Tuesday 27 March 2012

To Russia With Love

Writing about Brian de Breffny a few days ago, and thinking about how he reinvented himself, reminded me of the stories of early saints that I enjoyed as a child, St. George and the dragon in particular. Of course, like most of those early saints, George’s life story was mostly invented to illustrate Christian values. The lives of some saints in the later medieval period were romanticised and stories written about them were based on fact. One such story concerns a group of Russian saints called Boris, Gleb, George and Moses.

Boris and Gleb were princes of Kiev, the main medieval state populated by the Rus’ people. Their father Vladimir introduced Christianity into the country in 988. The princes lives are told in “The Legend of Boris and Gleb” written between 1040 and 1118.

After their father’s death in 1015 the Kievan throne was taken by Sviatopolk, Boris and Gleb’s older brother. Sviatopolk was only a town governor at the time, and Boris was governor of the royal guard and army, and very popular, making him a real rival for the throne. So to prevent a battle for succession Sviatopolk had Boris assassinated.

The murder of Boris and Gleb is historical fact, but the details are probably romanticised fiction. Boris was camped with the army when assassins entered his tent and killed him. Boris’s servant, George the Hungarian, flung himself in front of his master. Both were slaughtered. George “was loved by Boris beyond reckoning” the legend says, and Boris had a valuable gold necklace made for him. Although the relationship between Boris and George was seen in terms of a deep Christian love, it can also be seen as more than that – princes don’t give servants gold necklaces without a reason.

Gleb heard of his brother’s murder after being “summoned” to meet Sviatopolk. Warned to stay away Gleb prayed for his brother’s soul and while doing so had his throat slit by his cook (on Sviatopolk’s orders). The dead brothers became the first saints canonised by the 17-year-old Russian Orthodox Church.

George the Hungarian’s brother was also canonised. He was St. Moses the Hungarian. He was captured by Sviatopolk and sold as a slave to a Polish countess. Being quite butch and muscular Moses spent many years turning down the countess’s many unwanted sexual advances.

In the end the countess had St. Moses whipped and had his “bits” cut off. Moses escaped to a monastery where he lived for the rest of his life, preaching the evils of women and sex. His life was romanticised as much as that of his brother, and a major Russian Scholar Vasilii Rozanov (1856-1919) stated that the story of St. Moses is clearly about a gay man being punished because he didn’t want a relationship with a woman.

Whether the lives of these saints are true or not is open to question. The relationships of Boris, George and Moses have been interpreted as homosexual. Again, this is open to question without historical proof.

One glaring inconsistency remains. Boris, Gleb and Moses became saints. George the Hungarian, beloved by Boris, didn’t He was martyred with the others but the reason why he never became a saint isn’t known. Could it be that he was merely a slave? Or that his lowly status and close (and therefore intimate) relationship with St. Boris made him unsuitable for canonisation? We’ll never know.

What is certain is that at least one of the saints, St. Boris, had a close relationship with another man, and that he is counted as the first Russian saint and martyr.

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