Earlier this week Russian President Vladimir Putin delivered a lengthy speech to justify his nation’s invasion of and annexation of Crimea as part of Russia. His defense, condemned across the Western world, stretched back one thousand years to Mr. Putin’s namesake, Prince Vladimir, the ruler of Rus (Northwest Russia and Southern Ukraine). This Vladimir (958 – 1015 AD) was converted to Christ and baptized in Crimea around 988 A.D. The Russians have built a church on the site where the baptism took place and call Crimea “the cradle of Russian Christianity.”
Vladimir’s baptism may be held dear by the vast majority of Russians, 80 percent of whom belong to the Russian Orthodox Church, but the event will not be known by 99 percent of Western Christians. Prince Vladimir reportedly interviewed representatives from Islam, Judaism and Western and Eastern Christianity before deciding to be baptized into the Orthodox Church. Not long afterwards he, like most rulers of his day, ordered the citizens of his empire to be baptized, too, and thousands were baptized in the Dnieper River in Kiev, signaling the birth of Christianity in his Russian Empire. At least one history of the church calls Vladimir’s conversion and the baptism of his followers as “the most important event in the history of all Russian lands.”
President Putin has effectively aligned his nation’s takeover of Crimea with the deeply held religious sentiments of a huge segment of his people. Putin’s argument, though largely overlooked in the West, helps explain some of the emotional fervor in Russia over the re-acquisition of this windswept, largely barren peninsula dotted with Russian monasteries.
The Russian Orthodox Church is deeply nationalistic and enjoys very close ties to the Russian government. Putin overtly wears Christian jewelry and the leader of the Russian church, Patriarch Kirill is on very good terms with the president. Presumably at the behest of this church Russia refuses to allow the Roman Catholic Pope to visit Russia and presumably influenced by the church Russia recently signed into law a harsh, restrictive anti-gay law, Patriarch Kirill announcing that same-sex marriage is a “very dangerous sign of the Apocalypse.”
In my study for this article I came across a 2010 book Christianizing Crimea: Shaping Sacred Space in the Russian Empire and Beyond by Mara Kozelsky. What a prescient book for these times! A description of the book on the publisher’s website explains, “Kozelsky’s unique approach joins the fields of contemporary history, religion, and archaeology to show how Crimea has been reshaped as a holy place.” One suspects that the “re-shaping” of this Cradle of Russian Christianity is now entering a very complex, critical new phase.
We Western Christians often oversimplify events that are in reality far more complex than we grasp. Western leaders are correct in condemning this unwarranted incursion into the affairs of another nation and should use whatever influence possible to support Ukraine. The deeper and powerful currents of faith and nationalism, however, do not often yield to rational, political solutions, making easy resolution of this crisis difficult. With the Ukrainians we should pray the prayer that Prince Vladimir prayed a thousand years ago, “O Lord God, look down from Heaven and behold, and visit your Vineyard, which your right hand has planted.”
Creede Hinshaw is a retired minister living in Macon.