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Christianization was the acceptance of Christianity (in its Eastern Orthodox form) by the political elite of the early Rus principalities and its imposition upon the rest of the population at the end of the tenth century.

The most influential decision in the process of Christianization was made by Saint Vladimir Svyatoslavich, Prince of Kiev (r. 9781015), to adopt Christianity and forcibly baptize those under his rule in the Dnieper River. His conversion is traditionally associated with the year 988 because the account of it in the Russian Primary Chronicle is recorded under that year, but sources point to either 987 or 989 instead.

This decision by Prince Vladimir was the result of a process of heightened activity by missionary monks and priests from Byzantium among the Slavs as well as increased military, diplomatic, and trade contact between the Rus and Constantinople from the mid-ninth century onward. Shortly after the Muslim invasion stripped much of the eastern provinces from the empire, the Church in Constantinople began to attempt to balance the losses in the east with gains in the north. Such activity brought the Byzantine Church into competition with the Roman Church, which also was active in converting pagan Slavic peoples. The evidence for increased trade between Constantinople and Rus at this time comes both from the Rus Primary Chronicle and from archaeological evidence, such as greater numbers of Byzantine coins found in Rus coin hordes dating from around 970 onward (although Islamic dirhams and silver ingots remained the main monetary medium of exchange throughout this period).

Christianity appeared among the Rus before Vladimir's conversion. The first evidence found for it is from Photios, Patriarch of Constantinople (r. 858867), who mentions that within a few years after the Rus attack on Constantinople in 860, some Rus converted to Christianity. In addition, Theophanes Continuatus tells us that an archbishop sent by Patriarch Ignatius (r. 847858, 867877) was received by the Rus in 876. In the tenth century, three significant occurrences preceded Vladimir's conversion. First, in 911, negotiations in Constantinople over a treaty between the Greeks and the Rus allowed the Greek churchmen an opportunity to tell the Rus envoys about Christianity. Second, the treaty of 944 between the Rus and Greeks informs us that some Christians were among the Rus envoys. Finally, Princess Olga, the regent for her son Svyatoslav, traveled from Kiev to Constantinople in the 950s and converted to Christianity at that time.

The Russian Primary Chronicle has traditionally been the main source regarding the decision by Vladimir to convert, but now the scholarly consensus is that most of the account appearing in the chronicle is a later invention. The chronicle's account is a compilation of four conversion stories tied loosely together. Three of these stories are similar to, and borrow from, stories told about the conversion of previous rulers in other countries, and thus can be considered literary commonplaces. One of the stories, however, finds independent confirmation in other sources of the time and may provide more reliable information.

In the first story, missionaries from Islam, Judaism, Western Christianity, and Eastern Christianity come to Kiev to convince Vladimir to convert to their particular religion. The most persuasive of these missionaries is a Greek philosopher who exegetically summarizes the Old and New Testaments and shows the prince an icon of the Last Judgment. But Vladimir decides "yet to wait a little." In the second story, Vladimir sends ten "good and wise men" to each of the major neighboring religions. The emissaries are most impressed with what they see in Constantinoplein particular, the sublime church architecture and the beauty of the church serviceyet Vladimir continues to wait. In the third story, Vladimir captures the Crimean city of Kherson, after making a vow he will convert to Christianity if successful, and demands the sister of the Byzantine emperor in marriage, but he still does not convert. In the fourth story, Vladimir goes blind in Kherson. Anna (the sister of the Byzantine emperor), who has arrived to marry Vladimir, tells him that when he is baptized he will have his sight restored; he then allows himself to be baptized and is cured of the affliction.

Of these four stories, only the third story, concerning the capture of Kherson, has much value for trying to determine the events of 988989. In combination with contemporary Arabic, Armenian, and Byzantine sources, historians can create this context for the Primary Chronicle's third story: Following a successful revolt by the Bulgarians and their defeat of the imperial army in August 986, the Byzantine general Bardas Phokas rose up against the Emperor Basil II (r. 9761025) in September 987 in Asia Minor. Vladimir, in return for providing six thousand troops directly to the empire and for taking action in the Crimea against those who supported the rebels, was promised by the emperor his sister Anna in marriage, provided Vladimir converted to Christianity. Some scholars think it was at this point (in 987) that Vladimir was baptized. The army of Bardas Phokas was defeated at Abydos on April 13, 989, and Vladimir's capture of Kherson most likely occurred following that event, in the late spring or early summer of the same year. If we accept the contention of the compiler of the Rus Primary Chronicle, then Vladimir's conversion occurred in Kherson shortly after Anna's arrival. The baptism of the residents of Kiev in the Dnieper River would then have happened later that summer.

Arguing against a 989 date are three sources. The first is the Prayer to Vladimir, which states Vladimir captured Kherson in the third year, and died in the twenty-eighth year, of his conversion, thus dating his baptism to 987 and placing it presumably in Kiev. Interestingly, the Prayer is found together with a composition, the Life of Vladimir, that indicates he was baptized only after he took Kherson. Neither composition is found in a manuscript copy earlier than the fifteenth century, and their authorship is unknown. The second source dating Vladimir's conversion to 987 is the Tale and Passion and Encomium of the Holy Martyrs Boris and Gleb, which, like the Prayer, states Vladimir died in the twenty-eighth year after his baptism. The third source (or, at least, three of its nineteen extant manuscript copies), the Reading about the Life and Murder of the Blessed Passion-sufferers Boris and Gleb, attributed to an eleventh-century monk, Nestor, provides the date 987 for Vladimir's baptism. In order to resolve this apparent contradiction in the source evidence, some historians have suggested that 987 represents the year Vladimir began his period as a catechumen and 989 represents the year he was formally baptized.

The status of the early Rus Church dating from Vladimir's acceptance of Christianity until 1037 has been a question in the historiography, whether Rus constituted a metropolitanate on its own (with the metropolitan residing either in Kiev or Pereslav) or was subordinate to another metropolitanate such as that of Ohrid, or whether it occupied an autonomous status directly under the patriarch of Constantinople with an archbishop as its head. That question has been decided in favor of Rus having its own metropolitan in Kiev from the beginning. After the rapid conversion, well-established existing pagan rituals and practices survived, especially in rural areas, for centuries. Such residual paganism existing side-by-side with Christian rituals and practices has been described as a special phenomenon called dvoyeverie ("dual belief"), but no solid evidence exists that paganism was any more prevalent here than in other areas of Eurasia that converted to Christianity so precipitously.

The conversion of Rus by Vladimir led to the formulation of a Christian religious culture in Rus based on that of the Eastern Church. It also saw the introduction of writing (including an alphabet based on the Greek alphabet), literature (most of it being translations from the Greek), monastic communities, Byzantine-style art and architecture, and Byzantine Church law. Along with Scandinavian, steppe, and indigenous Slavic elements, this Byzantine influence contributed significantly to the cultural, political, and social amalgamation that constituted the early Rus principalities.

See also: kievan rus; olga; vladimir, st.


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Fennell, John. (1995). A History of the Russian Church: To 1448. London: Longman.

Franklin, Simon, and Shepard, Jonathan. (1996). The Emergence of Rus, 7501200. London: Longman.

Poppe, Andrzej. (1976). "The Political Background to the Baptism of Rus': Byzantine-Russian Relations between 98689." Dumbarton Oaks Papers 30:197244.

Poppe, Andrzej. (1979). "The Original Status of the Old-Russian Church." Acta Poloniae Historica 39:545.

Sevcenko, Ihor. (1960). "The Christianization of Kievan Rus'." Polish Review 5(4):2935.

Donald Ostrowski

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