Church, State, and Violence in Medieval Russia

Left: Ss Vladimir, Boris, and Gleb (16th c. icon). Right: St Sergius of Radonezh (15th c. embroidered icon).

In medieval Russia, Church and state attitudes toward violence were varied enough to provide precedents for either a Gandhi or a jihadi. We will look at radically different events in two periods: first Great Prince Vladimir and his sons Boris and Gleb and their legacy, then Ss Sergius of Radonezh and Dmitri Donskoi, together with Alexander Peresvet.

I. Ss Vladimir, Boris, and Gleb in Early Kievan Rus

ImageThe Baptism of Rus by Viktor Vasnetsov (1896).

Modern historians question Vladimir’s motives for conversion, yet his reign as a Christian monarch exemplified the Gospel—sometimes beyond the bounds of political practicality. In one account of his Life, Vladimir attempted to free all prisoners, and had to be reminded by his bishops that perhaps not all prisoners were so thoroughly converted as their prince. Every time Vladimir gave a feast, he would distribute alms to the poor. This legacy was embraced by two of his sons: Boris and Gleb. Unfortunately, their fidelity to the Gospel was brought to light by another brother’s less Christian behavior.

Ss Boris and Gleb (Old Believer brass and enamel icon, c. 1800).

After Vladimir’s death in 1015, his son Svyatopolk sought to consolidate power. To ensure this he hunted down and killed his brothers Boris and Gleb. They offered no resistance, choosing to be killed rather than to kill. They sacrificed their lives to avoid civil war, and in so doing they became the first saints to be honored in Russia. This opened a new category of sanctity: “passion bearers”—those who, by eschewing violence, imitate Christ in their self-emptying (cf Phil 2:7) death.

From the Life of Boris and Gleb (from “Sylvester’s Book,” a 14th c. MS).

This was not an isolated case. It seems to represent a broader attitude toward violence in early Kievan Rus. While Vladimir did not do away with the death penalty, soon after the princes of Kiev rejected it, along with corporal punishment (this was codified by the thirteenth century in the Russkaya Pravda, the legal code of Kievan Rus). Eventually Russia re-instituted the death penalty, but has since come full circle. At present, another Vladimir is in power, and the death penalty has once more been abolished.

St Nicholas of Myra Saves Three Innocents from Death by Ilya Repin (1888).

The work above was painted by Repin to register his opinion in the midst of late nineteenth century debates over capital punishment in Russia. However, St Nicholas stands—literally—as a striking example of the Church’s ancient tradition regarding violence, at least on the part of clerics. Dating back to the pastoral epistles, a clergyman was prohibited from being a “striker” (πλήκτην—1 Tim 3:3, Titus 1:7). At the Council of Nicea, a fed up Nicholas slapped Arius and was promptly deposed. The Apostolic Constitutions canons—quite possibly referring to this encounter—clearly stipulate: “If a bishop, presbyter, or deacon shall strike any of the faithful who have sinned, or of the unbelievers who have done wrong… we command that he be deposed” (Canon 27 [28]). Despite this clear tradition, we find something quite different in our next period.

II. Ss Sergius and Dmitri Donskoi—The Battle of Kulikovo

ImageDmitri Donskoi is blessed by St Sergius in Trinity-Sergius Lavra by Ernst Lissner (1907).

The same scene depicted in the more idealized statuary of present day Sergei Pasad.

St Sergius of Radonezh, a defining figure in the era of the rise of Muscovy, blessed Dmitri Donskoi to go into battle against the Tatars. Not only did he bless this layman—a relatively benign action if we grant a form of “just war” theology long held in the Orthodox Church—he sent three schemamonks to go with him.

At the beginning of the Battle of Kulikovo (September 8, 1380), two champions did battle on the plain. The Russian champion was Alexander Peresvet, one of St Sergius’ schemamonks. Both he and the Tatar champion Temir-murza were killed, but according to legend Peresvet remained in his saddle, while his opponent fell to the ground. The scene has entered into the collective consciousness of Russia, and continues to be immortalized in works of art.

ImageDuel on the Kulikovo Field by Avilov Mikhail (1943).

ImageThe single combat of Peresvet against Chelubei before the Battle of Kulikovo by Viktor Vasnetsov (1914).

ImagePeresvet victory by Ryzhenko Pavel Viktorovich (2005).

What can we make of this event? It contrasts sharply with the Church’s canonical norms, and stands in even stronger contrast with the example of the princes Boris and Gleb. In the end, neither example is truly normative for the broader history of the Church. Boris and Gleb’s pacifism may be laudable, but it was not incumbent on others. Likewise St Sergius’ blessing may have been justified in his specific context, but it remains a quite unique case. As John of the Ladder admonishes: “To admire the labor of the saints is good; to emulate them wins salvation; but to wish suddenly to imitate their life in every point is unreasonable and impossible” (Step 4, 42). Exceptions do not form the rule. Kulikovo marks a unique point in Russian history. As Lev Gumilev argues, “Russians went to the Kulikovo field as citizens of various principalities and returned as a united Russian nation.”

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