Not With Observation
The first Christians could not have believed the story of Russia’s violent “conversion.” They would not have wanted to believe it. Neither would they have wanted to hear what went on in “Christian” Constantinople at the time. But thanks to Christ and what the Byzantine church remembered of him, a miracle happened.
Byzantine priests who came to Russia with Anna worked hand in hand with Prince Vladimir. In black robes, wearing untrimmed beards and black cylindrical hats, they hung up painted ikons. They swung censors with smoking incense. Behind ornate partitions in new churches that sprang up everywhere, they celebrated the Eucharist while people stood chanting Psalms and prayers. But the priests did more than observe ritual. Reading from the Scriptures was still an important part of Byzantine worship and in Russia this led to results that no one could have foreseen.
Anna’s priests brought Cyril’s Slavonic Bible with them. When they read from it Russians looked up, startled, to hear simple stories in their own language.
Cyril’s translators had done well with the Gospels. They wrote down Jesus’ stories and the Acts of the Apostles in such simple Slavonic that no one could misunderstand them. But when they got to the epistles they had problems. Many words in the Greek text had no Slavonic equivalent so they invented new words. First the Western Slavs, and now the Russians, did not know what they meant. This made the epistles cumbersome to read and hard to remember. The first priests in Russia discovered this, and decided to stick with the Gospels, at least for most services throughout the year. The Russians, especially the illiterate, could not hear enough of the Gospels’ stories anyway (even though they stood through services that lasted from five to seven hours) and eagerly learned to sing Greek hymns along with them.
Two Kinds of Christians
During the Dark Ages, in a time of great wickedness and turmoil among “Christian” nations, the people of Russia heard the Gospel. In many hearts it fell on good ground. It sprouted, and produced far more fruit than anyone could have expected.
How did it happen? Were the Russians blind to Byzantium’s faults?
Not at all.
Centuries before Russia’s “conversion,” Byzantine Christianity had become a “state church.” Christians in Byzantium believed God wanted their emperors to rule the world. They expected their emperors to punish evil, protect the church, and conquer infidels in the name of Christ. This led them into terrible worldliness and sin.
No kings on earth had lived as sumptuously as the “Christian” emperors at Constantinople. None had carried as many magnificent titles, and perhaps none had been so persistently wicked. After Constantine I (the “converted” emperor) who had his son killed and his wife suffocated in her bathroom, thirty Byzantine emperors died violently—starved, poisoned, blinded, bludgeoned, strangled, stabbed, dismembered or decapitated. Never-ending intrigues tore royal families apart and turned church or government officials against one another. People came to expect that young rulers would kill off their brothers and when enemies or evildoers needed punishment their imagination knew no bounds.
In Byzantium, drowning thieves or apostates was not enough. “Christian” authorities drowned people in bags with live pigs, roosters, snakes, and monkeys. Lawbreakers paid fines by having a hand or foot cut off, or perhaps an ear. Standard punishments included the splitting of noses, the cutting out of tongues, and setting people onto pointed stakes. Whole armies were regularly blinded and castrated. In the very battle Prince Vladimir fought with the Byzantines, they took fifteen thousand young men as prisoners of war. Out of every hundred they left one with eyes to guide them home. So dreadful was the sight that when their ruler saw them come—wailing, clutching one another, and trailing blood as they stumbled along—he went into shock and died.
All this the Russians knew only too well. And what they had not seen among “Christians” in Byzantium, they soon saw at Kiev. But the Lord helped them understand that this was only one side—the dark and “worldly” side of Christianity in the 900s—and to be sure there was another side.
Here and there in the Byzantine empire, often hidden but resting firm on Christ, remnants of true faith and holiness remained. Here and there, especially in religious orders, honest men and women loved Christ and lived in communion with him. They treasured the teachings of Christ and obeyed him. Speaking and reading Greek, they still used early Christian writings. They sang early Christian songs. Even in Russia, where missionaries had come to Greek colonies along the Black Sea (perhaps already in Paul’s time) some knew there was more to Christianity than what Prince Vladimir had found.
In Bulgaria and Moravia, some Christian Slavs, students of Cyril and Methodius, had always believed the Gospels at face value. They had long learned to take what was good from Greek Christianity and leave the rest. Hundreds of Russians, especially those who worked hard and were poor, the muzhiks (peasants), now learned to do the same. Not caring or even knowing about Byzantine theology, not bowing to the state church but to Christ, they let much of what they heard “go in one ear and come out the other,” like Filofey a believer from Pskov who wrote:
I am a villager. I have learned to read and to write, but I have not examined Greek subtleties. I have not read the rhetors and astronomers. I was not born in Athens and have not conversed with the philosophers. All I have studied is the teaching of Christ.1
The “Church” and the “Believers”
Most Russians did not doubt that some of their “Christian” rulers (both national and church leaders), were villains racing down the broad road to hell. They deplored the fact but did not expect it otherwise. After all, those very rulers claimed to be successors of Israel’s kings. That some of them should be Sauls, Ahabs, or Manassehs had to be taken in stride. But while their rulers built “Golden Kiev,” crowning it with crosses, towers, and shining domes, another kingdom took shape in Russia.
It was an inner kingdom—a kingdom of believers—ruled by . . .
1 Gorodetzky, Saint Tikhon of Zadonsk