11 June 2017

The Christian radicalism of early Kievan Rus’

Prince Saint Vladimir Svyatoslavich of Kiev

On the day commemorating Prince Saint Vladimir’s coronation, it’s needful to remember the distinctions between Vladimir’s early reign as a pagan prince and his reign following his baptism in 988. The adoption of Byzantine, Orthodox Christianity in the lands of the Rus’ meant a profound shift, a metánoia, not only in Saint Vladimir’s notorious sex life, but much more broadly in the political and social institutions of Kievan Rus’. Here is what Metropolitan Kallistos of Diokleia says about the legal, institutional and systemic changes implemented by Saint Vladimir:
Vladimir placed the same emphasis upon the social implications of Christianity as John the Almsgiver had done. Whenever he feasted with his Court, he distributed food to the poor and sick; nowhere else in medieval Europe were there such highly organized “social services” as in tenth-century Kiev. Other rulers in Kievan Russia followed Vladimir’s example. Prince Vladimir Monomachos (reigned 1113-1125) wrote in his Testament to his sons: “Above all things forget not the poor, and support them to the extent of your means. Give to the orphan, protect the widow, and permit the mighty to destroy no man” (quoted in G. Vernadsky, Kievan Russia). Vladimir was also deeply conscious of the Christian law of mercy, and when he introduced the Byzantine law code at Kiev, he insisted on mitigating its more savage and brutal features. There was no death penalty in Kievan Russia, no mutilation, no torture; corporal punishment was very little used…

The same gentleness can be seen in the story of Vladimir’s two sons, Boris and Gleb. On Vladimir’s death in 1015, their elder brother Svyatopolk attempted to seize their principalities. Taking literally the commands of the Gospel, they offered no resistance, although they could easily have done so; and each in turn was murdered by Svyatopolk’s emissaries. If any blood were to be shed, Boris and Gleb preferred that it should be their own.
The case gets put even more starkly in the original book Metropolitan Kallistos quotes here, Eurasian historian George Vernadsky’s authoritative book on Kievan Russia:
As we know, Vladimir the Saint was a pioneer in this field [of public welfare] as in many others. Even granting that the chronicler exaggerated the neophyte prince’s Christian zeal, we must admit that he laid the foundation of public charities in Kievan Russia. At least some of his descendants followed his lead and the distribution of food to the poor became an essential feature of every important state and religious festival, even if not made continuous. As an example, on the occasion of the transportation of the relics of the martyr princes Boris and Gleb (1072) the sick and poor were fed for three days. In 1154 Prince Rostislav of Kiev distributed all of the estate of his uncle, which the latter had bequeathed to him, among the churches and the poor.

That the princes generally considered the care of the poor as part of their duties may be seen from the words of Vladimir Monomach’s “Testament”, already mentioned, in which he advises his children: “Above all things, forget not the poor, and support them to the extent of your means. Give to the orphan, protect the widow, and permit the mighty to destroy no man.” From the last phrase it may be seen that a new idea is here expressed: not of mere charity but of a social policy having as its object the protection of the underprivileged. As we know, Vladimir Monomach himself entered upon such legislation.
The example of the profound, deep-reaching way in which Orthodox Christianity transfigured the Kievan Rus’ and its institutions in a more humane, welfarist and pro-poor direction should itself be informing the social thinking of the Orthodox Church today. Indeed, in several contexts, it already is. But from those Christians, particularly American Christians who value abstract notions of liberty over a more classically-Christian understanding of the responsibilities, prerogatives, right relationships and natural limits of the state, some deeper reflection is required. Saint Vladimir the Great was well aware both of his own weaknesses and sins, and also of the need to cultivate virtue, not merely for himself or among the boyars, but generally. He radically restructured the laws of his state such that they would not indulge his vicious propensities for cruelty, and also such that his people would have moderate means enough to pursue their own virtues adequately. And he pursued his own prerogative as necessary, even against the bishops of the religion he had taken on, when it came to capital punishment, torture and mutilation.

The example of Kievan Rus’ is one which must prick our consciences and stir us to self-reflection. What sorts of men does our society produce in abundance? What sorts of men do we want our régime to encourage, or to discourage?


  1. I'm looking forward to your comments on the crazy UK election results.