Boris and Gleb


There are other people known as Saint Roman and Saint David.


Boris and Gleb, Christian names Roman and David, were the first Russian saints. According to the 11th century “Lives of Boris and Gleb” (assigned to Nestor the Chronicler and Jacob the Monk), they were children of Vladimir the Great who liked them more than his other children. Both were murdered during the internecine wars of 1015-1019 and glorified by the Russian Orthodox Church in 1071. They were interred at the Vyshgorod Cathedral, which was reconsecrated in their name; many other Russian churches were later named after them. Their feast day is celebrated on July 23 (August 6).


The Primary Chronicle says that their mother was a Bulgarian woman. Most modern scholars, however, argue that Boris and Gleb had different mothers, and were of different age. Boris, who had been already married and ruled the town of Rostov, was probably regarded as an heir apparent to the Kievan Rus throne. Gleb, who was still a minor, ruled the easternmost town of Murom.


The Russian Primary Chronicle blamed Svyatopolk the Accursed for plotting their assassination. Boris and his manservant were stabbed to death when sleeping in a tent. The prince was discovered still breathing when his body was being transported in a bag to Kiev, but the Varangians put him from his misery with a thrust of a lance.


Gleb was assassinated on his way to see the dying father by his own cook who cut his throat with a kitchen knife and concealed his body in brushwood. The Life contains many picturesque details of Boris and Gleb's last hours, such as their sister's warning about the murderous plans of Svyatopolk.


It doesn't stand to reason to accept the Life's data at face value. This masterpiece of hagiography unites numerous literary traditions. Actual circumstances of Boris and Gleb's life and death might have been different. Perhaps the crucial evidence comes from several unbiased foreign sources, which mention that Boris succeeded his father in Kiev, and was not lurking in Rostov, as the Russian Primary Chronicle seems to imply.


Moreover, the Norse Eymund's saga tells a story of the Varangian warriors who were hired by Yaroslav I the Wise to kill his brother Boris. Some historians trusted the saga more than Russian sources, claiming that it was Yaroslav (and not Svyatopolk), who was interested in removing his political rivals and was therefore guilty of his brothers' murder.

14th century icon of St. Boris and Gleb from the State Russian Museum.

BORIS and GLEB, Saints (baptized as Roman and David), Princes, humbly endured martyr death, first among the saints of the Russian Orthodox Church. Younger sons of the Kiev Prince Vladimir Svyatoslavovich. According to the legend Boris, born around 990, was elder among two of them (that is emphasized in the iconography, where Boris is depicted with a beard, and Gleb – without one). By ancestor allotment (around 994-996) Boris has got Rostov and Gleb Murom. Both princes were zealous in converting local pagans to Christianity and both fell victims of their elder brother Svyatopolk (named “Accursed”), who did not disdain to anything in his attempts to take up the Kievan throne. Annalistic texts that give accounts of these tragic events are read not as internecine war chronicles, but as lives of martyrs.


After the death of Vladimir in summer of 1015, the retinue induced Boris to go for Kiev to ascend the throne, but the prince rejected this call because he did not want to break the principle of ancestral seniority. He clearly understood the maleficent intentions of his brother and voluntarily faced his own death leaving his warriors and staying on the bank of river Alta with a small number of servants. In the night of July 24 secretly sent assassins, when approached to Boris’s tent, had heard him singing psalms. They delivered body of Boris, pierced by spears, to Svyatopolk. After he had seen that his brother still breathed, he ordered to finish him with a sword. Svyatopolk had secretly buried his brother’s body and send for Gleb – as if in the name of their sick father. Foreboding of his inevitable death Gleb had been humbly awaiting it, in prayers of his father and brother. His was assassinated on September 5, like a sacrificial lamb (it is symbolic that his assassin was his cook), at the mouth of the river Smyadyn. He was buried in the same Vyshgorod Church of St. Vassiliy, as his brother Boris. The Church had burnt in some time and a cage was built in its place, where imperishable remains of both saint brothers are kept.


In the legend about the brothers they are usually called “heaven men and earthen angels”, prayers to them will keep off “war sword and internecine war”. Rumours about multiple miracles at the feet of their grave have accelerated their canonization (not later than in 1039). The Church celebrates the memory day of these Saints on May 2 (15), the day of transference of their relics to the new church (once more moved to the new church built in the name of Boris and Gleb in Vyshgorod, relics were lost during Batiy invasion), and on July 24 (6 August) – day of Boris assassination.


The history of two brothers-martyrs has more than once inspired chroniclers. The most ancient and full versions of legends, belonging to the best specimens of the Old Russian literature, are ascribed to Nestor and to monk Iakov (the 11th – beginning of the 12th centuries).