For observers of modern nationalism, something remarkable recently occurred in the eastern borderlands of western civilization. Though scarcely noted by anyone this side of the Vistula, millions of Ukrainians joined together on July 28 in what was touted by journalists and politicians as one of the most significant celebrations of their statehood ever. The event did not mark an important election or the birth of a famous poet. It did not even mark the anniversary of Ukraine’s independence from the Soviet Union, as elemental as being “not-Russian” remains to her most vocal nationalists. It marked something much more consequential even than that.
It was the “Day of the Baptism of Rus,” a newly adopted public holiday celebrating the tenth-century conversion of the Eastern Slavs to Christianity. As such it displayed something very different from the nationalism which in recent decades has done so much to subvert the moral political order of eastern Europe. It presented a uniquely pacific, even universal form of national feeling that can be called Christian patriotism.
The event necessarily brought attention to the distant past of Christendom. In 988, Grand Prince Volodymyr of Rus (a state also known to historians as Kievan Russia) had accepted baptism at the hands of Byzantine missionaries and then ordered his people to follow him to the font. Since his feast day falls on July 28 (which is July 15 on the old calendar used by Orthodox Slavs) and no record exists about the actual date of the baptism, officials established it as the day of festivities. All Ukrainians were called to participate, a government press release declared, because “this event was one of the most defining for the Ukrainian people in our entire history.”
To be sure, Ukrainians were not alone in the celebration. Russians and Belarusians, whose very names betray common ties to historic Rus, also organized elaborate celebrations to mark the event. But since Volodymyr had ruled from Kiev and colorfully ordered the baptism of his people in the waters of the Dnieper, the Ukrainian capital functioned as the center for commemoration.
Hundreds of thousands gathered there over the course of two days to participate in divine services and cross processions. Pilgrims traveled by foot for hundreds of miles to participate. And millions more who couldn’t make it were treated to a profusion of television specials and online reports about Christianity’s contribution to national life. It was a classic example of what historians and political scientists call “nation-building.
The spectacle would have looked quaint to the average western observer. Columns of bearded clergy weighed down by elaborate vestments marched through Kiev’s streets. Crowds of pious laypeople followed in their wake, bearing icons of Volodymyr and the Virgin Mary. At the head of these processions, tagging alongside the bishops, Ukraine’s politicians were careful to make an appearance. Former President Petro Poroshenko, who before defeat in recent elections managed to form an Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU) separate from the larger and similarly named Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC) affiliated with the Moscow Patriarchate, even managed to insert himself. He could be seen hovering about the hierarchs and raising his hands prayerfully at key moments when groups of spectators broke out in patriotic applause.
No, this was not an image of patriotism typical in the West. Elites within the European Union would have been appalled at the thought of attributing a nation’s virtues (if a nation were even capable of virtue) to something as “divisive” as Christianity. In America the straight jacket is not yet so tight. But even here patriotic displays tastefully circumscribe religious statements, avoiding anything more than a deistic nod toward civic religion. While Donald Trump’s July 4 “Salute to America” was not void of references to a higher power named “God,” religious speeches, liturgical worship, and the public display of the cross could of course never have rivaled military displays and fireworks.
Yet the Christian patriotism on display in Kiev was no less modern than the secular type with which the West is familiar. It too serves a sovereign, democratically-elected state regulated by a written constitution. It conducts its messaging within a technologically sophisticated media establishment. And it is designed to challenge the overwhelming power of a liberal globalism that eradicates nationality and establishes societies in a shallow soil of self-interest and consumerism.
Today western Europeans and Americans face a moral challenge not unlike that faced by Ukrainians and other East Slavs a generation after the collapse of Communism. The more individual liberty we assert, the more shallow we become. And the more commodities we consume, the hungrier we are. Christian patriotism may offer part of the solution to this conundrum. By directing our societies toward service to the great ideals they in their history have incarnated, we may find a way forward through the morass of secular nihilism.
Saint Volodymyr is a good example. As one of many articles pointed out during the Day of the Baptism of Rus, prior to his conversion he was a ruthless warrior and “pagan nationalist.” A ruler capable of great feats, he dissipated his energy in the martial cult of Perun and the company of concubines. Traditional Christianity—not the feel-good, indulgent type of our current political elites—changed that. It made demands on him and the state he ruled. Following his baptism, he was said by contemporaries to have undergone a complete moral transformation. He sheathed his sword and dismissed his mistresses. In their place he took a single wife and turned to the most pressing business of a Christian ruler, caring for the poor. And, confronted by a Gospel in which forgiveness and mercy are chief virtues, he even planned the abolition of capital punishment. In a single generation, the political culture of a nation was altered forever. Perhaps the most dramatic example of the Christian patriotism he inspired was found in the example of his two sons, Boris and Gleb. When civil war broke out following Vladimir’s death in 1015, they ordered their soldiers to stand down and voluntarily suffered death in order to follow the example of Christ on the cross.
The external or circumstantial content of Christian patriotism must necessarily differ from nation to nation; obviously, the ceremonies and symbols of Ukraine’s Day of the Baptism of Rus will remain socially relevant only for Ukrainians. But its essential content is as universal as the faith that inspires it. Traditional Christianity assigns great importance to the sanctification of the world, and its cosmology regards nations as a part of this. Each nation, like each person, can be measured by the high standards of Christian morality, and will be the better for trying to live up to them, not through conflict, but peace.
This was the example of the Day of the Baptism of Rus. Against the backdrop of church division and ethnic conflict, both Ukrainians and Russians showed a love for their countries and a generosity toward each other that had its origins in the faith embraced by Volodymyr a millennium ago. Against all predictions, no disturbances or provocations occurred during the processions and speeches of the OCU or UOC. And when interviewed in front of the Volodymyr monument in Kiev or the Vladimir monument in Moscow, pious pilgrims were recorded issuing one and the same message: today Russians and Ukrainians are united by a common faith, and a love for Saint Volodymyr.