Eastern Orthodoxy came to Kievan Rus by way of Constantinople, when Prince Vladimir chose the Orthodox religion over Paganism and founded St. Sophia.
Kievan Rus has been a long-standing example of how far-reaching, influential, and inspiring the Byzantine Empire was in the eyes of its subjects and followers. That Prince Vladimir, when faced with the choices of faiths for his people, would prefer Eastern Orthodoxy over Roman Catholicism, Islam, and Judaism, attests to the impressive splendor of Constantinople and the famous cathedral built by Justinian, the Hagia Sophia, or Church of the Holy Wisdom.
The Kievan St. Sophia in Eastern Europe, is the physical manifestation of political, religious, and artistic circumstances of the late 10th and early 11th centuries as were relevant to the Slavs of that period in history, and not only does it hearken back to Byzantium, but (like Byzantium), it serves as the focal point for the legacy which Byzantine Kiev has established for the history of Ukraine.
St. Sophia’s origins have a history based on facts, though much of this factual evidence has taken on the form of legend. The cathedral is a monument to the conversion of Prince Vladimir and his people from paganism to Orthodoxy, and in Ukrainian history and folklore, this conversion has a special place.
History tells us that Christianity was not unknown in Vladimir’s lifetime. Olha, his grandmother, had been baptized in the Christian fashion and this probably made an impression on Vladimir. As the Prince over his people, he was on a search for a religion that would unify and modernize his subjects(Reid, 8). The legend (based on historical fact) tells of Vladimir’s examination of the available faiths of that time: Islam, Judaism, Roman Catholic, and Orthodoxy.
The Bulgars with their Islam, the Germans with their Catholicim, and the Jews all failed to impress Vladimir with the premises of their religions. However, the Greek faith made sense to Vladimir, and he sent some of his people to gather more information about Orthodoxy.
The emissaries sent to Constantinople reported that the Hagia Sophia was so beautiful that they did not know whether they were in heaven or on earth. The emissaries described their experience thusly:
“And we went into the Greek lands, and we were led into a place where they serve their God, and we did not know where we were, on heaven or on earth; and do not know how to tell about this. All we know is that God lives there with people and their service is better than in any other country. We cannot forget that beauty since each person, if he eats something sweet, will not take something bitter afterwards; so we cannot remain any more in paganism.” (Primary Chronicle, trans. George Kalbouss)
This description impressed Vladimir, who ordered the statue of the Pagan god Perun to be thrown into the river. A mass baptism ensued in a tributary of the Dnieper and the people of Rus adopted Christianity as their principle religion (Reid, 9).
Constantinople had ties with Kiev before this time, and it has been suggested that it was in the capital’s interest to make an ally with Rus. The link between Byzantium and Eastern Europe had been opened by Varangians, some of whom were absorbed into the local Slav population. Before he became Christian, Vladimir had already demanded that the emperor in Constantinople grant Vladimir his sister’s hand in marriage. Anna was married to Vladimir after Vladimir convinced them that he would take on the Orthodox faith. (Nickel, 121)
- Reid, Anna, Borderland: A Journey through the History of Ukraine. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2000.
- Nickel, Heinrich L., Medieval Architecture in Eastern Europe, trans. Alisa Jaffa. New York: Holmes & Meier, 1981.