Orthodox America

  The Foundation of Holy Rus

The Meaning of Holy Orthodoxy in the History of the Russian State by Archbishop John (Maximovitch)

      "With voices of praise the Roman land honors Peter and Paul. through whom she came to believe in Jesus Christ the son of God; Ephesus, Patmos--St. John the Theologian; India--Apostle Thomas; Egypt--holy Evangelist Mark; all lands and cities and people honor and glorify those instructors who taught them the Orthodox Faith. Let us likewise give praise, as we have strength, to our gr eat and wondrous instructor, the Grand Prince of our Land, Volodimir, the grandson of the old Igor."

      So said the holy Hilarion, Metropolitan of Kiev in the mid-11th century, just over half a century after the Baptism of Rus. Already at that time the holy man discerned the greatness of St. Vladimir's accomplishment and called Rus to worthily glorify him.

    Let us bring to mind the character of Rus up until the time of Vladimir, and what she became after he baptized her.

    Here is Rus in the time of "the old Igor," or in the time of Vladimir's father, Sviatoslav. Each tribe lived its own life, detached from the rest; the separate clans often warred among themselves and not infrequently engaged in mass annihilation following the laws of blood vengeance. The princes of pagan Rus were better characterized as warring chieftains than as fathers and benefactors of their people; campaigns and plunder held a greater attraction for them than the task of caring for their subjects. Many tribes were still at a very low level of mot al and cultural development; some had the custom of abducting young women to make them their wives.

    It would be a mistake, however, to think that the Slavs were characterized solely by negative traits and that they were an exclusively barbarian people. On the contrary; they possessed a great deal of inherent goodness. They were hospitable, valiant and honest. The women were faithful companions of their husbands, often remaining true to their spouse even after his death. The Slavs honored their elders and were obedient to them in matters both personal and social. 

But alongside these positive traits, they exhibited treachery, cruelty and wickedness. At times, especially during seasons of war, they became terrifying to all those around. The peaceful Slav became a wild beast, and woe to those upon whom he projected his wrath; it spared no one! Byzantium trembled before its northern neighbors, and the latter were often afraid of one another.

    And so the Slav world stood at the crossroads between good and evil, manifesting at times those fine and most worthy qualities of a man created in God's image, while at other times showing the dread signs of a beast in human form.

    What kind of high ideals existed among these Slavs? What inspired their thoughts, their feelings? Who were their heroes?

    The gods in whom they believed possessed all the characteristics of their worshippers; they incarnated both their good-and their bad qualities. In serving these gods of their own creation, the Slavs confirmed themselves in their own faults, finding justification in the traits of their idols. Serving their vicious Perun, the Slavs conducted cruel warfare, massacring their neighbors. It is hard to say just what would have become of eastern Europe had SS. Cyrill and Methodius not poured the light of Christ over the Slavic land and laid the foundation for the enlightenment of the Slavic people..·

     The influence of Christianity soon made itself apparent and drew them into the family of Christian peoples. Those territories where Christianity was accepted in a short time became transformed. But the great majority of Slavs--the eastern Slavs-continued to live as before· At times one could have feared that their warring princes, the likes of Sviatoslav, would destroy even those young sprouts found growing on their brothers' fields which had been watered by Christian teachings. The darkness hanging over the eastern Slav tribes was so thick and obscure that even the "morning star," the first Christian ruler of Rus, Princess Olga, was unable to dispel it. It was necessary for the "Bright Sun" itself to appear--and this, for Rus, was Olga' s grandson, Great Prince Vladimir ....

His penetrating conversion transformed a pleasure-loving and impetuously passionate youth into a righteous man. And through his example and his appeals, Vladimir drew his subjects after him.

    The baptized land of Rus manifested a no less radical transformation. The baptism of Kiev, followed by the rest of Rus, opened a new life for the eastern Slavs and inaugurated a glorious history.

     With the acceptance of Christianity the divided Slavic tribes which comprised Vladimir's realm sensed their unity. This awareness was heightened by the fact that for the course of several centuries all of Rus was ecclesiastically organized under a single metropolia in spite of its earlier division into appanages·

     ·Under the shelter of the holy Orthodox Church, Rus was strengthened and grew into a great empire occupying I/6 of the world. The Russian people, having accepted Christianity not by force but voluntarily, essayed from the very first years after baptism to embody the Gospel teaching in their life. Baptism effected a rebirth and an inner transformation of a previously crude people. Preserving their traditional good qualities, they became liberated from those bad traits which had formerly characterized them. The struggle between good and evil took place not only in Vladimir’s soul, but in the people as a whole, and there was a decided turn toward the good. After the Baptism, the Russian people were no longer what they had been before; they were, in truth, a new people.

This is not to say that everything suddenly became perfect, that evil disappeared from men’s hearts and no longer existed in the land. No, within each person the eternal struggle continued. But the driving force behind the Russian populace became Orthodoxy which took hold of all facets of life – personal, social and civil. Life in the family and in society became penetrated with the Gospel spirit; opinions were formed under the influence of church principles, and civil law was guided by the canons. The prevailing orientation of Russian life was the search after God’s truth…

Not everything in Rus fell in with this tendency – far from it. In the course of centuries much evil was also perpetrated within her borders. If “There is no man who shall live and not sin,” then it is even less possible for the history of a nation to be without sin and evil. However, just as the best and strongest qualities which stand out in a man are important for his overall characterization, so too, in order to characterize a people it is necessary to define that which forms the principle substance of its moral fiber. For Rus and the Russian people, regardless of all the various deviations and even downfalls, its primary focus was to serve truth and to stand fast in the faith. When we recall ancient Greece, the words of Apostle Paul come to mind: “The Greeks seek after wisdom,” although there were, of course, many among them who did not seek after wisdom. Likewise, Sparta is associated with physical discipline; Phoenicia with trade; Rome prided itself in its civic virtues; while the Russians acquired the name of a God-bearing people, and the land became known as “Holy Rus.”

(An excerpt translated from “Skazanie o Russkoi Zemlye;” New York, 1983)

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