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Vladimir Svyatoslavich the Great, also sometimes spelled Volodymer Old East Slavic: Володимеръ Святославичь (c. 958 – 15 July 1015, Berestovomarker) was the grand prince of Kievmarker who converted to Christianity in 988, and proceeded to baptise the whole Kievan Rus'. His name may be spelled in different ways: in modern Ukrainian as Volodymyr (Володимир), in Old Church Slavonic and modern Russian as Vladimir (Владимир), in Old Norse as Valdamarr and the modern Scandinavian languages as Valdemar.

Way to the throne

Vladimir and Rogneda (1770).
Vladimir was born in 958 and was the youngest son of Sviatoslav I of Kiev by his housekeeper Malusha, described in the Norse sagas as a prophetess who lived to the age of 100 and was brought from her cave to the palace to predict the future. Malusha's brother Dobrynya was Vladimir's tutor and most trusted advisor. Hagiographic tradition of dubious authenticity also connects his childhood with the name of his grandmother, Olga Prekrasa, who was Christian and governed the capital during Sviatoslav's frequent military campaigns.

Transferring his capital to Pereyaslavetsmarker in 969, Sviatoslav designated Vladimir ruler of Novgorod the Greatmarker but gave Kiev to his legitimate son Yaropolk. After Sviatoslav's death (972), a fratricidal war erupted (976) between Yaropolk and his younger brother Oleg, ruler of the Drevlians. In 977 Vladimir fled to his kinsmen Haakon Sigurdsson, ruler of Norwaymarker in Scandinavia, collecting as many of the Viking warriors as he could to assist him to recover Novgorod, and on his return the next year marched against Yaropolk.

On his way to Kiev he sent ambassadors to Rogvolod (Norse: Ragnvald), prince of Polotskmarker, to sue for the hand of his daughter Rogneda (Norse: Ragnhild). The well-born princess refused to affiance herself to the son of a bondswoman, but Vladimir attacked Polotsk, slew Rogvolod, and took Ragnhild by force. Actually, Polotsk was a key fortress on the way to Kiev, and the capture of Polotsk and Smolenskmarker facilitated the taking of Kiev (980), where he slew Yaropolk by treachery, and was proclaimed konung, or khagan, of all Kievan Rus.

Years of pagan rule

In addition to his father's extensive domain, Vladimir continued to expand his territories. In 981 he conquered the Cherven cities, the modern Galicia; in 983 he subdued the Yatvingians, whose territories lay between Lithuania and Polandmarker; in 985 he led a fleet along the central rivers of the Kievan Rus' to conquer the Bulgar of the Kama, planting numerous fortresses and colonies on his way.

Though Christianity had won many converts since Olga's rule, Vladimir had remained a thorough going pagan, taking eight hundred concubines (besides numerous wives) and erecting pagan statues and shrines to gods. It is argued that he attempted to reform Slavic paganism by establishing thunder-god Perun as a supreme deity."Although Christianity in Kiev existed before Vladimir’s time, he had remained a pagan, accumulated about seven wives, established temples, and, it is said, taken part in idolatrous rites involving human sacrifice."

"In 983, after another of his military successes, Prince Vladimir and his army thought it necessary to sacrifice human lives to the gods. A lot was cast and it fell on a youth, Ioann by name, the son of a Christian, Fyodor. His father stood firmly against his son being sacrificed to the idols. More than that, he tried to show the pagans the futility of their faith:

“Your gods are just plain wood: 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 worshipped 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 open abuse of the deities, to which most of our forefathers bowed in reverence in those times, triggered widespread indignation. Rampant crowds killed the Christian Fyodor and his son Ioann. Later on, after the overall christening of Russia, people came to regard them as the first Christian martyrs in Russia and the Orthodox Church set a day to commemorate them — July 25.

Immediately after the murder of Fyodor and Ioann Ancient Russia saw persecutions against Christians, many of which had to escape or conceal their belief.

However, Prince Vladimir mused over the incident long after, and not in the last place, for political considerations too. The chronicles have it that different preachers came to the Prince, each offering a particular faith. Vladimir spoke to Muslims, Catholics, Jews but for different reasons rejected all the religions. Finally, a Greek philosopher told the prince of the Old and New Testaments and presented him with a canvas depicting Doomsday. When he learned of what the unrepentant were in for, Prince Vladimir went numb with horror and after a short pause said with a sigh: “Blessed are the good doers and damned are the evil!”"

Baptism of Rus'

The Primary Chronicle reports that in the year 987, as the result of a consultation with his boyars, Vladimir sent envoys to study the religions of the various neighboring nations whose representatives had been urging him to embrace their respective faiths. The result is amusingly described by the chronicler Nestor. Of the Muslim Bulgarians of the Volga the envoys reported there is no gladness among them; only sorrow and a great stench, and that their religion was undesirable due to its taboo against alcoholic beverages and pork; supposedly, Vladimir said on that occasion: "Drinking is the joy of the Rus'." Russian sources also describe Vladimir consulting with Jewish envoys (who may or may not have been Khazars), and questioning them about their religion but ultimately rejecting it, saying that their loss of Jerusalemmarker was evidence of their having been abandoned by God. Ultimately Vladimir settled on Christianity. In the churches of the Germans his emissaries saw no beauty; but at Constantinoplemarker, where the full festival ritual of the Byzantine Church was set in motion to impress them, they found their ideal: "We no longer knew whether we were in heaven or on earth," they reported, describing a majestic Divine Liturgy in Hagia Sophiamarker, "nor such beauty, and we know not how to tell of it." If Vladimir was impressed by this account of his envoys, he was yet more so by political gains of the Byzantine alliance.

In 988, having taken the town of Chersonesos in Crimeamarker, he boldly negotiated for the hand of the emperor Basil II's sister, Anna. Never before had a Byzantine imperial princess, and one "born-in-the-purple" at that, married a barbarian, as matrimonial offers of French kings and German emperors had been peremptorily rejected. In short, to marry the 27-year-old princess off to a pagan Slav seemed impossible. Vladimir, however, was baptized at Cherson, taking the Christian name of Basil out of compliment to his imperial brother-in-law; the sacrament was followed by his wedding with Anna. Returning to Kiev in triumph, he destroyed pagan monuments and established many churches, starting with the splendid Church of the Tithesmarker (989) and monasteries on Mt. Athos.

Arab sources, both Muslim and Christian, present a different story of Vladimir's conversion. Yahya of Antioch, al-Rudhrawari, al-Makin, al-Dimashki, and ibn al-Athir all give essentially the same account. In 987, Bardas Sclerus and Bardas Phocas revolted against the Byzantine emperor Basil II. Both rebels briefly joined forces, but then Bardas Phocas proclaimed himself emperor on September 14, 987. Basil II turned to the Kievan Rus' for assistance, even though they were considered enemies at that time. Vladimir agreed, in exchange for a marital tie; he also agreed to accept Orthodox Christianity as his religion and bring his people to the new faith. When the wedding arrangements were settled, Vladimir dispatched 6,000 troops to the Byzantine Empire and they helped to put down the revolt.

Christian reign

He then formed a great council out of his boyars, and set his twelve sons over his subject principalities.

It is mentioned in the Primary Chronicle that Vladimir founded the city of Belgorodmarker in 991.

In 992 he went on a campaign against the Croats, most likely the White Croats (an East Slavic group unrelated to the Croats of Dalmatia) that lived on the border of modern Ukrainemarker. This campaign was cut short by the attacks of the Pechenegs on and around Kievmarker.

In his later years he lived in a relative peace with his other neighbors: Boleslav I of Poland, Stephen I of Hungary, Andrikh the Czech (questionable character mentioned in A Tale of the Bygone Years).

After Anna's death, he married again, most likely to a granddaughter of Otto the Great.

In 1014 his son Yaroslav the Wise stopped paying tribute. Vladimir decided to chastise the insolence of his son, and began gathering troops against Yaroslav. However, Vladimir fell ill, most likely of old age and died at Berestovo, near Kiev.

The various parts of his dismembered body were distributed among his numerous sacred foundations and were venerated as relics.

Vladimir's significance and historical footprint

One of the largest Kievan cathedralsmarker is dedicated to him. The University of Kiev was named after the man who Christianized Kievan Rus. There is the Russian Order of St. Vladimir and Saint Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminarymarker in the United Statesmarker. The Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches celebrate the feast day of St. Vladimir on 15 July.

His memory was also kept alive by innumerable Russian folk ballads and legends, which refer to him as Krasno Solnyshko, that is, the Fair Sun. With him the Varangian period of Eastern Slavic history ceases and the Christian period begins.

See also



  • Golden, P.B. (2006) "Rus." Encyclopaedia of Islam (Brill Online). Eds.: P. Bearman, Th. Bianquis, C.E. Bosworth, E. van Donzel and W.P. Heinrichs. Brill.

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