Old Russia—Its Heart and Soul
Yekaterina, when she left all to follow Christ, remembered a common but very special kind of Russian believer: the poustinik. Every so often some peasant, and less frequently a wealthy person in Russia, like Pyotr, would get rid of his or her things and take to the poustinia. That word means desert.
The poustinik however did not go to a literal desert. He only put on rough linen clothing and went to live in the barest, simplest house in the village. There, with no lock on the door, he lived with nothing but the Bible, his daily bread, and his clothes. The poustinik was no hermit. On call, day or night, he lived to help others. Whether that meant feeding the sick, counselling a distressed sinner at midnight, or quick helping a farmer get his hay in before it rained, did not matter. He lived in the “desert” of freedom from personal ambition and let Christ use him however it suited. All his free time he spent in his house or garden alone.
Committed to discover what Russia’s believers knew and we did not, I set out on a spiritual journey through the land of the Tsars, secret meetings in woods and basements, Tolstoy’s estate at Yasnaya Polyana, green valleys between snow capped ranges in the Caucasus, communities of Spirit Wrestlers in Tambov, Saratov and Tver, Old Believers so poor they used cow stomachs for window panes in Siberia, a monastery of logs on the River Sora . . . and back to where its story began, in what is now the Ukrainian Republic.
Horsemen on the streets of Kiev did not worry whose clothes got splattered in AD 980. The women of Kiev did not wear silk. Under thick straw roofs they sat in log houses to braid shoes from birch bark while tending their food cooking on open fires. Kiev was a young city, and its ruler, Prince Vladimir, was a young man.
All Russia, in fact—centred around Kiev on the Dnepr River—felt young in AD 980. Young and rough. Prince Vladimir began his rule by killing his oldest brother (who, in turn, had killed his remaining brothers) to rule after their father died. Such events—murders, treachery, and acts of revenge—took place only too frequently among Slavs and Norsemen (Varangians) who lived along both sides of the broad Dnepr.1 But far to the south, in Greek Thessalonika, a series of events had begun that would change Russia forever.
Long before Prince Vladimir with his seven wives and wooden idols overcame his brother and made himself ruler of Russia in Kiev, a young man in Thessalonika overcame himself and decided not to rule, but to serve Christ. His name was Cyril. He spoke Greek. Like other Christians in Thessalonika Cyril kept to the way of Christ even though many had grown careless and worldly. He prepared to serve Christ by studying at the Imperial University at Constantinople.
In the capitol of the Byzantine Empire—a glorious city where the Emperor, the Patriarch of the Orthodox Church, numberless merchants, prelates, and military officials lived in splendour—Cyril felt tiny but not lost. He studied to graduate as soon as possible and gained a commission to travel on official business to Arabic and Khazar2 tribes in the east.
During his stay with the Khazars, to whom he told stories from the Bible, Cyril learned all he could about wide steppes and forested lands to the north. He learned about other tribes—Russian Slavs among them—who lived in settled villages, who farmed and raised fruits, but who served wooden idols. After he came to know some of them Cyril sensed what Christ wanted him to do.
Back in Constantinople Cyril learned that Ratislav, a leader of a Slavic tribe north of the Danube River had called for Christian teachers. With his brother Methodius he set out in 863 A. D. to answer that call.
Up the rivers and through the forested wilderness where Ratislav’s people lived (in what is now the Czech Republic) Cyril and Methodius worked their way, learning Slavonic3 while teaching Christ. From the beginning Cyril determined to teach the Slavs what Christ himself taught. But a serious obstacle stood in the way. Very few Slavs could read and write. Those who could, used a disorderly collection of letters to portray Slavonic sounds. Cyril purposed at once to teach them a better way.
With Methodius’ help Cyril gathered a circle of Slavic youths about him, and began to write in charcoal, big black letters on birch bark, while making sounds. It did not take long. The boys hurried home, thrilled with their discovery that “birch bark speaks” and told their parents about a great teacher whom their Greek instructors said had taught them.
As their knowledge of Slavonic increased, Cyril and Methodius discovered that their Greek alphabet did not have letters to match all its sounds. Also, writing with crude materials did not produce nice looking Greek. But Cyril did not despair. With the help of another Christian who came to Moravia, Clement of Ohrid, he borrowed bold, easy shapes from Hebrew and Greek and invented others. “We can use other alphabets as a pattern,” he decided, “and if we find nothing suitable we will simply have to make our own.”
That alphabet, now used by several hundred million Slavs,4 is called Cyrillic and Cyril did not die until he had taught people how to use it, written for them numerous books, and overseen for them the translation of the entire Bible, including the Apocrypha.
The “Conversion” of Russia
By the time Cyril and Methodius died a large number of Western Slavs knew of Christ and the Scriptures. Many had gotten baptised. But few Eastern Slavs (Russians) heard about Christ until Basil II, the “Christian” emperor of Byzantium,5 asked Prince Vladimir to help him fight the Bulgars.
Russians and Byzantines, fighting together, won the battle. They celebrated their victory and were happy together until the emperor learned what Prince Vladimir wanted for his wage: Basil’s sister Anna in marriage.
Basil and his sister were shocked. Vladimir already had seven wives. Anna was an educated Byzantine woman and a “Christian.” To think of her living in pagan Russia filled them with horror. But Vladimir would not change his mind. When Anna refused to come to Kiev, he called his troops together and overran the Crimean peninsula (Byzantine territory), taking the city of Kherson (later Sevastopol) and all its people as hostages.
Then Basil made a proposition: If Prince Vladimir and the Russians would convert to Christianity, Anna would come. Vladimir happily agreed. Anna packed her belongings and landed a short time later—still apprehensive—on the Crimean shore.
Vladimir called his troops together for a great feast and wedding celebration. A Greek priest—a pope as they called them in Byzantium—baptised him by immersion and united him to Anna in marriage. Then the Russians hurried back the Dnepr to Kiev. Everywhere Vladimir shouted: “We are Christians now! Out with the false gods!”
In Kiev the whole city came down to the river at Vladimir’s command. Encircled by previously “Christened” warriors with sabres unsheathed, the people could do nothing but allow themselves to be pulled into the water and baptized. Vladimir tore down the temple he had built and threw the idols, including a huge statue of the Slavic god Perun, into the Dnepr. Men with long sticks pushed the idols out from the shore and sent them across the rapids of the Dnepr, downstream. All through Russia, from Kiev to Novgorod the Volkhvy (pagan priests) fled, their temples fell, and warriors helped priests to baptise masses of people at once.
Sixty years later a Kievan chronicler wrote:
The darkness of the demonic cult perished and the sun of the Gospel shone over our land. The idols’ temples were destroyed, and churches built. The idols were broken down and ikons of the saints appeared. Demons fled away. The cross sanctified the towns. As shepherds of spiritual lambs came presbyters, priests and deacons, offering the immaculate sacrifice. They adorned all the sanctuary and vested holy churches with beauty. Angel’s trumpet and Gospel’s thunder sounded through all the towns. Incense rising to God sanctified the air. Monasteries stood on mountains. Men and women, small and great, all people filled holy churches.6
AD 988, the date of the great baptism at Kiev, marked the beginning of Christianity as the state religion of Russia. But the Kingdom of Heaven, the spiritual territory of the poustinikki and the “underground” church, came . . .
1 Slavic tribes were among the first to settle in Russia. Herodotes already mentions settlements of farmers, believed to be the ancestors of the Eastern Slavs, that lived as neighbours to Scythians (nomadic horsemen) north of the Black Sea. Scholars believe them to be predecessors of the Eastern Slavs.
2 Like the Scythians, who lived north of the Black Sea in Bible Times, the Khazars lived in tent villages, moving about the Don and Volga areas on horseback. Before the middle of the eighth century they converted to Judaism.
3 A language still spoken in its ancient form in Macedonia.
4 Russians, Bulgarians, Ukrainians, Macedonians, Serbs, and many non-Slavic minorities living in Russia today
5 After the emperor Constantine I got “converted” in AD 313, the Roman Empire became Christian in name, although its government remained foundationally pagan and totally unlike the Kingdom of Heaven described in the New Testament.
6 Ilaryon of Kiev, Sermon on Law and Grace, ca. 1050