Boris and Gleb

(d. 1015)

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(d. 1015),

martyrs. Sons of Vladimir by Anne of Constantinople, these two princes were killed at the instigation of their elder half-brother, Svyatopolk, whose aim was to ‘exterminate all his brothers in order to hold all power in his own hands’: Boris had been bequeathed Rostov and Gleb Muron. On returning from an expedition against the Pechenegs, Boris learned of Svyatopolk's plans. He would not allow his soldiers to fight for him against his brother, who now stood in his father's place. Instead, after much heart-searching he sent away his armed followers and passively awaited his murderers with prayer. Considering the emptiness of earthly riches and the example of the suffering Christ, whom he invoked for strength to accept his own passion, he was killed near the river Alta by spear and sword.

His younger brother Gleb was killed shortly afterwards on the river Dnieper. Invited by Svyatopolk to meet him at Kiev, Gleb suddenly met the boat which carried his murderers. He initially entreated them to spare him but at length voluntarily submitted to his fate, the final blow being a stab in the throat from his own cook. Prayers attributed to the two martyrs include a request for forgiveness for their brother, voluntary acceptance of an unjust death in imitation of Christ's passion, and acknowledgement of Christ's prophecy that his followers would be betrayed by kinsmen and friends.

In 1020, Yaroslav of Novgorod, yet another son of Vladimir, invaded Kiev and drove out Svyatopolk, who died in flight to Poland. Yaroslav translated the bodies of Boris and Gleb, reputedly incorrupt, to the church of St Basil at Vyshgorod, near Kiev; miracles were reported and pilgrimages began. The Greek metropolitan of Kiev hesitated to canonize them: they were neither ascetics nor teachers, neither bishops nor martyrs in the sense of being killed for the faith. They were seen, however, as ‘passion-bearers’, innocent men who had renounced violence and accepted death as a sacrifice in the unresisting spirit of Christ. They were accordingly canonized and Pope Benedict XIII approved their cult as martyrs in 1724. In the West they are sometimes called Romanus and David. Feast: 24 July.

Bibl. SS., iii. 356–9;B.L.S., vii. 190–1;C. de Grunwald, Saints of Russia (1960), pp. 31–8.

Subjects: Medieval and Renaissance History (500 to 1500) — Christianity.

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