An early Christian legend says that it was the Apostle Andrew who first preached in the region of Scythia on a missionary journey. Stopping on his way back on a bend in the River Dnieper, he planted a flag on its shore prophesying that one day a great city would arise in this place. The city of Kiev arose in this spot as early as the fifth century.
The Slavs, who form the nucleus of the Russian population, emigrated to Russia from the neighborhood of the Carpathian mountains. From the earliest period from which we have any record of them, they are known as a free people, strongly opposed to subjection.
By the ninth century, the Dnieper with its many tributaries formed the boundary of the Slavonic settlements to the east. On the north, they reached the great Valdai plateau and the great lake region. On the west and south, they touched the German settlements, and on the southwest, bordered on the Byzantine Empire. In the middle of the ninth century, we find them split up into numerous tribes settled on the soil and engaged chiefly in hunting and agriculture.
They were a continental people, without a military organization, and on account of the endless warfare between the tribes were but little able to resist the inroads of invaders – the Vikings, Mongols and Turks – who now pressed them from the north, south and east.
The Foundation of the Russian Empire
It was the invasions of the Vikings or Northmen which forced a union of northwestern Russian principalities under a Scandinavian chieftain named Rurik. The very first warlike expeditions of the Vikings had been directed against the Slavs. The Vikings established themselves on the east coast of Sweden and sent frequent expeditions to the northern frontier of Russia.
The Slavs and Finns of northwestern Russia came to have great respect for the bravery and power of the Scandinavians and finally decided to call them to their aid – a move which would protect them from the crueler invasions of the Mongols and Turks. They sent to Rurik, a great Scandinavian chief, saying, “Our land is great and has strength in abundance, but it lacks order and justice. Come and take possession and rule over us.”
In response to this invitation, Rurik gathered together his kindred and a company of armed followers, and established himself on the northern frontier of the Slavs. He soon became very powerful and about the year 862 made Novrogrod (about 100 miles south of the present St. Petersburg) the capital of an empire stretching from the lakes in the north to the sources of the Dnieper in the south.
In the meanwhile, two Viking chiefs by the name of Askold and Dir had wrested Kiev from the eastern Slavs and established Scandinavian rule over them. The first certain date in Russian history is the year 865, during which Askold led an expedition against Byzantium. Although successful, Askold’s fleet was destroyed in the sea of Marmora and these “barbarians” attributed this disaster to the efficacy of the prayers of the Christians. As a result, Askold and many of his followers embraced Christianity. In the following year, the Church was established at Kiev.
Kiev – The First Capital of Russia
The death of Rurik occurred in 879, when he was succeeded by the oldest member of his family, Oleg. This ruler conquered the eastern Slavs, put Askold and Dir out of the way by an act of treachery and made Kiev the capital of the Empire. The great Byzantine city, Constantinople, was now the goal of the Russian Monarchs. In 907, Oleg reached the gates of Constantinople and obliged the emperor to pay a large ransom for the city and to agree to a treaty of free commerce between the Russians and Greeks.
The kings descended from Rurik gradually consolidated the monarchy, which was destined to become one of the foremost powers of Europe. The state came to be called Russia, from Ruotsi (Corsairs), the name given by the Finns to the Norse conquerors.
In 988, Vladimir I adopted the Greek Orthodox Church as the official state religion. He ordered that churches and priests be established in all towns, and that the people be baptized. Thousands of people formed lines at the river Dnieper and were baptized en masse.
Although it was a forced Christianization of Russia, it was beneficial to the progress of the society in general. From this time, monks from Byzantium and architects, artisans and merchants from Germany, Italy and Greece, spread languages, customs and ideas of the Christian nations of the East and West. They brought their culture to the fierce tribes of the North until by the eleventh century the Russians were on the same level of civilization as the people of western Europe.
The Tartar Conquests
In the thirteenth century, this budding Christian civilization was rudely crushed by invading Tartar hordes, who overran the unfortunate land. For more than two hundred years, the Tatars held the Russian princes in a degrading bondage, forcing them to pay homage and tribute, and inflicting upon the people the most horrible atrocities. Russia was cut off from the rest of Europe and the civilization and nationalization of the Slavs was delayed until the fifteenth century.
In 1301, the government of Kiev moved to Muscovy, or Moscow. Ten years later the See of the Orthodox Church followed. This was the foundation of Czarist Russia. Moscow was fortified as a protection against the Tartars. Over a 300 year period the city was gradually enlarged, the Kremlin was built and Moscow gained economic control over the surrounding principalities.
In the 16th century Ivan the Terrible was crowned the first emperor of Russia. Ivan saw himself as a new Caesar and promoted a system of peasants and nobles. While the rest of Europe was moving into the Renaissance, the Reformation and the Age of Discovery, the Russian Czars were establishing medieval feudalism as a way of life. The next one hundred years were marked by civil wars, peasant uprisings, foreign invasions and treachery.
In the 17th century, the Romanovs founded a dynasty that ruled Russia for the next 300 years. Under the Romanovs, the czar’s power increased dramatically, local governments weakened and the Orthodox Church was exploited to fix the status of the peasants. Expansionist policies continued, Siberia was settled and vast areas of land were incorporated into Russia.
The most powerful of the Romanovs was Peter the Great (ruled 1689-1725). Peter was determined to open a window to western ideas and brought tradesmen from Europe to Russia to train his people. He fought a war against Sweden and incorporated Karelia, Finland, Estonia and Livonia into his Empire. The city of St. Petersburg (Leningrad) was founded and southern acquisitions were taken after a war with Persia.
But even with all the land acquisitions and enlightenment that was coming into Russia, the peasants remained cruelly oppressed. Catherine the Great and Alexander I continued to expand the empire during their reigns. By the 19th century, the Russian Empire included part of Poland and stretched all the way to Alaska and northern Californian coast. By the time of Alexander’s death, Russia was the largest country in the world. They had resisted Napolean, but unrest among the peasants mounted and many of Russia’s young aristocrats plotted to overthrow the government.
Nicholas I succeeded Alexander and, frightened by an attempted coup during the early years of his reign, began one of the most repressive regimes in Russian history. Ironically, this period also was the era of the great authors, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Pushkin and Gogol, and the composer, Tchaikovsky. Dostoyevsky prophetically warned his nation against the consequences of atheistic thinking which was at work in the minds of Russian intellectuals. “If there is no God,” he wrote, “then everything is permissible.”
Nicholas was followed by his son, Alexander II who began a great reform of the system his ancestors had created. He became known as the “Czar Liberator.” Nicholas survived many assassination attempts by radicals who wanted either socialism or anarchy. In 1881, the revolutionaries assassinated him. If Nicholas had lived longer, Russia may have entered the 20th century as a democratic society.
Alexander III relied on the army and established a secret police (the forerunner of the KGB) to quell further uprisings. He made the Jews scapegoats for his father’s murder, forced them to live in certain provinces, and subjected them to periodic pogroms, or organized massacres. During this time many Jews emigrated to the United States. Alexander also turned back many of his father’s reforms.
The Last of the Czars
The collapse of the imperial regime came in the early 20th century. Nicholas II, a weak ruler who faced serious political and economic problems during his reign and suffered an unexpected defeat in the Russo-Japanese war. On January 22, 1905, a large crowd of peasants followed a priest to the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg to present a petition to the Czar. At the palace troops fired into the crowd, killing several hundered people. The incident is known as “Bloody Sunday” and spurred a worker’s strike which paralyzed the faltering nation.
Czar Nicholas granted a constitution which gave voting rights, freedom of the press and assembly to the people. A legislative body called the Duma functioned on through the first World War. Nicholas rode a popular crest of patriotism for czar, Church and country at the outbreak of the war, but faced with crushing defeats by the Germans, food shortages and a shattered economy, the people deposed him in 1917.
The Duma met to organize a provisional government on March 15. A legislative body composed of socialists and liberal democrats was formed and tried to restore public order. Headed by Alexander F. Kerensky, the Provisional Government seemed for a fleeting time to be steering Russia toward a democratic form of government. But they made several mistakes: they allowed the rival Bolsheviks to form a rival political structure throughout Russia; they freed political prisoners allowing the exiled revolutionaries Lenin and Trotsky to return to Russia; and they vowed to continue the war with Germany.
The October Revolution
The Germans reacted to the Provisional Government’s decision to continue the war by supplying the Bolsheviks with huge sums of cash and by secretly conveying the exiled Lenin from Switzerland to Russia. Born Vladimir Ilych Ulyanov, Lenin was a brilliant student of Marxism and began to see himself as a prophet of the Communist revolution. Lenin developed an intense hatred for God, the Orthodox Church, the clergy, the czar, and the Jews.
After further military defeat, the Provisional Government began to lose the favor of the people. The Bolsheviks seized power using their paramilitary force, the Red Guard. Lenin and Trotsky came to the forefront of the revolution as the new leaders of Russia. When Lenin allowed the people of Russia to go to the polls, they voted ovcerwhelmingly against the Bolsheviks and gave the Communists only one quarter of the seats in the Constituent Assembly.
Lenin’s solution was to declare that the election was not valid because it had occurred too soon after the revolution to be meaningful. He forcefully cleared the Assembly with the aid of Bolshevik soldiers. For the next three years civil war raged between Russian “Whites” and “Reds.” Leon Trotsky’s Red Army put an end to all uprisings by 1920 and a Communist dictatorship began.
Lenin began a long standing policy of the Soviet Union: hostility toward all forms of Christianity. In the early years after the revolution it was the Orthodox Church that suffered the full brunt of persecution. Protestant churches enjoyed comparative freedom and took the full advantage, but it was not for long.
The Reign of Terror
The bloodiest reign of terror in modern history, which surpassed Hitler’s attempted genocide of the Jews, was the iron-fisted rulership of Josef Stalin. During the 1930s and ’40s, millions of people were killed in Stalin’s purges. Many of these people were Christians.
Then World War II abruptly changed the situation. Exploiting the Russian nationalism of the Orthodox Church, concessions were made between Stalin and Christian leaders. A relaxation of oppression led to a spiritual revival in the Soviet Union during the war.
Post War Russia
This relative freedom did not last long, however, as Nikita Krushchev came to power in the 1950s. Krushchev unleashed a vicious attack against the Church which lasted until his fall from power in 1964. Half the Orthodox churches in the country were closed during this time and Baptist and Pentecostal churches suffered as well. This militantly atheistic policy has affected all the churches in the Soviet Union. Communist policy toward the Church has swung between violent persecution and subtle propaganda, but at no time has the Communist Party officially abandoned its declared aim of destroying Christianity.
In the midst of these persecutions, there have appeared a group of vocal Christian dissidents within the Soviet Union, who have kept up the prophetic tradition of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky in calling their nation back to God. Most notable among these Soviet dissidents is Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.
Solzhenitsyn, author of The Gulag Archipelago, a narrative which describes his imprisonment under Stalin, has also compiled a collection of essays written by some of the Soviet Union’s most brilliant thinkers, the majority of whom also happen to be Christians. The following excerpts are taken from From Under the Rubble:
“Mysteriously and unsuspected by the busy multitudes, Christian consciousness, once almost defunct, is stealing back. It is as if a door had opened while nobody was looking. Why is this rebirth taking place in our country, where Christianity is attacked particularly systematically and with great brutality, while the rest of the world suffers a decline of faith and religious feeling?
“Backsliding and denials notwithstanding, we live in a Christian culture in a Christian age, and it is Christianity that is the fermenting agent, the ‘yeast of the world,’ causing history to rise like dough in a trough, not only in the past but in the future as well. We are profoundly convinced that Christianity alone possesses enough motive force gradually to inspire and transform our world.“1
“We discover with astonishment that so-called rationalist humanism actually lacks an adequate rational basis for its defense of the dignity and inalienable rights of the human personality – for which it has often risked both life and limb. The American Founding Fathers who many years ago first propounded the ‘eternal rights of man and the citizen’ postulated that every human being bears the form and likeness of God; he therefore has an absolute value, and consequently also the right to be respected by his fellows.
“Rationalism, positivism and materialism successively destroyed the memory of this absolute source of human rights. The unconditional equality of persons before God was replaced by the conditional equality of human individuals before the law.“2
Despite the Marxist mandate to sweep aside the principles of Christianity, the strength of the Church continued to grow behind the Iron Curtain. The principles of communism, which were cultivated in the Soviet Union for nearly a century, never achieved the utopia which Marx foresaw. Instead, the predictions of Russia’s prophets are now beginning to come to pass.
From under the rubble of a fallen system, there is now arising a new hope. Communism’s downfall has been precipitated by the presence of an overcoming Church which has withstood all persecution and has now been vindicated by the God of history. The Soviet Union has been destined for one of the greatest spiritual revivals of all time.
The Second Christianization of Russia
Traveling recently in the Soviet Union we encountered growing spiritual fervor among the people. Coupled with this revival has been an almost complete rejection of Marxist-Leninism among the people. Coupled with this rejection, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev had recently loosened the shackles of restraint on religious freedom. It is unclear at this point what the recent change in power will mean for the Soviet Christians. However, a spiritual force has been unleashed which will eventually transform this great nation.
It has been over a thousand years since the first Christianization of Russia, which consisted of a forced baptism of Vladimir’s subjects in the river Dnieper. For the first time in history, we see the hope of a spiritual awakening that would spread throughout the fabric of Russian society. The shaking and turmoil that is making the daily news is an indication of what is happening in the spiritual world. We must remember that God and not man is in control of the Soviet Union.
1. A.B. “The Direction of Change,” From Under the Rubble, Little, Brown, and Company, 1974, p.146-147.
2. Vadim Borisov, “Personality and National Awareness,” From Under the Rubble , Little, Brown, and Company, 1974, p. 200.