Orthodox America

  The Life of Equal-to-the-Apostles Grand Prince Volodymyr [Vladimir] of Kiev

Commemorated July 15 

    Centuries before it was officially called 'Russia,' the vast territory inhabited by the various tribes of Eastern Slavs was sown with seeds of Christianity. But little fruit sprouted in the land's open steppes which dominated its southern reaches and provided a highroad for nomadic intruders. For over a thousand years a succession of Huns, Avars, Magyars and Pechenegs swept in from the east to establish a hegemony over an area whose waterways provided a potentially valuable trade link between the Baltic and the Black Seas. The eastern Slavs, who spread out along the great rivers as far as Lake Ladoga to the north, were a heterogeneous group which lacked the unity necessary to repel these invading hordes. They welcomed the assistance of the Varangians, Scandinavian adventurers from the north, whom they readily assimilated.

    According to the earliest written history of the area, the 11th century Chronicle, in the year 862 one of these Norsemen by the name of Rurik established himself in Novgorod as a leader with the aim of organizing a defense against the Pechenegs. The strategically superior location of Kiev to the south induced Rurik's successor Ole~ to move the capital in 882 and enabled him to consolidate most of the Eastern Slav tribes under his rule. In 912 Oleg was succeeded by Rurik’s son Igor who had married a simple young countrywomen whom he had met by chance while on a hunting expedition in the area of Pskov. The unlikely match turned out to be providential; the girl's beauty was rivaled by her lofty wisdom which belied her humble origin and earned her the title 'most wise.'

    Olga proved to be a capable ruler when, after the deathof Igor in 945, she became regent for their son Sviatoslav. As a ruler she naturally had contact with the neighboring Greeks; the proximity of Constantinople, capital of the Christian East, may well have inspired her to examine its religion which had already gained enough adherents in Kiev to have a church. Olga's wisdom proved itself in her decision to embrace the Christian faith, and in 957 she journeyed to Constantinople to be baptized and to be instructed in its precepts.

    Having received divine illumination, Olga returned to the land of Rus bringing, as it were, the dawn's rays. To her sorrow, her son Sviatoslav was not interested in changing his pagan beliefs, although he was tolerant of the Christian faith and did not interfere in his mother's active missionary work. Fortunately, his frequent absence from Kiev on various campaigns gave Olga greater influence not only in administrative matters but also in the upbringing of her three grandsons, even though Sviatoslav forbade her to raise them in the Christian faith. But her life of prayer and charity commended her new religion and bore fruit in the generations that followed her blessed repose in the year 969.

    Sviatoslav was not interested in staying in Kiev and soon divided his realm among his three sons--Yaropolk, Oleg and Vladimir--while he himself went to Bulgaria. When he died in battle in 972, his sons began to quarrel over primacy of rule. Eventually, the cunning of the youngest son, Vladimir, gained for him the Kievan throne which he secured by having his eldest brother Yaropolk put to death. Oleg had died earlier in battle, leaving Vladimir sole ruler over a loose federation of city states whose geographical territory was widespread and ill-defined.

    Vladimir began his rule in the full tradition of his pagan predecessors, indulging in a warring and passionate life. Once, after a successful campaign, Vladimir wished to render special thanks to the pagan gods by offering a human sacrifice. The lot fell upon a young Varangian boy by the name of John who was a Christian together with his father Theodore. Theodore refused to give up his son, explaining to those who had come to fetch the boy that the pagan gods were lifeless idols and that the people should turn to the one true God of the Christians. The crowd became enraged and killed them both there in their own home.

    Truly it has been said that the blood of martyrs is the seed of Christianity, for as accustomed as Vladimir was to bloodshed, he was strangely affected by the martyrdom of this father and son. He began to think seriously about religion. Feeling less and less satisfied with the paganism of his forebears, Vladimir thirsted for a knowledge of truth. This news spread abroad and attracted to Kiev advocates of various faiths in hopes of winning the Grand Prince to their respective persuasions. There came Bulgar Moslems, papal envoys from Germany, Jews from Taurid and finally an Orthodox Greek--each praising their religion as the best. Vladimir was predisposed to favor the wise arguments of the Greek, a righteous philosopher who gave a thorough explanation of the Orthodox faith beginning with God's creation of the World, the fall of man and his banishment from paradise, the promise of the Messiah, His humble birth, His miracles and teaching of an everlasting Kingdom beyond this world, His sufferings and death on the Cross for man's salvation, and His glorious Resurrection. He then unrolled before the Prince a scroll on which was depicted the last and dread Judgment. Vladimir was struck with the fear of God and said: "How good it will be for those on the right, but woe to them who are wicked and are cast to the left!" The Greek urged Vladimir to accept the truth of holy Orthodoxy and be baptized, but Vladimir recognized the importance of the decision he was to make and was not to be rushed. He summoned together his retinue and the Kievan elders to take counsel, explaining what he had heard from the various ambassadors. "Every man," they replied, "will commend his own religion. But send out your own envoys to examine how the different religions are practiced and the manner of worship," This suggestion seemed most judicious and ten men were promptly dispatched on this mission. On their return they related to the Grand Prince what they had witnessed: the Moslem religion was grim and full of fear; the Germans lacked beauty; but the Greek worship no tongue can describe, 'for during the service in their temple we knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth. No man, having tasted what is sweet, has any desire for what is bitter. So too, having experienced the Greek faith, we want no other." The elders supported the recommendation of the envoys: "If the Greek religion were not the best, your wise grandmother would not have adopted it."

    Vladimir needed no further persuading. Memories of his grandmother' s righteous life and the witness of Kiev' s Christian inhabitants settled his mind in favor of what he had heard. But it still remained for his heart to be converted.

    Pride hindered Vladimir from asking the Greeks outright for instruction and baptism. Applying a typically pagan solution, he went to war with the Greeks and captured their city of Kherson. As terms of peace, he demanded the hand of the Byzantine emperors' sister Anna in marriage. They agreed on condition that Vladimir accept the Christian faith. This accorded neatly with Vladimir's ultimate objective. But God was more interested in possessing his heart than his calculating mind. A few days before Princess Anna arrived in Kherson with her retinue of clergy and servants, Vladimir was struck with an eye disease which extinguished his sight. Fearing this to be a punishment from the pagan gods whom he was about to renounce, Vladimir wavered in his decision. Anna, upon hearing of this crisis, encouraged the Grand Prince to be baptized at once, and thereby to be healed not only of his physical blindness, but also of his spiritual blindness. Humbled by his helpless state, Vladimir sent immediately for the bishop of Kherson and, after a thorough preparation, the ceremony of baptism took place. No sooner had the bishop laid his hand on Vladimir's head and invoked the name of the All-holy Trinity than Vladimir's vision was restored, and he cried out: "Now have I come to know the true God!"

    This miracle confirmed the faith of the Grand Prince who became radically transformed. Returning to Kiev with his new Christian spouse and several priests, he set about cleansing the city from idolatry with orders to destroy the pagan statues and urging all to prepare for holy baptism. On August 1, 988, a countless multitude of young and old assembled in the waters of the Dneiper River. Vladimir stood on the bank and prayed for his people: "Creator of heaven and earth! bless these Thy new children, grant them to know Thee, the true God; strengthen them in the right faith! Be unto me a helper against evil temptation that I might worthily praise Thy holy name !"

    Vladimir's former passions were transformed into a zeal for good. From Constantinople he engaged skilled artisans to construct a magnificent church on the spot where, until so recently, the statue of Perun had stood. Another church,' dedicated to the Theotokos, was built where the two Varangians, Theodore and John, had been martyred. The Prince shared the apostolic work of the Greek bishops and priests who went about the towns and villages spreading the true Faith which thousands willingly embraced, although many remained stuck in the mire of paganism. Vladimir grieved for them, but knew that enlightenment was not to be achieved with a sword, Instead, he established schools where even children of the poorest families could learn to read the Scripture and be trained as priests.

    With Vladimir's conversion the fruits of the Spirit blossomed in his soul: love, joy, peace, long-suffering.., and a prominent concern for the needy. They could come to his residence at any time and receive alms. Those too sick or otherwise unable to come were sent carts laden with provisions--bread, meat, fish, vegetables, honey, kvass. On every major Church holiday, the Prince would give a feast at which one table was always laid for the poor.

    This is not to say that Vladimir was able to devote himself entirely to benevolent and missionary activities as a peacetime ruler. The fierce Pechenegs continued to raid the land of Rus and Vladimir was driven to battle. His victory, however, did not bring him as much joy as did the baptism of one of the Pecheneg princes, for whoever knows and loves the truth fervently desires that others come to this same knowledge.

    The kindness and generosity which the born-again Vladimir had for his subjects won their devotion and the respect of foreign rulers, and overshadowed the memory of his former pagan harshness. God granted him a long life which he filled with good deeds, and only the last years were marred by grief, a final cleansing, as it were, before he was received into eternity. His wife Anna, with whom he had shared 23 years of mutual counsel and love, reposed in 1011. More grievous was the perfidy of his two eldest sons, Sviatopolk and Yaroslav. An impending battle with the latter was checked when Vladimir fell ill. At the same time, news of a Pecheneg advance forced the elderly Prince to send to war his beloved young son Boris, while he remained in Kiev with Sviatopolk whom he had not long before imprisoned for having plotted against him with the Poles. The illness intensified and, on July 15, 1015, Vladimir reposed. The rays of this "Bright Sun" which had shed so much light, so much warmth, were eclipsed by death, but they continued to shine still more brightly in the heavens and were reflected in a multitude of saints and righteous who rose up, sanctifying the land of Rus to the glory of Jesus Christ and the praise of Equal-to-the-Apostles Volodymyr, Grand Prince of Kiev and slave of the true God.

Switch to: 

Subscribe (and order back issues) to Orthodox America
Order Books from Orthodox America

If you note problems with this site, please contact the Webmaster
© 1998-2006 by Nikodemos Orthodox Publication Society