The Kievan Rus
BY RANDALL NILES
About a hundred years after Cyril and Methodius, Prince Igor and Princess Olga ruled the increasingly powerful Kievan Rus from the city of Kiev. The Kievan Rus was a loose confederation of Slavic tribes, coming mostly from the modern nations of Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine. After Igor was murdered by a tribe that wouldn’t pay tribute to Kiev, Olga avenged her husband’s death by totally wiping them out. This put Olga on the “to be reckoned with” map.
In 955, Olga was invited to Constantinople on a diplomatic and commercial mission. While there, she witnessed the beauty of Christian culture, worship, and prosperity for the first time. In short order, she converted, was baptized, and returned home to Kiev.
For the rest of her life, Olga devoted herself to spreading the Gospel in her beloved land. She sent delegations to both the Byzantine and Holy Roman emperors, asking them to send Christian scholars, pastors, and missionaries, which they did. Throughout her land, she built churches, schools, hospitals, and orphanages. At Olga’s death, the Kievan Rus kingdom was still pagan, but she had laid the foundations for Christianity. According to one historical account, she was “the dawning light that heralds the sun.”
Olga is considered the first Russian saint of the Eastern Orthodox Church, known as the patron saint of widows and converts. However, it would be her grandson, Vladimir, who would convert an entire people to Christianity.
In about 988, Olga’s grandson, Prince Vladimir the Great, sent emissaries to Constantinople to further investigate Christianity. After attending worship services at the Hagia Sophia, they returned home and reported on their experience, “not knowing if they had been in heaven or on earth.” It was then that Vladimir converted to Christianity and looked to take the people of the Kievan Rus with him.
Vladimir sent messages back to Constantinople and began preparations for his baptism — and that of his loyal subjects. He even sealed an alliance with the Byzantine Emperor by marrying the Emperor’s daughter, Princess Anne. Within a year, there was a grand ceremony here along the banks of the Dnieper River. Thousands of the Kievan Rus were baptized, the pagan idol of Perun was destroyed, and Christian missionaries were deployed throughout the land.
Vladimir the Great died in 1015. He had four sons, each of whom sought to outrival one another for royal control of the Kievan Rus. After a series of bloody conflicts in the early 11th century, Yaroslav was the victor. He immediately went to work to transform the capital of Kiev into a showcase of Christianity, culture, and commerce that would be the talk of the world.
Within decades of Yaroslav taking control, the Kievan Rus became an influential people group, linked by marriage to several of the royal houses of Europe. Yaroslav himself married the daughter of the King of Sweden. Then, his three daughters became queens of France, Norway, and Hungary, and his sons married one Byzantine and three German princesses. Embassies opened, trade flourished, and Kiev became a major commercial hub. Yaroslav was also responsible for compiling a set of ancient laws known as “Russian Truth.”
Yaroslav was soon hailed as “Yaroslav the Wise.” At its height in the mid-11th century, the Kievan Rus stretched from the Baltic Sea in the north to the Black Sea in the south, from the headwaters of the Vistula in the west to the Taman Peninsula in the east – uniting a majority of the East Slavic tribes. In addition to his leadership in politics, law, and commerce, Yaroslav the Wise was dedicated to continuing his dad’s mission of spreading Christianity throughout the Kievan Rus.