Early Russia: Thoughts on Christianity, Women and Language

As with any beginning country-state, there are many things that influence or change the way(s) it develops and grows through time. Early Russia is no different than any other country in this regard. What makes it different from many of the countries surrounding it was that its beginning could be influenced by different groups that did not exist a thousand years earlier... while many of the surrounding areas did and had been populated for thousands of years. Russia is a very different member of our modern European community in part because of its late start as a country; like a brilliant child, it is quickly catching up to its 'elders', but has had to continue to make the early steps of statehood that so many countries had made hundreds of years before early Russia existed. So Russia was able develop its own early traditions of Christianity and woman’s roles, somewhat separate from the traditions that had developed in other countries and had existed for generations. And Russia developed its own language apart from the language of other countries setting it apart in many ways from the lands that surrounded it. It is these particular influences on early Russia that I will discuss in this paper.

The early Russian people were devotees of pagan thought. An early document called The Primary Chronicle ascribes the beginning of Christianity in Russia to the Ruler Vladimir I in the year 988AD. Giving up as a bad job the attempt to strengthen paganism with his subjects, he looked at a few of the other world religions and chose Christianity... which he then began to 'invite' the elite and others in his country to join. The 'Chronicle' gives some hints as to why Christianity was chosen over other large faiths of that time and credits his rejection of Islam to 'circumcision and abstinence from pork and wine were disagreeable to him' and the idea that a religion that did not allow drinking would not be tolerated by his people. It has been suggested that Vladimir rejected Judaism on the grounds that as the Jews no longer had control of Jerusalem, this was evidence that they had been abandoned by God. While all of the former reasons may have been legitimate and true, they do not appear to be the only reasons for Vladimir's choice... and a strange choice it truly was for a man who had heard of Christianity several years earlier and remained a pagan, collecting hundreds of concubines, several wives and was known for a short time as a persecutor of believers of the Christian faith. (On a side note, Vladimir's grandmother had converted to Christianity in 957 and had missionaries sent to Kievan Rus with very little success.) Another reason- and might have been the most truthful or most compelling reason- was a reason that had clear political consequences and ties. As Europe was becoming more Christian, it might have occurred to Vladimir that his fortunes and commercial trade would be affected with other Christian nations. However, an easily documented reason may have had to do with forming alliances. Basil, the emperor of the neighboring Byzantine Empire asked his enemy Vladimir I for help in putting down a civil rebellion which was then given by Vladimir. The condition was that Vladimir could marry Basil's daughter if he (Vladimir) converted to Christianity. This would cement the alliance between the early Russian state and the Byzantine empire and would also open more trade routes and opportunities for economic advancement.

So, whatever the reason for the conversion of Vladimir I to Christianity, he took to it faithfully and appears to have made immediate and continued insistence of the spread and following of Christian membership and values throughout his lifetime. He tried to stamp out idols, invited beggars to the palace to be given food, drink and money if needed and had to be persuaded some churchmen to be more harsh with criminals as lawbreaking became rampant. He also championed the building of church buildings and education – although the children of the elite were the recipients of his education promotion. On his death, his body was dismembered and made into 'relics' for the church and he was eventually sainted by the Greek Orthodox Church.

Women in early Russia were seen in a slightly different light than the ways that women were seen in other European states at the time. While they were still very limited in their rights, women in early Russia did enjoy more protections and in some cases a greater status than their counterparts in Europe. Before Christianity was brought or 'forced' upon Russia, the majority of individuals living in the Kievan Rus believed in paganism. This belief system comes with deities of both sexes and both gods and goddesses were worshiped and treated with awe and fear. A few of the goddesses that would have been worshiped during this time would have been Paraskeva (who is associated with Mother Earth and her bounty), Mokosh (a fertility/childbirth goddess), Vesnianka (the personification of spring), Zorya Vechernyaya (the goddess of the setting sun.), Makosha (the goddess of fate and good/bad fortune), and numerous other powerful spirits such as the rusalki (known as water and tree nymphs). Women during these times could have known some fairly tough times. While goddesses were revered, earthly women could count on the likelihood of being raped, seized to force marital relations, and partners in polygamy. They would also be taught to understand that the husband is the head of the household and they were to be submissive. There are some instances that suggest that at least some noble women were not forced to marry against their will by their parents as well as a story in The Primary Chronicle about a 'forceful' princess who ruled for a short time. A pagan belief system in short allows for some better thoughts about women because it is polytheistic-unlike Christianity which is monotheistic and very much male-centric. To worship and revere nature was to revere a female goddess... and not a male. Christianity would bring some new rights for women, but would also take away some of the positive ways that women had been viewed.

So women in early Russia had changing roles over time and how women were viewed could change their status in society. In the pagan society, women could be treated physically quite roughly, but could enjoy a status of protection and even an elevation in status if her family had good fortune- class was not as rigidly enforced in these times. As the country became Christian, the church's views on women and sex became more dominant. Pious women were seen as good and the church encouraged the appropriate treatment of widows as well as treating the members of your family correctly, not forcing daughters to marry and opposed bride capture and polygamy. However, church legal procedures could be more punitive to women in some instances and the fear of women and their sexuality, charm, and ability to cause men to sin was a high focus of the church when women were discussed. The fact that women were prohibited from attending church due to menstruation or childbirth shows that the church did put unnecessary limits on women and feared them- marking them as 'unclean' during certain times... which is equated to sin. In Russian society outside of church, women were given rights in civil law- although those rights were many for the upper class. However, upper class women could inherit and own moveable property including her dowry, run or take care of her deceased husband's estate and her children could not refuse to give her the portion due to her from her husband's will. At first, a woman's movable property would consist of household items and personal effects, but would eventually come to encompass money and then land. And while women could own property, it had to be specifically given to them. Women could lost their property for the failings and debts of a husband, but the law was not interpreted in the same way for men. Church law in many cases superseded secular law and the church was responsible for matters of rape, adultery, divorce, witchcraft, etc...

Around Europe, Russian women were known for their beauty, knowledge and power. Russian upper class women and in some cases men were educated more often than their European counterparts. One example was the daughter of Yaroslav I named Anna who married the French King Henry I- at the wedding she could sign her name on the certificate, while the king himself could only sign an X. She later functioned as a regent for her son Philip I of France. Several of Anne's sisters married European Catholic monarchs as well. In the 900's the country was ruled by a woman named Olga, who is said to have avenged her husband's death and was also regent for her son for a few years - she is the Christian grandmother of Vladimir I mentioned above. She was also the first women to be canonized by the Orthodox Church. A wife of the “Grand Prince of Russia” could sometimes receive members of foreign embassies or ambassadors. So women did a fair share of the work that needed to be done, and upper class women brought influence, intrigue, and even scandal into many of the royal houses in Europe as well as Russia.

When Russia began to become a Christian nation under the rule of Vladimir I, written language was 'borrowed' from the same empire who brought Christianity. The Cyrillic alphabet was brought to Kievan Rus along with Christianity in the tenth and eleventh centuries by the followers of Saint Cyril and Saint Methodius, who invented the first Slavic alphabet in the ninth century. This alphabet was a written language that was close to the spoken language in the Rus lands and so by the time Christianity reached Kievan Rus, many books had already been translated into this handy and easier to learn language. This language became known as Old Church Slavic. The influence of Byzantine literature, culture and of course Christian works served to help move the church in quickly- all the documents and books were now in a common adopted language. The church also helped build schools for education and brought in a new culture/art that was fairly easily assimilated. Yaroslav I (also known as Yaroslav the wise and is the son of Vladimir I) helped facilitate this language and used it to write the first East Slavic written legal code called the 'Russkaya' Pravda.

The information that I was privileged to study while researching this paper did leave me with some questions that I have been unable to answer. For instance I am very curious as to what happened to the wives and concubines of Vladimir I. Very few sources that I was able to find alluded to the four wives before Anna (his wife from the alliance to the Byzantine empire) and their lives after Vladimir's conversion- they simply state that they were 'put away'. Another source suggests that the wives and the concubines were put away 'according to tradition'- doesn't say what that was however. One source shows the difficulty of even understanding who the mothers of Vladimir's children were. Nothing mentions these concubines and what happened to them. Were they not important enough to 'put away'? I wonder how many of these women found themselves in very hard times throughout the rest of their lives simply because Vladimir 'changed his mind'. I wonder how many of these women felt forced into becoming concubines... and were then forced out? Also, finding information on any women during this time frame was really difficult and I would be curious to know how women in towns lived vs. rural life and how their roles changed depending on the environment around them. I also would be interested to know what life was life for Anna of Kiev to be more educated than most individuals around her in the court in France. I can imagine that increased her power in some ways, but also might have made things quite difficult and she might have been 'left out' of things. Maybe someday I can have the time to continue to try and find answers to these questions that puzzle me. But until then, enjoy the read :).

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