The Baptism of Russia as the Christianization of the land is often called marks an important step in Russian history – perhaps not as seen from contemporaries’ perspective, but definitely in terms of historical moments and eras.
It allowed a unification of the Slavic tribes under one idea that was not the rule of force. It opened trade with other Christian states, and especially with Byzantium, not as wild pagans coming to sell their wares, but as a civilized country with a learned ruler who had the power (and the armies) to put himself on an equal footing with Constantinople itself.
Of course, human nature always prevails, and all states fail and change – Kievan Rus’ (Russia) only lasted until Moscow rose as the new capital.
But in the meantime, the Orthodox Church obtained a solid foothold not only in the land, but also in Russian culture.
We’ve noted how the self-definition of the Russian culture begins with the semi-mythical accounts of the Chronicles. Here again, the story of how Vladimir I, the Great Prince (Velikyi Knyaz) of Kiev, came to be baptized, has that legendary flavor.
The Chronicle story is that Vladimir sent emissaries to various capitals to inquire about their religion. From the Khazars, he learned about Judaism and rejected it because “he’d spent long enough uniting the Slavic tribes, he wasn’t going to convert to a religion in diasporah.” To the Muslims, he simply said, “sorry, but we Russians enjoy drinking.” To the Church of Rome (at that point there was no official division between Catholics and Orthodox), he said that “he was his own master and wouldn’t serve someone in Rome.” But the envoys to Byzantium came telling him of the divine singing and the beauty of the service, and so he sent for teachers to learn about the religion of Constantinople.
Like the story of Rurik being called to Russia, the story of Vladimir choosing Orthodoxy is one of those core legends of Russian culture.
In addition, it is fairly well accepted that Vladimir did consider his options when choosing what culture to align himself with.
Or probably, to ally himself with.
In all likelihood, a political and dynastic alliance with Byzantium is what started the ball rolling. However, it also seems true that once Vladimir established this alliance and took a Greek Christian for a wife, he did make changes to Russian laws and attitudes that were more profound than a mere political decision might have warranted.
Surely not overnight, not even in the space of a few short years, but relatively quickly, Christianity established itself firmly in Russia. Not as an imposed religion of the rulers, but as an essential mode of living and perceiving the world.
One of the crucial, or possibly the crucial difference, between the Western and Eastern aspect of Christianity, is that Rome sent missionaries to establish the Latin Church with services in Latin in territories under its authority. Whereas the from Byzantium, the missions were charged with teaching in the native languages, even to translating the Scriptures and other texts into the native languages. This is why to this day, if you enter a Greek Orthodox church, the service will be in Greek. In a Bulgarian Orthodox church – in Bulgarian. In Armenian, in an Armenian Orthodox church, and so forth. And yet, because it is the same Church and the same dogmas and the same statuses, it is also the same service with the same rhythm, and with a little effort you can find your place in it. Regardless of the language, even if it’s English in the case of the Orthodox Church of America, the baptism in one is regognized in the other, and so is the marriage, and other sacraments. Even if each administration keeps (or doesn’t keep) its own separate records.
Translating documents means translating a lot of things into a different mode of thinking, and each independent local Church acquired its own ethnic flavor. Still, the core beliefs and dogmas are the same between all of them. But little things are different. In a Russian Orthodox service, you’re expected to remain standing throughout the service, as much as your health will let you. The OCA has adopted this tradition. In Greek churches, as least in the US, there are pews, and the congregation sits and stands (or kneels) appropriately. Local saints are venerated – there are Greek saints that may be recognized by the Orthodox Church as a whole, but Russians or Serbians are less likely to pray to them, the more modern they are. And of course, there are Russian saints that most other Orthodox Christians are probably unaware of.
Holidays are celebrated differently. While minor details such as food and processions and devotions always vary from area to area (naturally, since what you eat and what you do depends a lot on what is available and the landscape where you live), even more important details can vary, such as which secondary aspects of a service may be emphasized, when services might be held, or which holidays are deemed more significant than others.
What differentiates Orthodoxy from other Christian denominations?
The Orthodox will tell you that theirs is the oldest, least modified Church among them all, because they follow the original text of the Nicene Creed (the “I believe in one God the Father…” prayer/statement).
But the greatest difference between East and West is that Eastern Orthodoxy does not recognize the Pope’s infallibility or even his supreme authority in Church matters, much less in mundane matters. To the Orthodox, he is the Bishop of Rome, owed greater respect than other bishops because of his seat, but not automatic obedience. Orthodox Churches are more independent than their Catholic counterparts. Think of them as a spiritual federation, rather than a centralized monarchy.