The Dawning of Christianity in Poland and across Central and Eastern Europe

History and the Politics of Memory

by Igor Kąkolewski (Volume editor) Przemyslaw Urbánczyk (Volume editor) Christian Lübke (Volume editor)
©2020 Edited Collection 312 Pages


This book covers two fields of research. The first part of the volume includes essays authored by Polish, German, Czech, and Ukrainian archeologists and historians on the genesis and unique nature of the roads whereby Christianization proceeded in Polish lands in the early Middle Ages in the context of the kindred processes underway especially from the 10th century in neighboring lands. The second part of this publication includes considerations on the politics of memory as applied to the beginnings of statehood in Poland and Kievan Rus’. Chosen examples reveal the uniqueness and the evolution of various politics of memory related to the founding myths of statehood in modern Poland, Russia, and Ukraine.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title Page
  • Copyright Page
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • Citability of the eBook
  • Contents
  • Introduction
  • Part I: New perspectives
  • Christians and pagans in Kiev during the 10th c.
  • The beginnings of Christianity in Bohemia1
  • Between reception and aversion. The earliest traces of Christianity among the Polabian Slavs
  • Magdeburg and the beginnings of the Diocese of Poznań
  • Archaeology on the beginnings of Christianity in Poland
  • Mieszko I’s baptism and the Poloni as reflected in historiographic sources from the 10th to the 14th c.
  • The beginnings of Christianity in Pomerania
  • Early-Piast architecture in the context of early-medieval European architecture
  • The archaeological discoveries at Bodzia near Włocławek (Kuyavia region) and their significance for Poland’s early-medieval history
  • Part II: Modern Myths
  • The roads by which Christianization proceeded in the history of Poland and in the Poles’ culture of memory – new research perspectives and modern myths
  • Homo religiosus: the phenomenon of Poland’s Mieszko I
  • Searching for the meaning of the Russian way. The ideological setting of the 900th anniversary celebrations of the Baptism of Rus’ (1888)
  • History as a tool in the state’s struggle against the Catholic Church during the celebrations of the One-Thousand Years of the Polish State (1956–1966/1967)
  • The inseparable heritage of early medieval Rus’. On the celebration of the 1,150th anniversary of the origin of Russian statehood1
  • List of affiliations of the authors
  • List of figures
  • Editors’ remarks


The present volume arose from two inspirations. Firstly, it is a result of the international conference “The early processes of Christianization in Central and Eastern Europe: the broad historical canvas and aspects of Mieszko I’s baptism in 966”. That conference was held by the Center for Historical Research of the Polish Academy of Sciences in Berlin (CBH PAN) on June 10 and 11, 2016, in co-operation with the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnology PAN and the Leibniz-Institut für Geschichte und Kultur des östlichen Europa (GWZO) in Leipzig. In the first part of this volume, we showcase the conference’s fruits – namely, the papers by archeologists, historians, and art historians who present the latest results of research into the origins of Polish statehood and the process of Christianization in the realm of the early Piast dynasty against the background of contemporary Central and Eastern Europe. This part represents a summary of the input of Polish, German, Czech, and Ukrainian historiographies in the genesis and unique nature of the roads whereby Christianization proceeded in Polish lands in the early Middle Ages in the context of the parallel processes underway in neighboring lands from the 10th c.

The second part was provided by the years-long research tradition at CBH PAN in Berlin into cultures of memory and the politics. Besides the critical analysis of the paradigms present in Polish historiography in regard to the beginnings of Christianization in the early Piast monarchy, this part of the volume includes papers that analyze the politics of memory as applied to the beginnings of Christianity and statehood in Poland and the Kievan Rus’. Chosen as examples of this are: the state celebrations in Russia in 1888 of the 1,000th anniversary of Vladimir the Great’s baptism*; communist Poland’s 1966 rival celebrations of “1,000 Years of Polish Statehood” vs. the “Millennium of Poland’s Baptism”; and the celebrations in the Russian Federation in 2012 of the 1,050th anniversary of the Rus’. These examples reveal the uniqueness and the evolution ←7 | 8→of various politics of memory in regard to the founding myths of statehood in today’s Poland, Russia, and Ukraine in modern times, i.e., from the late 19th c. to the early 21st c.

Igor Kąkolewski, Christian Lübke, Przemysław Urbańczyk

←8 |

* The form Vladimir in relation to the Grand Prince of Kiev, and the ruler of Kievan Rus' from 980 to 1015 is used only here and below in the text: “Searching for the meaning of the Russian way. The ideological setting of the 900th anniversary celebrations of the Baptism of Rus’ (1888)” by Mikołaj Banaszkiewicz, as it is the transcription of the most common linguistic form used in Russian language. In the remaining texts in this volume the form Volodimer is used as it appears in the Primary Chronicle or Tale of Bygone Years (see: editor’s remarks).

Oleksiy Tolochko

Christians and pagans in Kiev during the 10th c.

Abstract: The author discusses two themes: the supposed growth of Christianity in pre-conversion Kiev and the parallel developments within the traditional “pagan” beliefs. He argues that descriptions of pagan idols and the image of the pre-conversion Eastern Slavs as idolaters in the earliest historical sources lie at the core of the contemporary understanding of pagan “religion”. As in any other aspect of early Rus’ history, the principal text here is the Primary Chronicle that emerged in the early 12th c. However, the idea of paganism that arises in this text was mostly shaped by literary sources (Byzantine chronicles) and the models of the pagans and their idols known from the Old Testament. Also the archeological discoveries, generally viewed as more reliable that are discussed in the chapter were interpreted within what is termed “text-driven archeology”. No wonder that the number of pagan shrines, as well as their locations, are in perfect agreement with the Primary Chronicle’s account.

Keywords: Kievan Rus’, Grand Prince Volodimer, Varangians, Baptism of Rus’, paganism

“State of the Union”

In no other field of medieval history have sources exercised such a tyrannical grip over what scholars tend to think or believe as in the study of Kievan Rus’. The discipline was cursed with what otherwise might have been a blessing: possession of an unparalleled, rich in details, and brilliantly entertaining account of “ancient days” found in the Primary Chronicle. Ever since the dawn of history as an academic branch of knowledge in the 18th c., the Primary Chronicle was recognized as a surpassingly important source, factual and reliable both in its particulars and in its general presentation of past reality. Being essentially the only source offering a systematic and coherent narrative, the Primary Chronicle suggested itself as a convenient template for history-telling – and indeed, it has been incorporated in every major synthesis to the point of rendering them but a translation of the medieval story into academic language. True, other sources were gradually added into the discussion, but they were absorbed into the already existing interpretative scheme supplied by the Primary Chronicle. The ongoing effect is obvious, if not always recognized; everything we think we know about the early Kievan state (as well as things we think we do not know) is framed by merely a few medieval narrative sources and their ideas about the past.

←11 | 12→

The above applies of course to both themes of my discussion: the supposed growth of Christianity in pre-conversion Kiev and the parallel developments within the traditional “pagan” beliefs. Without going into much detail, the standard narrative runs as follows.1 Eastern Europe was introduced to Christianity shortly after the first Rus’ attack on Constantinople in 860.2 However, what exactly happened, who the Rus’ requesting baptism were – and even whether the event actually took place at all – is not quite clear.3 The results of this first attempt to institute a new religion are assessed as ephemeral at best, nonetheless it is believed that from that time on Christianity never ceased to exist in Eastern Europe, and that it persisted, against all odds and the total lack of evidence, into the 10th c. Since the early 900s, the close and regular (if not always happy) relationships established by the Kievan Rus’ with Byzantium, their annual travels to Constantinople and prolonged stays there, should have encouraged at least some among the Varangian Rus’ elite to explore the new set of ideas and beliefs associated with the splendor, wealth, and prestige of the Empire. Indeed, by the 940s a sizable Christian community organized around the “Cathedral Church” of Saint Elijah is discernible in Kiev. Not yet including any members of the ruling clan, these Christians nevertheless formed an influential faction within the Kievan society, judging from the fact that their approval in the form of a Christian oath was needed in order to endorse the treaty with Byzantium. The next decade saw Christianity penetrating the core institution of the Rus’: the princely clan itself. In the 950s, the regent of Kievan Rus’ (940–960), Princess Olga († 969), travelled to Constantinople where she was baptized with at least some members of her (mostly female) entourage.4 After that but one final step ←12 | 13→remained to be taken: for an actual ruler to set an example to his followers and the whole realm by accepting baptism. In 988, Prince Volodimer the Great (980–1015) travelled to the Byzantine city of Kherson where he received baptism and was rewarded with marriage to the Byzantine Princess Anna Porphyrogenita, sister of the sitting emperors. Christianity had arrived in Eastern Europe for good and Rus’ had entered the family of Christian nations.

Oddly, this picture of Christianity ever enlarging its territory and constantly gaining new ground, thus paving the way to final conversion – indeed, making it bound to happen and even inevitable – coexists in the literature with the story of the concurrent development of paganism and how it evolved into a complex set of beliefs and practices tailored to the ever increasing demands of the maturing state organization and culminating in the creation of the “pagan pantheon” by Volodimer shortly before he made his choice in favor of the Christian faith. The two developments run parallel, as if mirror reflections of one another. Whether or not such a scenario is plausible or if we should rather expect the new religion to expand at the expense of the old, is beyond the point, for the two stories are lifted almost verbatim from the pages of the Primary Chronicle. They reflect how a medieval cleric understood his realm’s path to conversion and thus have a very limited value for the reconstruction of past reality.

It would seem that the only conceptual innovation in recent years has been the notion of “Varangian Christianity” suggested by John Lind.5 At the core of this concept lies the vision of Eastern Europe as part of the large periphery of Christendom stretching from Anglo-Saxon Britain to the Byzantine Empire and its principal “movers and shakers” – namely, the Scandinavians (called the Varangians in Byzantium and in Rus’), apparently the only international player in Eastern Europe, as their enterprises alone made them transcend the local experience of other communities in Eastern Europe. Being exposed to Christianity in the extreme points of this space and also being either indifferent to or unaware ←13 | 14→of dogmatic and institutional differences between the Latin and Greek Churches, or else simply being opportunistic, the Scandinavians must have created a phenomenon which John Lind termed “Varangian Christianity”, i.e., a practice of Christianity on the grassroots level and in the absence of fixed ecclesiastical structures. While potentially departing from the standard narrative, this concept has the same fundamental flaw: it is inspired by the same chronicle tradition.

Idol-worshipers and heretics

Since the 19th c., the majority vote among historians and archeologists favors the idea that the early reports on the pre-conversion Eastern Slavs, including those on their religious beliefs, however deficient in scope and detail, do contain some bits of authentic information and may serve as a reliable base for the reconstructions of their traditional system of beliefs. This attitude was certainly dominant throughout the 20th c. and, with the number of works growing and their volume increasing, it is firmly established as the principal approach to the topic. It is becoming increasingly obvious, however, that the immensely complex and sophisticated edifice of “Eastern Slavic paganism” embodied in these writings belongs to what was aptly termed “an armchair mythology” (kabinetnaia mifologia) – i.e., an artificial construction quite removed from the past reality.

It would therefore be useful to return to the sources and reexamine them in the absence of the interpretative burden imposed by tradition. For my discussion, I have carved out only one aspect from within this vast field: the descriptions of pagan idols and the image of the pre-conversion Slavs as idolaters. I would argue that for the authors of our earliest reports on pagan practices among the Eastern Slavs, these two issues feature most prominently and lie at the core of their understanding of pagan “religion”.

A few words about the evidence might be handy at the onset of the discussion. As in any other aspect of early Rus’ history, our principal text here is, expectedly, the Primary Chronicle. It emerged in the early 12th c. and bears all the marks of its time. It was conceived and written within a monastery setting by a pious Christian cleric whose exposure to genuine pagan practices was limited or nonexistent. At best, his idea of paganism might have been shaped by some vestiges of traditional beliefs still practiced in rural and remote areas by the common folk. I will have the opportunity to revisit this suggestion in due course. What his sources might have been for the paganism of the ancient past remains a complete mystery. We know, however, that when needing to explain the nature of the pagan deities or the origin of some pagan practice (as in the entries for 912 or 1114), the chronicler would resort to literary sources, normally the Byzantine ←14 | 15→chronicles of John Malala or George Hamartolos. His “paganism” was thus of a learned nature, read from books rather than experienced in practice. Chances are, therefore, that the rest of his knowledge on the past religious life came from a similar source.

The most persistent theme in the chronicler’s portrayal of pagans and their heathen ways is their idols. Idols and idol-worship are so conspicuous an attribute of the pagans that, within the framework of the chronicle, to be a pagan or to live the life of a pagan means primarily to worship idols and sacrifice before idols.

The Primary Chronicle is not alone in this respect. It may have built upon established models. Somewhat earlier the Metropolitan Ilarion develops the same topic and with much vigor in his Sermon on Law and Grace.6 The author is a notable figure: he was a preacher at the court church of the Holy Apostles and in 1051, he was appointed to the Metropolitan See of Kiev. The Sermon on Law and Grace is, most probably, an Easter Sermon, delivered sometime in the late 1040s in the Tithe Church built by Volodimer shortly after his conversion, or in Saint Sophia Cathedral in Kiev, but definitely before the entire royal family of the baptizer’s son Yaroslav the Wise (1019–1054). This is the earliest known attempt to explain to the ruling dynasty their pagan past and their Christian present, along with the difference between the two, and how the two can be reconciled.

Ilarion is quite single-minded on the subject: of all the terms reserved in Slavonic for heathens and heathen ways he employs only those semantically tied to the noun idol. He calls the pagans of old exclusively “idol-worshipers” and “idolaters” (idolosluzhiteli). Indeed, he knows no other aspect of pagan beliefs and practices but the worshiping of idols. To be a pagan means to venerate idols (moliti idoly, polklaniatisia idolom); to share heathen beliefs is to remain in the “darkness of idol-worship” or “delusion of idol-worship”. The contrast with Christians lies in pagans having “multiple deities of idolatry” (mnogobozhestvo idolskoe). Ilarion is so graphic here that he describes conversion as the process of demolishing the heathen temples with their idols (kapishcha idolskie) and erecting Christian churches in their stead. He is emphatic, but scant in details. Pagan gods are but demons controlled by Satan that demand human sacrifices. Slavic paganism in the Sermon on Law and Grace is devoid of any historical or “ethnographical” dimension. It is faceless and impersonal, and Ilarion’s audience would learn nothing about their ancestors’ wicked ways of praising their gods. Ilarion’s rigid approach is unsurprising and even expected considering his ←15 | 16→principal topic: the contrast between the idol-worshipers of the Old Testament and the Christians of the Gospel. Thus, Ilarion’s image of paganism is deeply Christianized; it is the paganism of Scripture.

Ilarion might have set the standard or may have followed an established discourse; we have no way of knowing, for his sermon is an isolated phenomenon without proper context in the 11th c. Yet some seventy years later, the same descriptive model of pagans as primarily or even exclusively idol-worshipers proved rather productive for historical narrative.

The theme of idols and of the veneration of idols feature in several episodes of the Chronicle, for instance in the famous scene of Prince Igor’s (†945) making an oath before the idol of Perun in 945, yet most prominently in those parts that deal with Prince Volodimer, his pagan delusions, his choice of a new faith, and his eventual conversion. The most famous of those is, of course, the story of what is termed in the literature “the pagan reform of Volodimer” and “Volodimer’s pantheon.” According to the Chronicle’s account, upon occupying the principal town of Kiev, Volodimer ordered several, in fact, six, idols to be erected “on the hill outside his palace”:

And [Volodimer] set up idols on the hill outside the castle with the hall: one of Perun, made of wood with a head of silver and a mouth of gold, and others of Khors, Dazhbog, Stribog, Simargl, and Mokosh. The people sacrificed to them, calling them gods, and brought their sons and their daughters to sacrifice to these devils. They desecrated the earth with their offerings, and the land of Rus and this hill were defiled with blood.7

In the Chronicle’s passage we immediately recognize the motifs known already from Ilarion’s treatise: the multitude of pagan deities who are, in fact, mere demons; idols representing these false “gods”; and human sacrifices as the principal way of offerings.

However, this account is much celebrated in the literature on Eastern Slavic paganism for here we have not only the names of all six idols, but also the description of the physical appearance of the most prominent of them all, Perun. There exists a long tradition of exegesis on this passage, mostly in a “realistic” vein.8 Scholars would speculate about the exact place in Kiev where this “pantheon” ←16 | 17→might have been constructed; about the reasons that compelled Volodimer to undertake his “pagan reform”; about its role in the program of state-building; about its relationship to future conversion, etc. The general conclusion is that with his “pagan reform” (manifested in the construction of idols) Volodimer aimed to unify the diverse pagan beliefs of his realm in order to fuse them into a single “state paganism”. Also, it is believed that this “reform” betrays Volodimer’s attempts at “fishing” for a new religion, which eventually would bring him to Christianity.

For us, two issues are of key importance here: could there indeed have been a pagan pantheon and is the description of the idols authentic? Some scholars, among them Viljo J. Mansikka and Henryk Łowmiański, would argue convincingly that the pagan pantheon could not be supported by authentic data.9 There simply is no evidence for the suggestion that the Slavic pagan gods were ranked or arranged in hierarchical order and formed a closed community with clearly divided responsibilities. This is the idea of a Christian cleric who tried to arrange pagan deities in accordance with his own idea of how the heavenly forces should operate.

Yet if there was no “pantheon”, how are we to explain the multitude of idols? Why was it not enough to have a single idol of Perun? We have to bear in mind that Ilarion insists that idolaters always venerate many idols (mnogobozhestvo idolskoe), which is their most obvious distinction from Christians who believe in one god. The multitude of idols produces a diversity of “laws” and “customs” among the pagans, and this is contrasted by the single law of the Christians. The whole story of Volodimer erecting a multitude of idols near his palace is simply an extended gloss to this common notion.

←17 | 18→

Before converting to Christianity, in the Chronicle’s story, Volodimer had explored the extremes of pagan idolatry, which, within the chronicler’s narrative strategy, makes the conversion of this utmost idolater clearly miraculous. The description of idols erected in Kiev is followed by the grim story of how this act incited people to willingly sacrifice their sons and daughters to the idols. This fragment is a close paraphrase of Psalm 105:

And they served their idols: which were a snare unto them. Yea, they sacrificed their sons and their daughters unto devils, And shed innocent blood, even the blood of their sons and of their daughters, whom they sacrificed unto the idols of Canaan: and the land was polluted with blood. Thus were they defiled with their own works.10

The chronicle passage (and its Old Testament prototype) has its echo later in the Chronicle – namely, in a very marked fragment usually called “The Philosopher’s Admonition” to Volodimer, where a Greek missionary instructs the pagan prince in the Christian version of history:

They undertook to build idols, some of wood, some of brass, others of marble, and still others of gold and silver. They not only worshiped them, but even brought their sons and daughters and killed them before these images, so that all the earth was defiled.11

The philosopher’s lecture made a first dent in Volodimer’s stubbornness, but it did not convinced him entirely. Yet while listening to the missionary, the prince could not have missed a strange and disturbing semblance of the Old Testament idols to the ones he himself had erected.

Indeed, the idol of Perun is described as “made of wood with a head of silver and a mouth of gold”. This description is attested to in the following entry by the observation made by a Varangian Christian whose son was chosen for a sacrifice: “These (i.e., the idols) are not gods, but only idols of wood. Today it is, and tomorrow it will rot away. These gods do not eat, or drink, or speak; they are fashioned by hand out of wood.”12 It would appear that the “wooden” nature of idols is their most consistently stressed attribute, and, we may gather, their most important one.

These descriptions have been recognized as “hidden citations” from Scripture.13 Their main task is to demonstrate the man-made nature of pagan ←18 | 19→gods. The theme of idolatry is so conspicuous in the Old Testament that it is quite difficult to pick any single example that served for our descriptions. The words of the Christian Varangian echo Deuteronomy 4, 28: “And there you will serve gods of wood and stone, the work of human hands, that neither see, nor hear, nor eat, nor smell”. They also echo Psalm 115, 4–6: “Their idols are silver and gold, the work of human hands. They have mouths, but do not speak; eyes, but do not see. They have ears, but do not hear; noses, but do not smell.” Here we find not only the principal material for the manufacture of idols – i.e., wood – but also silver and gold, which are emblematic of the Perun idol.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2019 (December)
Christianization of Poland Christianization of Slavs Beginnings of Poland Beginnings of statehood Founding myths Culture of memory
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2020. 312 pp., 17 fig. b/w.

Biographical notes

Igor Kąkolewski (Volume editor) Przemyslaw Urbánczyk (Volume editor) Christian Lübke (Volume editor)

Igor Kąkolewski is a professor and Director of the Centre for Historical Research in Berlin, Polish Academy of Sciences. His research focuses on early modern history of Poland-Lithuania and Europe, history of Polish-German relations, studies in memory culture. Christian Lübke is a professor and Director of the Leibniz Institute for the History and Culture of Eastern Europe, Leipzig. His research fields include history of the Middle Ages in Poland and Central and Eastern Europe, Russian history, social and economic history. Przemysław Urbańczyk is a professor and Director of the Polish Institute of Advanced Studies, Polish Academy of Sciences. His research focuses on archaeology and history of the Middle Ages in Poland, Central Europe, Scandinavia and North Atlantic region.


Title: The Dawning of Christianity in Poland and across Central and Eastern Europe
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