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of the Eastern Churches

The Russian Orthodox Church

by Michael J.L. La Civita

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More than 10 years since the unraveling of the Soviet Union, the concerns that once plagued its Communist leaders – apathy, corruption, crime, cynicism and underemployment, as well as the deterioration of industry – continue to scourge its political and spiritual heirs.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, while consolidating the authority of Russia’s central government, has enlisted the assistance of the Orthodox Church to address some of these issues. Mr. Putin’s alliance with the Russian Orthodox Church resurrects a tradition that, except for a violent gap of some 70 years, dates to the origins of the Russian state. So intimate is this link between state and church, it is difficult to determine which came first.

Origins. Russians, Belarussians, Ruthenians and Ukrainians claim descent from the Eastern Slavs of central Europe and the Varangians of Scandinavia. Collectively known as the Rus’, these peoples intermarried and, from their center in Kiev (now the capital of Ukraine) on the banks of the Dnieper River, asserted control of the trade routes from the Baltic to the Black seas, establishing Kievan Rus’ as a regional force by the ninth century.

The grand prince of Kiev controlled the city and its surroundings, while relatives, scattered as far northeast as Novgorod (a city near modern St. Petersburg) and as far southwest as Halych (now a town in southwestern Ukraine), swore him allegiance. Kiev first flexed its muscles during the reign of Oleg, who in 907 attacked the capital of Byzantium, New Rome (or Constantinople), forcing it to recognize Kievan Rus’ as a trading partner. This relationship would have significant repercussions.

Christianity is adopted. According to the 12th-century Rus’ Chronicles, Grand Prince Vladimir I (956-1015), eager to abandon the polytheism of his ancestors, sent out emissaries to learn about Christianity, Judaism and Islam. Vladimir’s search, so as not to offend his neighbors and allies, was a tactful exercise in diplomacy; Christianity, particularly in its Byzantine incarnation, was not unfamiliar to Vladimir or his people.

Vladimir’s powerful grandmother, the regent Olga (879-969), had embraced Christianity. Hers was only a personal conversion, however, for she failed to instruct her son or her people in the Christian faith.

Another likely source for Vladimir’s interest in Byzantine Christianity was the work of two missionary brothers, Cyril and Methodius. Charged by the patriarch of Constantinople to work among the Slavs of Moravia (862), the brothers created a Slavonic alphabet, translated scriptural works into the language of the Slavs and introduced a Slavonic liturgy patterned after the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom. While the disciples of Cyril and Methodius were later banished from Moravia, they established Byzantine Christianity among the Bulgars of the Bulgarian kingdom. Buttressed by an autonomous church, the Bulgarian state developed into a powerful empire modeled on Byzantium.

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Tags: Russian Orthodox Church Church history Kievan Rus