The Holy Martyrs Theodore (Feodor) the Varangian and his son John

Commemorated on July 12

      The Holy Martyrs Theodore (Feodor) the Varangian and his son John lived at Kiev in the X Century, when the Varangians, ancestors of the present-day Swedes and Norwegians accepted a particularly active role in the governance and military life of Rus'. Merchants and soldiers, they opened up new trade routes to Byzantium and to the East, they took part in campaigns against Tsar'grad (i.e. Constantinople), and they constituted a significant part of the populace of ancient Kiev and the princely mercenary retinues. The chief trade route of Rus' from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea was then called "the Way from the Varangians to the Greeks".
      The chieftains and organisers of the early Russian realm relied upon their Varangian retinues in their undertakings. Just like the Slavs, among whom they lived, many of the sea-faring newcomers under the influence of the Byzantine Church accepted holy Baptism. Kievan Rus' occupied a middle place between the pagan Scandinavians and the Orthodox Byzantines, whereby there prevailed in the spiritual life at Kiev alternately in turn the vivifying influence of the Christian faith (under Blessed Askol'd in the years 860‑882, under Igor and Saint Ol'ga in the years 940-950), and then in alternation the destructive whirlwind of paganism, blowing down from the North from the Varangian Sea (under the reign of Oleg, killing Askol'd in 882; under the revolt of the Drevliani murdering Igor in 945; under prince Svyatoslav, refusing to accept Baptism despite the insistence of his mother, Equal-to-the-Apostles Ol'ga).
      When in 972 (other sources give 970) Svyatoslav was killed by the Pechenegs, the great-princedom of Kiev became the undertaking of his eldest son, Yaropolk. Oleg the middle son held the Drevlianian land, while Vladimir the youngest son held Novgorod. The reign of Yaropolk (970-978), just like that of his grandmother Ol'ga, again became a time of predominating Christian influence in the spiritual life of Rus'. Yaropolk himself, in the opinion of historians, confessed Christianity, although possibly of the Latin rite, and this did not at all correspond to the interests of the Scandinavian mercenary retinue pagans, who were accustomed to consider Kiev a bulwark of their own influence in the Slavic lands. Their leaders strove to create discord between the brothers themselves, they incited a fratricidal war of Yaropolk with Oleg, and after this when Oleg was killed, they supported Vladimir in a struggle against Yaropolk.
      The future Baptiser of Rus' started on his way as a convinced pagan and he relied upon the Varangians, especially those having come to him from over the sea, as his military force. His campaign against Kiev in 978, crowned with complete success, pursued not only military-political aims: it was also a religious campaign of Russo-Varangian paganism against the outgrowth of Kievan Christianity. On 11 June 978 Vladimir "sat on the throne of his father at Kiev", and the hapless Yaropolk, invited by his brother for negotiations, upon his arrival in the entrance hall was treacherously murdered by two Varangians stabbing him with swords. For the intimidation of the Kievans, among whom were already many Christians both Russian and Varangian, to renew and strengthen with new idols, in the pagan sanctuary human sacrifices were made til then a practise unknown to the Dniepr' Slavs. In the chronicles it says about the setting up of idols by Vladimir: "And they brought to them sacrifices, acclaiming them gods, and they brought to them their own sons and daughters, and these sacrifices went to the devils... both the Russian land and this hill were defiled with blood".
      Apparently, to this first period of the triumph of paganism at Kiev with the coming to rule of Vladimir, there may have followed the destruction of the holy Martyrs Theodore (Feodor) and his son John, which possibly in this case would set the date as 12 July 978. But it is probable otherwise, that the exploit of the holy Kievan Varangian-martyrs took place in the year 983, when the wave of pagan reaction rolled not only through Rus', but throughout all the Slavic-Germanic world. Against Christ and the Church almost simultaneously there rose up pagans in Denmark, Germany, the Baltic Slavic principalities, and everywhere the unrest was accompanied by the destruction of churches, and by the killing of clergy and Christian confessors. This was the year Vladimir went on campaign against the Lithuanian tribe of the Yatvyagi, and gained victory over them. In recognition of this victory the Kievan pagan-priests also decided again to make a bloody sacrificial offering.
      ...There lived among the Kievans, reports the Monk Nestor the Chronicler, a Varangian by the name of Feodor, for a long time before this in military service at Byzantium and there having accepted holy Baptism. His pagan name, preserved in the term "Turov pagan-temple", was Tur (Scandinavian Thor) or Utor (Scandinavian Ottar), and in the old manuscripts is met with also this other signature. Feodor had a son John, a pious and handsome youth, confessing Christianity like his father.
      "And said the elders and boyars: let us cast lots upon the lads and maidens, upon whom it fall, that one we shall slaughter in sacrifice to the gods". Evidently not unintentionally the lots, thrown by the pagan priests, fell upon the Christian John.
      When the messengers told Feodor, that his son "the gods themselves had chosen, that we may offer him to them in sacrifice", the old warrior decisively answered: "This is not a god, but wood. Today it is, and tomorrow it rots. They do not eat, nor drink nor speak, but are crafted by human hands from wood. God however is One, He it is the Greeks do serve and worship. He created heaven and earth, the stars and the moon, the sun and man, and foreordained him to live upon the earth. But these gods what have they created? They themselves are made. I shalt not give my son over to devils".
      This was a direct challenge by the Christian to the customs and beliefs of the pagans. An enraged crowd of pagans rushed at Feodor, smashed up his courtyard, and surrounded the house. Feodor, in the words of the chronicler, "stood at the entrance-way with his son", and bravely with weapon in hand he met the enemy. (The entrance-way in old Russian houses as mentioned was set up on posts of a roofed gallery of the second storey, to which a ladder led up). He calmly gazed upon the devil-driven pagans and said: "If they be gods, let them dispatch one of the gods to take my son". Seeing, that in a fair fight with them there would be no overcoming Feodor and John brave and seasoned warriors, the besiegers knocked down the gallery posts, and when they were broken, the crowd rushed upon the confessors and murdered them...
      Already during the era of the Monk Nestor, less than an hundred years after the confessor's deed of the Varangians, the Russian Orthodox Church venerated them within the assembly of the saints. Feodor and John became the first martyrs for the holy Orthodox faith in the Russian land. They were called the first "Russian citizens of the heavenly city" by the transcriber of the Kievo-Pechersk Paterikon, Sainted-Bishop Simon of Suzdal' (+ 1226, Comm. 10 May). The last of the bloody pagan sacrifices at Kiev became the first holy Christian sacrifice with a co-suffering for Christ. The pathway "from the Varangians to the Greeks" became for Rus' the pathway from paganism to Orthodoxy, from darkness to light.
      On the place of the martyrdom of the Varangians, holy Equal-to-the-Apostles Vladimir later on erected the Desyatin Church of the Uspenie (Dormition, Repose) of the MostHoly Mother of God, consecrated on 12 May 996 (celebrated 12 May). The relics of the holy Equal-to-the-Apostles Ol'ga were transferred into it in the year 1007. Eight years later it was destined to become the final resting place of Saint Vladimir himself, the Baptiser of the Russian land, and in 1044 his son, Yaroslav the Wise, transferred into the church the remains of his uncles, Yaropolk and Oleg, previously "having baptised the bones". Evidently, this final matter was called for by the requirement of a church rule about repeating a baptism of a Christian in the absence of reliable witnessing of a first baptism. But on the other hand, in old Kiev they ascribed great significance to ancient-Christian sayings about the possibility through an especial mercy of God of an after-death making of the sacrament of Baptism over people, having died outside the community of the Church. Such an account is read, for example, in the reknown artifact of old-Russian instructive literature "the Izbornik [article-collection] of 1076", belonging to the son of Yaroslav the Wise, noble prince Svyatoslav (+ 1076).
      ...Wondrous is God in His saints. Time does not spare stones and bronze, but the lower framework of the wooden house of the holy Varangrian martyrs, burned a thousand years previous, have been preserved to our day: it was discovered in the year 1908, during the time of excavation at Kiev at the altar of the Desyatin church.

1996-2001 by translator Fr. S. Janos.

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