Around the World in 80 Days, Day 38: Russia, Part 2 – A Brief (and Mostly True) History of Religion in Russia

“Drinking is the joy of the Russes!”
—Prince Vladimir in The Primary Chronicle

In Part 1 of my three-part series on Russia, I said that many of Russia’s problems could be attributed to the fact that Russia is not now—nor has it ever—been truly Christian.  It is that faith that gave birth to the West as we know it.  By contrast, Russia’s religious experience has been altogether different.  Let me explain.

Historians have long regarded 988 A.D. as one of the most fateful dates in the history of Eastern Europe.  It was in that year that Vladimir, Prince of Kievan Rus (think modern Russia), converted to Greek Orthodoxy.  The consequences were far-reaching and devastating in effect.  Here’s how it happened….

Paganism was passé among the civilized peoples of Europe, and Kievan Rus needed a change.  According to The Primary Chronicle, Russia’s oldest native historical source, Prince Vladimir sent out emissaries to investigate the major religious options then available.  They considered Judaism and Islam in addition to Greek and Roman Christianity.  When his emissaries returned, Vladimir listened attentively to their accounts, weighing the pros and cons of each religion.  Islam, it seems, was in the running until Vladimir was told that Muslims are not permitted to drink alcohol.  His response was emphatic:

“Drinking is the joy of the Russes!”

Here we have the only instance in the recorded history of Russia where a ruler of that country made a decision that truly reflected the will of the people.  Attaboy, Vlad.

“To our health!” Vladimir declared, throwing back some of this firewater, melting his liver and other vital organs. (Interestingly, the old Ukrainian name for vodka is horilka, or goryashchee, from the Slavonic root meaning “to burn.”  This is probably because observers discovered a direct correlation between vodka consumption and the destruction of public and private property.)

Judaism was presented next for his consideration, but the bit about circumcision made him shift uncomfortably on his throne.  “Nyet!” he declared, cutting off the spokesman mid-sentence.  Crossing his legs, Vladimir asked the emissaries who went to Germany what the Catholics had to offer, but they gave what he regarded as an equally unimpressive report.  Yes, drinking was permitted, beer being the drink of choice.  Still, they said, “We beheld no glory there.”  It seems that for these boys to see glory, they needed the kind of buzz only vodka can provide.

Zero for three, things didn’t look too promising when the fellows who went to Constantinople to appraise Greek Orthodoxy spoke up.  Having visited Hagia Sophia before the Ottomans trashed it, they were overawed by what they saw there:

“We knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth . . . we know only that God dwells there among men.”  The Primary Chronicle further states that the Byzantine emperors Basil II and Constantine VIII lavished them with great gifts.  Unfortunately, it does not record what these gifts were, but it has long been speculated that gold, spices, and an autographed copy of Yanni’s Greatest Hits were among them.  Although deeply impressed, Vladimir still had reservations.  Stroking his beard thoughtfully, his eyes narrowing, he gazed skeptically as he asked the Greek position on vodka and circumcision.  The first was permissible, they said, and the second not required.  Vladimir’s eyebrows shot up in surprise.  This sounded an awful lot like paganism … Thus, Vladimir knew this was the religion for him!

Converting to Greek Orthodoxy, Vladimir became a lover of all things Greek.  So much so that he immediately declared war on Constantinople so that he might possess it.  The Greeks explained to him that this really wasn’t a very Christian thing to do.  It seems that he had misunderstood what Christians meant by “sword drill.”  He needed baptism, they said.  Vladimir agreed.  He then enthusiastically required all his subjects, under penalty of death, to be baptized too.  Vlad made a lot a lot of converts this way.  Publicly, the Greeks declared him a saint.  Privately, they considered him a slow learner.

So why was 988 such a disaster?

The adoption of Greek Orthodoxy forever separated Russia from the Western world culturally and linguistically.  Hence, they never experienced the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Enlightenment, the Scientific Revolution, the Industrial Revolution, or the French man-purse craze.  By the twentieth century, these countries lagged behind the West by a good two centuries.  The earliest rumblings of the Industrial Revolution could be heard in England in the 1740s.  They would not be heard in Russia in earnest until the first of the Five-Year Plans in 1928.

What were the theological implications?  Greek Orthodoxy, as practiced by the Russians, has had a history of xenophobia, a strong strain of anti-Semitism, and other-worldliness in the extreme.  It is a religion without grace, of ritual obedience, with little connection to the Bible, and worship of an impersonal god who is unknown and unknowable.  In other words, it is typically not very Christian.

The keystone that sits atop the grand archway of authentic Christianity is grace.  By it and it alone does one gain access to Jesus Christ and, by him, to God the Father and eternal life.  Remove it and the whole edifice collapses, no matter what features of Christianity may remain.  Without grace the sacraments are not sacramental and the preaching of God’s Word serves no purpose beyond reminding the patient that he has a disease for which there is no cure.  Without grace, Christianity is reduced to mere religion and is as hollow as the many Orthodox cathedrals and churches that, today, are little more than tourist attractions.

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