Feb 262012

The adoption of Christianity had an impact on laws and on their administration as well. The Chronicle story of Olga’s revenge (Olga was the grandmother of Vladimir I) is not only a great tale of pagan revenge, but also a parable about the change conversion can bring.

Princess Olga’s husband was killed by the Drevlians, a Slavic tribe which paid tribute to the Kniaz of Kiev, because he demanded payment twice in one year. Still, they should not have tied the Great Prince’s legs to two saplings, and… You get the idea.

After the deed was done, the Drevlian chieftain sent a marriage proposal to Princess Olga. In his mind, since he had killed her husband, he had a duty to take over the role, and since he had defeated the said prince, he thought Olga should be flattered by his proposal. But she wasn’t. Yet she dissembled, and persuaded him to send his envoys. Olga pretended to show them great honor by having her men carry the Drevlians’ boats from the river Dniepr towards the Prince’s residence… and straight into a huge pit where they were buried alive, ship and all.

But that was not enough. Olga pretended to enter into peace negotiations with the Drevlians (I’ve had my revenge, now we can start negotiations, you see) and urged them to send a dove from each house in their city. When Olga received the doves, she sent them back with a burning branch tied to their feet. The doves returned home and set a great many fires which burned the Drevlian city to the ground. Only then was Olga satisfied (you can imagine that the Drevlians paid their dues on time after that).

Olga went on to rule for a long time, first by herself, then as regent during the long absences of her son. She adopted Christianity and sponsored it in Russia. Most of the laws and essentially the foundation of Kievan Russia was done by her. Her son was not baptized, nor was he much of a statesman, preferring raiding and warring to sitting in his capital and ruling. So Olga did laid the administrative foundations.

Some of the peculiarities of the laws of Kievan Russia are that there was no capital punishment. Now I’m not saying there was no killing, murder, or otherwise putting to death – these people were human and the times were violent. But there were no legalized execution, no death penalty. A system of fines (time worked – as slaves – for the injured party by the guilty party, or fines paid in money or goods equivalent to the injury suffered) were imposed instead of prison time or punishment. Everyone had a right before the law, regardless of social status, from women to slaves to foreigners.

The role of the Church in Russia has been traditionally that of a moral advisor, a moral supporter, but not a temporal advisor. It tended to defend the weak against the strong. There were no monastic orders and thus no large organizations under a central power. Each monastery had it own structure and rules. Some followed certain types or others that were like the monasteries in other Orthodox lands, but they neither obeyed the igumens (heads) of any other monastery, nor adopted any other rule. In fact there is a saying in Russian “don’t go barging into a strange monastery with your own rules”.

We’ll come to how Christianity and Orthodoxy was incorporated and interpreted by the general public and how it was expressed in holidays and celebrations when we look at folklore and folkways. In medieval Russia, it came slowly, and probably didn’t fully displace pagan practices until the 14th or 15th centuries. One sign of this is the birch-bark letters from Novgorod, and how old Slavic names persist, then are slowly replaced by Russian Christian names.

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