The Baptism of Kiev

The Baptism of Kiev


The Courier, June (1988)

Introduction: A thousand years ago, in 988, the Slav principality of Kievan Rus’, or Kievan Russia, came into being as one of a cluster of Christian States in Europe. Its emergence was one of the far-reaching consequences of a bold feudal reform of the State structures which was carried out by Grand Prince Vladimir, who wished to put his principality on the same footing as the developed feudal monarchies of that time.

In 980 Vladimir was at the head of a loose federation of Slav tribes, which could only be held together by the use of armed force (or at least the constant threat of its use). In order to strengthen this federation, the young prince took two important decisions. First, he settled in Kiev, intent on keeping his hands on the reins of government, which his predecessors had abandoned for months or even years while leading military expeditions. Second, he endeavoured to unite the Slav tribes ideologically – as we should say today – by means of a religion common to them all.

Once established in Kiev, Vladimir began to build fortifications to the east of the town, thus making it clear that he meant to stay in the capital and defend it against nomads. It was essential to the success of the radical State reforms that life in the city should be peaceful and safe.

To solve the second problem the unification of the allied tribes he first of all gave “equal rights” to all the main tribal gods (and consequently to those groups of the clergy that had most influence). A traveller arriving in Kiev from afar could see that the god of his own tribe was worshipped in Kiev as well as the Kievan gods. Six heathen gods were worshipped in Kiev; traces of these cults have been found by modern archaeologists.

These measures taken by Prince Vladimir strengthened the State. But it soon became clear that the path on which he had embarked so successfully was actually leading nowhere. There were two main reasons for this. First, even after Vladimir’s innovations the heathen religion perpetuated the old way of life. It suited a patriarchal system, but it was a major obstacle to the formation of the new production relationships of nascent feudalism. A new law, new customs, a new social awareness and a new approach to the world were all needed. The old paganism could not provide these things. But they were all to be found in Byzantium.

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