One of the earliest works from the literature of Medieval Rus’ is “The Legend of Boris and Gleb,” which forms a portion of The Primary Chronicle, a document compiled by various writers from about 1040 to 1118. The legend concerns a tragedy, occurring in 1015, of which the death of St. Olga’s grandson, St. Vladimir, was a catalyst. This extraordinary prince had founded the state of Rus’ and compelled his people into mass conversions to Christianity. Shortly after his death, two of his sons, the Kievan princes Boris and Gleb were assassinated for dynastic purposes by minions of their half-brother Sviatopolk, called “the Accursed” because of the deed.
The older brother, Boris, had a servant named George the Hungarian, whom Boris had given a magnificent gold necklace, “for he was loved by Boris beyond reckoning.” Then the four assailants burst into Boris’s tent, intending to dispatch him with their swords. George flung himself in the way, covering Boris, declaring “I will not be left behind, my precious lord! Before the beauty of your body begins to wilt, let it be granted that my life may end.” The assassins tore Boris out of George’s embrace, stabbed George, and flung him out of the tent, bleeding and dying. Then they murdered Boris, who died forgiving them for their crime. Unable to undo the clasp of George’s necklace, they cut off his head, flinging it so far away that, the narrator adds indignantly, his head and body could not later be reunited for decent Christian burial. Shortly afterwards, another group of assassins tracked down Gleb, the younger brother of Boris, who had been warned of his brother’s death and was about to flee half-heartedly. He had been so attached to Boris that he yearned to join him in death. When ordered to murder Gleb, they balked at killing a son of Vladimir, so they terrified his cook into doing the deed.
Since Boris and Gleb both were said to have died accepting their fate and forgiving their murderers, they became the first saints canonized by the Russian Orthodox Church and were given a title especially coined to explain the saintliness of two men who, up to the time of their death, had not demonstrated any notably holy characteristics at all. They were called “Passion Bearers.” The Roman Church acknowledged their cult in 1724 and assigned them a feast day of July 24th, the date on which Boris and George died.
A boy, whose cure was recorded as part of the brothers’ canonization process claimed that, at the time of his cure, he had experienced a vision in which George appeared in their company. Nevertheless, even though his death was a perfect icon of Jesus’ observance that “A man can have no greater love than to lay down his life for his friends,” (John 15:13), George was never canonized. Probably because of a subsequent embarrassment over his intimate relationship with Boris, the most Medieval iconographers would do for George was to include him among the characters depicted in miniature scenes which framed some icons of Boris and Gleb and showed details from the account of their deaths.
Their feast day is July 24.
Son of St. Vladimir, Duke of Muscovy. Grandson of St. Olga. Brother of St. Gleb. Martyr.
Canonized: 1724 by Pope Benedict XIII
St. Gleb (George):
Son of St. Vladimir of Kiev and Anne of Constantinople, Duke of Muscovy. Brother of St. Boris; great-grandson of St. Olga.
After Vladimir's death, the kingdom was to have been divided among his sons, but their eldest half-brother, Svyatopolk, wished to rule alone. An army gathered to defend Boris, but he called them off, explaining that he could not raise a hand against his brother; Boris was soon killed by Svyatopolk's followers. Svyatopolk invited Gleb to Kiev, but on the way, his boat was boarded on the Dnieper River near Smolensk, and he was killed. In 1020, another of Vladimir's sons, Yaroslav, usurped Svyatopolk, and then buried the bodies of Boris and Gleb in the church of St. Basil at Vyshgorod. Miracles were reported at their tomb, and it became a site of pilgrimage.
From the first, the highest motives were attributed to the brothers' resignation - unwillingness to repel injustice to themselves by force and violently oppose an elder brother. Not martyrs in the traditional sense, the Russian Church perceived them as "passion bearers" - blameless men who did not wish to die but refused to defend themselves, thus voluntarily submitting to death like Christ.
Died: 1010-1015 (sources vary), stabbed in the throat
Canonized: 1724 by Pope Benedict XIII