How the Love for Drinking Drove the Kievan Rus to Christianity

Giant statue of Vladimir the Great in the Russian capital Moscow.

For the last few hundred years the Russians have always been one of the dominant powers in the world. It doesn’t matter if we are talking about the Russian Empire under ruling of the tsars, the communist days of the Soviet Union or modern Russia under Vladimir Putin. For the last millennium their first official religion was Orthodox Christianity, but have you ever wondered what the world would look like if the Russians worshiped a different god? What if prince Vladimir the Great in 988 decided to convert his Kievan Rus to Muslims in his quest for the right kind of monotheism? The Islamic lobby in those days was strong in Kiev, but the desire to keep drinking alcohol was a lot stronger.

History and paganism
Now some of you might wonder: “Kievan Rus, Kiev, Isn’t that Ukraine? I thought we were talking about Russians here.” Yes, these events take place long before Moscow (founded in the 12th century AD) or St, Petersburg (1703) even existed. The tribe that later built the Russian Empire was back then known as the Kievan Rus, had Kiev as a capital and lived around the Dnepr river. Like most Slavic tribes they had a pagan religion with multiple gods until the 10th century. That’s when the first approaches towards monotheism started. Regent Olga of Kiev (ruled the Kievan Rus between 945 and 960 AD) had already tried to spread Christianity among her people, and her grandson Yaropolk I during his rule (972-980) was on his way to becoming a real Catholic. That was until his half-brother Vladimir had him killed to take the throne for himself. At first this led to a revival of paganism. Vladimir I had idols of the Slavic gods made and put a big one of the supreme God Perun right next to the royal palace.

However after 8 years as prince of the Kievan Rus Vladimir I saw that in order to strengthen his power he should adopt monotheism, as many other tribes and nations already did. The only question was which one. The lobby for Islam started immediately, as the Volga Bulgars were already keen on converting the Kievan Rus for many years. Now to avoid confusion, the Volga Bulgars were a Tatar tribe that had settled around the Danube river and not part of the Bulgarian Empire that already accepted Christianity more than 100 years before. Besides Muslims Vladimir also consulted Jewish travelers and amabassadors from the Pope in Rome, and sent people from his court abroad to study the different religions.

No alcohol, no option
Although the ambassadors of Islam had been planning their mission the longest, it turned out that they didn’t stand a chance converting Vladimir. No matter how well chosen their words were, the ruler of the Kievan Rus didn’t like the idea of circumcision and giving up pork and alcohol (see our post: Muslims can drink, just like Muhammad, MB). His scouts abroad confirmed what the prince already thought, as they reported that during their visits to Muslim territories they noticed that people seemed to have very little fun in their lives. So Vladimir dropped Islam as an option with the legendary words: “Drinking is a joy to the Russians, we can not do without it.” Truth be told that the Kievan Rus were nothing like the stereotype Russian drunkards we know today. Vodka, or any distilled drink, wasn’t around yet and the normal people could only get a little buzz from kvas, a beverage with an alcohol percentage below 5. Vladimir and his noblemen on the other hand used to drink medovukha, a honey drink with an alcohol percentage between 5 and 25. It’s likely that the prince of Kiev himself didn’t want to give up this “nectar of the gods” for the sympathy of one Allah.

Orthodox Christianity
Soon Judaism also dropped out of the competition, as its holy city Jerusalem at that point was ruled by Arab Muslims, and according to Vladimir no strong god would let that happen. Because of the whole killing of his half-brother Yaropolk and reversing the process of becoming Catholic a few years ago, this religion was also not a serious option. But there was hopeful news from Constantinople, as Vladimir’s scouts came back with a favorable report from the Eastern Roman Empire. “We did not know wheter we were in Heaven or on Earth, because on Earth there’s no such splender nor beauty, and we do not even know how to describe it. We only know that God was there among the people, and their service is fairer than those of other nations.” And when the Byzantine emperor Basil II threw in a sister for Vladimir to marry the deal was sealed rapidly.

Mass baptizing in the Dnepr
Vladimir I got baptized in Chersonesus, which back then was a Greek settlement in the Crimean Peninsula. From there he took a decent amount of Orthodox priests with him to Kiev to convert his people. After baptizing his 12 sons and many aristocrates, he sent out the word that rich and poor should come to the river Dnepr or they would be seen as enemies of the prince. The population of Kiev, including mothers with infants on their arms, assembled on the river banks and let the Greek priests turn them into Christians. From there on the ‘Holy Word’ was spread further and the foundation for a new Ortodox Christian empire was there.

Since vodka had not been invented yet, perhaps it was just the thrill of the many toasts which are so typical for the Russian drinking culture. But still one can’t help wondering: what would history and the world today have looked like if Vladimir the Great was a teetotaler?

Micky Bumbar


Related articles on Lords of the Drinks:

How alcohol played a key role in warfare around the world

Peter the Great, the tsar of partying

How New Zealand was saved from prohibitionby its soldiers after WW I

Sultan Selim the Drunkard, who initiated the downfall of the Ottoman Empire

The Ukranian folk tale of Sirko and the drunken wolf

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