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Home » Church History » “Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years” by Diarmaid MacCulloch » Chapter 15: Russia: The Third Rome (900 – 1800) – Part I

Chapter 15: Russia: The Third Rome (900 – 1800) – Part I




Discuss the impact the Mongols (specifically the Kipchak Khanate) and the Tartars had upon the Rus’.


Amazingly the dominant Islamic force at the time helped to shape the mighty nation of Russia.  This chapter seemed especially relevant against the backdrop of the Olympics.  Surprisingly the Tartars were very tolerant of other beliefs, even taking as supplications prayers from their religious leaders.  Intelligently Muscovy or early Moscow rode the Tartars’ coattails to eventually become the dominant power when they waned, leaving their sons a hostages and keeping regular relations.  Their work paid off, and they even allowed their leadership to take the title of Grand Prince.  They outlasted their rivals such as Novgorod who originally coined the term “Third Rome”, or in later times their powerful neighbors Poland and Lithuania, eventually absorbing them into the USSR.





During the mid-tenth century, fierce Norse Vikings, whom the Byzantines called them by their Scandinavian name “Rus’”, seized a settlement on the borders of the Khazar territories and called it Kiev in what is now present-day Ukraine.  Its rulers, known as Rurikids, began to lose their Norse identities and began taking on Slavic names.  There, they established trade with the Byzantine Empire, Greeks, and even Bulgarian Christians who encouraged them to develop Christian literature in a language and script which could be understood far to the north of their own lands.



In 957, the Rurikid princess Olga paid a ceremonial visit to Constantinople from Kiev in order to covert to Christianity and be baptized there.  Later on, her imperially-minded son, Sviatoslav, attacked the Christian khanate of Bulgaria, but was defeated by the Byzantine Emperor John I Tzimisces, where he was killed in 972.  Then in 976 Sviatoslav’s son and successor, Vladimir, helped the new Byzantine emperor Basil II successfully secure his throne from rivals and his younger brother.  In return for his support the emperor gave over his sister, Princess Anna, over to Vladimir in marriage.  Though the marriage was very unpopular and considered demeaning in Constantinople, Basil’s throne and decision were secure thanks to a strong presence of bodyguards from Rus’.



In 988, Prince Vladimir, in order to secure this marriage, ordered the conversion of his people to Christianity and took on the baptismal name of Basil (or Vasilii in Russian) in honor of the emperor.  When Vladimir brought his new bride to Kiev, to make her feel more at home, remade the city to take on a more Byzantine style.  Therefore, Byzantine style monumental architecture, mosaics, and frescoes began to adorn Kiev.  In 1039 the Oecumenical Patriarch in Constantinople sanctioned a ‘metropolitan’ or regional leader in Kiev to handle Orthodox Church affairs there.  Many churches in Kiev sprouted multiple domes or cupolas that featured more Rurikid flavors as well.  Iconostasis became more prominent features in Russian churches than in Greek tradition, usually being bigger than their Greek counterparts by the 12th – 15th   centuries.  One of the most striking pieces of Russian Orthodox architecture to be made during the eleventh century was the Church of the Dormition in Kiev.  (The ‘Dormition’ in Eastern tradition was a robe that belonged to the Virgin Mary right before her death.)  Subsequent Orthodox churches all over Russia would copy its cuboid design.  Kievan Orthodox practice also inherited saints (many local Russian ones of course) into their worship from the Byzantines as well as a strong ‘kenotic’ emphasis to their spirituality that focused on Christ emptying himself for others and an ethic of passive suffering.  This tendency to select certain themes from Byzantium and then develop them in their own style was characteristic of what became Russian orthodoxy.  (loc. 9865)


It was so fascinating to read in this chapter the close relationship between the Byzantine Empire and (the origins of Orthodoxy in) Russia.  I never knew how much of Byzantine culture had been absorbed into the Russian mindset and culture.  One can make the case that the spirit of the Byzantine Empire still lives on today in Russia and that the heart and soul of Russia is Byzantine Orthodoxy.  But of course, like any other culture, the Christianity there would evolve and incorporate more of the local Kievan or Russian culture and flavor that would be distinct from the Greek style.  MacCulloch shares something interesting in this section that shows how different the East and West are in mindset; a parish priest in Moscow once observed to him that ‘the Western reaction to a problem is to look for a solution; the Orthodox are more inclined to live with it.’  (loc. 9892)  The West incorporates a more proactive, rational Augustinian way of spirituality, while the East (including Russia of course) incorporates a more passive, kenotic Christian spirituality.  It’s amazing to look back at how the Christian faith had spread from its humble beginnings in Israel in the Middle East to all the way to the Ukraine in a little less than a thousand years.  Could it be that the Byzantine transformation of Kiev serves as a model of how Christianity is supposed to radically transform a culture and society?





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