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The Historical Road of Eastern Orthodoxy - Fr a Schmemman

The Historical Road of Eastern Orthodoxy - Fr a Schmemman

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It is equally beyond doubt that there was a real culture in Kievan Russia; in comparison,
the Moscow period may even be regarded as a decline. Here, too, the initiative came from above,
from the prince and the hierarchy. Although Vladimir was illiterate, he built schools, and his
sons were examples of fully educated men, especially Yaroslav the Wise, in whose reign Kiev
became one of the centers of European culture. A whole workshop of translators labored in his
reign, and he selected children for the schools and himself read day and night, according to tradi-
tion. His son Sviatoslav of Chernigov had “storerooms full of books,” and the writings of another
son, Vladimir Monomakh, bear witness to the author‟s undoubted firsthand acquaintance with
Byzantine literature. In Kiev we may sense a deliberate effort to create a culture and to master
completely the Christian and Hellenic heritage.


Ibid., p. 260.




Basically, of course, this was a borrowed, translated culture, but original creative work
was running dry in Byzantium; moreover, this period of discipleship is inevitable in the history
of any culture. The important thing was that the Russians were good students. Golubinsky, him-

self a wholesale detractor of Russia‟s past,49

has called Metropolitan Hilarion of Kiev “not a rhe-
torician of the worst period of Greek oratory but a real orator of the period when it flourished.”
The sermons of Cyril of Turov retain to this day their value as literature and not only as historical
documents. The early chronicles are filled not only with facts, but with a whole general outlook.
Their authors were “people with a definite and sensitive view of life, not at all naive simpletons.
In the development of the Russian chronicle we always sense a definite religious and historical


Indeed, the era in which the Lay of Igor’s Campaign made its appearance can hardly be

termed barely literate.

A certain quintessence of Orthodox Byzantinism was conveyed to Russia and adopted
there; Russian thought entered into this tradition, and it became the basic source of Russian cul-
ture. The tradition was adopted not only passively but creatively as well. The first upsurge of
Russian national self-awareness that marks Hilarion‟s Word and Nestor‟s Chronicle is linked
with it. It is no accident that the prayer to God from the newly-consecrated people with which
Hilarion ends his Praise to Our Prince Vladimir was accepted even into Church usage. His ora-

tion, “On the Law given by Moses, and on the Grace and Truth which were Jesus Christ, and

how the Law departed while Grace and Truth filled all the earth and the faith spread to all lan-
guages and reached our Russian language, and praise to our Prince Vladimir, through whom we
were baptized, and a prayer to God from all our lands,” composed between 1030 and 1050, dur-
ing the reign of Yaroslav the Wise, expresses as it were the ecclesiastical and national confession
of newly-baptized Russia.

According to D. I. Cizevsky in his History of Old Russian Literature, this confession, like
all writing of the early Kievan period, is marked by the spirit of majesty and Christian optimism.
The Kievan ideologists were inspired by their concept of the unity of Russia and the growth of
its idea of statehood, which was beginning in glory. This inspiration was rooted deep in the expe-
rience of baptism, in Russia‟s acceptance of “grace and truth.” The Good News came to the Rus-
sians at the eleventh hour, but in the person of their prince, Vladimir, they were not diminished
in the sight of other Christian peoples. In such Christian hope, in their awareness that God had
called them, the Russian sense of nationhood arose, and in the future, at its highest peaks would
use this as a standard of measurement and judgment.

Shallows and Hidden Darkness.

Of course one must not exaggerate either the success of Kievan Christianity or the depth
of the Christianization that had taken place. It remained the sphere of the elite, a group of new-
born ecclesiastical and state intellectuals. Certain writings, such as The Questions of Kirik for
example, show an extremely elementary understanding of the nature of Christianity. One must
note at once that Russia had accepted a ready-made Orthodoxy, at a time when conservative atti-
tudes, an effort to refer everything to the past (the perfected model), and a fear of infringing on
any of the ancient traditions were expressed with increasing strength in Byzantium itself. Russian


E.E. Golubinsky, author of a History of the Russian Church (1880-81), famous for its violently
critical approach to Kievan Christianity.


G. Florovsky, The Ways of Russian Theology (in Russian, Paris, 1937), page 7.


psychology was from the first marked by this ritualism and by a somewhat hypertrophied, nar-
rowly liturgical piety.

But it is much more important to note also that here paganism was preserved under Chris-
tian cover — a “dual faith,” as yet insufficiently studied but undoubtedly one of the keys to Rus-
sian religious psychology. Slavic paganism did not offer fanatical opposition to Christianity. It
lacked organization, literature, or any developed cult; but this only made it especially vital and
dangerous. This was “soft” paganism, based on nature and profoundly bound to natural life.
Christianity was long a foreign religion — even doubly foreign, being Greek and coming from
the prince as well, which meant its support by the Varangian druzhina, the ruling clique in Rus-
sia. To receive it required education; it was bookish by its very nature. Its external elements —
the divine service, the ritual — were easily accepted; it charmed the people and won their hearts;
but there was the danger that they would not see, or even try to see, the meaning or Logos behind
these externals, without which the Christian rite would in fact become pagan in becoming an end
in itself. The soul of the people continued to feed upon the old natural religious experiences and
images. “Paganism did not die and was not overpowered immediately,” Father Florovsky dec-

In the murky depths of the popular subconsciousness, as in some historical underground,
its own concealed life went on, now with double meaning and dual faith . . . The borrowed By-
zantine Christian culture did not immediately become generally accepted, but for a long time it
was the property and treasure of a literate or cultural minority . . . We must remember, therefore,
that the history of this “daytime” Christian culture certainly does not exhaust the fullness of Rus-
sia‟s spiritual destiny . . . One can see that the sickliness of the Old Russian development was
due first of all to the fact that the “nighttime” imagination was too long and too stubbornly con-
cealed, avoiding intellectual testing, verification, and refinement.51
Later, feeling, imagination, and tenderness would be proclaimed as the basic points of
distinction between Russian and Greek Christianity, the latter being considered calculating and
cold. But it would be more correct to see that the stubborn opposition of the “Russian soul to the
Logos was one of the deepest reasons for many of the fateful crises in the course of Russian his-

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