wars in faraway places.
The Byzantines eventually did so, and they left their capital poorly defended. So the Rus attacked with a fleet and army.
The Rus failed. Hard.
So the Rus stopped trying to take the capital. They contented themselves with raiding the outlying lands of Byzantium.
The Byzantines tolerated the Viking mischief for a while because they had better enemies to fight. However, they eventually turned their attention to the Rus. The Rus were unhappy about this.
So the Rus tried to ally themselves with Byzantium so that the empire would not destroy them. The Byzantines permitted this because the Rus were distracting them from their greater foes.
So they struck an alliance. One of its terms was that the Rus would convert to Christianity. So the Rus did.
How Did Russia Become Primarily Orthodox? – Vladimir of Kiev Converts the Rus
Time passed, and the Rus gained a prince named Vladimir, and he presided over the Rus at their highest power.
He converted the country to Orthodoxy, and the Russians would not be Orthodox without him. He did so in 988, when he was baptized.
Prince Vladimir wanted to a proper state religion for his people because of the cultural, political, and social advantages that come from having one.
And his grandmother was Orthodox.
And the emissaries he sent to the surrounding countries spoke more kindly of Orthodoxy than of any other religion.
Moreover, the prospect of allying with the Byzantine Empire was appealing to him.
So he resolved to convert his people to Orthodoxy.
To that end, he conquered a nearby Byzantine settlement in Crimea, and then he sued for peace. He wanted to get the Emperor’s attention and make the prospect of a military and religious alliance desirable.
It worked, and Prince Vladimir was baptized into the church and married a Byzantine noblewoman.
He was later canonized as an Orthodox saint.
Saint Vladimir was to Russia what Saint Patrick was to Ireland.
How Did Russia Become Primarily Orthodox? – The Message that Converted the Rus
Prince Vladimir desired that his people would convert to a common religion that could unite them and help his country prosper. So he sent emissaries to the lands surrounding his country to learn the religions of other peoples.
The men whom he sent to Byzantium discovered Orthodox Christianity, and their report convinced the prince that it ws right to convert to Orthodoxy.
Here is their report:
‘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 (including the Emperor himself) 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 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.’
How Did Russia Become Primarily Orthodox? – Christianity in Russia After the Rus
Christianity gradually replaced Slavic paganism in Russia.
Then the Mongols invaded Russia, and they followed Tengrism. They converted to Islam later, but they barely brought it into Russia.
The Mongols and their successors fell, and the Russians reclaimed their lands. They were still Orthodox.
Time passed, and the Russians spread through Siberia and across the Bering Strait into Alaska. They brought Orthodox Christianity with them.
And the Orthodox Church was a powerful force in Russia during this time.
Russia and Communism
The Communists took Russia for themselves in 1917, and they killed the tsar. The church opposed this, and many people who fought for the tsar were canonized for doing so. The tsar and his family were also canonized.
Now, Communists hate Christianity. Communism is a religion, its adherents worship the government, and Christianity is a competing force.
So the Communists spent most of their time in power destroying churches and monasteries while they killed the Orthodox priests and monks.
They also suppressed religious activities throughout the empire as a general rule.
The Communists tried very hard to destroy everything within Russia,a nd they eventually managed to destroy themselves.
But they could not destroy the church.
So communism fell, and Orthodox Christianity began to return.
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The Gangster Theocracy
In the years that passed after communism fell in Russia, the country was in an anarchical state. Various oligarchs came into power there.
Of the people who acquired power in Russia after communism, the most successful was Vladimir Putin.
But he was considered to be an illegitimate leader by most Russians, and this view is still common throughout the country.
So Putin keeps a weak grasp on his position. This has been the case for many years, and he tries to establish his legitimacy.
He does this by keeping good relations with the Orthodox Church in Russia.
In the time that passed after communism fell and the oligarchs seized the country, the only Russian institution which people there still trust is the Orthodox Church.
So remaining on the church’s good side is useful for establishing legitimacy. Putin knows this.
Therefore, Putin allows the Orthodox Church in Russia to exert a large amount of influence in the country’s political and cultural affairs.
To go against him is to go against the church.
And the integration of the church into Putin’s gangster state has transformed Russia into a semi-theocratic power.
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