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The Baptism of Russia and Its Significance for Today

Theodore Voronov
Talk at St. Aidan's church on October 13, 2001

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit!

Thirteen years ago, in 1988, we celebrated the first millennium of the Baptism of Russia. So now it is more than one thousand years since the time when the light of Christ's Truth has shone forth in the Russian land. The topic of my talk is the baptism of Russia and its significance for today.

I am going to speak about three items

Please forgive my mistakes and drawbacks.

1. The particular circumstances of the Baptism of Russia

First, which land we are talking about? In the X-th century the Russian land or Rus' in the narrow sense meant just a piece of land along the Dnieper river around Kiev, but more generally it embraced the country from the Carpathian mountains at the south-west to the deep forests situated where now Moscow stands at the north-east. It bordered Poland, Hungary, Lithuania and various Baltic and Finnish tribes, as well as some tribes speaking Turkish languages. Ancient Russians themselves were a federation of various tribes, which names we know from the chronicles. They were ruled by a Prince in Kiev, but his power was more or less nominal. He was a sort of a military leader, who also used his power to collect taxes from his subjects. There was a definite interaction with Scandinavians; it seems that certain amount of Scandinavians lived in Kiev and Novgorod. Scandinavian names were common, and the very name Rus' is close to the modern Finnish word for Sweden. On the other hand, there was an active interaction with the Greeks of the Byzantine Empire. Russians were quite belligerent; at some times they fought with the Byzantines, at other times they provided important military help to them. Christianity came to Russia, obviously, before its Baptism. The Church tradition holds that the Holy Apostle Andrew travelled to the lands which later became Russia and preached there. Definitely, there were already many Christians in the time of Prince Vladimir. His own grandmother Princess Olga was Christian. However, the majority of Russians were pagans. It should be noted that their pagan faith was not particularly developed, compared to that of Baltic Slavs, for example. Before Prince Vladimir turned to Christianity, he tried to introduce a centralized pagan cult, which he himself abandoned soon.

There are various very interesting points related with the baptism of Russia. I will mention just two:

  • The choice of faith

  • The immediate impact of the baptism

The chronicle says that before Prince Vladimir decided to adopt Christianity, he considered other faiths. Muslims came to him, but he did not like Islam. Also Jews from a neighboring Khazaria came to him to advocate Judaism. He asked them: "Where is your land?". And they replied: "In Jerusalem". The Prince asked in doubt: "Is it really so?" And they replied: "We possessed Jerusalem, but God took it from us for our sins" The Prince then got angry and said: "Do you wish the same for us?" and cast them away. It should be noted that Vladimir also refused to accept Latin missionaries of the German origin. (At that time the Latins has not split from the Orthodox Church yet, but some seeds of the future schism were already there, in particular among the Germans.) Vladimir chose to take the Christianity from the Greeks. His envoys sent to Konstantinople told him about the beauty of the service in Hagia Sophia: "We did not know if we were on earth or in heaven". Vladimir received the holy baptism himself and ordered all the people of Russia to be baptized, which actually took place everywhere starting from Kiev.

The immediate impact of the baptism was enormous, both for Vladimir and for the whole country. Before the baptism Vladimir was known to be very belligerent, cruel to his enemies and very attached to sexual pleasures. Baptism changed him completely. He took the Christian teaching very seriously. One small detail: after the baptism he decided to abandon the death punishment in his land, which was something non heard-of at those times. People's memory preserved St. Vladimir as a loving father of his people, as "Vladimir the Red Sun". The chronicle preserved the following prayer of St. Vladimir for the people that he baptized:

O God who didst create heaven and earth:
Look down upon these new people
and grant them to know Thee, the true God,
as the Christian countries has known,
and strengthen in them the faith true and non-deviating,
and help me, o Lord, against the adversary,
so that putting hope in Thee and in Thy majesty I will defeat all his plots.

What should be noted, is that Russia received baptism at a very fortunate time. On one hand, Russians did not develop any serious pagan religion of their own, so there was no serious opposition to Christianity. On the other hand, the Orthodox Christianity itself was at that moment in a ripe form, so to say. It passed the epoch of great controversies, completed the formulation of the dogmata and it was ready to transfer the fruits of the previous work to new nations. Russians came to receive the holy baptism at a very good moment! They accepted the new faith with all their heart and during the centuries Christianity has shaped completely the Russian soul, creating a unique phenomenon of the Holy Russia.

2. What is Holy Russia and the fate of the Holy Russia

Holy Russia or Holy Rus' is the name that has been used for the Russian land and the Russian people since Russia was baptized by Prince Vladimir. This name has a great significance. What does it mean? Are all Russians holy? No, of course not. The name means that Russian people have not put any other ideal before themselves but the ideal of Christ and that they have tried to arrange all their lives according to the teaching of Christ and His Church. Of course they sinned, but they repented and returned to the same Christian way. There is plenty of evidence of this.

Foreigners who travelled to Russia in medieval times often compared its life with that of a monastery. To such a monastic rule, so to say, obeyed everybody from the Tsar to a simple peasant. It is most significant that Russian common people, the peasants, who were, in fact, the majority of Russians, assumed the name krestiane, i.e., "Christians". "Russian" and "Christian" used to be synonyms. There is plenty of evidence concerning this in the literature.

Because of this, there have never been any chauvinism based on race or ethnic pride. It was very simple to become a Russian: just come and join the Orthodox Church and you will be considered Russian if you want. The only criterion. In such a way, people of Scandinavian, Finnish, Baltic, Mongolian and Turkish blood joined the Slavic core of the Russian nation to become one nation. A substantial part of the Russian nobility, who gave many glorious names of statesmen, soldiers, and men of arts, have as their ancestors numerous Mongol-Tartar warriors who chose to come to the service of Russian princes, to be baptized and marry Russian beauties, - and become Russians. Kutuzovs, Karamzins, Kochubeys, Aksakovs, to name some. On the other hand, there have never been any Christianization of other peoples by force. (For example, after Kazan was united to Russia by John the Fourth, known as the Terrible, the Kazan Tartars who preferred to remain Muslims were allowed to do so. Kazan Tartars still exist is a distinct Muslim people, after more than four centuries of the life in the Russian state.) People coming to Russia from everywhere were accepted, among them Greeks, Italians, Germans, Scots, French, to name some. As a result, Russians used to be of a very diverse blood and at the same time of one heart, so to say. This heart was unmistakably Christian.

The Russian land used to be called the House of the Most Holy Mother of God and the name a Christ-loving warrior used to be applied to a Russian soldier. The civil code and the way of every-day life of the pre-revolutionary Russia tend to be built on the Church laws and tradition. There were many great and small things that made the phenomenon of the Holy Russia, about which I have no time to speak. (Of course, this does not exclude any dark sides that were present in the Russian life.) Among the authors who wrote a lot about the Holy Russia, I would particularly single out Dostoevsky, who worked in the times when it was already approaching the greatest disaster of the socialist revolution, and from the later times Ivan Shmelev, who wrote in the emigration and left remarkable pictures of the pre-revolutionary Russian life.

Russia lived through many tribulations in its history. It is enough to say that the largest proportion of its historical existence was taken by various defensive wars against all sorts of enemies coming from various sides, from the West, South and East. The Orthodox faith was what the Russians have defended uncompromisingly. And the Orthodox faith is what has saved the Russians in the most difficult times. Let me name just some.

In the XIII-th century Russia was under the attack from both Mongols from the East and German knights from the West. The Russians could not fight both; they had to submit to Mongols, who had a mixture of faiths and were not hostile to the Orthodox Church, but lead by the Holy Prince Alexander the Russians applied all their strength to resist the German invasion from the Baltic, because the Germans wanted to destroy the Orthodoxy and to submit it to the Roman popes. Russians preferred to save the spiritual freedom even at the price of losing part of the political independence. This paid off later, when the Russian people united around the Orthodox Church and became able to liberate themselves gradually from the Mongols.

The next example is given by the advance of the Roman catholicism in the western Russian lands that fell under the control of Poland. The so-called unia was forcefully introduced there (i.e., the submission to Roman teachings and to the power of the pope while keeping, more or less, the external forms of the Eastern Orthodox worship). Many bishops betrayed the Orthodox faith and joined the unia, but it were the lay people who saved the Church by organizing Orthodox brotherhoods to preserve the faith. With great sacrifices, this eventually helped to save both the Orthodox faith and the Russian nationality in these lands.

I have to be very brief. The Orthodox faith saved Russia in the XVII-th century when a series of self-impostors helped by Poles, Swedes and their internal allies almost succeeded in taking over the Russian throne. In the beginning of the XIX-th century the Orthodox faith once again united the Russian people against the invasion of Napoleon and with him the "twelve nations" from all over Europe. However, in the course of the XIX-th century the foundations of the Holy Russia began to be undermined by godless teachings. The calls to repent our sins, for example, by St. John of Kronstadt, were generally rejected. As the result, the disaster came. I will not speak of it here. Rivers of Russian blood were shed during the civil war and the subsequent rule of anti-Christians. No doubt, in the blood of the New Russian Martyrs the Holy Russia has been spiritually reborn. Will it be restored politically remains a completely separate question.

3. Lessons for today

The main lesson that we can draw from the Russian history after the baptism of Russia by the Holy Prince Vladimir is very simple. It is similar to that we can draw from the history of ancient Israel: when Israel followed the Lord, she prevailed over her enemies; when Israel turned away from the Lord, the enemies prevailed. So is with Russia: while we kept the Light of the Orthodox Faith that had been given to us by the Holy Prince Vladimir, we overcame all troubles in our history. And when we turned away from the Orthodox Faith and followed the godless teachers, horrible sufferings came to our land. So if Russia is to be truly restored, it can be restored only as the Holy Orthodox Russia. There is no other way.

The fall of the Orthodox Russia in 1917 has caused disastrous consequences for the whole world. The great Orthodox Kingdom, which played the role of the Withholding One, according to the interpretation by St. John of Kronstadt and others of St. Paul's words, was taken out of the way. The dark forces has expedited their work enormously. The signs of a universal apostasy from the Christian faith are all around us, even inside the local Orthodox Churches, some of whose leaders abandoned Christ's truth for the sake of "following the time". They started to pray with heretics, to repeat heretical teachings and try to please the world instead of pleasing God. God forbid us from following such false teachers. We should seek true Orthodoxy and stick to it. This is another lesson.

The godless Communist regime in Russia finally fell, but what has been now introduced instead is no less godless, because it is based on the same anti-Christian materialism that rules in the modern world and that tries to completely and universally prevail under the name of the "new world order". It is still far from the restoration of the Holy Russia.

It is difficult to be an Orthodox Christian nowadays, even though there are no open persecutions - yet. (I am talking about the Western world and Russia now; there is persecution in the Muslim countries, for example.) What should we do? This is a time of confession. "See that ye walk circumspectly, not as fools, but as wise, redeeming the time, because the days are evil" (Ephes. 5,15-16). "Depart ye, depart ye, go ye out from thence, touch no unclean thing; go ye out of the midst of her" (Isaiah, 52, 11). We should stick to the teaching of the Orthodox Church as it has been unchanged since the Apostles and accept no other teaching. We should repent our sins and pray. And be sure in the salvation from the Lord, because His words are truth, and the Lord said: "I will build My Church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against Her" (Matthew 16, 18). And: "Be of good cheer; I have overcome the world" (John 16, 33).


O Holy Prince Vladimir, Holy Princess Olga, Holy Passion-Bearers Boris and Gleb, Sts. Anthony and Theodosius of Kievan Caves, St. Alexander of Neva, St. Sergius of Radonezh, the Holy Moscow hierarchs Peter, Alexis and Jonah, St. Hermogen the Patriarch of Moscow, St. Seraphim of Sarov, St. John of Kronstadt, St. Tikhon the Patriarch of Moscow, the Holy Royal Martyrs, and all the Holy New Martyrs and Confessors of Russia, St. John the Wonderworker of Shanghai and San Francisco, and all the Saints that have shone forth of the Russian Land, pray for us sinners.

Let me finish with the words of the prayer for the Salvation of Russia, which has been read every Sunday at the temples of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia since 1921:

O Lord Jesus Christ our God:

Accept from us, Thine unworthy servants, this fervent supplication, and,
having forgiven us all our sins,
remember all our enemies that hate and wrong us,
and render not unto them according to their deeds,
but according to Thy great mercy convert them:
the unbelieving to true faith and piety,
and the believing that they may turn away from evil and do good.

By Thine all-powerful might,
mercifully deliver all of us and Thy holy Church and the suffering land of Russia
from every evil circumstance.

Free our Russian Land
from the cruel godless ones and their power
and raise the holy Orthodox Russia;
hearken unto the painful cry of Thy faithful servants
who cry unto Thee day and night
in tribulation and sorrow,
O our most merciful God,
and lead their life out of corruption.

Grant peace and tranquility, love and steadfastness, and
swift reconciliation to Thy people,
whom Thou hast redeemed by Thy precious Blood.

But unto them that have departed from Thee and seek Thee not, be Thou manifest,
that not one of them perish,
but that all of them be saved and come to the knowledge of Thy truth,
that all in harmonious oneness of mind and unceasing love
may glorify Thy most holy name,
O patient-hearted Lord Who art quick to forgive,
unto the ages of ages. Amen.

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