Culture of ancient Rus

The culture of ancient Rus can be divided into different historical periods of the Middle Ages. During the Kievan period (989-), the principalities of Kievan Rus’ came under the sphere of influence of the Byzantine Empire, one of the most advanced cultures of the time, and adopted Christianity. In the Suzdalian period, the Russian principalities gained a wide range of opportunities for developing their political and cultural ties not only with Byzantium, but with the European countries, as well, with a resulting impact on architecture and other cultural indicators. By the Muscovite period in the thirteenth century, Russian culture was recovering from the invasion of Batu Khan and subsequent domination of Russian lands by the Golden Horde.

The city-states of Novgorod and Pskov, which had been spared the Tatar raids, created an original kind of culture under some influence from their western Baltic neighbors. Finally, only by the end of the fifteenth century, Russia ended its subordination to the Golden Horde with the Great standing on the Ugra river of 1480, which marked the birth of the sovereign Russian state, headed by the Grand Prince of Moscow.

Kievan period

This new cultural era dates back to the adoption of Christianity in 989, when the principalities of Kievan Rus’ came under the sphere of influence of the Byzantine Empire, one of the most advanced cultures of the time. Vladimir the Great's political choice determined the subsequent development of the Rus culture.

Byzantine masters built their first cathedrals in Rus’ and decorated their interiors with mosaics and murals. Samples of pictorial art, such as icons and miniatures of illuminated manuscripts, came to Kiev and other cities from Constantinople. After the completion of the most important cathedral of Kievan Rus’—Saint Sophia Cathedral in Kiev, named after the principal cathedral of the Byzantine capital—a Russian clergyman, the metropolitan Ilarion, wrote his work On Law and Grace (Slovo o zakone i blagodati), confirming the basics of Russia's new Christian world outlook.

Thus, Kievan Rus’ became part of the broader Christian world, under Byzantium's influence. The metropolitan of Kiev was subordinated to the Patriarch of Constantinople. The Russian principalities adopted the Byzantine culture during a time when the apogee of the Eastern Roman Empire had already been overcome, but its decline was still far ahead. Byzantium remained the only direct successor of the Hellenistic world, which had applied the artistic achievements of antiquity to the spiritual experience of Christianity. Byzantine culture differed from the rest of the world by its refined taste and sophistication. Byzantine art differed in the depth of religious substance and virtuosity of formal methods. The principal achievement of Byzantine theology was the ecclesiastic writings of the holy fathers. The high cultural level of Greek teachers posed difficult tasks for Kievan Rus’.

Nevertheless, art of the Rus’ principalities of the tenth century differed from Byzantine prototypes of the same period. The peculiarities of the first "Russian" works of art, created by the "visiting" Greeks, included a magnitude and representativeness which demonstrated the ambitions of the young Russian state and its princely authority. Byzantine influence, however, couldn't spread quickly over the enormous territory of Rus’ lands, and their Christianization would take several centuries. For example, there were numerous pagan uprisings in the principalities of Suzdal and Rostov until the twelfth century, led by the volkhvy (волхвы, or pagan priests).

The Rus had this significant contact with the Byzantine Empire, and chose to have various parts of the Bible translated from the Greek into Church Slavonic, they did not seem to be interested in other cultural resources that contact with Constantinople would have provided them. That is, although the Rus would have had access to the vast libraries of Greek philosophy, mathematics, and science housed there; there is no evidence that they translated any of these into Slavonic. Since access to these same documents is what is most often cited as giving rise to the Renaissance in Western Europe, this disinterest on the part of the Rus seems to fly in the face of the argument that it was the Mongol invasions which caused Russia to "miss" the Renaissance. D. S. Likhachev notes that "the 'intelligentsia' of Kievan possessed very great mobility, and constantly traveled from principality to principality. Bands of builders, fresco-painters, and churchmen were continually moving from one principality to another, even in the years immediately following the Tatar-Mongol invasion".[1]

The study of the pagan culture of the Early East Slavs is based on excavations. One of the finds was the Zbruch Idol, a stone figure of a deity with four faces. Dobrynya i zmiy (Dobrynya and the Dragon) was one of the monuments of the epic literature of Rus’.

There are different concepts on the correlation of Christianity and pagan beliefs among the East Slavs. Among them is the concept of a "double faith", the coexistence and mutual penetration of two religions—the "popular" and the "official". Popular culture has long been defined by pagan beliefs, especially in the remote regions of Kievan Rus’. Subsequently, it was defined by a simplified interpretation of Christianity and by superstitions, similar to what had happened in Western European culture. However, Russian historians’ idea of the popular culture after Christianization is primarily based on indirect data and suppositions. At the same time, the culture of the ecclesiastical and secular elite is known for its monuments, which do not allow historians to make confident conclusions on pagan penetration of religious beliefs of Medieval Rus’. Historians prefer to speak of a parallel development of popular and "elitist" cultures. They certainly give credit to the earlier traditions of the Early East Slavs and Finno-Ugric tribes without, however, overestimating their significance in forming elements of the culture.

With the adoption of Christianity, the principalities of Rus’ became part of a book culture. Although written language had been in use in the Russian lands for quite some time, it was only after the baptism of Rus’ that written language spread throughout the principalities. The development of the local literary language was associated with Christianity, and strongly influenced by Old Church Slavonic. An abundance of translated literature laid the foundation for the development of Russia's own writing traditions. At its early stages, the most typical genres were sermons, lives of the saints (for example, Life of Boris and Gleb), descriptions of military campaigns (the famous Tale of Igor's Campaign), and composition of chronicles (Primary Chronicle).

Suzdalian period

As part of the Christian world, Rus principalities gained a wide range of opportunities for developing their political and cultural ties not only with Byzantium, but with the European countries, as well. By the end of the eleventh century, Rus gradually fell under the influence of Roman architecture. Whitestone cathedrals, decorated with sculpture, appeared in the principality of Vladimir-Suzdal due to Andrei Bogolyubsky's invitation of architects from "all over the world". According to Russian historian Vasili Tatischev, the architects were sent to Vladimir by the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa. These cathedrals, however, are not identical with the Roman edifices of Catholic Europe and represent a synthesis of the Byzantine cruciform plan and cupolas with Roman whitestone construction and decorative technique. This mixture of Greek and Western European traditions was possible only in Russia. One of its results was a famous architectural masterpiece of Vladimir, the Church of Pokrova na Nerli, a true symbol of cultural originality of Medieval Russia.

In the early Middle Ages, Rus principalities were similar to other European countries culturally and in historical development. Later on, however, Russia and Europe parted ways. The East-West Schism of 1054 was one of the reasons for this. Barely noticeable in the eleventh century, it became very obvious two centuries later during the resistance of the citizens of Novgorod to the Teutonic Knights. Also, by the middle of the twelfth century, the dominating influence of the Kievan Rus’ (some historians do not consider it possible to even call it a state in a modern sense of the word) began to wane. In 1155, Andrei Bogolyubsky practically transferred the seat of the Grand Prince from Kiev to Vladimir, together with the famous Theotokos of Vladimir, an icon of the Virgin Mary. From this time on, almost every principality began forming its own architectural and art schools.

The invasion of Batu Khan and subsequent domination of Russian lands to the Golden Horde was also a turning point in history of Russian culture and statehood. Mongolian rule imposed its own principles of state on Russia, which were very different from those of Western Europe. In particular, Russia adopted a principle of universal subordination and undivided authority.

Muscovite period

Rus was only able to recover from the consequences of the Mongolian invasion by the late thirteenth century. The first areas to recover were Novgorod and Pskov, which had been spared the Tatar raids. These city-states, with parliamentarian rule, created an original kind of culture under some influence from their western Baltic neighbors. In the early fourteenth century, leadership in the north-eastern lands was transferred from the Principality of Vladimir to Moscow, which, in turn, would fight for leadership against Tver for another century. Moscow was a part of the Vladimir lands and functioned as one of the border fortresses of north-eastern Russia. In 1324, Metropolitan Peter left Vladimir and settled down in Moscow, thus, transferring the residence of the Russian Orthodox Church (Metropolitan Maximus had moved the residence from Kiev to Vladimir not long before, in 1299). In the late fourteenth century, the principal object of worship of the "old" capital—the icon of the Theotokos of Vladimir—was transferred to Moscow. Vladimir became a model for Muscovy.

Emphasizing the succession, Muscovite princes took good care of Vladimir's sacred places. In the early fifteenth century, Andrei Rublev and Prokhor of Gorodets painted the Assumption (Uspensky) Cathedral. In the mid-1450s, they restored the Cathedral of St. George in Yuriev-Polsky under the supervision of Vasili Dmitriyevich Yermolin.[2] The architecture of Muscovy and its surrounding lands in the fourteenth to early fifteenth centuries, usually referred to as early Muscovite architecture, inherited the technique of whitestone construction and typology of four-pillar cathedrals from Vladimir. Art historians, however, notice that early Muscovite architecture was influenced by the Balkans and European Gothic architecture.

Russian painting of the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries is characterized by two major influences, namely those of Byzantine artist Feofan Grek and Russian icon-painter Andrei Rublev. Feofan's style is distinguished by its monochromatic palette and uncommon expressiveness of laconic blots and lines, which send a message of a complex symbolic implication, close to the then widely-spread doctrine of hesychasm, from Byzantium. The soft-colored icons of Rublev are closer to the late Byzantine painting style of the Balkan countries in the fifteenth century.

The late fourteenth century was marked by one of the most important events in Russian history. In 1380, Dmitry Donskoy and his army dealt the first serious blow to the Golden Horde. Sergii Radonezhsky, the founder and hegumen of Troitse-Sergiyev monastery, played an exceptional role in this victory. The name of Saint Sergii, who became the protector and patron of Muscovy, has an enormous significance in Russian culture. Radonezhsky himself and his followers founded more than two hundred monasteries, which would become the basis for the so-called "monastic colonization" of the little-developed northern lands. The Life of Sergii Radonezhsky was written by one of the outstanding writers of that time, Epifaniy the Wise. Andrei Rublev painted his Trinity, the greatest masterpiece of the Russian Middle Ages, for the cathedral of Sergii's monastery.

Mid-fifteenth-century Russia is known for bloody internecine wars for the Moscow seat of the Grand Prince. Ivan III managed to unite the Russian lands around Moscow (at the cost of ravaging Novgorod and Pskov) only by the end of the fifteenth century, and put an end to Russia’s subordination to the Golden Horde after the Great standing on the Ugra river of 1480. The river was later poetically dubbed the "Virgin Belt" (Poyas Bogoroditsy). This event marked the birth of the sovereign Russian state, headed by the Grand Prince of Moscow.


  1. Likhachev, D. S. (1 January 1963). "Further Remarks on the Problem of Old Russian Culture". Slavic Review. 22 (1): 115–120. doi:10.2307/3000391. JSTOR 3000391.
  2. Воронин, Н. Н. (1974). Владимир, Боголюбово, Суздаль, Юрьев-Польской. Книга-спутник по древним городам Владимирской земли. (in Russian) (4th ed.). Moscow: Искусство. pp. 262–290. Retrieved September 16, 2011.
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