Celebrating Ukrainian Statehood Day: The Historical Roots of This Important Day
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July 28, 2023

Celebrating Ukrainian Statehood Day: The Historical Roots of This Important Day

In 2021, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy chose July 28th to celebrate Ukraine’s Statehood Day. This date has immense historical significance for the Ukrainian people as the date of the Baptism of Kyivan Rus’, also known as the Christianisation of Ukraine, which took place on July 28th 988 AD. One of the most pivotal moments in Ukrainian history, the Baptism of Kyivan Rus’ had profound implications for the region's religious, cultural, and political development. Ukraine’s Statehood Day serves as a tribute to the historical journey of Ukraine, reminding its people of their rich cultural heritage and the foundations of their nationhood, marking the events of July 28th 988 AD as the symbolic birth of the nation.

Celebrating Ukrainian Statehood Day

Kyivan Rus', the medieval state of the Eastern Slavs, was established in the late 9th century with Kyiv as its capital. It was ruled by the Varangian dynasty of the Rurikids, under whose reign Kyivan Rus' experienced a period of rapid cultural development and increased interaction with Europe.

The Baptism of Kyivan Rus’ was instigated by Volodymyr the Great, the Grand Prince of Kyivan Rus', who recognised the need to adopt a state religion to unify his realm and strengthen his rule. After reportedly sending envoys to study the major religions of the neighbouring realms, Volodymyr chose to convert to Byzantine Christianity. In particular, his envoys were impressed by the stunning beauty of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, reporting: “We knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth, for surely there is no such splendor or beauty anywhere upon earth. We cannot describe it to you. Only we know that God dwells there among men, and that their service surpasses the worship of all other places. We cannot forget that beauty.” Volodymyr’s choice was not merely religious but also forged a strategic alliance with the mighty Byzantine Empire through marriage to Anne, sister of Emperor Basil II. Adopting Byzantine Christianity also allowed Volodymyr to retain his role as state head of Kyivan Rus’.

Volodymyr the Great, the Grand Prince of Kyivan Rus'
Volodymyr the Great: http://komish-gromada.gov.ua/

Following his own baptism in 988 AD, Volodymyr proceeded to baptise his twelve sons and the people of Kyiv. Both rich and poor were summoned to the river Dnypro, now known as the Holy Dnypro, and were baptised en masse as priests prayed beside them. Statues of the Ukrainian god of thunder, Perun, were torn down and tossed into the Dnypro. Volodymyr named his chosen religion Pravoslavie, meaning “true faith” or “right belief.” Thus, the formal process of Christianization began. Between 989 and 996 AD, Volodymyr set aside a tenth of his income to fund the construction of the first Christian church, known for this reason as the Church of the Tithes. Volodymyr is remembered for creating the most socially conscious state of tenth-century medieval Europe, enacting the Christian ethic of mercy to the poor and sick, and increasing education and judicial reforms.The newly adopted Christian faith fundamentally changed Kyivan Rus' cultural, social, and political landscape. New forms of art and architecture were created, and written language was transformed with the adoption of the Cyrillic script.

The baptism of Kyivan Rus' also firmly tied Ukraine to the broader Christian community in Europe. This bond significantly influenced Ukraine's historical, cultural, and political trajectory, marking a departure from the pagan past and a decisive turn towards a Christian future.

The Christianization of Kyivan Rus' is not only significant for its historical and cultural implications, but is also central to the notion of Ukrainian statehood. Prince Volodymyr is honoured for uniting the lands and people of Kyivan Rus’, forging a distinct cultural identity and marking Ukraine as a powerful state in medieval western Europe. The spiritual, intellectual, and political developments that followed this event helped define the Ukrainian people's historical and national consciousness. The result was the political, economic, and cultural integration of the medieval Ukrainian state into Europe.  

For centuries, the story of the Baptism of Kyivan Rus’ has inspired Ukrainians to fight for Ukraine’s independence and cultural identity. The baptism of Kyivan Rus’ thus remains a seminal point in Ukraine's history, one that has shaped its past and continues to inform its present. It is seen as a foundation stone for Ukrainian statehood and a beacon of cultural identity and national unity. To this day, Ukrainians, irrespective of their religious affiliations, look back at the Baptism of Kyivan Rus’ as a fundamental element of their national history and identity.

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