By the Reverend Douglas Dales
The Russian invasion of Ukraine is not only an affront to, and a flagrant denial of Christian
values: it is also an attack on Christianity itself. In the minds of some around Putin, including
some leading Russian churchmen, it is partly a religiously inspired mission to retrieve and
safeguard Kiev as the cradle of Russian Christianity. It is notable, and also tragic, that the
Patriarch of Moscow has not only refrained from condemning this unprovoked aggression,
but appears to bless it as a just cause. This will greatly damage the credibility of the Russian
Church in the years to come, especially among a rising and younger generation in Russia and
It is true, of course, that Kiev is the cradle of Russian Christianity, a common
inheritance treasured not only by Russian and Ukrainian Christians, but also by Orthodox
and other Christians across the world. In this tragic conflict, Christians are now being pitted
against each other, at least in military terms, and hatred is being rekindled, with bitter
memories of how Stalin deliberately starved many millions of Ukrainians to death. Schism
already exists between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Ecumenical Patriarch in
Constantinople following his recognition of the identity of the Ukrainian Orthodox church,
and its right to be self-governing, and to be independent of control from Moscow. Pursuit of
historic-religious fantasy is at one level a crude justification for aggression; but at another level
it is a dangerous intoxication that can only end in disaster, as it did for the Greeks in the
aftermath of IWW, who fantasized about regaining Constantinople; or the Serbs who wished
to regain Kosovo as an ancestral heart-land and cradle of their faith. It is a mis-use of history
and a travesty of Christianity, raising false hopes and fears while justifying brutality.
The actual history of how Christianity came to become established in Kiev in the tenth
century is well-documented and important; and some buildings remain from this early
period, most notably the beautiful cathedral of St Sophia, decorated with stunning mosaics by
Greek artists, but also frescoed with paintings of Kievan court life by Russian artists. By some
miracle, it has survived all the trauma that has afflicted the history of Kiev. The Monastery of
the Caves, set high above the Dnieper River, was founded in the eleventh century by a Kievan
layman, St Antony, who went to Mount Athos where he became a monk. He was sent back to
Kiev twice to kindle monastic life there, and he lived as a hermit in a cave above the river,
where he attracted a following. The first monastery in Kiev was thus an outpost of the Holy
Mountain of Athos.
His disciple, St Theodosius, created and formed the actual monastery above ground
where it remains to this day, surmounting two sets of caves where subsequently many holy
men lived and died and are now buried. The Life of St Theodosius is one of the best early
medieval saints’ lives, portraying him as a humble monk like St Francis of Assisi, who was
nonetheless capable of standing up to, and gaining the respect of the ruler of Kiev, Jaroslav,
who supported the growth of the monastery.
‘Theodosius was respected, not because of his fine clothes or rich estates, but for his radiant life
and purity of spirit; and also, for his teachings, which were fired with the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.
To him, the goatskin and hair-shirt were more precious than any king’s purple robe; and he was proud
to wear them as a monk.’
The subsequent history of the monastery is carefully recorded in the earliest chronicle
of Russian history. Many other monasteries and bishops sprang from the Kievan Pechersk
Lavra, which became and still remains the mother-house of Russian and Ukrainian monastic
Kiev itself became a prosperous medieval kingdom, being originally founded by
Vikings and Slavs, and capitalizing on the trade that flowed along the Dnieper River, with
close links to Byzantium from where Christianity came formally to Kiev during the reign of
prince Vladimir. He married a princess from there and was baptized along with many of his
people in the Dnieper River by Kiev in 988. After his death, conflict arose among his
successors. Russians remember and treasure the martyrdom of the princes Boris and Gleb,
who were murdered by their own brother, but who refused as Christians to use armed
resistance to protect themselves.
Kiev had close links of marriage and trade with kingdoms in Western Europe, and
some from the English royal family took refuge there after their defeat at the Battle of Hastings
in 1066. In 1240, however, Kiev was overthrown by Mongol invasion from the eastern steppes
and the Slav population came increasingly under alien domination for more than two
hundred years, until the princes of Moscow began the fight-back. Thereafter, Kiev was seldom
free from foreign rule until finally being incorporated into the Russian empire of the czars.
Does this history matter, and does it provide a gleam of hope in the midst of the
darkness of the current conflict? It surely demonstrates the truth that historical fact is stronger
than myth; and that Christianity finds expression in actual historical situations from which
later generations can learn much. Humility, accountability, charity, prayer, compassion,
determination, education, non-violence – these were the Christ-like qualities that created
Christianity in Kiev in the beginning, as they created Christianity in England as well. In every
generation, they act like salt, as a corrective and challenge to the false values of sinful
humanity. In Kiev, as in Rome, their reality may still be sensed, hidden behind the carapace
and wreckage of history. Kiev like Rome is a holy city for all Christians. But they are not
qualities that can be appropriated by conquest or domination, religious or political; nor should
they be distanced by sentimental idolization of saints; or by fantasies about remote periods of
Christian history as some kind of lost golden age.
On my first visit to Kiev in 1989, we were made very welcome and given the freedom
to explore the city for a while. I was astounded by St Sophia cathedral, which was the first
Byzantine church I had ever visited. High in the beautiful apse is a commanding mosaic of
Mary, the Theotokos, with her hands uplifted in prayer. Later that day I made my way alone
by bus to the terrible monument at Babi Yar, which marks the area where thousands of Jews
and others were murdered in a ravine by the Nazis. It is surmounted by the figure of another mother, with her hands tied behind her back, unable to protect her little child who sits on her
lap. Two mothers – two martyrs to the suffering of their own children. It is terrible to witness
this tragedy being repeated in the lines of families now fleeing Ukraine.
Kiev has often been a place where amidst great trauma, darkness has collided with the
light of Christ. Let us pray for and alongside all those in that holy city and elsewhere in
Ukraine, that in the present darkness the light of Christ, crucified and risen, may yet shine
forth and make all things new - for Russians and Ukrainians alike. In the words of Dietrich
Bonhoeffer, written while in prison in Berlin in 1944: ‘Christians stand by God in His hour of
grieving.’ Let us commend Russia and Ukraine and all their people to the intercession of the
Mother of God and of the founding saints of holy Kiev – St Antony and St Theodosius.
Copyright © Douglas Dales 2022. All rights reserved.
Douglas Dales is an Anglican priest and church historian, and sometime Chaplain of Marlborough College in England. This article was first published in Church Times, 4 March 2022. We are grateful for the licence to republish that we have been granted.