Prince Vladimir I (ruled 980-1015) is regarded as the father of Russia. His greatest achievement was the Christianization of Kievan Rus', a process that began in 988. He built the first great edifice of Kievan Rus', the Desyatinnaya Church in Kiev. Vladimir's conversion to the Byzantine (Orthodox) Christian faith in 988 is generally regarded as the moment when Russia was founded. They 1,000th anniversary of the event, 1988, was celebrated with great fanfare on the Soviet Union. Vladimir converted to Orthodox Christianity in 988 largely for the political and economic advantages it offered. [Source: Merle Severy, National Geographic, December 1983]

The Rus were initially pagans. Byzantines referred to Rus as "ax-bearing barbarians." Prince Vladimir reportedly gave great thought to choosing which religion was right for his people. He welcomed envoys from the great religions of the time—Judaism, Catholicism, Islam and Orthodox Christianity— and listened to their arguments. A devoted womanizer, he liked the Muslim promise after death of fulfillment of carnal desires but he didn't like the Jewish and Muslim required circumcision and prohibition on alcohol and the eating of pork.

According to “Tales of Bygone Years”, compiled two centuries after Vladimir in the 1180s, Vladimir listened to the Muslims, "for he was fond of women and indulgence...But circumcision and abstinence from pork, and wine were disagreeable to him. 'Drinking,' he said, 'is a joy to the Russes. We cannot exist without that pleasure."

Prince Vladimir was also greatly impressed the churches and clergy in Constantinople. After visiting the monuments and treasures in the Byzantine capital his emissaries reported back, "[we] knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth. For on earth there is no such splendor...We only know that God dwells there among men..."

Historian often dismiss this interpretation of events and argue that Vladimir most likely converted to Orthodox Christianity to unify the loose confederation of pagan tribes he ruled over, to strengthen his trade links Constantinople and to form an alliance against the Muslims who penetrated the Volga region.

Prince Vladimir Converts to Orthodox Christianity

Prince Vladimir was baptized and converted to Orthodox Christianity. He was later canonized for converting Kievian Rus to Christianity. The choice of Orthodoxy created a distance between Russia and largely Catholic Europe but linked it the Byzantium Empire, based in Constantinople (Istanbul).

Vladimir's grandmother Princess Olga, the first Rus royal to be baptized, took the plunge on a visit to Constantinople in 957. Describing her Nestor wrote, "Olga was the precursor of the Christian land, even as the dayspring precedes the sun and as the dawn precedes the day. For she shone like the moon by night, and he was radiant among the infidels like a pearl in the mire."

Prince Vladimir gave the people of Russia and the Ukraine two choices: either they could be baptized too or loose their heads. He led his subjects en masse into the Dnieper in 988. They followed a route now occupied by Kreshchatic (Christening Street), Kiev's main thoroughfare. The baptized throw out their pagan idols and were baptized in the Orthodox faith.

Vladimir's choice of Eastern Orthodoxy reflected his close personal ties with Constantinople, which dominated the Black Sea and hence trade on Kiev's most vital commercial route, the Dnepr River. Adherence to the Eastern Orthodox Church had long-range political, cultural, and religious consequences. The church had a liturgy written in Cyrillic and a corpus of translations from the Greek that had been produced for the South Slavs. The existence of this literature facilitated the East Slavs' conversion to Christianity and introduced them to rudimentary Greek philosophy, science, and historiography without the necessity of learning Greek. In contrast, educated people in medieval Western and Central Europe learned Latin. Because the East Slavs learned neither Greek nor Latin, they were isolated from Byzantine culture as well as from the European cultures of their neighbors to the west. [Source: Glenn E. Curtis, Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

Orthodox Christianity Develops in Russia

Vladimir married the sister of one of the Byzantine co-emperors and initiated a program to transplant the culture, art, alphabet, and architecture of Constantinople to Kiev, which he described as "a city glistening with the light of holy icons, fragrant with incense, ringing with praise and holy, heavenly songs."

The Kiev empire provided be a fertile ground for Orthodox Christianity to take root. Unlike the Slavic kingdoms in The Balkans, it was far beyond the reached of the old Roman empire. "Christianity in the old Russian empire was the frontier faith of a colonizing people," wrote Russian historian James Billington in Smithsonian magazine. "The rugged new converts sought to beatify their churches and worship services rather than to discuss the fine points of dogma. So they developed a 'theology in pictures' in pictures rather in words—filling their churches with frescoes, icons and candle, embellishing them in the northern climate with new, snow-shedding onion domes and tent roofs that differed from the hemispheric domes of the Mediterranean world."

The adoption of the Orthodox Church by the Russians proved to be crucial in the geopolitical development of Europe. Russia developed into a strong, militant Christian state that believed it possessed a special historical mission. Vladimir successors spread the faith to the Arctic Ocean and the forests of Siberia.

Religion in the Soviet Era

Communism denounces organized religion; Communist countries are officially atheist states. The Soviet constitution listed "freedom of worship" and "freedom of antireligious propaganda" among its freedoms. The latter was used as justification for attacks on organized religion. The Communists attempted to substitute the study of Marxism for religion. Children were encouraged to take part in antireligious activities and schools emphasized antireligious aspects of science. The belief was that if succeeding generations were taught to reject religion, religion would eventually die out.

Marx was an atheist who famously called religion the "opiate of the people." He once wrote: "The proofs of the existence of God are nothing but proofs of the existence of the essentially human self-consciousness...Man is the supreme being for man...Atheism and communism...are but the first real coming-to-be, the relation become real for man, of man's essence." Marx's experience with religion within his own family as child is believed to have been one reason for his contempt of organized religion. Even though his grandparents were Jewish Marx became an anti-Semite.

Lenin tried to forge an ideal Communist state free of capitalism, private ownership, war, poverty, and religion. Lenin set out for his new government were creating a socialist society from scratch; redistributing the land held by the aristocracy; creating collective farms; nationalizing factories; and dismantling the Orthodox church. After the deaths of his father and his brother Lenin wrote, "I was 16 when I gave up religion." In May 1932, a Five-year plan against religion was declared. Religion suffered from a state policy of increased repression, starting with the closure of numerous churches in 1929. Persecution of clergy was particularly severe during the purges of the late 1930s, when many of the faithful went underground.

Many churches, monasteries and mosques were converted into archives of the state, museums, hospitals, schools, and insane asylums. Some churches were converted in discos by the communists. Paintings were burned and manuscripts were recycled at local paper mills. Building a church or a mosque under the communist regime was a problem, not so much because of money, but because is was difficult to secure the necessary building permits.

The Russian Communists dealt harshly with the conflict between Marxist atheist ideology and the desire to preserve Russian Orthodox culture. In the 1920s, they tried unsuccessfully to create a puppet "Living Church." When this didn't work Stalin staged an all out attack on religion under the "league of the Militant Godless." Stalin tried to wipe out the church altogether and then backed it to drum up patriotism and support at the beginning of World War II. During World War II, Stalin made peace with the Orthodox church and other religions to gain popular support.

Shortly after Lenin's body was put on display, a bitter Moscow frost caused a sewer to explode, flooding the tomb. Patriarch Nikon, the head of the Orthodox Church, was arrested and executed, in part for commenting on the incident by saying, "Myrrh fits the relics."

Repression of Religion in the Soviet Era

Atheism was the state religion of the Soviet Union. It was a prerequisite to membership to the Communist Party. Members of religious groups were effectively excluded. Organized religion was sometimes ruthlessly oppressed and infiltrated by informers. Strict limits were placed on what was allowed and what wasn't. Priests were arrested, exiled, killed or forced to renounce their profession. Monks were expelled from their monasteries. Out of old habits priests are very friendly until you ask their name.

Under the Soviet, all religious activity was discouraged. The Council of Religious Affairs regulated all officially recognized religions. The practice of religion was restricted. Proselytizing was forbidden. Members of some groups were persecuted, imprisoned and even killed. Religious persecution was greatest under Stalin and Khrushchev.

The suppression of church activities began soon after the Bolshevik Revolution. Churches were converted into archives of the state and priests were exiled and forced to renounce their profession. Protesters were arrested and executed and strict limits were placed on what was allowed and what wasn't. Antireligious campaigns were directed at all faiths; beginning in the 1920s, Buddhist and Shamanist places of worship in Buryatia, in the Baikal region, were destroyed, and their lamas and priests were arrested (a practice that continued until the 1970s).

The League of the Militant Godless, established in 1925, directed a nationwide campaign against the Orthodox Church and all other organized religions. The extreme position of that organization eventually led even the Soviet government to disavow direct connection with its practices. In 1927, the Orthodox church swore loyalty to the Soviet government even though its churches had been destroyed and its land had been nationalized.

There were laws against proselytizing, instructing minors in religion. Believers were denied career opportunities. The crackdowns on religion varied widely form place to place and time period to time period. After the fall of Khrushchev in 1964, the state gradually relaxed the persecution fo religions.

Religious Repression Under Stalin

The Russian Communists dealt harshly with the conflict between Marxist atheist ideology and the desire to preserve Russian Orthodox culture. In the 1920s, they tried unsuccessfully to create a puppet "Living Church." When they didn't work Stalin staged an all out attack on religion under the "league of the Militant Godless."

Churches were destroyed and priests were jailed, deported and executed (in extreme cases their tongues were reportedly cut off and their eyes ripped out of their sockets). The religious assault climaxed in 1931 with the destruction of Moscow's massive Cathedral of Christ of the Savior— the Russian Orthodox church's equivalent of St. Peters cathedral. Original built in 1812, to commemorate the defeat of Napoleon and completed after decades of work in 1883, it boasted five gold domes 14 bells in four separate belfries with a combined weight of 65 tons. It was large enough to accommodate 10,000 worshipers and contained 312 kilos of gold. The highest dome was 103 meters tall, as tall as a 30-story building, and 30 meters wide.

Under Stalin's orders, the Cathedral of Christ of the Savior was looted of its bells, icons and gold and destroyed with explosives. Thousands of holy pictures, 48 marble reliefs and 177 marble tablets were obliterated. Stalin wanted to replace the cathedral with a Palace of the Soviets—a building 115 feet higher than the Empire than the Empire State Building, topped by a statue of twice as large as the Statue of Liberty. Lenin's index finger alone was planned to be 15 feet long. The ground proved to be too spongy to support such an edifice. All that came of the building was a massive foundation that kept flooding.

Stalin tried to wipe out the church altogether and then backed it to drum up patriotism and support at the beginning of World War II. During World War II, Stalin made peace with the Orthodox church and other religions to gain popular support.

Religion Stays Alive in the Communist Era

In some cases support of churches and mosques remained strong despite the repression. As one Communist religious official noted, "religion is like a nail. The harder you hit it, the deeper it goes into the wood." Support of the church as seen as a "form of bravado." In villages round the Soviet Union, Orthodox faithful kept their religion alive with secret ceremonies with outdoor services in front of makeshift alter and a handful of icons. “Hippies” attend the Russian Orthodox Church and were attracted to the church's sense of pageantry.♪

Religious worship retreated into the homes, family groups and small communities. Orthodox christening and other ceremonies were performed in secret in back rooms and outdoor on makeshift altars with a handful of icons. Religious activists traveling as tourists quietly set up prayer circles in other communities and countries.

After the death of Stalin, religion was tolerated but remained severely limited. Few new churches were built and old ones remained museums. Ordinary people however were not sent to gulags for praying.

One official under Khrushchev observed in 1964, "The church in the provinces still seems to attract people, perhaps by the pomp and beauty of religious ceremonies [and] choir music. Architecture and painting also heighten the emotional effect."

In the religious life of the Soviet Union, a resurgence in popular devotion to the major faiths became apparent in the late 1970s despite continued de facto disapproval on the part of the authorities. This revival may have been connected with the generally growing interest of Soviet citizens in their respective national traditions. Freedom of religion was made part of the 1993 constitution. [Source: Library of Congress, 1996*]

Religion After the Break Up of Soviet Union

Beginning in the late 1980s, religion assumed a more important role in the lives of many Russians, and in the life of the Russian state as well. Russian Orthodoxy, the dominant religion of Russia since the ruler Vladimir accepted Christianity in A.D. 988, was subservient to the state from the time of Peter the Great (r. 1682-1725) until 1917; nevertheless, it exerted a powerful influence on the spiritual lives of most Russians. In the Soviet period, the activities of the church were further restricted as most churches and monasteries were closed and religious observances strongly discouraged. [Source: Glenn E. Curtis, Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

In the late 1980s, the Gorbachev regime began to restore the church's property and rights; official observance of the millennium of Russian Orthodoxy in 1988 was a watershed event in that process. Beginning in 1992, the Russian Orthodox patriarchate, which had been restored in 1917 only to be repressed for the next seventy years, assumed growing influence in state as well as spiritual affairs. Many churches were built and restored, and in the early 1990s millions of Russians returned to regular worship. However, by early 1997 Orthodox Russians attended church at about the same rate as religious believers in West European countries. In the 1990s, politicians have eagerly sought the opinion of the church on most important issues, and in 1996 even the communist presidential candidate, Gennadiy Zyuganov, made an appearance with Patriarch Alexy II an important element of his campaign.*

Other religious groups also have enjoyed relative freedom in the post-Soviet period, with some limitations. Mainstream Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Muslim groups are fully accepted by the state and the Orthodox Church, but the Orthodox hierarchy often has used its dominant position to discourage or block the activities of their congregations. The new freedom of the Gorbachev era brought a wave of Western evangelical groups whose proselytizing the Orthodox hierarchy viewed with alarm and hostility. In mid-1996 the State Duma passed legislation establishing a state committee to monitor the activity of such groups. The law was introduced by nationalist allies of the Orthodox Church and opposed by democratic factions as unconstitutional. The Jewish community, whose religious and cultural activities have blossomed in Russia in the 1990s, still experiences subtle forms of discrimination.*

Religion Under Yeltsin

After a flurry of criticism from international human rights and religious groups, President Boris Yeltsin failed to sign the consultative council bill, which died in the fall of 1993. After a new parliament convened, additional versions of the bill appeared. In mid-1996 a somewhat milder bill requiring registration of foreign missionary groups was passed by parliament. Meanwhile, some eighteen jurisdictions in the federation passed a variety of bills restricting missionary activity or requiring registration. Non-Orthodox religious groups also found that the purchase of land and the rental of building space were blocked increasingly by local authorities.[Source: Library of Congress, 1996 *]

In the 1990s, the Russian Orthodox hierarchy's position on the issue of religious freedom has been muted but negative in many respects, as church officials have seen themselves defending Russian cultural values from Western ideas. Patriarch Alexy lent his support to the restrictive legislation as it was being debated in 1993, and Western observers saw an emerging alliance between the Orthodox Church and the nationalist factions in Russian politics. In another indication of its attitude toward the proliferation of "foreign" religious activity in Russia, the hierarchy has made little active effort to establish contacts with new foreign religious groups or with existing groups, and experts see scant hope that an ecumenical council of churches will be established in the near future. In October 1995, the Orthodox Church's governing Holy Synod refused to participate in a congress of Orthodox hierarchs because the Orthodox patriarch of Constantinople had recognized the Orthodox community in Estonia and an autocephalous Orthodox Church in Ukraine. *

In 1995 the Yeltsin administration formed a consultative body called the Council for Cooperation with Religious Associations, which included representatives from most of the major denominations. On the council, the Russian Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches and Islamic organizations have two members each, with one representative each for Buddhist, Jewish, Baptist, Pentecostal, and Seventh-Day Adventist representatives. Council decisions have only the status of recommendations to the government. *

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated May 2016

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