Vladimir the Great: pagan, philanderer, saint

An 1889 depiction of St Vladimir the Great
An 1889 depiction of St Vladimir the Great

St Vladimir of Kiev, or Vladimir the Great, as he is also known, is one of the most unlikely saints in the Christian calendar. He is still venerated today as the father of Christianity in Russia and the Ukraine, yet for much of his life he was the very stereotype of a pagan king: bloodthirsty, lecherous and fratricidal. Vladimir was born in 956 to Prince Sviatoslav of Kiev and his housekeeper Malusha. Norse sagas claim that Malusha was a prophetess who lived to the age of 100. Sviatoslav was the ruler of the Kievan Rus, a loose federation of East Slavic tribes in Europe which existed from the late 9th to the mid-13th century. Sviatoslav also had two legitimate sons, Oleg and Yaropolk.

Perhaps in order to prevent family infighting, Sviatoslav decided to entrust parts of his realm to his sons during his lifetime. Kiev, as the most important city, was given to the eldest son, Yaropolk, and Vladimir received the fiefdom of Novgorod. Sviatoslav did indeed manage to remain at peace with his children – no small feat in medieval Europe – but upon his death in 972, civil war broke out between Oleg and Yaropolk. Vladimir was forced to flee to Norway in 977. He gathered together an army of Norse warriors in order to take back Novgorod, but his ambitions ranged beyond the re-taking of his own territory. Probably he saw the disunity of his brothers as a chance to gain ultimate control of the Kievan Rus. He was unwittingly helped in his attempt by Yaropolk, who murdered Oleg; now only one brother stood between Vladimir and the crown. Vladimir’s military campaign against Yaropolk proved very successful; within a year he managed to subdue the major towns and seize Kiev. He had Yaropolk assasinated and declared himself the ruler of all Kievan Rus.

A gold coin of Vladimir the Great
A gold coin of Vladimir the Great

Although Vladimir was an illegitimate usurper, he managed to retain his power. His early reign was marked by licentious behaviour, strong expansionist policies and the persecution of Christians. On the first point, his philandering tendencies, when combined with ultimate power, led many women to miserable fates. When he was on the way to attack Yaropolk with his Norse warriors back in 977-8, Vladimir decided that he wanted to marry Rogneda, the daughter of Rogvolod, Prince of Polotsk. She refused to ally herself with a man born of a bondswoman (referring of course to his illegitimacy), at which insult Vladimir attacked Polotsk, killed Prince Rogvolod and abducted Rogneda. His brutal behaviour continued when he reached Kiev.After he had Yaropolk murdered, Vladimir proceeded to rape his newly-widowed sister-in-law. Since the paganism practised by many Kievan Rus allowed polygamy, in the ten years before he converted to Christianity Vladimir is said to have had 800 concubines and numerous wives. After his conversion, Vladimir seemed content to have one wife at a time, but for now he enjoyed all the benefits of paganism. Although Christianity had been spreading in the region for some decades, Vladimir remained uncompromisingly pagan. He erected many heathen statues and shrines to the gods, and turned a blind eye to the periodic outbursts of mob violence against Christians.

 

A fanciful depiction of Vladimir's abduction of Rogneda. ~ By the Ukrainian artist Anton Losenko (1770)
A fanciful depiction of Vladimir’s abduction of Rogneda. ~ Anton Losenko (1770)

However, it seems that in the late 980s, Vladimir started to turn his attention to religion and mull over alternatives to the paganism of the Kievan Rus; partly, perhaps, because envoys from surrounding kingdoms kept on urging him to convert to their particular faith. Thus, according to the early Slavic Primary Chronicle, after consulting with his nobles, Vladimir sent envoys throughout the civilised world to judge first hand the major religions of the time; Islam, Judaism, Byzantine Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism. The Primary Chronicle describes the results of the embassies as follows.

Of the Muslim Bulgarians of the Volga, the envoys reported that there was no gladness among them, only sorrow and a great stench. The Primary Chronicle writer also noted that Islam was an unattractive religion due to its taboo on pork and alcoholic drinks; Vladimir is supposed to have remarked on the occasion, “drinking is the joy of all Rus. We cannot exist without that pleasure”. As for Judaism, we are told that Vladimir viewed the Jews’ loss of Jerusalem as a sign that they had been abandoned by God.

Finally there were the embassies to Christian lands. The Rus emissaries found no beauty in the gloomy Roman Catholic churches in Germany, but were highly impressed by the pomp and circumstance of the Byzantine Orthodox Church. Speaking of a magnificent religious service at the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, they wrote home to say “we no longer knew whether we were in heaven or earth…such beauty, we know not how to tell of it. We only know that God dwells there among the people, and their service is fairer than the ceremonies of other nations”. Of course, this source is highly unreliable as it was written by a Christian scholar after the Kievan Rus were Christianised, but it nevertheless makes for an interesting tale. At any rate, it seems that Vladimir found Byzantine Orthodoxy an attractive prospect, all the more so because of the potential political gains of an alliance with the Byzantine Empire.

Vladimir choosing a religion ~ Ivan Eggink (1822)
Vladimir choosing a religion. ~ Ivan Eggink (1822)

The actual events surrounding Vladimir’s conversion are rather hazy, with Kievan and Arab chroniclers giving quite different accounts. The Primary Chronicle says that Vladimir decided to seize the Byzantine town of Chersonesos in a bold move to show his strength and force the Emperor’s hand. Vladimir proceeded to demand the hand of in marriage of Emperor Basil’s sister, Anna, threatening to advance on Constantinople if his proposition was denied. He was granted Anna’s hand on the condition that he would convert and Christianise his people. Arab sources, on the other hand, link Vladimir with the major rebellion which Basil faced in 987. According to numerous Arab chroniclers, Basil turned to his erstwhile enemy Vladimir for help in quelling the uprising. The Kievan ruler agreed to assist Basil on condition of a marital tie. Once the wedding arrangements with Anna were finalised, he sent the emperor 6,000 soldiers and was baptised at Chersonesos.

The baptism of Vladimir at Chersonesos. ~Viktor Vasnetsov (1890)
The baptism of Vladimir at Chersonesos. ~Viktor Vasnetsov (1890)

However it came about, the fact that Vladimir managed to marry the Emperor’s own sister is truly astounding. Never before had a pagan barbarian married a Byzantine princess; matrimonial suits from French kings and German emperors had hitherto been peremptorily rejected. By all accounts the 27-year-old Anna was very unwilling to marry Vladimir. She was, after all, required to leave behind her luxurious life in a magnificent Christian city, in order to travel to wild barbarian lands with a king who was only newly-baptised and already had hundreds of wives and concubines (whom he promptly disowned). Nevertheless, her own inclinations were sacrificed in the interests of state policy, and she spent the journey to her new home in great distress.

Once Vladimir got back to Kiev, he embarked on his program of Christianisation with great energy. He ordered pagan shrines and statues to be smashed and burned with the same enthusiasm as he had built them in the first place. He baptised his twelve sons and many of the nobility. In an iconic scene from the Primary Chronicle, Vladimir sent a message one day to all the residents of Kiev, “rich, and poor, and beggars, and slaves” to come to the river Dnieper, lest they risk becoming the “prince’s enemies”. A large number of people did turn up, and they were baptised en masse by Orthodox priests who had been brought in from Chersonesos for the occasion.

The great baptism of Kiev was followed by similar ceremonies in urban centres around the country. Notwithstanding the official endorsement of Christianity, there was resistance to the new religion. Frequently, officials were obliged to use violence in order to get people to convert. For instance, Vladimir’s uncle, Dobrynya, apparently had to force the people of Novgorod into Christianity “by fire”, whilst the local mayor ‘persuaded’ his compatriots to convert “by the sword”. Paganism did persist for a long while, surfacing during the Upper Volga Rising and other protests.

The baptism of Kievans. ~ Klavdiy Vasilievich Lebedev (19th century)
The baptism of Kievans. ~ Klavdiy Vasilievich Lebedev (19th century)

As for Vladimir, he poured his energy into expanding his dominions and founding numerous schools, monasteries and churches. In his later years he lived at relative peace with his neighbours in Poland, Hungary and the Czech lands. Unfortunately he could not achieve harmony in his own family; he had constant trouble with his rebellious eldest sons. Like his father, he had already parcelled out various fiefdoms to his sons, having given Novgorod to his eldest, Yaroslav. However, for reasons which remain unclear, Yaroslav revolted against his father and refused to render either service or tribute. Though relatively old at 57, Vladimir prepared to march against his disobedient son and take back Novgorod. However, he fell ill on the journey and died. Vladimir was canonised and is still venerated today as the man who turned Russia and Ukraine into Christian countries.

Imperial Russia in colour: mountains, forests and lakes

In the early 1900s, Russian photographer Sergei Produkin-Gorskii decided to take a photographic survey of the Russian Empire and its neighbouring countries. It was an absurdly ambitious scheme which saw him travel thousands of miles over the course of five years, but he managed to get the support of Tsar Nicholas II, who gave him the necessary permits and a special railway carriage fitted out with a dark room. The result was a vivid collection of over 3,000 colour photographs depicting a lost world. The photographs would be interesting enough in black and white, but the fact that they are in colour makes them truly fascinating. However often we remind ourselves that life in the past was lived in colour just as now, it’s very hard to actually internalise that. This is why these photographs are so incredible; it is difficult to believe that we are actually looking back 100 years in time, when many of the landscape shots look as if they could have been taken just yesterday. These images help us to re-imagine the past.

 

Produkin-Gorskii employed the most advanced techniques available in order to create this wonderful collection. He used a special camera to capture three black and white images in quick succession, using red, green and blue filters which allowed the images to later be recombined and projected with filtered lanterns to create near true colour photographs. Thanks to the American Library of Congress, which purchased the glass slides in 1945, thousands of the images are freely available online. I have picked out around a hundred of the best images and sorted them into four different categories, each of which will be the subject of a different post.The theme of this post is landscapes. Produkin-Gorskii had an eye for the beautiful and the unusual, with the result that his landscape photography is fascinating and diverse, showcasing all the different landscapes of Russia and beyond. Here is a small selection of photographs which are stunning in their intricate detail and vivid colours.
Sunset in Gagra, on the Black Sea (Produkin-Gorskii Collection/LOC)
Sunset in Gagra, on the Black Sea (Produkin-Gorskii Collection/LOC)
Self portrait on the Karolitskhali River
Self portrait on the Karolitskhali River
On the seashore at Uzurgety (Produkin-Gorskii Collection/LOC)
On the seashore at Uzurgety (Produkin-Gorskii Collection/LOC)
Study of Chertovo Gorodishche (Produkin-Gorskii Collection/LOC)
Study of Chertovo Gorodishche (Produkin-Gorskii Collection/LOC)
Railroad tracks through desert dunes, Central Asia (Produkin-Gorskii Collection/LOC)
Railroad tracks through desert dunes, Central Asia (Produkin-Gorskii Collection/LOC)
Sleeping dog at Lindozero (Produkin-Gorskii Collection/LOC)
Sleeping dog at Lindozero (Produkin-Gorskii Collection/LOC)
Field of poppies (Produkin-Gorskii Collection/LOC)
Field of poppies (Produkin-Gorskii Collection/LOC)
Bird cherry tress (Produkin-Gorskii Collection/LOC)
Bird cherry tress (Produkin-Gorskii Collection/LOC)
Drying nets on Lake Seliger (Produkin-Gorskii Collection/LOC)
Drying nets on Lake Seliger (Produkin-Gorskii Collection/LOC)
General view of Artvin from the small town of Svet. Caucasus (Produkin-Gorskii Collectrion/LOC)
General view of Artvin from the small town of Svet. Caucasus (Produkin-Gorskii Collectrion/LOC)
Trans-Siberian Railway metal truss bridge on stone piers, over the Kama river near Perm, Ural Mountains (Produkin-Gorskii Collection/LOC)
Trans-Siberian Railway metal truss bridge on stone piers, over the Kama river near Perm, Ural Mountains (Produkin-Gorskii Collection/LOC)
Peasant women sitting by a lake (Produkin-Gorskii Collection/LOC)
Peasant women sitting by a lake (Produkin-Gorskii Collection/LOC)
Mills in the Ialutorovsk district of Tobolsk Province (Produkin-Gorskii Collection/LOC)
Mills in the Ialutorovsk district of Tobolsk Province (Produkin-Gorskii Collection/LOC)
Washing brown iron ore at the Shilovskii mine seven versts from the village of Makarovo
Washing brown iron ore at the Shilovskii mine, near the village of Makaravo (Produkin-Gorskii Collection/LOC)
Rice fields in Samarkand
Rice fields in Samarkand

Imperial Russia in colour: exotic lands

In the early 1900s, Russian photographer Sergei Produkin-Gorskii decided to take a photographic survey of the Russian Empire and its neighbouring countries. It was an absurdly ambitious scheme which saw him travel thousands of miles over the course of five years, but he managed to get the support of Tsar Nicholas II, who gave him the necessary permits and a special railway carriage fitted out with a dark room. The result was a vivid collection of over 3,000 colour photographs depicting a lost world. Produkin-Gorskii employed the most advanced techniques available in order to create this wonderful collection. He used a special camera to capture three black and white images in quick succession, using red, green and blue filters which allowed the images to later be recombined and projected with filtered lanterns to create near true colour photographs. Thanks to the American Library of Congress, which purchased the glass slides in 1945, thousands of the images are freely available online. I have picked out around a hundred of the best images and sorted them into three different categories, each of which is the subject of a different post.

 

The theme of this post is ‘exotic lands’. Produkin-Gorskii travelled beyond the fertile plains, steppes and taiga of Russia, into Armenia, northern China, Central Asia and what was then Samarkand. This throws up pictures seemingly from a different world, where turbaned mullahs sit in mosques, water-sellers pose in front of mud brick buildings, and nomads wander the steppe in search of new pasture.
Sart woman
Sart woman, Samarkand (Produkin-Gorskii Collection/LOC)
melon vendor
Melon vendor, Samarkand (Produkin-Gorskii Collection/LOC)
street scene
Street scene with vendors, minaret in background (Produkin-Gorskii Collection/LOC)
artvin
General view of Artvin from the small town of Svet. Caucasus Mountains (Produkin-Gorskii Collection/LOC)
water carrier
Water carrier, Samarkand (Produkin-Gorskii Collection/LOC)
armenian woman
Armenian woman in national costume (Produkin-Gorskii Collection/LOC)
tillia-kari
In the court of Tillia-Kari Mosque, Samarkand (Produkin-Gorskii Collection/LOC)
greek women
Greek women harvesting tea at Chakra (Produkin-Gorskii Collection/LOC)
woman in front of a yurt
Woman in front of a yurt; possibly of Turkman or Kirghiz origin (Produkin-Gorskii Collection/LOC)
dagestani types
Dagestani types (Produkin-Gorskii Collection/LOC)
fabric merchant
Fabric merchant, Samarkand. His wares include carpets and fabrics of silk, cotton and wool. A framed picture of the Koran hangs above the stall. Produkin-Gorskii Collection/LOC)
sand dunes
Dunes (Produkin-Gorskii Collection/LOC)
georgian woan
Georgian woman (Produkin-Gorskii Collection/LOC)
jewish children
Jewish children with their teacher in Samarkand (Produkin-Gorskii Collection/wikipedia)
mines
At the Saliuktin mines, on the outskirts of Samarkand (Produkin-Gorskii Collection/LOC)
karagach tree
Karagach tree, Samarkand (Produkin-Gorskii Collection/LOC)
dagestani types 2
Dagestani types (Produkin-Gorskii Collection/LOC)
hookah pipe
Man with hookah pipe (Produkin-Gorskii Collection/wikipedia)
nomadic kiegiz
Nomadic Kirghiz, Golodnaia Steppe (Produkin-Gorskii Collection/LCO)
bukhara
Stork’s nest on a mosque in Bukhara (Produkin-Gorskii Collection/wikipedia)
tea factory
Tea factory in Chakva. Chinese foreman Lau-Dzhen-Dzhau (Produkin-Gorskii Collection/wikipedia)
camel
Man with camel loaded with sacks (Produkin-Gorskii Collection/LOC)

Imperial Russia in colour: peasants and elites

In the early 1900s, Russian photographer Sergei Produkin-Gorskii decided to take a photographic survey of the Russian Empire and its neighbouring countries. It was an absurdly ambitious scheme which saw him travel thousands of miles over the course of five years, but he managed to get the support of Tsar Nicholas II, who gave him the necessary permits and a special railway carriage fitted out with a dark room. The result was a vivid collection of over 3,000 colour photographs depicting a lost world. The photographs would be interesting enough in black and white, but the fact that they are in colour makes them truly fascinating. However often we remind ourselves that life in the past was lived in colour just as now, it’s very hard to actually internalise that. This is why these photographs are so incredible; it is difficult to believe that we are actually looking back 100 years in time, when many of the landscape shots look as if they could have been taken just yesterday. These images help us to re-imagine the past.

 

Produkin-Gorskii employed the most advanced techniques available in order to create this wonderful collection. He used a special camera to capture three black and white images in quick succession, using red, green and blue filters which allowed the images to later be recombined and projected with filtered lanterns to create near true colour photographs. Thanks to the American Library of Congress, which purchased the glass slides in 1945, thousands of the images are freely available online. I have picked out around a hundred of the best images and sorted them into three different categories, each of which will be the subject of a different post. The theme of this post is ‘peasants and elites’. I have aimed to highlight the rigid social hierarchy of late imperial Russia where peasants lived in rural squalour doing back-breaking work for their feudal masters, whilst the Orthodox church with its gilded buildings was steeped in money and privilege, and the high nobility were dancing the latest Austrian waltzes in their fantastically opulent palaces.
Bashkir woman in folk costume (Produkin-Gorskii Collection/LOC)
Bashkir woman in folk costume (Produkin-Gorskii Collection/LOC)
Isfandiyar, the penultimate Khan of the Russian Protectorate of Khiva (Produkin-Gorskii Collection/LOC)
Isfandiyar, the penultimate Khan of the Russian Protectorate of Khiva (Produkin-Gorskii Collection/LOC)
At harvest time (Produkin-Gorskii Collection/LOC)
At harvest time (Produkin-Gorskii Collection/LOC)
Monument to Emperor Peter the Great in Lodeinoe Pole (Produkin-Gorskii Collection/LOC)
Monument to Emperor Peter the Great in Lodeinoe Pole (Produkin-Gorskii Collection/LOC)
Boy leaning against a wooden gate at sunset (Produkin-Gorskii Collection/LOC)
Boy leaning against a wooden gate at sunset (Produkin-Gorskii Collection/LOC)
Peasant girls with bowls of fruit, in a rural area along the Sheksna river (Produkin-Gorskii Collection/wikipedia)
Peasant girls with bowls of fruit, in a rural area along the Sheksna river (Produkin-Gorskii Collection/wikipedia)
The Kharitonov Palace in Ektarinenburg, late 18th century (Produkin-Gorskii Collection/LOC)
The Kharitonov Palace in Ektarinenburg, late 18th century (Produkin-Gorskii Collection/LOC)
Woman breaking flax, Perm province (Produkin-Gorskii Collection/wikipedia)
Woman breaking flax, Perm province (Produkin-Gorskii Collection/wikipedia)
Prisoners in shackles (Produkin-Gorskii Collection/LOC)
Prisoners in shackles (Produkin-Gorskii Collection/LOC)
Evgeniev spring at Borzhom, a resort town in present-day Georgia (Produkin-Gorskii Collection/wikipedia)
Evgeniev spring at Borzhom, a resort town in present-day Georgia (Produkin-Gorskii Collection/wikipedia)
Tajik man, Samarkand (Produkin-Gorskii Collection/wikipedia)
Tajik man, Samarkand (Produkin-Gorskii Collection/wikipedia)
Monastery of St. Nil, Lake Seliger, Tver Province (Produkin -Gorskii Collection/wikipedia)
Monastery of St. Nil, Lake Seliger, Tver Province (Produkin -Gorskii Collection/wikipedia)
Miraculous icon in the church of the Nativity of the Virgin Mary, Smolensk (Produkin-Gorskii Collection/wikipedia)
Miraculous icon in the church of the Nativity of the Virgin Mary, Smolensk (Produkin-Gorskii Collection/wikipedia)
Settler family in settlement of Grafovka (Produkin-Gorskii Collection/LOC)
Settler family in settlement of Grafovka (Produkin-Gorskii Collection/LOC)
Palace in the village of Borodino (Produkin-Gorskii Collection/LOC)
Palace in the village of Borodino (Produkin-Gorskii Collection/LOC)
Orphans in the snow (Produkin-Gorskii Collection/LOC)
Orphans in the snow (Produkin-Gorskii Collection/LOC)
Leo Tolstoy in 1908 (Produkin-Gorskii Collection/wikipedia)
Leo Tolstoy in 1908 (Produkin-Gorskii Collection/wikipedia)
Harvest time (Produkin-Gorskii Collection/LOC)
Harvest time (Produkin-Gorskii Collection/LOC)
Mohammed Alim Khan, the last Emir of Bukhara (Produkin-Gorskii Collection/LOC)
Mohammed Alim Khan, the last Emir of Bukhara (Produkin-Gorskii Collection/LOC)
Shepherd in Samarkand (Produkin-Gorskii Collection/LOC)
Shepherd in Samarkand (Produkin-Gorskii Collection/LOC)