Kiev’s Slavic, Greco-Roman History

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Saint Sophia Cathedral in Kiev

The Church of the Holy Wisdom did not only commemorate Rus’s conversion to Orthodoxy, but it also honored Kiev as a place of education and law.

When Yaroslav the Wise built St. Sophia, not only was he honoring the religion of the Byzantine Empire, but it was his desire to make Kiev a center for learning and law. He assembled advisors to take the best from Slavic and Roman law to explain Church-State relations, property rights, and the clergy’s role in society. The result was the Russkaia Pravda, the first compilation of Russian laws.

He brought in Greek architects and artists to complete not only the cathedral but other important buildings. Works of Greek literature were translated, giving the scholars of Rus the opportunity to learn more about their Western counterparts. (Mazour, 24) A previously unorganized, Pagan, and relatively uneducated land became a cultural center with the conversion to the Orthodox faith and the desire of Kiev’s rulers to follow in the footsteps of Constantinople.

St. Sophia was the center of a complex of buildings that were ordered to be built by Yaroslav the Wise. In addition to being where chronicles and laws were written, it also housed the earliest national library, was the seat of the Kievan Metropolitan, was where foreign dignitaries were received, and where important people like princes and clergymen were buried. (Mazour, 503)

The interest in learning, laws, and spirituality begin a historical heritage in Eastern Europe much like the legacy of Byzantium did for Western Christianity. Because of the already established trade routes of the Varangians, Christianity had come by way of the Greeks to Rus.

However, the influence of the Kievan princes became even more widespread as their civilization grew. Yaroslav’s daughter, Anna, was married to the King of France. (Lavrin, 2) Anna impressed the court with her ability to read and write, and her famous signature (in Cyrillic) “Anna Regina” still exists for us today of proof of her literacy and learning. (Reid, 10)

A literary tradition had thus begun with Yaroslav’s insistence towards an educated Rus. Because the Russians, by way of Cyril and Methodius, had adopted an alphabet that had its roots in Greek symbols, but which used the languages they themselves had developed, the Kievans did not take Greek as their language for religious purposes. This was the beginning of an identity that owed much to Byzantium but that was also starting to develop in such a way as to reflect the practical needs of its people.

However, much of the early writings of the Ukrainian literary tradition, had their inception within the walls of St. Sophia and the surrounding area in Kiev. The Primary Chronicle, a history of Russia to 1113, is based on the Byzantine type of chronicle. (Lavrin, 3)

The choice of Prince Vladimir when deciding a faith for his people set off a sequence of events that has forever established a course for the history of Ukraine and Eastern Europe. With Byzantium as its basis, Kievan Rus established Orthodoxy as its religion, developed an interest in education, and began a literary tradition. A new form of architecture and a style of art were introduced, bringing about the construction and decoration of St. Sophia, which combined local building traditions with the codes for a place of worship established by Byzantium.

While the cathedral that exists today is greatly changed from the St. Sophia envisioned by Yaroslav, it still stands as a monument to the rich cultural legacy left in the wake of the early Kievan princes who undertook the transformation of the Slavs from pagan, literarily bereft, and lawless subjects into Orthodox, lawful people with a literary tradition. The church of “Wisdom,” as in Constantinople, was certainly an appropriate name for the cathedral, for through its construction were the Slavs inspired to take learning upon themselves.

Like Byzantium, Eastern Europe fashioned an identity out of strongly influential cultural elements that spilled out of its borders and into the rest of the West.

Sources:

  1. Lavrin, Janko, Russian Writers: Their Lives and Literature. Toronto: D. Van Nostrand, 1954.
  2. Mazour, Anatole G., Russia: Tsarist and Communist. Princeton, NJ: D. Van Nostrand, 1962.
  3. Reid, Anna, Borderland: A Journey through the History of Ukraine. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2000.
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