Beginning in the eighth century, the Scandinavians expanded into Russia. First taking control of the Baltic shore, they moved south along the rivers to the Sea of Azov and the northern Caucasus. Their name was Rus, which has survived in the modern term Russian. Gradually they overcame many of the Slavic, Lithuanian, Finnish, and Magyar peoples who were then living on the steppe. The story told in the Old Russian Primary Chronicle, compiled during the eleventh century, is suggestive of what may have happened among the inhabitants of Russia sometime in the 850s:
There was no law among them, but tribe rose against tribe. Discord thus ensued among them, and they began to war one against another. They said to themselves, “Let us seek a prince who may rule over us, and judge according to the law.” They accordingly went overseas to the Varangian [i.e., Scandinavian] Russes . . . [and] said to the people of Rus,
“Our whole land is great and rich, but there is no order in it. Come to rule and reign over us.”
This is known as the “calling of the princes.” The Chronicle goes on to tell how the Viking Rurik accepted the invitation in 862 and settled in the Slavic trading town of Novgorod. Scandinavian princes then moved south along the Dnieper River. They seized the settlement called Kiev and made it the center of a state at first loosely controlled and devoted to trade. In 860, for the first time, their warships appeared off Constantinople, where they caused panic before they were repulsed. During the next two centuries there were three further attacks as well as other wars, which the Byzantines won.
Though a brisk trade developed between the Byzantines and the Rus people, the continuing religious influence that Byzantium exercised upon the Russians was even more important. There is evidence in a trade treaty of 945 that some of the Russian envoys were already Christians, swearing by the Holy Cross to observe the provisions of the treaty.
The Russians were converted during the late 980s during the reign of Vladimir. He felt the inadequacy of the old faith, about which we know little except that the Russians worshiped forest and water spirits and a god of thunder. But the cautious Vladimir did not accept Orthodox Christianity until after he had sent a commission to visit various countries where all the faiths were practiced. Shortly after he received their report he was baptized and married a Byzantine princess. Returning to Kiev, he threw down all the idols in the city. It is said that in one day he forcibly baptized the entire population in the waters of the Dnieper.
Despite its legendary features, the story of Vladimir reflects the various cultural influences to which the Kievan state was exposed. It had Muslim, Jewish,** and Roman Catholic Christian neighbors, but the most powerful and influential neighbor was the Orthodox and Greek Byzantium. Doubtless the marriage alliance with the Byzantine princess played a part in Vladimir’s decision. To secure the conversion of the Russians to the Byzantine form of Christianity was also important for the Byzantines, who needed to protect their possessions along the Black Sea and their capital itself against renewed Russian attack.
The church became an important social force in Kievan society, and the Slavic clergy formed a new and influential social class. Although the Byzantines always asserted theoretical sovereignty over the Russian church, the Russian church early asserted its independence in practical matters. From the first, the church in Russia became an important landowner, and monasteries multiplied. The clergy came to have legal jurisdiction over all Christians in cases involving morals, family affairs, and religious matters.
The concept that crimes should be punished by the state replaced the old concept that punishment was a matter of personal revenge. For the first time formal education was established; the Cyrillic alphabet was adopted, and literature written in Russian began to appear; Byzantine art forms were imported and imitated. However, the pagan faith persisted in rural areas, and the new culture was largely confined to the few cities and to the monasteries.
Many scholars have argued that the short-run gain from conversion by Byzantium was outweighed by a long- run loss. The use of the native language in the liturgy meant that the culture of Russia had little contact with Western thought. In the West, every priest and every monk had to learn Latin; as soon as he did so, he had the key to the treasures of Latin classical literature and the works of the Latin church fathers. For those in the West who had the leisure, the talent, the inclination, and the luck to find themselves in a monastery with a good library, the opportunity for learning was open.
The fact that the Byzantines did not insist on the use of Greek in the liturgy meant that the Russian clergy did not automatically learn Greek. And of course, the Latin heritage was not available to the Russians either. A very few Russians did learn Greek, but by and large the great Greek classical heritage of philosophy and literature was closed to the Russians. Byzantine sermons, saints’ lives, some chronicles and history, and certain other pieces of Byzantine literature were translated, but these were no substitutes for Plato and Aristotle, Homer and the dramatists. The conversion to Christianity from Byzantium thus had the effect of stunting the intellectual and literary progress of Russia.
Indeed, in the nineteenth century an influential group of Russian thinkers argued that conversion from Byzantium had led Russia into stagnation and intellectual sterility, because it had cut Russia off from Rome, the fountainhead of the intellectual and spiritual life of the West, without providing a substitute. Their opponents argued just as vigorously that it was precisely the Orthodox faith accepted from Byzantium that gave modern Russia its high degree of spirituality, its willingness to bend to the will of God, and indeed all the virtues that they found in the Russian character and the Russian system.
This difference of opinion persists, but most students argue that modern Russia has shown a considerable cultural lag in comparison with Western countries, that this cultural lag is partly attributable to the fact that Christianity was accepted from Byzantium, and that the very privilege of using Slavonic in the church services prevented the growth in Russia of a class educated in the wisdom of the ancient world.