Conversion (10th–mid-11th century)

Prior to conversion

The first historical references to Rus date from the 9th century, and mention a pagan people of merchant-warriors who were the subjects of a khagan and were probably of Scandinavian origin. Together with the Slavs, they held vast territories in eastern Europe between the Baltic, Black, and Caspian seas, crossed from north to south by the trade route "from the Varangians to the Greeks."

In 839, the Annals of St. Bertin mention a group of "Rhos" who accompanied a Byzantine embassy to Emperor Louis the Pious at Ingelheim, near Mainz. In around 860, Patriarch Photios of Constantinople recorded their recent incursions into the Byzantine capital, and evoked the hope of their conversion. In the early 10th century, Arab traveler Ibn Fadlan, on a journey from Baghdad, described the customs of the inhabitants of the lower Volga basin. Archaeological excavations revealed the existence, from the 8th century on, of embryonic urban centers along the Volga and Dnieper rivers and around Lake Ladoga, while coins and artifacts reflect the development of commercial exchange along these major routes.


The links that were forged between Rus' and the Mediterranean world paved the way for conversion. The Primary Chronicle or Tale of Bygone Years, the earliest chronicle of Kievan Rus', mentions the presence of Christians in Kiev as early as 944. Shortly afterward, in 946 or 957, Princess Olga of Kiev visited Constantinople, where she was baptized and presented a paten to the church of St. Sophia. Olga's conversion was a personal initiative, however, and Rus' remained essentially pagan.

Christianity was established in 988 with the conversion of Prince Vladimir and his marriage alliance with the imperial family of Constantinople. Vladimir's baptism in the Crimean city of Cherson was followed by the mass baptism of the Kievan population in the Dnieper river. Rus' adopted the religious and political system of the Byzantine Empire. Vladimir ordered the construction of the first Christian edifice in Kiev: the Church of the Tithes (Desyatinnaya), donating a tenth (tithe) of his income for the purpose.

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Idol or “stone woman”
(kamennaia baba)

This idol belongs to the female statue type that characterizes the art of the Polovtsians, a nomadic Turkic people who came from the East and settled on the steppes of southern Russia between the 11th and 13th centuries. The pose—especially the hands holding a vase—recalls ancient oriental traditions, but these idols also have similarities with artifacts from several other pre-Mongol pagan societies, from the fringes of Christian Europe to Central Asia.
West Turkestan, 12th century
H. 2.44 m
Provenance: thought to have been found near Merke (Kazakhstan, province of Djambul / Zhambyl) in 1896.

St. Petersburg, Hermitage Museum, inv. ГЭ 2028/1
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Artifacts from the Chernaya Mogila burial mound (kurgan) in Chernigov

The exceptional contents of the "Black Grave" of Chernigov—probably a princely tomb—illustrate the complexity of pagan funeral rites in 10th-century Kievan Rus'. The singular variety of the grave goods (which include Slavic, Byzantine, Scandinavian, and probably eastern Khazar items) reflects the extent and diversity of trade among the peoples of Rus' prior to their conversion.
The most remarkable element is the pair of rhytons: each is composed of an auroch horn whose rim is set with a broad silver band, and one has cartouches in the form of far-eastern clouds.
Second half of the 10th century
Pair of rhytons (Inv. n° 76990, оп.1539В/75 and 76)
Auroch horn; hammered, chased, and gilt silver
H. 34 and 32.5 cm; W. 12 and 10 cm
Provenance: excavation of the Chernaya Mogila ("Black Grave") burial mound in Chernigov (Ukraine) in 1872–1873.
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Gnezdovo hoard

This treasure was found during excavations at Gnezdovo in the Smolensk region. It contains many objects, including a series of seventy-two Arab dirhams dating from the second half of the 10th century. These dirhams, most of which were made into pendants, constitute concrete evidence of trade between Kievan Rus' and the Islamic world of the time. The little cross reflects the early influence of Christianity in the territory of Smolensk prior to conversion.
Provenance: excavations at the site of Gnezdovo (province of Smolensk)
a) Dirhams (Inv. n° 108648 Оп. 2683В/56 СБ 19464; n° 108648 Оп. 2683В/58 СБ 19466 to n° 108648 Оп. 2683В/67 СБ 19475; n° 108648 Оп. 2683В/69 СБ 19477; n° 108648 Оп. 2683В/70 СБ 19478; n° 108648 Оп. 2683В/72 СБ 19480 to n° 108648 Оп. 2683В/79 СБ 19487)
Mid-10th century; silver
B) Cross (Inv. n° 108648 Оп. 2683В/20 СБ 19446)
10th-11th century; gilt silver; H. 2.7 cm; W. 3.2 cm
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Radziwiłł chronicle: the Baptism of Prince Vladimir

This manuscript, copied in the 15th century, is the only ancient illuminated copy of the Tale of Bygone Years, first compiled in the early 12th century by the monk Nestor of the Monastery of the Caves in Kiev (where it was added to until 1205–1206). Designed in the style of the Byzantine universal chronicles, it begins with the Flood, recounts the populating of the earth by Noah's descendants (introducing a Slavic filiation), then describes events from 852 to 1116. It contains six hundred and eighteen colored illustrations that represent the whole history of ancient Russia. The cycle of images at the beginning of the manuscript are extraordinary and touching illustrations of early Kievan Rus', despite the anachronism of the clothing and accessories (which belong to the 15th century). Folio G2v shows Prince Vladimir's baptism in 988, immortalizing the birth of Christian Russia.
Russia, 15th century
H. 31.5 cm; W. 21 cm
Provenance: in the mid-17th century in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, in the possession of the Waldmeister Stanislas Zenowicz.
St. Petersburg, Library of the Russian Academy of Sciences, inv. 34.5.30
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Icon: Sts. Boris and Gleb

Boris and Gleb, the two most famous figures in Russian hagiography, were also the first two holy martyrs of the early Kievan Church. The younger sons of Prince Vladimir, they were murdered by their half-brother Sviatopolk in 1015 during the war of succession to the Kievan throne that followed Vladimir's death. This icon has an emblematic quality: the vertical lines of the clothing accentuate the slender, aristocratic canon of the hieratic figures with their small hands and feet. Dressed in traditional princely costume, they each hold a sword and cross evoking their martyrdom, but their faces are strongly individualized. These elements suggest that the icon dates to around 1340, corresponding perhaps to the reconstruction of the Zverin Monastery in Novgorod (which began in 1335).
Novgorod, mid-14th century
Tempera on wood
H. 1. 62 m; W. 1.04 m
Provenance: one of the chapels of the Zverin Monastery in Novgorod.
Moscow, State Historical Museum, inv. 99727/2 И-VIII 5754
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Sylvester’s book: Life of Sts. Boris and Gleb

This book comprises a dozen ecclesiastical texts including the Tale of Boris and Gleb, undoubtedly the most precious text in the collection; it recounts the struggles for succession that occurred between 1015 and 1019 when the princes Boris and Gleb were killed by their half-brother Sviatopolk. The style of the anonymous author, writing toward the end of the reign of Yaroslav the Wise (d. 1054), is deliberately distinct from Byzantine hagiographic models, marking the emergence of a new Russian genre, a blend of hagiography and chronicle: the life of princes. According to paleographic criteria, the copy is attributed to the region or the city of Novgorod, and thought to date from the second half of the 14th century.
Novgorod (?), second half of the 14th century
Parchment, 216 folios
H. 30 cm; W. 22.5 cm
Provenance: belonged in the mid-16th century to the priest Sylvester, who left it to the Kirillov-Belozersky Monastery at his death.
Moscow, Russian State Archives of Ancient Documents, File 381, n° 53