Guest Author - Rebecca Graf
Cultures with deep religious roots embrace their religion with enthusiasm. This can easily been seen in Kievan Russia where Orthodox Christianity was taken to its heart at a time when religion was needed spiritually and politically. Orthodox Christianity was present at the right time and place to become the religion of Kievan Russia and change its history.
Before Christianity arrived on the Russian scene, the people were a “deeply spiritual and mystical cultural” that would still be present centuries later. Cultures that have such deep rooted spiritual foundations typically have them for many generations and grasp onto religions quickly. As Christianity spread into the Russian lands, the spiritual people found a new outlet for their beliefs. Their spiritual heritage could not be forsaken so was found in a new venue that was brought in strongly by the political leaders of the time.
At this time throughout Europe, leaders were accepting Christianity either as a political move or as a true change of spiritual heart. Both the Roman and Byzantine version of the religion were strong and influencing many cultures both east and west. As the Russian leaders converted, they began to see benefits with the Christian states that extended beyond the spiritual realm. Vladimir’s conversion was a rejection of the east where Islam lay and an acceptance more of western tradition where Christianity was ruling. The location of Russia put it in a position of having to choose the east or the west. In choosing Christianity, it also chose the eastern version thereby trying to have the best of both worlds.
Christianity came with its own restrictions and rules but was seen more favorably against Judaism or Islam that prohibited alcohol or believed in a people without a home. This was not something that would pull at the spiritual hearts of the Russian people. It had to be a religion the deeply spiritual people could relate to and claim as their own. Christianity could do that with its belief in one all-powerful God.
Kievan Russia took Bzyantine Christianity and began a transformation of it into a wholly unique Russian version with its own set of saints. New traditions were developed and new creativity in “church architecture and art, in the daily life of the Kievan Orthodox Church, and in its total influence on Russian society and culture.” As more adopted the new religion, the influence grew substantially.
With the development of the religion grew the development of the Christian influence on literature and the arts. The people found an outlet for their emotions and spiritual feelings through the church. An “artistic revival” was achieved as the people’s creativity “was their Christianity and ability to express their devout beliefs.” Just as in later years the European Renaissance would allow more religious expression, so did Kievan Russia. Instead of destroying art, the church enhanced it. Instead of destroying literature, it opened up new paths of expression. The number of works increased and influenced the masses. They included religious books, service books, and compilations of sermons.
Art cannot be limited to just paintings and sculptures. It can be seen in the architect of the day where artists use the landscape of nature to present an everlasting work. As the number of churches grew, the ability to express ones feelings through architecture grew. A unique Russian style was developed from the Byzantine churches which included a number of cupolas, small windows, and steep roofs that worked well in the harsh winters.
All of this combined effected how the church influenced education which was tied into the arts and literature. As one grew, so did the other. The more literature expanded with religious influence, so did the educational system and thus culture as a whole. Yet, the biggest changes were yet to come.
As the country faced invasion by the Mongols, it found itself turning more to the Russian Orthodox Church and making it stronger and more Russian. The Mongols were not a small force to be dealt with. Quite the contrary, they were massive and enough to make any nation quake. This not only affected the political aspect of Russia but sent shock waves through its spiritual channels. As noted earlier, the Russians were also a spiritual culture. It only makes sense that faced with possible destruction they would become even more so. The strength of the church grew under Mongol threat and subjugation.
Christianity was not new to Russia before Vladimir’s conversion but it could not take a strong hold without state approval and acceptance. Once the leaders took the religion to heart, the Russian Orthodox Church was able to spread and flex its new wings in a new land discover a new part of itself. As the Russians personalized the religion, new art evolved as well as new cultural influences that would be present during the dark times of Russia and during its glory years.
Hosseini, Dustin. “The Effects of the Mongol Empire on Russia.” APUS History of Russia Handout, Accessed February 7, 2012.
Riasanovsky, Nicholas V. A History of Russia, Eighth Edition. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.