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.

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2 thoughts on “Vladimir the Great: pagan, philanderer, saint

  1. It seems this man had a better grasp on the Russian reality than Mikhail Gorbachev and the latter’s anti-vodka campaign…

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