The lands of Rus, or what in 1913 was labelled Kievan Rus’, is the period from the 9th to 13th centuries, where the Russian polity evolved from the old Rus Khaganate trade network and was made up of principalities centred around the grand principality of Kiev. It was ruled by princes coming from Varangians (Vikings/Scandinavians) who were according to legend imported by the Slavic and Finnic tribes around Novgorod in the north to rule them. Of the three original Varangians only Ruirik’s line survived, and two of his boyars (basically at this stage the Russian term for important retainers), Askold and Dir, went south and founded Kiev after liberating it from the Khazars. Oleg, descended from Riurik, officially founded Kievan Rus and did a variety a cool things like defeating Byzantium and making it pay a million silver grishnas in tribute in 907, conquering a bunch of east Slavic tribes, and reaching an accord with the nomadic Pechenegs.
The rule of Oleg’s son, Igor, suffered more problems, with the durable Khazars on one side creating the need to garrison tributary towns that drained valuable manpower, along with a disastrous attack on Constantinople itself in 940. while the Rus found it especially difficult to hold onto the middle Dnieper region due to restless tribes, it was generally quite well off, sitting on the nexus of three trade routes and having plentiful resources of furs and honey to trade for Abbasid silver. After his death his wife Olga became regent until Sviatoslav came of age. Interestingly, Olga was actually a Christian herself, many years before Vladimir the great began the conversion.
Another cool effortposter (everyone who hasn’t should go upvote dangheim’s black metal post!) already said some things about Sviatoslav and Vladimir:
Due to his sudden death, there were no real plans in order for succession, and war broke out between his three sons, Oleg, Yaropolk, and Volodymir (often modernized to Vladimir). Yaropolk defeated Oleg in battle, Volodymir fled to avoid dying like his brother, and Yaropolk reigned for several years before Volodymir returned with an army of Varangians. Yaropolk was overthrown and Volodymir had him slain on the way to peace negotiations. We see this event echoed twice within the lyrics. Knjaz Volodymir reigned for many years as a pagan, setting up altars, shrines, and sacrifices (sometimes human) to Perun and other figures in the Slavic pantheon. But in 988, some say to secure a political alliance with the Byzantine empire, he converted to Eastern Orthodox Christianity, tore down the old pagan monuments and erected many churches and cathedrals.
So by the time vladimir came to power (or volodymir if you prefer the old ways), kievan rus was at the height of it’s powers and the largest state in europe.
though they never seemed to quite have the power projection of the empires like Byzantium, probably because of the large amount of internecine warfare that broke out among the rival princes. Another cool thing to note too is that this ruling dynasty, while originally Scandinavian, had married off their daughters relatively often to the nomadic Polovtsy and Pechenegs to cement alliances.
But the real reason I’ve written this post is to look at the conversion to Christianity as the official religion of the Rus under Vladimir. When Vladimir came to power he wanted to continue the expansionism of his father, but was firmly rebuffed in his attempts to expand into the territory of the Volga Bulgars. Instead of fighting to a stale-mate, he followed his uncle’s advice and made terms, as his uncle said “let us make war only on those with bast shoes”. Leather shoes gave the Bulgars +1 to all attributes, unforch.
By converting to Christianity he could marry the sister of the Byzantine emperor (he was the first “barbarian” to do this, eat it Germany) and create an alliance and be able to deal to the Bulgar threat to the east.
Vladimir also had a legitimacy problem. He had killed his own brother, Yaropolk, in order to take power. He was also an incredible lecher, and was recorded as having one wife, four mistresses and, apparently, over 800 concubines during his pagan years. Switching to a new religion like Christianity offered a new “birth” – it could be good PR.
Christianity did already have somewhat of a foothold in the Rus anyway, but adherents were often persecuted by pagans. The point is though that paganism, despite Vladimir’s early attempts to make it more hierarchical it by putting the Slavic god of thunder, Perun, as top god, pagan worship was highly decentralised. By going to the church, he gained an ideological method of control that enforced hierarchies and allowed him to do “state-building” to enforce his, and his dynasty’s control.
in any case, it could just be because Vladimir was rather impressed with orthodox Christianity. He was supposedly unimpressed by Islam’s prohibitions against pork and alcohol, and thought the Muslim Bulgars smelled. The Latin’s were seen as dour, and he decided Judaism wasn’t worthwhile because it’s god had allowed Jerusalem to fall. However when the Rus’ emissaries went to Constantinople they said “we no longer knew whether we were in hell or on earth”
the Christian Greek Roman’s could literally party so hard that the Russians were like “welp, god owns!”
have a picture of Vladimir getting baptised in 988:
any everlasting Byzantine alliance that Vladimir may have envisioned didn’t help either in the long-term. Due to the system of lateral succession (brother to brother, oldest first, until the oldest of the oldest brothers sons could get their AND they had to have been a branch of the family that had previously been grand prince’s of Kiev to be eligible, following?) led to internecine warfare, and the eventual sacking of Kiev by princes from the northern Rus in 1169. as well, the Byzantine were already slowing weakening, which altered trade routes and made both nations weaker.
Until 1448 the Russians had problems with patriarchs too, (similar to the pope problems of the west) because until then their highest authority was the patriarch of Constantinople. Blasphemies or sins from the ruler was harder to control when the religious authority around was aloof from local politics. It also antagonised their powerful catholic neighbours (Lithuania in this period especially).
They actually had to deal with pagan subversion too. An old article from the ’70s I was reading talked about how old pagan folk-festivals going on in remote northeastern Russia all the way into the early nineteenth century. Outside of Kiev (where everyone was *hush hush* forced to be baptised) and other major towns, paganism persisted in a heap of rural areas for a while. But Christianity had its good points. it lead to literacy because the Greeks were nice and created Cyrillic, my fave alphabet:
Basically it put the Russians into what peeps call the Byzantine cultural orbit. One interesting way of looking at this is how it made them view the nomads of the time. Remember how I said the Russians would marry their son’s to the daughter’s of the khans? Well. Post-baptism things changed a bit, They were still quite happy with the Pechenegs, as they had been Byzantine allies in the past (they killed Sviatoslav, after all), were known to assimilate into the Rus’ on occasion and could even be used to secure the southern frontier similar to the don cossacks later on. but more importantly they were also people of the book, being Muslim Turkic people. In the primary chronicle, the earliest and a very important monastic chronicle, they are recorded in what might be called a laconic way.
This is in comparison to the Polovtsy, who occupied a similar place in the Rus’ imagination, being both a threat or a help at varying times. The difference is the Polovtsy were shamanistic, so the primary chronicle records them as a biblical scourge: when the Polovtsy launched their earliest result on the realm in 1061, the chronicle recorded that “this was the first evil the pagans and godless enemies inflicted”. Later entries described them as agents of Gog and Magog.
There were other things too, with Russia eventually putting it’s own take on Byzantine cultural traditions, probably best shown by the iconostasis. A full-wall showing of icons behind the altar that first evolved in Russia, which differed from the Byzantine tradition of having them spread about the church:
Unfortunately I can’t give a full blow-by-blow, but i hope this post has shown some interpretations of why the Russians went Orthodox, and what are seen as it’s consequences.