St. Sergius

St. Sergius the Peacemaker

One of the most popular stories in Russia is the story of St. Sergius of Radonezh blessing St. Dmitry Donskoy to fight the Tatars. According to Patriarch Kirill, this story testifies to the divine blessing of the Russian state to use force,

And if you look at the history of the Church or, somewhat narrowing the scale, at the history of our Russian Orthodox Church, then the combination of Divine will, Divine power and the will of man becomes completely obvious and tangible. Let us recall, for example, the terrible invasion of the Mongol-Tatars. They conquered half of Europe, so that Russia ended up inside a vast territory that the Horde Khan considered forever his own, and there was no one who could defeat this military-political force that controlled the vast expanses of Eurasia. But what happened? The Monk Sergius, a humble old man, blesses Dmitry Donskoy, a courageous prince and warrior, to go and give battle to this invincible Tatar-Mongol army.

In the most common version of this story, St. Dmitry approaches St. Sergius before the battle of Kulikovo and asks for a blessing. St. Sergius gives his full blessing, tells him to go and to fight, and sends two warrior monks to fight in the army as well. Then, as the story goes, once Dmitry sees the opposing army his faith falters and he is uncertain if he should attack or retreat. However, at that crucial moment, a courier arrives with a letter from St. Sergius, stating he had a vision that St. Dmitry would be victorious and that he should attack immediately. Thus St. Sergius proves decisive in the victory.

 St. Sergius
St. Sergius

Of course, it did not happen that way.

The earliest life of St. Sergius was written sometime around 1417-1418 by St. Epiphanius the Wise, who was a disciple of St. Sergius. The second life, which is the more popular and more often cited version, was written by St. Pachomius the Serb, in the 1470s (St. Sergius died 1392). In neither account does St. Sergius send monks to fight, a clear later embellishment. The story of the prophecy, the letter, and the blessing only appear in the later account by St. Pachomius. In the earliest account, by St. Epiphanius, there are no warrior monks, prophecy, or letter, and there is barely even a blessing.

In St. Pachomius's account, St. Sergius blesses St. Dmitry saying “Go out against them and, God helping you, win and return to your home in health.” However, in the earlier version of St. Epiphanius, St. Sergius says "You should, sir, take care of the glorious Christian flock entrusted to you by God. Go against the godless, and if God helps you, you will win and return unharmed to your fatherland with great honor." Notice the key change between these versions: in the later account, St. Sergius confidently declares that God will help them and that they will win. In the earlier account, St. Sergius is not confident. Instead, he says if God helps you then you will win. This line should be understood in light of the gloss given by St. Epiphanius before this incident, "It became known that by God’s allowance for our sins, the Horde prince Mamai gathered a great force, the entire horde of godless Tatars, and goes to the Russian land; and all the people were seized with great fear." St. Epiphanius believed in the much older religious attitude towards war (with precedent in the Old Testament) that enemies are sent by God to punish nations for their sins. Of course, this is no longer believed in the Church, and thus we may be suspicious of the whole account, but the implication is clear: God's help is not guaranteed. The enemy army is an instrument of God as well, and whoever wins it is the will of God, so St. Sergius reports that if God blesses their army then they will win. In context, this is not a true blessing, at least not in the sense that it has since been depicted in the Russian mythos.

At the same time, we should wonder how much of St. Epiphanius's version is embellished. There's a clear trajectory to these embellishments. The earliest recorded version does not have prophecy and barely has a blessing. The version soon after has both. Soon after that, it is embellished further with warrior monks. If we unwind this tape back before the first written version, we should expect an even more modest interaction between St. Dmitry and St. Sergius. Of course, there is no real way of knowing what happened, as the earliest version of the story was written 40 years after the event. However, in the long view of history, it does beggar belief that St. Dmitry's victory was some divinely ordained rebuke of the Tatars. After Mamai's defeat at Kulikovo, he was defeated by Tokhtamysh, who then defeated St. Dmitry and razed Moscow in 1382. St. Dmitry then pledged his loyalty to Tokhtamysh, and the Tatars continued to rule the region for another 100 years.

While St. Sergius may not have blessed war, we can say that the real saint behind the myth was a peacemaker. He frequently intervened to make peace between the competing princes of his day, standing up to these princes when they acted immorally, and brokering reconciliation between rivals. St. Sergius evidently believed that the region was better off unified behind a single prince and so supported political consolidation. In this regard, St. Sergius proved an effective diplomat, making a diplomatic journey to Nizhny Novgorod in 1365, for example, and in 1385 helped broker peace between St. Dmitry and his arch-rival Oleg of Ryazan.