Conflicting Ideas in Christianization of Rus

The author’s opinion of Christianity and Paganism is made clear in the first paragraph of The Christianization of Rus’ According to the Primary Chronicle, in which pagan idols are referred to as “devils” and Russia pre-Christianization was a land “defiled with blood”. As Vladimir is visited by representatives of different faiths, it is again beaten into the reader that Christianity is the only reasonable choice.

Not only do followers of Islam not drink wine, but most of what they say is “false” and crude. The validity of the Jewish people as the chosen ones of God is similarly looked down upon because God had dispersed them, his favorite people, to foreign lands as punishment long ago. Later, when Vladimir sends emissaries to investigate these religions further, nothing is said about the Bulgarians’ Islamic practices other than that they are “disgraceful” while there is a detailed description of the lavishness and beauty of the Greek Orthodox worship.

After being told of the glory of the Greeks’ practices, a year passes and then Vladimir marches an armed force against a Greek city. I find his actions to be confusing, as he had just been told of the emissaries’ respect and admiration for the Greeks. Would he not want to set out in purpose of creating good relations with these people, as opposed to sacking their city? This could be an example of Vladimir’s many conflicting motives for choosing a religion for Rus – the primary being to make his land and his own reign stronger, as opposed to his desire to worship God.

I found The Life of St. Theodosius to depart from a few of what I consider to be the primary teachings of Christianity, in particular the Ten Commandments. A primary theme throughout the text is Feodosii’s refusal to obey his parents. Obedience and respect of one’s parents is generally very important to Christianity (i.e. “Honor your father and mother”) but, in this case, Feodosii is a saintly figure because he refuses to do as he is told. For example, he would rather wear shabby clothing and read divine teachings instead of dressing nicely and playing with other children. Feodosii disobeys his mother and runs away from home to become closer to God. His obedience and adherence to God’s call comes above all else. This is illustrated most obviously when God speaks to him and says, “Whosoever hath not forsaken his father and mother and followed after me is not worthy of me…”

In the introduction to this text, it is clarified that this particular view of religion is not unique to Rus. If so, what region or group of people are these values unique to? Or did everyone pick and choose the aspects they liked about St. Theodosius and ignore others, such as his self-abuse? Can any religion really be valid or credible if its current form is the result of a compilation of conflicting ideals and teachings?

Feodossi’s Enduring Faith and Literacy in Ancient Rus

Christianity’s arrival to Rus was a major event that shaped Russia’s history as we know it today. Its heavy influence is explicitly stated in the Primary Chronicle and had an immense impact on Rus’ society. When Prince Vladimir brought Christianity to Rus, the way people lived their day to day lives changed dramatically. One story that served as a portrayal of an ideal Christian life was the Life of St. Theodosius.

Named Feodosii as a child, Theodosius’s life was devoted to modeling the behavior of Jesus Christ. Born into a family of wealth, Feodosii was a servant of Christ from a very young age. He would wear patched, ragged clothing to humble himself despite his mother insisting on him wearing fine clothes that were available to him. He would not listen to his mother when she said that by being like the poor, he was bringing dishonor to his family name. He would go to church daily and pray as much as possible. Despite being severely abused by his mother when he would do things such as selling bread that he made himself and then giving his profits to the poor, his faith was steadfast. He saw his suffering as something necessary, just as Christ had suffered. 

Despite how extreme and seemingly irrational St. Theodosius’s faith was, it served as an example for society. I don’t think the church expected anyone to completely adhere to this type of lifestyle but was something that it wanted its members to constantly to keep in mind. During times of hardship and tribulation I think this tale could be something to keep in mind and express the idea that suffering is a necessary part of life.

The uncovering of things such as birchbark writings and cathedral grafitti shows that literacy was to some extent prevalent in ancient Rus. The fact that there are writings on things as simple as birchbark leads me to believe that literacy was somewhat prevalent. I don’t think that people with high status would choose to write messages on things so easily accessible. Also, the types of messages seen on some of the barks are very simple further explaining that it could have been a prevalent practice. If literacy was so rare, I feel that more complex and sophisticated messages would have been left behind.

Jesus Christ as the Ideal Christian Figure

The Orthodox Church’s notion of the ideal Christian was a person as close to Christ himself as it was possible for a human to be. The stories of historical figures idealized by the church display this both in their actions and in the situations which they lived in.

The Life of Theodosius, for example, contains many parallels to the life of Jesus Christ. In Childhood, Jesus was supposedly an extraordinary student (Luke 2:41-52), but we can also assume that he was not the awesome and powerful figure that he would later become from the fact that so little exists documenting his early life. Theodosius, called Feodosii in the text, also spends his youth studying the word of God, all the while being very respectful to his parents and his teachers. As he grows older, he takes on many other Christ-like qualities. He busies himself with giving aid to the poor, and insists upon being as meek and humble as he can be, even as those around him attempt to convince him to act like any other boy in his position. When he was beaten and enchained by his mother or mocked by his peers he stood strong in his faith regardless, just as Jesus was not swayed by those who did not believe in him. Just as Jesus’s actions earned him his followers, so too did Feodosii’s humble behavior and selfless actions also managed to inspire others to support him, such as the governor of the town who grew to love Feodosii more each time he gave away his nice clothing to the poor.

Unlike Jesus, Feodosii was not martyred, and was able to live the rest of his life in service to God. The ideal of giving one’s life for God is represented instead in the story of Saints Boris and Gleb, whose deaths symbolized “a particular form of piety which came to be highly regarded in Rus’ culture”. Boris and Gleb were both killed by their elder brother, Sviatopolk. Rather than attempting to fight back, they allowed him to make martyrs of them so that they would not have to corrupt their peaceful lives with acts of violence. So too did Jesus sacrifice his own life without fighting back against his killers.

St. Theodosius: The Ideal Rus Christian

St. Theodosius (or Feodosii, as he is called in Life) is portrayed to be on the far side of Christian devotion. The text portrays Feodosii as an idyllic Christian, able to purge himself of any and all earthly needs and desires. From a young age, he appears to be completely and utterly devoted to God. Feodosii wore ragged, patched clothes and preferred to study divine books, rather than playing with children. Life provided any Rus citizen with the perfect painting of what it meant to be a Christian, while simultaneously setting the bar so high that it appears no Rus citizen could ever compare.

Reading the text from today’s mindset, St. Theodosius’s actions appear utterly ridiculous. What child would completely forsake playing, in order to study diving books with “submissiveness and obedience”? Though the text quite clearly spells out the author’s idea of an ideal Christian, it completely neglects the notion that people are human, and therefore prone to the occasional bout of selfishness or the odd desire for enjoyment and pleasure.

Despite seeming far-fetched, though, I feel that the author painted St. Theodosius’s life to be such a struggle so that readers can take note of the degree of piety. A rational human wouldn’t expect another average human to take beatings without fighting back, to perform self-harm to prove religious devotion, or even to forsake all earthly goods in the name of their Lord. By making the story of St. Theodosius’s life so extreme, the author ensured that the audience would take something away from the story, even if they couldn’t be the ideal Christian that Feodosii embodies.

The fantastical image of the ‘ideal’ Christian (one who constantly studies divine books, bakes bread for the Church, performs labor with slaves, who travels on pilgrimages, and who ultimately devotes their life to a monastery) gave Rus citizens something to strive for, even if it was unattainable. The high standards would ensure that Rus citizens always had to something to work on and emulate, ultimately creating generations of devout Christians.