How Vladimir, “Fair Sun”, Became Saint Vladimir

detail from a Ukrainian 1 grivna bank note showing an image of Saint Vladimir I of Kiev, artist unknownAmong the many wives whom Svyatoslav, Prince of Kiev, had loved, was Malyusha, his mother’s handmaiden; and her son Vladimir was treated by his princely father just the same as the other sons borne to him by his chief wives. The little lad grew up in the apartments of his clever grandmother Olga, who may have spoken to the bright and high-spirited boy about her own faith; but it had evidently not made any impression on him, and Vladimir grew up into a most zealous worshipper of Perun, the god of thunder.

While yet a child, his father appointed him Prince of Novgorod, for the people of that city had requested Svyatoslav to allow a prince of his house to come and live among them; and Vladimir, under the guardianship of his mother’s brother, one Dobrinya, spent his boyhood and early manhood in that ancient northern trading centre.

So long as Svyatoslav, who reigned from 958 to 973, was alive, all went well; but when he died, in the full bloom of manhood, quarrels broke out between his sons. Yarapolk, his eldest son,. who had taken his brother Oleg’s principality by force, was now going to make war on Vladimir in order to take possession also of Novgorod; whereupon Vladimir fled to Scandinavia with his uncle, and for two years Yarapolk held undisputed sway over all the Russian lands. Another cause for bitter strife between the two brothers was a beautiful maiden, Rogneda, the daughter of Rogvolod, Prince of Polotsk. Both brothers desired her, but it was to Yarapolk that she betrothed herself, having refused Vladimir with these scathing words: “Never will I unloose the shoe-latchet of the son of a slave” — referring to his mother’s lowly position. This insult he decided to avenge, and, having gathered together a band of warriors ready to follow him anywhere, he returned to Russia. He conquered Polotsk, killed Rogneda’s father and brothers, and took the proud damsel to wife. Not satisfied with having robbed his brother of his bride, Vladimir now aimed. at depriving him of his principality, for he who ruled over Kiev was considered chief among the princes.

Through the forests he and his Drujina rode on towards that famous city. As they approached it, Vladimir sent messengers before him to warn his brother of his coming, for it was against the code of honour of a Russian prince to take his enemy unawares. Yarapolk was, however, betrayed by one of his followers and killed. Kiev was then seized by Vladimir, who also took to himself his brother’s young widow, a fair and lovely Greek lady, formerly a nun, whom his father had brought back as a captive of war.

He now reigned in Kiev, and soon the fame of his prowess, of his victorious campaigns, of his feasts and revellings, and of his merry, cheerful nature spread all over the country. Warriors and knights came from all parts to join his company of heroes — his Drujina. It was a time when the restless Norsemen were threading the seas in all directions, coming as invaders to Britain to be bought off with the Danegeld, and as welcome guests to Kiev. All the knights who joined Vladimir, or “Fair Sun,” as they called him, were glad to follow so great a leader and so generous, genial and clever a ruler. The Russians loved fair women as well as brave men, and this led to his becoming a much-married man; for, according to the chronicler, he had as chief wives Rogneda, the proud beauty of Polotsk, his brother’s Grecian widow, and also a Bohemian and a Bulgarian, and, besides them, eight hundred secondary wives, who were established in three diflferent parts of the country.

The first five years of his reign in Kiev were passed in campaigns, for “Fair Sun” undertook many war-like expeditions, conquering tribes and levying tribute. On the west his dominions extended right up to the gates of Cracow and Przemysl; he also took all Galicia and Volhynia, where he founded the town of Vladimir, and in the south his rule extended as far as the Carpathians.

Under Vladimir the worship of the gods Perun, Daghbog, and Voloss was zealously practised. In various places the Grand Duke had images of these gods put up; in one place a gigantic figure of Perun, with a silver head and a heavy gold moustache. This revival of paganism made life more difficult for the small band of Christians who, during Svyatoslav’s reign, had been left in peace, for now they were not only scoffed at but occasionally even persecuted. Although human sacrifices were not customary among the Slavs, Vladimir on one occasion desired to celebrate a victory by the sacrifice of a youth or maiden, the victim to be chosen by the casting of lots. The choice fell on a Christian boy, “beautiful in soul and body,” but his father, a Christian Varangian, refused to hand him over, saying, “You say, ‘Our gods want thy son’; well, these are not gods, but just pieces of wood which in a short time rot away. Your idols neither eat nor drink, nor do they speak. There is only one God, He whom the Greeks worship and serve, and Who has made heaven and earth, the stars, the sun and the moon, and all that has life. But your gods, what have they done? They themselves have been made by you, and therefore I will not give my son to be sacrificed unto demons.”

This speech, and the father’s refusal to give up the boy, greatly enraged the people, who fell upon the Christian and his son, killing both. Some years later this same father and son were canonized by the Church as the first Russian martyrs, and July 8 is the day dedicated to these two saints, Saint Theodor and Saint Ivan.

A time came, however, when even Vladimir turned from his idols. In order not to be behind the times, and also to enhance his prestige and power, he decided to exchange his heathen faith for the religion of the States with which he had come into political contact — the Byzantine Empire, Bulgaria, Hungary and Poland. It was difficult for him to decide upon a matter about which he knew so little, in spite of the fact that his grandmother had been a devout Christian, and that many of the merchants who traded with Kiev came from Christian countries. It is, however, possible that the chronicler is right in crediting Vladimir with partly spiritual motives. He tells us that “The Spirit of the Highest came upon him and enlightened his mind and heart so that he perceived the vanity and error of paganism, and therefore he turned to the one God who created all creatures visible and invisible.” Whether this was so, or whether it was merely political wisdom that influenced Vladimir, who can tell? He was, however, evidently sincerely desirous of choosing the best religion, and therefore listened readily to the various missionaries who, according to the chronicler, came to him for the purpose of urging him to accept their creed. But perhaps these men had an eye to business as well, and were anxious to promote the interests of trade by winning over the famous prince to their own religion.

The first men to speak to him on the subject were some Moslem Bulgars; they told him that, although he was a great and wise ruler, he was nevertheless ignorant of the law and faith of the great Prophet. In reply to Vladimir’s question, in what their law consisted, the Moslems told him that it consisted in the rite of circumcision, in abstention from all strong drink and from the flesh of swine; but, in compensation for this self-denial, great pleasures awaited the faithful in paradise, where at least seventy of the most beautiful women should be given to him by the prophet. The prohibition of the drinking of wine, that “joy of the Russians,” was sufficient to prejudice the prince against Islam.

When, therefore, some Germans in their turn brought messages from the Pope and ofFered to instruct him in their faith, he willingly listened to them. “We have the true light,” they said; “and while we worship the Creator of all things, thou, O Prince, art bowing down to idols made of wood.” So far, so good! The hitch came when he asked for the rules of their religion. “Fasting to the uttermost of one’s strength, and all eating and drinking to be done only to the glory of God.” This did not appeal to the pleasure-loving Russian any more than did the Moslem creed; and he therefore bade the representatives of the Western Church depart.

News that Vladimir was looking out for a new religion had also reached the Jews who dwelt among the Khazars, and they now felt it their duty to go and urge upon him the acceptance of their creed. “We hear that the Bulgars and Germans have come to lay before thee their several religions,” they said. “We worship God, but the Christians worship One whom we have crucified.” Just as Vladimir had enquired of the others, so now he questioned the Jews regarding their law, and also asked them which country was theirs. To the first question they replied that their law enforced circumcision and abstention from the flesh of swine and hares. To the second question their answer was “Jerusalem.” But when he heard from them that God had been angry with their fore-fathers, and because of their sins had scattered their people and had given their land to the Christians, Vladimir was wrath with them, and said, “How dare you even attempt to teach others while you yourselves are under the anger of your God. If He had really loved you and your law He would not have scattered you; but now you want the same ill-fate to befall us!”

The next to come were Greeks from Byzantium, who put before Vladimir the beauty of their faith. They spoke of “Christ the Incarnate Word, of His death and passion,” and as Vladimir listened he was overcome with awe and surprise, and asked, “Why did God come down upon earth, and why did He take such suffering upon Himself?” Perceiving that they had touched his heart, the Greek Christians “now told him all from the very beginning, until the Seventh Council.” They also showed him a painting in which the Last Judgment was vividly depicted. There, at the right hand were the righteous going up into paradise with joy and gladness, while there, at the left, were the wicked going down into perdition. When the meaning of the picture had been explained to Vladimir, he sighed deeply and said, “How happy is the lot of those at the right hand, but woe unto those on the left!” Seeing what a deep impression they had made on the prince, the missionaries told him that this blessedness could be his on condition that he would allow himself to be baptised.

Although Vladimir took all this to heart, he was not going to be hurried into making a definite decision on so important a question, but promised to enquire still further into the mysteries of their faith. He was so much in earnest that he selected ten of his most trusted friends and sent them on a journey to Bulgaria, Rome and Byzantium, where they were to see for themselves how the various peoples worshipped God.

When news reached the two Emperors, Constantine and Basil, at Byzantium that a Russian embassy had come to study the Christian religion on behalf of the famous Prince of Kiev, they gave orders to the Patriarch to hold a specially solemn service for the benefit of the pagan envoys, who were deeply impressed by the clouds of incense and by the wonderful singing of the choir. Delighted and enchanted by this pomp and beauty, they listened gladly to an explanation of the deep symbolic meaning of the service. The Emperors sent for the envoys, did them much honour, gave them presents and told them to return to their country and report to their prince all they had seen.

This they did, and to the Grand Duke and his councillors, who were sitting round him listening with eager interest, these envoys now described the squalid mosques of Bulgaria, and the lack of beauty in the churches at Rome; when, however, they came to their visit to Tsargrad, joy welled up in their hearts at the memory of all the glory and beauty they had been privileged to behold at Byzantium. “We were taken to the place where the Greeks worship their God,” they said, “and we almost thought we were already in heaven, for nowhere on earth had we beheld such beauty, nor can we describe it. But this we learnt: that God dwells everywhere with man, and that he is worshipped in many lands. Never shall we forget the beauty we have seen, and, just as no one willingly tastes the bitter after having tasted the sweet, so we also can no longer remain here, but must return to the place where God is worshipped in such beauty.”

This report greatly affected the boyars, who urged Vladimir to accept the faith of the Greeks; and, to strengthen their plea, they reminded him of the fact that his grandmother Olga, who had been the wisest of women, had made this form of faith her own. So in the end Vladimir decided to become a Christian, and the only question remaining to be settled was where he should he baptised.

Just about this time the two Emperors of Byzantium were being pressed on many sides by their enemies the Poles and the Germans, and in their need they called upon the mighty Ruler of Kiev for aid. As a reward they offered him the hand of their sister Anna, on condition, however, that he should first be baptised. Vladimir was glad to assist them; but time went on, and the promised princess was not sent to him, for now that the danger of an attack was passed, it seemed unthinkable to give the ** purple-born ” daughter of the “purple-born” Emperor in wedlock to the Russian barbarian. This enraged- Vladimir, and he therefore laid siege to the city of Korsun in the Crimea, where Sevastopol now stands. He had, however, yet another reason for besieging the town; for, having decided to become a Christian, he needed priests to baptise him and his people. But his pride rebelled against having to ask for them, so he meant to get them by force of arms.

There were also important political reasons under-lying his action, for Vladimir knew that the Greek Emperors were only too ready to claim all orthodox Christians as their subjects; and in order to avoid the danger of his being considered a vassal, he took this high-handed proceeding, intending to come before them as a conqueror instead of a suppliant.

After a siege of six months’ duration, the town was forced to surrender, having been betrayed by a Greek, who gave certain information to the Grand Duke of Kiev, which enabled him to cut off the water-supply. Vladimir’s threat to attack Byzantium unless the promised bride was brought to him influenced the terrified Byzantine rulers, and Anna’s objections to the marriage were overridden. She was consoled for the sacrifice by the assurance that in marrying the Russian barbarian she would have a unique opportunity of influencing a heathen people to adopt Christianity.

Before, however, the marriage ceremony could be performed, or even before he could become a Christian, Vladimir was obliged to get rid of his many wives; among the principal of these four had been Christians when he married them. Predslava, a Varangian, he sent to Novgorod; Rogneda, the beautiful maiden of Polotsk, whom he had renamed Glorislava, retired into a nunnery; Malfreda, the Bohemian, did not long survive the separation; but there were still Adel (a Czech) and Milolika (a Bulgarian — his favourite) to dispose of, and these and his other eight hundred wives he gave in marriage to his vassals and boyars.

Finally all was arranged, and the Greek princess was married in Korsun to Vladimir, who, meanwhile, had been baptised. He did not return the conquered town, but handed it over to his wife as a dowry, and in doing so restored it to Byzantium. After the wedding Vladimir left Korsun, carrying back with him to his capital not only priests to baptise and instruct his people, but also holy pictures and vestments to help in furnishing the churches which he meant to build. For this latter purpose he also brought back with him Greek architects and builders.

The first thing Vladimir set himself to do on arriving in Kiev was to have hi& subjects baptised. As there was no priestly caste among the heathen Russians, and as their faith contained no dogma, but consisted chiefly of superstitions, there were no particular objections to be overcome. The people in and around Kiev were the first to undergo the new rite. On a given day, in the year 988, when all had been summoned for the general baptism, the great statue of Perun was pulled down, tied to the tail of a horse, dragged down the hill, beaten with sticks, and finally flung into the river. The vast crowd witnessed the degradation of their god, and saw for themselves that he was incapable of defending hin^self, not even seeming to resent the ill-treatment meted out to him.

Trusting in the superior wisdom of their rulers, of the princes and the boyars, the people “joyfully entered the river and received baptism, sure that what the great people had accepted must be good.” True, the chronicler tells us that “Vladimir advised his people to be baptised, and those who did not do so from inclination did so from fear, as the Grand Duke’s zeal for the faith was linked with violence, and no one dared disobey his pious command.”

In Novgorod, however, where Vladimir sent his uncle Dobrinya, together with a bishop and some priests, the change of religion was not so peacefully brought about. The people bitterly resented the attacks on their idols by the emissaries of the Grand Duke, who preached to them in the streets and market-place; and when called together by their chiefs, the crowds of heathen angrily refused to listen to this new doctrine, convinced that it was better for them to die than to let their gods be insulted. Influenced by the wonderful eloquence of their chief, the people broke out in riot, attacked Dobrinya’s house and killed his wife; they also destroyed a church which had been built some time before by Christian Varangians. But by means of a ruse, Poutyata, one of Vladimir’s men, managed to get the upper hand; he sent for men from another town, and with this aid attacked Novgorod, and a regular battle ensued. It was only after many houses had been destroyed and many people killed that the citizens sued for peace, which was promised on condition that they would be baptised.

To this they consented, and Dobrinya promptly proceeded to destroy all the idols: those of stone were broken up and thrown into the river, and those of wood were burned. This caused great sorrow and anguish of heart to the heathen, who wept bitterly, and pleaded with Dobrinya to spare their gods. But he only laughed and said, “Ye unreasonable people, why do you worry about those who cannot help themselves?” Perun was especially badly treated, and as he was being beaten and dragged to the river, a demon entered into him, who cried out, “Woe is me; I am catching it soundly from unmerciful hands!” The bishop strictly forbade anyone to give him help or shelter, and therefore when, the next day, Perun swam ashore and tried to climb up the banks, one of the newly-baptised Christians pushed him back into the river, saying, “Perun, thou hast eaten and drunk thy fill; now just swim away!”

On a given day all the people had to present themselves for baptism, and those who did not come voluntarily were dragged along by armed force. Thus everybody was baptised in the river, the men above, the women below, the bridge. Many, however, in order to escape baptism, pretended that they were already Christians. When this was found out, all who had been christened were commanded to have a cross hung around their necks, and whoever was detected without one was thereupon forcibly baptised. Thus quiet was restored in Novgorod, and Poutyata returned to Kiev; but the people scofFed at the way in which Christianity had been introduced, saying: “Poutyata baptised with the sword, and Dobrinya with fire!”

Gradually the new faith spread throughout the Russian lands, and all Vladimir’s Slav subjects were baptised. For political reasons, however, he left the other tribes— especially those of the north-east of Russia, who clung to their old faith — undisturbed; since his rule over them was not yet established, the prudent prince did not wish to irritate them.

Thus the Russians became Christians outwardly, but remained heathens in their hearts, retaining all their old customs. There were not sufficient priests to teach them, and the people merely added Christianity to their old beliefs. Just as they had been baptised themselves, so in all good faith they also christened their gods. Perun, the Thunder God, they christened Elijah, and to this day the prophet celebrates his day with thunder. For quite two centuries the Russian people held this dual faith, much to the grief of their spiritual leaders. Vladimir realized the necessity of instructing the people in the new religion, but the great difficulty was to procure priests who could speak to them in their own tongue. Finally he sent to Bulgaria, where a language very similar to the Russian was spoken, whence priests came who brought with them the written Word — for Cyril and Methodius, the great missionaries to the southern Slavs, had invented an alphabet and had translated the Holy Scriptures into Slavonic.

Vladimir built many churches in Kiev, some of wood and some of stone, besides a fine cathedral which he dedicated to “the Mother of God.” For the upkeep of this cathedral, and for the support of the Metropolitan and his clergy, the Grand Duke set apart a tenth of all his princely revenues, whether in fur or honey, in corn or merchandise. Thus, the church of the “tenth,” as it was called, stands to this day a witness to Vladimir’s zeal and earnestness.

He also commanded the boyars and the leading citizens to send their children to the newly-founded schools, where they were taught by the priests. The mothers wept over this order as though it were death, and not instruction, that awaited their little ones. By this far-seeing policy Vladimir prepared a future generation of Christians, not only in name, but in reality; and this first set of scholars provided Russia with native-born Christian leaders and priests.

According to the Chronicle, “Vladimir prepared the soil, broke up the ground and made it soft and loose; that is to say, he enlightened the people by introducing Christianity. To his son Yaroslav, however, it was given to sow the seed in the soil which was already prepared: he furthered instruction by means of books. Vladimir baptised, Yaroslav taught and established the people in the faith.”

In his desire to spread Christianity the Grand Duke travelled all over the country, urging the people to become Christians. “Thus,” again to quote the chronicler, “our land began to praise the Christ, the Father, and the Holy Ghost,” and paganism became a forbidden creed. Most of those who adhered to it did so in secret. But there were others who rebelled against this change of faith, and openly clung to their old gods; they fled into the forests, where they lived as outlaws, and thus the number of robbers enormously increased. Vladimir at first did not proceed against them with sufficient energy, for the erstwhile warlike prince had, since his baptism, become averse to fighting and was growing almost too lenient. But a strong hand was needed to keep down this lawlessness, and at last the Bishop of Kiev asked Vladimir why it was that he did not have these robbers put to death. “Because I do not wish to commit sin,” was the Grand Duke’s reply. Then he was told by the bishop that God had entrusted him with power and had made him a judge over evildoers and a rewarder of virtue, “and that it was his duty to punish the robbers, but that a thorough enquiry should be made first.” Thereupon Vladimir no longer merely imposed fines, but had the robbers put to death instead, until his counsellors, perceiving how much money was thereby lost, induced him to reestablish fines. “For,” they said, “we have frequent wars, and this money comes in usefully for the purchase of weapons and horses.”

The increased intercourse with Byzantium, now no longer merely commercial, deeply influenced Russian life and customs. The introduction of Christianity brought culture in its wake; moreover, Vladimir loved beauty and art, and appreciated learning. A wise man, he knew how to retain the old and yet adapt it to the new conditions; his generous and humane character, his desire to see all around him happy and content, the cheerfulness of his disposition and his love of merriment and social pleasure made him merciful and charitable. Formerly he and his Drujina and the boyars had revelled and feasted to their hearts* content, had eaten and drunk and been merry. Now the poor and needy, the orphan and the widow were remembered when the feast was spread; and to those who were too sick to come to the palace he sent food. On all the great saints’ day and holy days everybody was free to join the feasting in his palace yard, where prince and people, leaders and led, met in friendly intercourse. This also served the political purpose of drawing the classes together.

Valorous knights from all parts were drawn to Kiev by the fame of Vladimir, for the renown of this merry, genial, and generous prince had spread far and wide. Thus it came about that while he remained at home organizing his lands, building up his dominion and fostering the peaceful arts, his Bogatyrs or knights went out to fight against enemies and oppressors, and returned to him to tell of great deeds done and of victories won.

Vladimir’s most bitter and dangerous foes were the Petchenegs, from whose raids his people suffered terribly. Tales of their fierceness and cruelty had spread even as far as Germany, and the missionary Brun writes in the year 1007 that he “went to the fiercest of all the heathen — the Petchenegs,” and that “the Grand Duke of Kiev, who reigned over vast lands, pleaded with him not to go amongst those people, as he was sure that he, Brun, would be killed by them.” He gratefully records that on his refusal to give up his intention, Vladimir himself accompanied him to the very borders of the Petchenegs’ country, where they parted, the prince full of foreboding for the gentle Christian. Five months later, however, after a successful mission, Brun returned to Kiev, having not only baptised thirty heathen, but having also prevailed upon the Chief of the Petchenegs to make peace with Vladimir. This prince now sent one of his sons, accompanied by a bishop, as envoy to his former enemies, and for a while Russia was at rest.

Towards the end of his reign Vladimir suffered much grief and sorrow on account of his sons, some of whom rebelled against him. For Vladimir had given to his twelve sons and several nephews land for their possession, laying thereby the foundation for much trouble in the future, and the realm he had so zealously striven to consolidate was to be rent asunder under the rule of his descendants. Yaroslav, to whom he had given Novgorod, caused him much trouble by his refusal to hand over the right proportion of the taxes gathered by him on behalf of his father. Vladimir then decided to go against his son and meet him in battle; but death overtook him, and “the devil was robbed of the pleasure of seeing father and son at war with each other.”

When the people heard of Vladimir’s death they gathered in crowds and made great lamentation. “The boyars bemoaned the loss of their leader, the people of their protector, and the poor of their sustainer.” Vladimir was a new type of ruler in Russia — not merely a knight amongst knights, or a greater chief amongst lesser chiefs — but an acknowledged king, the founder of a dynasty. He was also a true statesman, to whose wisdom and foresight ancient Russia owed her first consolidation as a state. It was he who introduced gold and silver coinage; on one side of the coin was the figure of Our Lord, and on the other Vladimir in imperial robes, holding a cross in his hand. A Russian Metropolitan, one of the first-fruits of the schools founded by Vladimir, wrote in praise of him in 1050: “Rome sings the praise of Peter and Paul, all countries and cities and men honour and glorify their teacher who has taught them the faith. Let us also, as much as in us lies, praise with humble thanksgiving our teacher and instructor, who has done great and wondrous teachings, the great Khan of our land, Vladimir, the grandson of Igor, the son of the glorious Svyatoslav….” Yet it was not until 1257, nearly two and a half centuries after his death, that this champion of the Christian faith was canonized; for the very feasts, with their sumptuousness and good cheer, which had made him so popular with his people, were made a reproach to him by the ascetic clergy of a later date, and it was only after these festivities had been forgotten that his zeal for the faith was recognized by the Church, and he was made into Saint Vladimir.

In the memory of a loving people, however, he lives as the joyous, chivalrous, glorious “Fair Sun.” Around his attractive personality and exploits, as well as those of the mighty men who surrounded him, whole cycles of romantic tales have been woven, and it is in these “Byilinas” that the life and soul of those heroic days have been preserved for all time. The most famous of Vladimir’s bold knights were Ilya Mourometz, Dobryinia Nikititch, and Alesha Popovitch, whose names have become household words. Thus, in the story of the life of Vladimir, romance, tradition and history meet, and at one and the same time he is glorified as the valorous pagan knight, venerated as the Christianizer of Russia, and appraised as the founder of the Russian Empire.

– text taken from Some Russian Heroes, Saints and Sinners, by Sonia E Howe, 1917