From the Beginnings of Russian History to Conversion to Christianity

The immense, boundless surface of the territory between the Baltic Sea and the Black Sea, between the Carpazî and the Urals, halfway between the countries touched, albeit superficially, by Western civilization and Asia itself – an inexhaustible deposit of tribes eager to spill over to Europe -, strikes the attention of anyone who is preparing to study Russia. It is therefore not surprising that the leading Russian historians, even those who most echoed Hegel’s ideas, have shown themselves to be inclined, in considering the past of their country, to a certain geographical determinism, indeed sometimes to see in the geographical factor almost the motive unique of all the development of the Russian people, of all the transformations of its political and social structure.

Anticipating, with an understandable and excusable error, the civilizing aspect of Russian colonization to an era – in which the Eastern Slavs had more or less the same degree of civilization as the peoples they encountered on their path or with whom they merged, some Russian historians, especially the followers of the “Slavophile” current, eager at all costs to establish an originality and a universal mission of their people, wanted to see the characteristic note of Russian expansion in a “peaceful colonization” that would be profoundly distinguished by the violent conquests made by Western peoples. But more than of a congenital peaceful nature, we believe that we must speak of the concrete possibility of colonizing immense uninhabited or semi-inhabited territories almost without struggle.

The ancestors of today’s residents of Russia probably came down from the Carpazî in the 10th century. VII, first towards the Dnieper, then gradually extending their penetration; among the main tribes we can mention the Poljani, the Voliniani, the Severiani, the Drevliani, the Krivici, etc. To the north they came into contact with the Finni, further west with the Lithuanians; between Dnieper and Volga they met a population of Turkish race, the Chazari, on the middle Volga the Bulgarians, a people of mixed blood, with a prevalence of Turkish elements.

Dedicated mainly to agriculture, fishing, hunting, the Russians gradually began to deal with trade, especially under the influence of a Norman population: the Varangians. The small fortified centers, built as a defense against the aggression of nomads, are transformed, with the spread of trade, into real urban nuclei, among which Kiev, Polock, Novgorod, Rostov, etc. can be mentioned very soon. (see also the entry Slavs).

The contact between the Russians and the Varangians is explained by the fact that the latter, in their expeditions from Scandinavia to Constantinople, almost necessarily crossed Russia. According to a legend, the Russian tribes were troubled by serious discord: an embassy was therefore sent to the Varangians, so that they would come to restore order and to establish their kingdom. In fact, three Varangian brothers, Rjurik (v.), Sineus and Truvor would have accepted the invitation; the last two having died, Rjurik (862-879) reigned alone.

It is certainly difficult to establish how much truth there may be in this legend and whether the Varian domination was, or not, established by force. If the Varangians for their audacity and energy remembered their Norman brothers, on the other hand they were very few in number and in fact soon ended up being assimilated by the Slavic environment. However, the Russians’ approach to Byzantium and the great civilization that emanated from there is due in the forefront of the spirit of initiative of the Varangian dominant nucleus. It is a decidedly activist and military spirit that asserts itself with these men of the North and almost involuntarily the comparison is made with the penetration into Russia – in relatively recent times – of German military instructors, officials, technicians:

All Russian historians agree in seeing the “trend towards Byzantium” as a movement favored by the very course of the rivers of southern Russia; from this point of view they also explain the fact that the dukes of Russia very early felt the military and geographical need to establish their headquarters in Kiev, which thus became not only a strategic center of great importance, but a city commercially in the foreground, favored, under this last aspect, also by its relative proximity to central Europe.

The first rulers of Russia, after Rjurik, are Oleg (879-912), Igor (912-945), son of Rjurik, Svyatoslav (945-972), son of Igor, Vladimir, called the Great or the Saint (980- 1015), son of Svyatoslav, Jaroslav, called the Savio (1019-1054), son of Vladimir. As we can see, very soon (ie from Svyatoslav), the names of these sovereigns are decidedly Slavic. In short, the Russians, not very gifted with the spirit of initiative, had nevertheless from the very beginning of their history the ability to assimilate – with the mass of their number and through the vastness of the lands they occupied – all those foreigners, even superior in civilization, who had come to settle among themselves.

Svyatoslav’s first forays into the immediate surroundings of Byzantium were aimed not only at looting, but at the desire to obtain advantageous economic-commercial concessions from the Greeks. Evidently eager to give some stability to commercial relations with Byzantium, also eager to get closer to this great center of civilization, Svyatoslav attempted a real conquest of the Danubian lands. However, the Bulgarians sided on the side of Byzantium and the mercenary troops of the Pecenegean and Hungarians also passed on the side of the Greeks. The war took a bad turn for the Russians: Svyatoslav himself, besieged in a fortress on the Danube, obtained free exit from the Greeks with his warriors under very harsh conditions:

Vladimir the Great, however, continued Svyatoslav’s policy by conquering a Greek city in the Tauris: Chersonese. It was of course far more advantageous for the Russians to fight in the Tauris than in the Balkan Peninsula, a short distance from Byzantium. The peace later concluded established the marriage between Vladimir and Anna, sister of Constantine and Basil II. This marriage was to be of the utmost importance for the future of Russia. Vladimir accepted the Christian religion and in 988 had his subjects baptized.

In this way the Russian people accepted Christianity from Byzantium: the Byzantine tradition, which conceived the Church as closely linked to secular power, therefore had to plant its roots in Russia. Even in modern times and in very recent times, the Russian Orthodox clergy could in fact have an intrusion in the affairs of the state in forms that are difficult to conceive in the West; in the Russian-Byzantine conception, the Western tradition was incomprehensible for which the state could avail itself of the support of the Church, while maintaining its independence in “earthly” matters.

With Vladimir’s acceptance of Christianity, the Russian people took a decisive step towards Europe, differentiating themselves from the primitive and barbaric tribes on both sides of the Urals. With the ecclesiastical hierarchy the internal order of the state was also strengthened, the whole legality. Monasticism was also affirmed: monasteries soon began to become radiating centers of civilization, indeed of a new and superior spiritual conception of life. Christianity affirmed itself in Russia without encountering great resistance: in fact, we must not lose sight of how many interests flowed towards Byzantium and the civilization that emanated from there; any further persistence in the primitive pagan crudity now became an obstacle to any territorial and commercial development.

By accepting Christianity from Byzantium, Russia had by now inserted itself into Eastern Europe, marking – for the future centuries – its detachment from the West. When, in modern times, enlightened rulers, especially under the impulse of immediate war needs, feel the need to accept elements of Western civilization (especially the material and technical aspects of this civilization), it will be an extremely difficult task to insert these elements into a Byzantine state apparatus which tends to conservation and immobility.

From the Beginnings of Russian History to Conversion to Christianity