The Holy Martyrs Theodore the Varangian and his son John lived at Kiev in the tenth century, when the Varangians, ancestors of the present day Swedes and Norwegians took an 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 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 organizers 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 stood between the pagan Scandinavians and the Orthodox Byzantines. Therefore, the spiritual life at Kiev was affected by the vivifying influence of the Christian Faith (under Saint Askold in the years 860-882, under Igor and Saint Olga in the years 940-950), and then by the destructive whirlwind of paganism, blowing down from the north from the Varangian Sea (under the reign of Oleg, killing Askold in 882; under the revolt of the Drevliani murdering Igor in 945; under Prince Svyatoslav, who refused to accept Baptism despite the insistence of his mother, Saint Olga).
When Svyatoslav was killed by the Pechenegs in 972 (other sources say in 970), the principality of Kiev was entrusted to 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 Olga, 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 correspond at all to the interests of the Scandinavian mercenary retinue. They were 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 between Yaropolk and Oleg. After this when Oleg was killed, they supported Vladimir in a struggle against Yaropolk.
The future Baptizer 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 June 11, 978 Vladimir “sat on the throne of his father at Kiev,” and the hapless Yaropolk, invited by his brother for negotiations, was treacherously murdered when he arrived at the entrance hall by two Varangians who stabbed him with swords. In order to intimidate the Kievans, among whom were already many Christians both Russian and Varangian, to renew and strengthen with new idols, human sacrifices were made in the pagan sanctuary, a practice unknown to the Dniepr Slavs until then. The chronicles speak of Vladimir setting up idols: “And they brought 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”.
The martyrdom of Saints Theodore and his son John may have taken place during this first period of the triumph of paganism at Kiev with Vladimir’s accession to power. In that case, the date might be July 12, 978. It is probable, however, that the exploit of the holy 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. Almost simultaneously pagans rose up against Christ and the Church 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 again decided to make a bloody sacrificial offering.
“Among the Kievans,” reports Saint Nestor the Chronicler, “lived a Varangian by the name of Theodore, who was in military service at Constantinople long before this, and was baptized there. His pagan name, preserved in the term ‘Turov pagan temple,’ was Tur (Scandinavian Thor) or Utor (Scandinavian Ottar), and this other signature is also found in the old manuscripts. Theodore had a son John, a devout and handsome youth, confessing Christianity like his father.”
“And the elders and boyars said: let us cast lots upon the boys and girls. Upon whichever one it falls, that one we shall slaughter in sacrifice to the gods.” The lots thrown by the pagan priests, evidently not by chance, fell upon the Christian John.
When the messengers told Theodore that his son “had been chosen by the gods themselves to be sacrificed to them,” 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, and the Greeks serve and worship Him. 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 shall 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 Theodore, smashed up his courtyard, and surrounded the house. Theodore, in the words of the chronicler, “stood at the entrance way with his son,” and with weapon in hand he bravely 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, which was reached by a ladder). He calmly gazed upon the demon-possessed pagans and said: “If they are gods, let them send one of the gods to take my son.” Seeing that the brave and seasoned warriors Theodore and John could not be beaten in a fair fight, the besiegers knocked down the gallery posts. When they were broken, the crowd rushed upon the confessors and murdered them.
Already during the time of Saint Nestor, less than a hundred years after the confessor’s deed of the Varangians, the Russian Orthodox Church numbered them among the Saints. Theodore 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 Kiev Caves Paterikon, the holy Bishop Simon of Suzdal (May 10). 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, Saint Vladimir later built the Desyatin Church of the Dormition of the Most Holy Theotokos, consecrated on May 12, 996. The relics of Saint Olga were transferred into it in the year 1007.
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 before, has been preserved to our day. It was discovered in the year 1908 during the excavation of the altar of the Desyatin church at Kiev.
Saints Theodore and John are invoked by women who have miscarried.