Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Christian conversion of Russia

An excerpt from my paper written in my senior year in college on the influence of the Vikings on early Russian society. This part talks about Byzantine Empire’s conversion of Russia. All the quotations were supplied with footnotes linking to historical sources, but I am ommitting references here to make posting easier.

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At this point, Byzantines must have considered seriously making Kiev a Christian ally. Importance of a reliable ally in the northern region, who could supply excellent troops as mercenaries and protect the northern shore of the Black sea was very high. “At no time was the Crimean sector of more vital importance to the Empire than in the reigns of Romanus I [870-948] and Constantine VII [945-59].” Cherson was a vital city for conducting diplomacy with all the northern neighbors, deflecting Magyar attacks against the Crimea, and for warning Constantinople about upcoming Russian attacks. The imperial government looked for a more powerful ally than Khazars. “For the past two hundred years they had relied for preserving order in that region mainly on the Khazars, but Khazar power was declining; so in the first half of the tenth century Byzantium turned to the Pechenegs, who were then encamped along the Black Sea coast between Danube and the Don. […] Constantine is at pains to explain to his son [in De administrando imperio], if this alliance is kept Byzantium Crimea is safe, trade with Rus’ can flourish, and the Empire’s northern neighbors, Bulgarians and Magyars and Russians […] will not dare to attack Byzantium.” Pechenegs, however, were unlikely to be more reliable or predictable than Khazars. As a result, attempts of conversion of the Rus and their Slav subjects began.
        Igor’s death and the succession struggle that followed brought the process to a temporary halt, until Igor’s wife Olga (ON Helga) was able to exert control over the Rus state. “The Cretan expedition of 949 deployed nearly 600 Rus, who were presumably provided under the terms of the 945 treaty; but it was not until 957 that Olga was sufficiently secure to resume her husband’s Byzantine policy.” Russian Primary Chronicle and folk legends describe Olga as an extremely intelligent ruler who took affairs of the country in her hands, while her warlike son Svyatoslav (incidentally, the first Rus ruler to be named after Slav tradition, as opposed to the Norse one ) conducted military expeditions against Pechenegs and Khazars (eventually destroying Itil and bringing the region under Russian control). She was the first female ruler to arrive in Constantinople; Byzantines met her with grand honors, and Olga converted, no doubt impressed by Orthodox ceremonies. Olga was also the first ruler considering bringing Christianity to Kiev officially (by this time, a number of Kiev’s citizens were already likely Christian). In 959, she requested a Catholic priest from Germany for conversion – possibly as a sign of displeasure with Constantinople, or as a diplomatic act urging Constantinople to improve its relations with Russia, at a danger of losing it to another kingdom’s influence. In any event, by the time the German priest arrived, a new wave of pagan reaction swept across Kievan Russia, and the priest had to return.
        During this period of pagan reaction, Olga’s son, Svyatoslav, came to power in Kiev. According to Russian chronicles, Svyatoslav participated in the first battle when he was four: he was sitting on his mother’s horse and threw a spear in the enemy’s direction, initiating the battle (apparently, Rus won that day). Before his campaigns, say chronicles, he wrote to his enemies, saying “I intend to go at you” (a rather dubious account, considering that neither Rus nor Pechenegs had an existing writing tradition at the time – nice story, however). In 960 he triumphantly took Atil demolishing Khazar power after a naval raid on the city. Political situation in the region changed as a result. “Former Khazar tributaries in the forest zone now paid their tribute to Kiev, but the steppes themselves – bar possibly an isolated Rus outpost at Sarkel – were inherited by the Oguz and the Pechenegs.” Svyatoslav conducted a series of campaigns against the latter: in 968-969 he had to return to Kiev from Byzantine-sponsored campaign in Bulgaria to defeat Pechenegs besieging Kiev. After the victory, however, he returned to the campaign. Byzantine emperor Nicephorus II Phocus (963-969) hired Svyatoslav against the obdurate Bulgarian Tsar Peter. Russian forces destroyed Bulgarians, and something unexpected happened: Russian prince was “intending – it seems – to make Little Preslav [one of Bulgarian capitals] the capital of his realm.” Apparently, Svyatoslav decided to move his princedom to Bulgaria. This decision shows an important change in strength of Kiev Rus in just a few generations. No longer was Kiev simply a base for attacks and trade with Constantinople. The prince of Kiev was now a strong military leader capable of launching successful campaigns and making decisions such as movement of his capital to Byzantine Empire’s sphere of influence. The exact rationale of Svyatoslav’s attack on Preslav are not clear. It is possible that he saw Bulgaria as a site situated closer to Byzantine Empire, in a better climate. In that case, Svyatoslav was not only the first ruler with a non-Scandinavian name, but also the first ruler that started distancing himself from Scandinavia and bringing his state closer to Byzantine Empire.
        Byzantine politician “Calocyros himself had turned traitor and was plotting, with the help of the Russians, to seize the Byzantine throne.” In a long and fierce campaign, Byzantine forces led by John Tzimisces besieged and defeated Rus in 971 at Preslav. (One Soviet version of the story states that the reason of Russian defeat was great heat, to which Rus were unaccustomed, unlike the Byzantines.) A new treaty was made between the two states: Rus promised never to attack Byzantines and provide mercenary troops; the latter, in return, restored all the economic privileges lost by Igor in 945.
        Svyatoslav was killed by Pechenegs (who turned his skull into a drinking cup) upon his return to Kiev. 970s passed in a succession struggle among Svyatoslav’s sons. Vladimir (Valdemar) Yasno Solnyshko (“Clear Sun”) became the ruler of Kiev in 980 and immediately took steps to legitimize his rule and secure his throne. At first, Vladimir aimed to find a single religion that would unite his large realm consisting of many peoples following different cults. New major pagan sacrificial site was built in Kiev. Vladimir’s attempt, however, did not bring success – at this point it was nearly impossible to unite the realm under a pagan religion. Vladimir decided to try one of the major religions of his neighbors. Before conversion to Orthodox Christianity, Vladimir sent embassies to different states sponsoring different religions. Islam, of course, was out of question: it forbade drinking. Judaism at this time became religion of defeat (religion of Khazar Empire) and of a wondering, dispersed nation (in any event, an attempt to explain the tenants of the highly abstract monotheistic religion to Slavs and the Rus would be a theological nightmare). German Catholicism was apparently too boring. Without any doubt, no state could offer such an impressive religious ceremony conducted under a huge dome of a beautiful, enormous church, as Byzantine Empire. Vladimir’s emissaries to Constantinople were awed. Vladimir was likely considering Orthodox Christianity himself already, considering his grandmother had been baptized and many Greeks already lived in Kiev.
        In 988 Byzantium and Kiev made a treaty that stipulated marriage of the emperor’s sister to Vladimir (increasing Vladimir’s legitimacy), in return to the latter sending troops to Byzantium. Vladimir kept his part of the agreement: “in the spring of 988, at the most critical moment of his reign, when the troops of the usurper Bardas Phocas stood on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, Basil II was saved by the arrival in Constantinople of six thousand Varyngian warriors.” Basil himself, however, was not too eager to honor his part of the treaty. It is likely that Basil’s sister Anna played an important role in this. She seemed to dislike the idea of marrying pagan Vladimir. In addition, Byzantine emperors were normally hesitant to marry their princesses to barbaric rulers.
        “In the summer of 989 […] doubtless to compel Byzantium to send him promised bride, Vladimir marched to the Crimea and invaded Cherson; by the same winter or early spring of 990 the city was his, and the unwilling princess, sacrificed to the interests of the Empire, was dispatched across the Black Sea.” Anna, however, seemed to play a very active role in Russia’s conversion. She urged Vladimir to convert himself in Cherson and sponsor his subjects’ conversion in Kiev. Despite her initial unwillingness to marry Vladimir, Anna won in the end: both Vladimir and Russia were converted.
        It is necessary to note that from the point of Russia’s addition to “Byzantine Commonwealth”, Graeco-Roman Orthodox Christian culture dominated Russia in almost all aspects. Significant influence of Slav customs exists in language, in everyday life, and even somewhat in religious practices of the folk; nevertheless, medieval and modern Russia cannot be imagined (either politically or culturally) without influence of Byzantine Empire, made direct by the conversion. To show an example of the impact, one can contrast the story of Anna with that of the younger daughter of Yaroslav the Wise, Vladimir’s son. When she was married to king Henry I of France, she was the only literate person (bar the monks and bishops) in the French court and the only person who used cutlery at a dinner table. In just two generations, Russia became an important political state, whose social and cultural development began to rival that of even Western Europe. Unfortunately to Russia’s history, Mongol invasion of the thirteenth century destroyed much of that culture and political significance, both of which would have to be rebuilt anew in a long and painful process that continues even now.

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