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For a long time, I have been aware of a historical anecdote about the attempt to convert Russia to Islam. I don’t know where I first heard the anecdote: I’m pretty sure it was oral, so I had to dig a bit to find notable claims. The anecdote goes something like this: A Muslim emissary visited the czar to talk about Islam. He talked about the religion, the rites, the position of women, etc., etc., and the czar sounded quite interested. He had almost succeeded in convincing the czar when he mentioned the ban on the consumption of alcohol. Then the czar pointed out that Islam could not be an option in Russia.

The Wikipedia page on Alcoholism in Russia states:

Legend holds that the tenth-century Russian prince Vladimir the Great rejected Islam as a state religion for the country because of its prohibition of alcohol.

This is sourced from Primary Chronicle, year 6494 (986). (I have no idea what that means.)

A semi-quoted reference on the Wikipedia page Kievan Rus states:

The Primary Chronicle states that when Vladimir had decided to accept a new faith instead of the traditional idol-worship (paganism) of the Slavs, he sent out some of his most valued advisors and warriors as emissaries to different parts of Europe. The emissaries visited the Christians of the Latin Rite, the Jews and the Muslims, they finally arrived in Constantinople. They rejected Islam because, among other things, it prohibited the consumption of alcohol, and Judaism because the god of the Jews had permitted his chosen people to be deprived of their country. They found the ceremonies in the Roman church to be dull. But, at Constantinople, they were so astounded by the beauty of the cathedral of Hagia Sophia and the liturgical service held there, that they made up their minds there and then about the faith they would like to follow.

This is entirely sourced from

  • Janet Martin, Medieval Russia, 980–1584, (Cambridge, 1995), p. 6-7

The first source calls it a legend, and I’m not sure whether the second source is meant to be historical or also more like a story. Historically, is it likely that the Russian czar did reject Islam because of its prohibition on the consumption of alcohol?

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The Primary Chronicle is the only written document we have of the early Kievan Rus, and is the primary text used by scholars of early Russian history to understand the founding of the Russian state, and more particularly, the history of the early Varangian dynasty.

The specific quote often cited from the story of Vladimir is “Drinking is the Joy of the Rus, we cannot exist without that pleasure” — something he told an Islamic representative as he was evaluating various religions.

Early Russian history is a somewhat difficult subject to study — there really are no sources other than the Primary Chronicle for the early Kievan state, but what’s found in the archaeological record does not, for the most part, contradict it, so it is generally regarded as accurate. However, as with most medieval histories, much of the detail it presents is probably to some degree fanciful or revisionist, with an eye towards satisfying the political aims of its writer and his contemporary era. Which is to say, much of the nonsense about having invited the Vikings to come in and rule Russia is probably just a little bit fanciful, as are, most likely, any direct quotes such as the alcohol line. What’s important to note here, however, is not the historical veracity of the specific reason given for choosing Byzantine Christianity over Islam, but rather the cultural pedestal upon which the Chronicle places Alcohol. In that respect, the story is still extremely relevant and important to a modern historical scholar.

  • This refers to a legend about how Russia was choosing between Christianity, Iudaism and Islam. The eventual choice was Christianity, and clearly for political and economic reasons (trade with Byzantium). So this story about rejecting Islam because of its prohibition of alcohol is nothing but a legend. – vpekar Jan 7 '17 at 13:18
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    @vpekar you have presented no evidence for that other than your own intuition. If you want to assert it, back it up. – Ben Barden Apr 13 '18 at 16:50
  • @BenBarden Do you need evidence that Russia was interested in political and economic ties to Byzantium over Islamic countries? It is widely known - e.g., Vladimir married Anna, the Byzantine emperor's sister immediately after baptism. Or do you mean evidence that Russians valued political and economic reasons more than a chance to get drunk? (lol) – vpekar Apr 14 '18 at 13:09
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    @vpekar I mean that on skeptics, phrases like "and clearly" and "It is widely known" should be considered inherently suspect. The fact that he got married immediately afterwards is pertinent info, but yes, I'm looking for evidence that the decision was driven by political and economic concerns... rather than desire for alcohol, personal enmities, or what have you. – Ben Barden Apr 17 '18 at 13:19
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    @vpeckar we don't generally trust wikipedia per se. On the other hand, what you've presented thus far seems like it could serve as the core of a solid additional answer to the question, especially if you can tie it to non-wikipedia sources and, even better, find some indication that they did not maintain meaningful trade relations with the Muslims. – Ben Barden Apr 17 '18 at 16:39

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