The Holy Righteous Princes and Passion-bearers Boris and Gleb (in holy baptism, Romanus and David) were the first Russian saints canonized both by the Church of Russia and the Church of Constantinople. They were the younger sons of the Holy Equal-to-the-Apostles Prince Vladimir (+15 July, 1015). Born shortly before the Baptism of Rus', the holy brothers were brought up to be pious Christians. Boris, the older of the two brothers, received an excellent education. He loved to read the Sacred Scriptures, the works of the Holy Fathers, and especially, the lives of saints. Under their influence, St. Boris developed a fervent desire to emulate the spiritual struggles of the worthy ones of God, and often prayed that the Lord make him worthy of such an honor.
From early childhood, St. Gleb was raised together with his brother, and shared his aspiration to dedicate his life exclusively to serving God. Both excelled in charity and sincere kindness, emulating the example of the Great Prince, Equal-to-the-Apostles Saint Vladimir, who was kind and merciful in responding to the needs of the needy, the sick, and indigent.
While their father was still alive, St. Boris was granted authority over Rostov. In ruling over his principality, he showed wisdom and humility; his first and foremost concern was to firmly establish the Orthodox Faith and instill a pious way of life among his citizens. The young prince also gained renown as a courageous and talented warrior. Shortly before his death, Great Prince Vladimir summoned Boris to Kiev, and had him set out with his forces against the Pechenegs. Following the death of Equal-to-the-Apostles Prince Vladimir, his oldest son Sviatopolk, who at that time was in Kiev, declared himself to be the Great Prince of Kiev. At the time, St. Boris was on his way back from his military campaign; he had failed to engage the Pechenegs, who probably had, retreated out of fear into the steppes. He was greatly saddened by news of his father's death. His druzhina [contingent of bodyguards] advised him to go to Kiev and seize the throne, but not wanting an internecine conflict, Holy Prince Boris dismissed his troops, saying, I will not take up arms against my brother, especially my older brother, whom I should consider to be a father to me!"
However, Sviatopolk, who was perfidious and lusted after power, did not believe the Boris was sincere. Striving to protect himself from his brother's possible rivalry, and knowing that the people and the military sided with his brother, he dispatched assassins to kill him. St. Boris was warned of Sviatopolk's treachery, but he did not go into hiding; like the martyrs of the early centuries of Christian history, he was prepared to die. On Sunday July 24, 1015, the assassins found him in his tent on the banks of the Alta River, during the Matins [Orthros] Service. At the conclusion of the Service, they broke into the tent and stabbed him with their spears. Holy Prince Boris’ favorite servant, Georgi Ugrin (who was of Hungarian ancestry) came to his lord's defense, and was immediately killed. St. Boris, however, was still alive. Coming out of the tent be began to pray fervently, and then said to his murderers, "Come, brethren, finish your task, and peace be unto my brother Sviatopolk and unto you." Then, one of them approached and pierced him with his spear. Sviatopolk's servants took Boris’ body to Kiev. Along the way, they encountered two Varangians who had been sent by Sviatopolk to speed up the matter. They noticed that Boris was barely breathing, but was still alive. One of them then stabbed him in the heart with his sword. The Holy Passion-bearer's body was secretly taken to Vyshgorod, and put in the Church of St. Basil the Great.
Afterwards, Sviatopolk put to death Holy Prince Gleb in just as perfidious a manner. Treacherously summoning his brother from his province, Murom, Sviatopolk sent out bodyguards to meet and kill St. Gleb along the way. Prince Gleb had already learned of his father's death and of the villainous murder of Prince Boris. Profoundly sorrowful, he chose death over war against his brother. St. Gleb's encounter with the murderers took place near Smolensk, in the Smyadyna River estuary.
What was the podvig, the spiritual struggle of the Holy Righteous Princes Boris and Gleb? What was the point of their perishing at the hands of murderers without putting up any resistance?
The Holy Passion-bearers’ lives were sacrificed out of love, the principal Christian virtue. "If a man say, I love God and hateth his brother, he is a liar." (I John 4: 20). The holy brothers did something that for pagan Rus’, used to acts of bloody vengeance, was still unfamiliar and incomprehensible. They demonstrated that even at the risk of death, it was wrong to give evil for evil. "And fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul." (Matthew 10: 28). The Holy Martyrs Boris and Gleb gave up their lives for the sake of obedience, which is the basis for man's spiritual life, and overall, any life in society. St. Nestor the Chronicler notes, "Do you see, brethren, how exalted is obedience to one's older brother? Had they resisted, they would hardly have been made worthy of such a gift from God. There are many young princes today who do not submit themselves to their elders are also killed for their resistance. But it is not granted unto them to receive the grace which these Saints were made worthy to receive.
The Righteous Princes-Passion bearers did not want to take up arms against their brother, but the Lord Himself wreaked vengeance upon the power-hungry tyrant: "Vengeance is mine; I will repay…" (Romans 12, 19).
In 1019, Prince Yaroslav the Wise of Kiev, another of the sons of Equal-to-the-Apostles Prince Vladimir, assembled an army and defeated Sviatopolk's druzhina. By God's providence, the decisive battle took place on the field near the Alta River where St. Boris had been killed. Sviatopolk, known by the Russian people as "Accursed," fled to Poland, and like Cain, the first fratricide, was unable to find rest or safe harbor anywhere. The chroniclers report that even from his grave, there was a stench.
"From that time on," writes the chronicler, "sedition died down in Rus' " The blood of the Holy Brothers, spilled to avert civil strife, became the grace-filled seed that strengthened the unity of Rus'. Not only did God glorify the Righteous Princes/Passion bearers with the gift of healing; they became special intercessors, defending the Russian lands. There were many instances of their appearance at times our Fatherland was experiencing difficulty – for example they appeared to St. Alexander Nevsky on the eve of the Battle on the Ice (1242), and to Great Prince Dimitry Donskoy on the day of the Battle of Kulikovo Field (1380). Veneration of Sts. Boris and Gleb began quite soon after their deaths. A service to the Saints was composed by Metropolitan Ioann I of Kiev (1008-1035).
Great Prince Yaroslav the Wise of Kiev saw to it that the remains of St. Gleg, who for four years had remained unburied, were located. He had them interred next to the relics of Prince St. Boris, in the Church of St. Basil the Great, in Vyshgorod. Some time later that church burned down, but their relics remained unharmed, and were the source of many miracles. A certain Varangian impiously stood on the grave of the Holy Brothers, and suddenly a flame burned his feet. A lame youth, the son of Vyshgorod resident, was healed by the relics: Sts. Boris and Gleb appeared to the youth in a dream, and made the sign of the Cross over his crippled leg. The youth awoke and stood up, completely healed. The pious Prince Yaroslav the Wise had a five-cupola church erected on the site; it was consecrated on June 24, 1026 by Metropolitan Ioann of Kiev and a host of clergy. A multitude of churches and monasteries all over Rus’ were dedicated to the Holy Princes Sts. Boris and Gleb, and frescoes and icons of the Passion-bearers exist in a multitude of temples of the Russian Church.