06 August 2014

Remembering the quintessential Russian saints: the Passion-Bearers Boris and Gleb, the sons of Grand Prince S. Vladimir

The Holy, Glorious and Right-Victorious Martyrs Boris and Gleb, Princes of Kievan Rus’

More so even than the Baptiser of the Rus’, the two saints whose lives and story reflect best the most alluring and most attractive elements of the Russian soul, in its burning, near-ecstatic self-denial and its simple but eloquent ‘no’ to power politics and worldly concerns, are without a doubt the baptiser’s younger sons Boris and Gleb. They are the first truly Russian saints. Of these two princes, the Orthodox lay-philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev had this to say:
Folk tales and heroes are associated with the Russia of Kiev and St. Vladimir. But chivalry did not develop on the spiritual soil of Orthodoxy. In the martyrdom of St. Boris and St. Gleb there was no heroism, the prevailing idea is that of sacrifice. The exploit of non-resistance—that is the Russian exploit. Simplicity and humility—these are Russian traits.
This is not to say, of course, that Orthodoxy has no place for chivalry or for heroism or for the defence of home, hearth and motherland – for these speak the histories and hagiographies especially of Serbian saints such as Great-Martyr Lazar, Prince of Serbia – only that the ideals of non-violence and passive resistance are still greater.

The tale of the two non-violent saints ought not to be taken as a denigration of the military profession, only as a caution against the conceits of its use. Boris was a military man; his murder at the hands of his brother Sviatopolk the Accursed came at the end of a military campaign against the Pechenegs. However, the last of his deeds before his death reveals the mildness of his heart: though he knew that Sviatopolk had nothing but ill intent towards him, and had under the guise of brotherly affection sent assassins to murder him, he took no action against them despite the advice to do so given to him by his father’s thegns [дружина]. He would not lift his hand against his brother. He sent his armies away from him, all but a few thegns, and then prayed before an ikon of Christ to give him strength to endure the suffering that he must face and to ‘lay not this sin to his [Sviatopolk’s] charge’. Sviatopolk’s hirelings slew the faithful thegn George, and then the saintly Boris himself, with lances and swords upon his direct order.

Sviatopolk then moved against the younger of the two brothers, Gleb. Gleb he summoned to Kiev with a message saying that his father had taken ill, and the filial son obeyed. Gleb received the warning from his brother Yaroslav and his sister Predislava not to go – that his father had already died and that Sviatopolk had already betrayed and murdered Boris – but Gleb continued on. Sviatopolk having sent his men to kill Gleb, the young prince, knowing that they sought only his life, told his own thegns not to raise weapons against them and thus spared their lives. Gleb’s throat was cut by his own cook on the orders of Sviatopolk’s men. Thus Gleb joined his brother in repose.

Sviatopolk was by marriage related to Bolesław Chrobry, king of Poland, and had the Polish king’s political and military support. He was defeated, however, in a war with his elder brother Yaroslav. Yaroslav had garnered the support of the Varangian thegns and citizens of Holmgård, to whom he expressed great gratitude later in extending to them rights of self-rule for their role in helping him to wrest Kiev from the grasp of Sviatopolk, the Polish king and their Pecheneg compatriots – thus laying the foundations for the Novgorod Republic. Upon his victory over Sviatopolk, Yaroslav had the bodies of his slain young brothers interred together at the Church of S. Basil, where at the site where their relics reposed many miracles took place. Yaroslav was then able to persuade the Orthodox hierarchs to grant the saintly brothers Boris and Gleb the status of passion-bearers.

The first of the saints of the Russian people may have been S. Olga Equal-to-the-Apostles and Grand Prince S. Vladimir. But the truest saints and those who exemplify what is best in the Russian soul are their descendants, Ss. Boris and Gleb. With a single-minded self-denial, each of the two brothers strove earnestly and valiantly to embody the example of the chaste and guiltless Lamb whom each of them called Lord; to the end each stood faithful to both his earthly father and his heavenly Father, as witness to the emptiness of the striving for earthly power. In these days their example and witness is needed now more than ever, as once again the princes and powers of Holmgård and Konugård vie amongst themselves, as Westerners collude with murderous usurpers in Kiev and as brothers let each other’s blood on the same grounds as they did a thousand years ago. Boris and Gleb, righteous and victorious passion-bearing princes, pray for us needy and unworthy Orthodox Christians in these times of fratricidal civil strife to Christ our God.

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