Crimean History Pt. 2: Prelude to Holy Kiev
Invitation of the Varangians by Viktor Vasnetsov, before 1913
As the 9th century dawned, Crimea was split between the Empire of Khazaria, which controlled Crimea’s northern half, and the Byzantine Greeks who controlled the south. As it would be in centuries to come, the Byzantines and the Turkic Khazars alternated between squabbling and alliances. Khazaria was the Silk Road’s western end and the Khazars grew rich selling Asian goods to Central and Eastern European merchants.
While they might occasionally argue over territory, the Byzantines saw Khazaria as both a trading partner and a buffer against larger threats. Khazaria lay between Byzantium and the Persian Sassanid Empire. The Persians had been a persistent threat to the West since before Thermopylae. The Khazars also shielded Constantinople from Arab raiders and a new threat rising on the Pontic steppes.
The East Slavic, Slavicized Iranian and Finnic tribes living between the Baltic and Black Seas had united under Varangian nobles descended from Norse traders and warriors in a confederation Russians call Kievan Rus. In 860 warriors from Kievan Rus sacked the suburbs of Constantinople. Sporadic raids on Byzantium would continue for nearly two hundred years.
But as with the Khazars, the Byzantines and the Rus alternated between quarreling and trade. The Byzantines purchased furs and amber from the Rus and relied on Rus soldiers for their mercenary troops. And alongside Byzantine merchants and diplomats came Byzantine missionaries.
Byzantium signed treaties with Kievan Rus nobles in 907, 911, and 945. The 945 treaty is noteworthy because some of the Rus representatives swore by the names of their traditional gods, while others affirmed their oaths before Christ.
Igor Extracting Tribute from the Drevelians by Klavdy Lebedev, 1903
Prince Igor of Kiev did not live to celebrate the last treaty. Later in 945 the Drevilians, another Slavic tribe, responded to Igor’s excessive tribute demands by tying his feet to two bent birch trees and ripping him apart. Igor’s widow Olga presided over the deaths of the Drevilian nobility by immolation, premature burial, and sword. Olga then went on to raid their territory and slaughter or enslave much of the local population. A few years later she would travel to Constantinople, where in 957 she was baptized by Byzantine Emperor Constantine VII and the Patriarch of Constantinople.
Olga’s son, Prince Sviatoslov of Kiev, refused to convert because he was afraid his subjects would laugh at him. But his mother managed to extract a promise from Sviatoslov that he would protect any Christian converts within his domain. Thirty years later Olga’s grandson, Vladimir the Great, turned away from his pagan gods and his 800 concubines and accepted baptism in the Crimean town of Cherchesones (modern-day Kerch).
Before conversion, Vladimir reportedly called together representatives of various religions to determine which faith he should follow. Islam’s prohibition of alcohol was a deal-breaker for Vladimir, who famously (and almost certainly apocryphally) reported that “Drinking is a joy to the Russians, we can not do without it.” Vladimir’s half-brother had died in battle after converting to Latin Catholicism, and Vladimir noted that the God of the Jews didn’t see fit to let them hold Jerusalem.
Vladimir decided on the Orthodox faith when his emissaries described a Constantinople Mass:
[O]n Earth there’s no such splendor nor beauty, and we do not even know how to describe it. We only know that God was there among the people, and their service is fairer than those of other nations
Soon after his baptism, Vladimir had his subjects gather by the Dnieper River where Greek priests baptized the population of Kiev en masse into the Orthodox faith.
The Baptism of Kiev by Klavdiy Lebedev, before 1916
There was some resistance to Vladimir’s Christianization campaigns. It was dealt with the way Charlemagne had earlier dealt with stubborn Saxon pagans. Most of the people followed their rulers into their new faith as Kievan Rus became a devoutly Christian land.
Vladimir’s conversion strengthened ties with Byzantium. Byzantine emperors built churches in Kiev and sent priests and monks to educate the Rus. These clerics brought with them the Cyrillic alphabet that was closely based on Greek, with added letters for sounds found only in Slavic languages. From its place on the frontier, Rus began to see itself as a bulwark against the raiders and infidels who would see Christendom destroyed. And as those raiders and infidels continued gaining territory and the center of power moved from Kiev to Moscow, Russia began to see itself not as Byzantium’s protector but as its heir.
Crimea became an important part of the Kievan mythology not only because it was the site of Vladimir’s baptism. In the 1st century, the Roman emperor Trajan exiled Pope St. Clement I to Cherchesones. As comparative latecomers to Christendom, the Russians appreciated any tie they could find to the early Christian era. (Compare and contrast England’s stories about Joseph of Arimathea and the Cornwall tin trade).
Kievan Rus was devastated in the 1240s by Mongol raids. Descendents of the Kievan Rus nobility continued to rule over kingdoms in Galicia-Volhynia (modern-day Ukraine and Belarus, more or less) and in Moscow. Galicia-Volhynia became part of Poland in 1349. The Rurik Dynasty that founded Kievan Rus would continue to rule Moscow until 1598, when Tsar Feodor I, son of Ivan IV Grozny (aka Ivan the Terrible), died without issue.
Like the Holy Land, Kievan Rus is at the center of several sometimes-conflicting origin myths. Belarussians, Ukrainians, and Russians each trace their ethnic identity back to Kievan Rus and the conversion of St. Vladimir. And as it is in the Holy Land, the interpretation and practice of those myths has not infrequently led to bloodshed.