Ancient History

The first recorded link between Denmark and Russia, Rus, concern marriage. This was when King Knut the Great (King Canute of Denmark, England and Norway, 1017-1035) married his sister Estrid (Astrid) to a Russian prince. This is believed to be a son of St Vladimir, Vsevolod of Volhynia. However, this marriage was very brief, for Vsevolod was killed in 1015 in the struggle for Kiev between various princes. The widowed Estrid returned to Denmark and married again.

Just after this it is recorded that one of the sons of the King of Denmark, Hermann or Wolf, fled with companions to Rus after civil strife in his homeland. The German chronicler Bishop Thietmar of Merseburg (+ 1018?) recorded that Yaroslav’s forces were much bolstered by Danes who fought with them. These could have been Hermann’s men, or men who had come with Estrid earlier and stayed on, or else other Danes.

King Magnus the Good of Denmark and Norway (1042-1047) spent his youth in Kiev at the court of Yaroslav the Wise (1015-1054). He had been left there for protection by his father Olaf the Saint. These good Russo-Danish relations continued for some years after this and we cannot fail to mention how Gytha, daughter of the half-Danish King of England, Harold II, slaughtered at Hastings in 1066, fled Norman-occupied England for Kiev via Denmark and there married Prince Vladimir Monomakh. As the niece of Estrid, it could be said that Gytha was following in the family footsteps.

Links between Denmark and Russia, Rus, were recorded in the Chronicle of Adam of Bremen in the 1070s. Here it remarked that the Danes frequented Novgorod by ship. Although religious links were broken off as Denmark was dragged into the consequences of the Western Schism after 1054, Novgorod and also Smolensk continued as centres of trade between Denmark and Rus, which seems to have been intense in the twelfth century. Notably, in 1958 Russian archaeologists discovered the foundations of a Danish church in Smolensk, which was mentioned in Russian and German documents of the thirteenth century (1).

The Nineteenth Century

The next link comes in 1870 with Nicholas Bjerring, an adult immigrant from Denmark, who had been born there in 1831. As an intellectual and Roman Catholic priest, he had been scandalised by the declaration of papal infallibility in Rome. He came to believe for several years that only the Orthodox Church had preserved the truth and came to Orthodoxy without having actually attended an Orthodox church. He travelled to St Petersburg and, impressing Church leaders with his zeal, was immediately received into the Church, quickly ordained priest, made archpriest and sent to New York, where a small Russian chapel, in effect for embassy staff, had opened.

Bjerring was priest of the New York chapel for 13 years, but lacked training for the priesthood and made many mistakes. Neither did he speak Russian or Greek, the primary languages of his small congregation, and spoke English with a thick Danish accent. His community never grew; in fact, it stagnated. By 1883, the Russian authorities closed the chapel and Bjerring was offered a teaching position in Russia, but he was not interested. Instead, disgruntled, Bjerring abandoned the Church and became a Presbyterian minister. By the end of his life, he had come full circle, rejoining the Roman Catholic Church as a layman.

His case illustrates that people should never join the Orthodox Church in order to be ‘right’. This is proud self-justification and leads to pompousness and pretentiousness. It also once more proves that people should never join the Orthodox Church in a state of disillusionment, as did Bjerring and as so many other heterodox clergy have done. If people join one of the Orthodox Churches because of their brains, they will never actually become Orthodox or, for that matter, remain Orthodox. This is because because they lack experience of the life of the Church, which is necessary for a healthy conversion. Russian churchmen, in their excitement over the highly-educated Bjerring, failed to realise that he was inexperienced and idealistic and that his interest in Orthodoxy needed to be nurtured before conversion. And so it is little wonder that Bjerring, driven to Orthodoxy by his mind and emotions, left the Church for the same reason (2).


1. See ‘Russo-Danish Church Links’ by Archimandrite Augustine (Nikitin) in ‘From the History of Orthodoxy to the North and West of Novgorod the Great’, Leningrad 1989.

2. See: Nicholas Bjerring: The Collected Works. This has an introduction providing a sketch of the man, followed by two letters of Bjerring in 1870 — one to Pope Pius IX, in which Bjerring denounces the dogma of papal infallibility and informs the Pope that he will join the Orthodox Church, and the other to the Russian Holy Synod in which he requests reception into the Church, with four of his sermons, all from his days as an Orthodox priest.