Vladimir of Kiev and Olga, First Christian Rulers in the Rus

Olga (Helga, Ukrainian Olha), the grandmother of Vladimir the Great, was born at Pskov about 890. She married Prince Igor of Kiev, and after his death she acted as regent for their son, Sviatoslav. She instituted reforms of administration and finance in the Kievan Rus and was an early convert to the Christian faith among the Varangian, or Scandinavian, rulers of the Rus, a Viking-dominated territory deep in the lands of the Slavs. In 957 she visited Constantinople, where according to some accounts she was baptized, though other accounts hold that she had been a Christian for some years before her visit to the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire. Her baptism did not signal the conversion of her people, nor even of her own family, for the pagans rallied around her son, who resisted her efforts to instruct him in the Christian faith. Olga died in 969, and she is honored on July 11 in the Ukrainian and Russian Churches as Isapostolos, Equal to the Apostles.

Vladimir (Ukrainian Volodymyr) was born in 956, the youngest son of Sviatoslav of Kiev and a great-grandson of Rurik, the traditional founder of the Rurikid dynasty, who ruled the Kievan Rus and its successors principalities, and of the Russian state. Vladimir was made prince of Novgorod in 970. Two years later, on the death of Sviatoslav, a fierce struggle broke out among his three sons: Yaropolk, prince of Kiev, Oleg, and Vladimir. Oleg (or Oled) was killed, and Vladimir was forced to flee to his kinsman Haakon Sigurdsson of Norway. He returned in 980 with Norse support, captured the cities of Polotsk and Smolensk, and killed Yaropolk by treachery upon taking Kiev, thereby making himself master of all the Kievan Rus. A successful military leader, he expanded Russian control from southeast Poland to the Volga valley.

Although the Christian faith had won a number of converts among the people of the Kievan Rus since Olga’s time, Vladimir remained a thoroughgoing and even zealous pagan, taking numerous wives and concubines and erecting shrines to pagan gods. He may have attempted to reform Slavic paganism by promoting the thunder god, Perun, as a supreme deity. In 983, after one of his successful military campaigns, Vladimir and his army thought it necessary to offer a human sacrifice to the gods. Lots were cast indicating that a youth named Ioann was to be the sacrifice. His father Fyodor, a Christian, strenuously resisted the army’s plan, denouncing the pagan gods. “Your gods are just plain wood,” he said. “It is here now but it may rot into oblivion tomorrow. Your gods neither eat, nor drink, nor talk and are made by human hand from wood, whereas there is only one God — he is worshiped by Greeks and he created heaven and earth. And your gods? They have created nothing, for they have been created themselves. Never will I give my son to the devils!” An angry mob then killed Fyodor and Ioann, and they are venerated by the Orthodox Church as the protomartyrs of Russia.

This incident may have had some lasting effect on Vladimir, because by the late tenth century, having consolidated all the eastern Slavs under his rule in Kiev, for political as well as for intellectual and spiritual reasons he wanted to know which was the true religion. The Russian Primary Chronicle describes Vladimir’s sending out emissaries to various parts of the world in turn. His emissaries were not impressed with the Muslim Bulgars, who had no joy and forbade the use of alcohol. Neither were they impressed with Judaism, for the Jewish Khazars lives in exile from their land and Vladimir had expended much effort in creating an empire and did not want to risk losing it. The Catholicism of the Germans was unattractive, their worship lacking beauty. But when the delegation finally visited Constantinople and attended Divine Liturgy in the great Church of Holy Wisdom, Hagia Sophia, they exclaimed, “We did not know whether we were in heaven or on earth! God dwells there among men. We cannot forget that beauty.” In 988 Vladimir sent six thousand troops to the Byzantine emperor Basil the Second, who needed military assistance, asking the hand of Basil’s sister Anna in return. The emperor agreed, provided that Vladimir became a Christian. Vladimir was baptized by bishops from the Empire that same year. But the emperor was then reluctant to fulfill his part of the agreement, so that Vladimir attacked the Crimea, with the result that the emperor relented, and the Princess Anna became Vladimir’s wife. She was accompanied to Kiev by priests from the imperial capital. When the royal couple returned to Kiev, the people followed their prince’s example and urging and were baptized.

Despite the questionable and outright political circumstances of his conversion, Vladimir was wholehearted in his adherence to the new faith. He put away his former wives and concubines, amended his life, and publicly destroyed idols (he had the chief idol of Perun in Kiev scourged and thrown into the river). He became an ardent supporter of the Christian faith, had many churches and monasteries built, expanded judicial and educational institutions, aided the poor, and supported Greek missionaries among his people. The evangelization of the Kievan Rus proceeded rapidly, in part because Vladimir relied largely on physical compulsion, punishing those who resisted baptism. The emerging Ukrainian (and Russian) Church remained under the jurisdiction of Constantinople, but it remained friendly toward the West.

Vladimir’s last years were troubled by an insurrection led by his sons and by his former pagan wives, and he died in an expedition against one of them at Berestova, near Kiev, on July 15, 1015. He is commemorated on this day by the Eastern Churches as Isapostolos, like his grandmother Olga.

prepared from The New Book of Festivals and Commemorations and other sources

The Collect

God the All-Merciful, you brought your servant Princess Olga to the church and by the splendor of the Divine Liturgy you revealed to her grandson Vladimir the glories of your heavenly kingdom: Mercifully grant that we who commemorate them this day may be fruitful in good works and attain to the glorious crown of your saints; through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

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