Saintly Princes and Princely Saints: Writing the Sacred in Medieval Rus'

Jonathan Stone, University of California, Berkeley

The inclination to inscribe the Christian narrative onto descriptions of the Russian state as well as conversely to write the Russian state and its rulers into the Scriptures is a prominent aspect of some of the earliest writings to come out of Christian Rus'. To this end the story of the princes Boris and Gleb, murdered by their brother to insure his ascension to the throne of their father, underwent a rapid succession of rewritings that imbued it with a distinctly hagiographical character and its heroes with the roles of Rus’s first martyrs. While the murders of Boris and Gleb fit quite well into the norm of a society suffused with blood feuds and warring siblings, from the very moment their blood was spilt they were not viewed as ordinary victims of royal ambition and intrigue. The difference lies in the radical change, from just a generation previous, in the cultural milieu in which their murders took place as well as in the point of view of those who would come to venerate them and tell their story. They could now assume two clearly defined roles that were not available prior to the baptism of Rus'. They could be made into passion bearers [strastoterptsy], innocents who bore their sufferings with a humility imitating Christ, and into the second victims of primordial sin, reenacting the murder of Abel. These two identities became the focus of their cult and the object of their veneration. Yet they did not develop in a vacuum and the ecclesiastical significance of Boris and Gleb is, to varying degrees, always tempered by and supplemented with their secular functions. This commingling of religious and political roles is the subject of my discussion, specifically as can be gleamed from a comparative reading of the major versions of the story of the lives, deaths, and afterlives of Boris and Gleb.

The texts under consideration (the Primary Chronicle entry for 6523 (1015), the anonymous Skazanie i strast' i pokhvala sviatuiu mucheniku Borisa i Gleba, and Nestor’s Chtenie o zhitii i o pogublenii blazhennuiu strastoterptsa Borisa i Gleba) show what considerations must be made and what elements downplayed or sacrificed in order to create a coherent narration of sainthood and martyrdom out of the biographies of two predominantly secular princes. One course was to transplant or translate these stories onto Christian soil while nevertheless retaining their native Russian flavor. The other was to transform an essentially Russian story into a universally Christian one. But both of these narrative strategies were a reaction to the same dilemma. In medieval Rus', contra Kantorowicz, the king could not have two bodies. When writing of Boris and Gleb it was necessary to see them as simultaneously sacred and secular, as at once princes and martyrs.