Commemorated on July 15
The Holy Equal to the Apostles and Great Prince Vladimir, the youngest son of Prince Svyatoslav of Kiev, was born in 963. He was only six years old when his grandmother, the Holy Princess Olga (July 11), who had raised him, reposed, and his father sent him to reign in Novgorod under the tutelage of the voivode Dobryn, his mother’s brother. Princess Malusha, who still bore her Scandinavian name Malchrid, was a Christian. After Saint Vladimir converted to Christianity and founded the church of the Tithes at Kiev, she donated her estate to it.
Saint Olga’s son Prince Svyatoslav was killed in battle with the Pechenegs three years after his mother’s repose. Then his sons’ tutors fought a war among themselves. Christian Kiev and pagan Novgorod struggled for supremacy. After the death of his father Svyatoslav in 972, Prince Vladimir of Novgorod was forced to flee to Scandinavia in 976, Vladimir’s brother Yaropolk murdered his other brother Oleg of Drelinia and conquered Rus’. For the rest of his life Prince Vladimir mourned their deaths.
At the age of seventeen he began to rule on his own. He spent the first six years of his reign on military campaigns, leading his army personally, reconquering Novgorod from Yaropolk. By 980, Vladimir had consolidated the territory of Kievan Rus’ from what is now Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine to the Baltic Sea. In addition, he strengthened the frontiers against the incursions of Bulgarians, Baltic tribes, and Eastern nomads.
All the Slavic tribes from the Carpathians and the Neman, and the city of Gorodyon (Grodno) to Beloozero, Anka and Volga united to form a single whole – the Russian land (Русскую землo), and they were called Russians. In gratitude for his victory at Kiev he set up idols of pagan gods – Perun and Beles – and offered them human sacrifices. In ancient times, the Slavs did not have idols and sacrifices, but adopted them much later from other pagan lands.
In the VI century, the Greeks said of them: “They recognize one God as the Ruler of the whole world.” He was called Svarog, which means “blue sky.” Perun, Veles, and other, lesser deities were thought to be his children. The Slavs believed in the immortality of the soul and in the afterlife, which predisposed them toward Christianity.
In the year 860 the Russians attacked Constantinople from the sea, but the Greeks immersed the robe of the Most Holy Theotokos in the ocean. The sea became agitated, and the Russian ships were swept away and retreated. After that, they sent an embassy to Constantinople to request Baptism. This was the first Baptism of Rus’.
Also in 860 Saint Cyril, the enlightener of the Slavs, baptized 200 families in the southern Russian steppes. He made his own translation of the Gospel and the Psalter. Metropolitan Michael was sent to care for the converts, and the Prince gathered the people and called them to be baptized. The elders agreed, but they demanded a miracle. They wanted a Gospel book to be thrown into the fire without being burnt. The Gospel was thrown in, the miracle occurred, and the people were baptized. This was the second Baptism of Rus’.
The third took place under Princess Olga. By that time, there were already many Christians in Kiev and there was a church dedicated to the Prophet Elijah. After Saint Olga’s repose, the spread of Christianity was halted temporarily, but not for long. The time of Prince Vladimir had come.
In those days, Kiev was a large trading city. Merchants came from all over the world, as well as preachers of various religions. Saint Vladimir wanted to unite his people, not just under one government, but also under one Faith. The Prince sent envoys to various countries to see which religion would be most suitable for his people. When Vladimir’s emissaries returned from Constantinople, they told him that when they stood in the church of Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom), they did not know “whether they were on earth or in heaven.”
Kiev was located on a great waterway from the Varangian region to Constantinople; that is, from Scandinavia to the Byzantine Empire. The proximity of Orthodox Constantinople may have influenced Saint Vladimir, and the memory of Christianity, recently destroyed by Svyatoslav, was revived. According to the XI century writer Jacob Mnikh, the young Prince Vladimir remembered the example of his grandmother, Princess Olga, “the wisest of men,” as she was called by her contemporaries. Furthermore, he could not help being influenced by the example of his mother, the Christian Princess Malusha, as well. The heroic death of Holy Protomartyrs Theodore and his son John (July 12) in 983 also made a lasting impression on him.
In one Icelandic saga it is said that in his youth, King Olaf of Norway had lived for a long time at the court of “the Gardarikian king Vol’demar” (Gardarika, that is, the land of cities. The Scandinavians called it Northwestern Russia). When he reached adulthood, he left there on military campaigns, according to the custom of the Scandinavians of that time. While upon the sea, he heard a heavenly voice calling him to Constantinople, where he would come to know the only true God. There he was baptized, and on the way back, he stopped to see King Vol’demar and urged him to convert to Christianity. When he returned from his campaign as a Christian, King Olaf encouraged his people to be baptized.
Prince Vladimir, however, was still a pagan, and he adhered to pagan customs. He also had five wives. How he was brought to Christ, and how his conversion was took place, remains a mystery.
Metropolitan Hilarion († 1053) in his “Word of Law and Grace,” addressed the departed Great Prince Vladimir, saying, “How did you believe? How was your mind moved to love what is unseen, and to strive for heavenly things? You have not seen any Apostle who, after coming to your land, inclined your heart to humility. Guided only by your kind heart and sharp mind, you realized that there is one God.”
He continued: “Upon him came a visitation of the Most High, and the eye of the All-Merciful God looked upon him; and a thought shone forth in his heart – he realized the futility of idol worship, and sought the one God, the Creator of all things, both visible and invisible. He had heard about the Orthodox, and the strong Christ-loving faith of the Byzantine Empire, who honor the one God in Trinity, and worship Him. When he heard all this, he was aflame in spirit, and with all his heart he longed to be a Christian, and to convert his entire land to Christianity.”
As to the reason for the conversion of Saint Vladimir to Christ, another writer of the XI century, Saint Nestor the Chronicler (October 27) states in his Life of Saints Boris and Gleb: “In those years there was a Prince named Vladimir, who ruled the Russian land. He was righteous and merciful to the poor, to orphans, and to widows, but he was a pagan. God intervened and made him a Christian, just like Saint Eustathios Plakidas (September 20). So Prince Vladimir became a Christian, receiving the name Basil at his Baptism.”
Although Venerable Nestor the Chronicler pointed out that the Holy Prince Vladimir’s experience was similar to that of Saint Eustathios, the exact details are not known. Meanwhile, by the will of God, external events led Saint Vladimir to the fulfillment of his desire. The Byzantine Emperors Constantine and Basil asked Vladimir to help them put down the revolt of Phokas. Vladimir agreed, but asked for the hand of Princess Anna Porphyrogenita, in return. The Emperors agreed, and sent clergy and the sacred utensils required for the Baptism of Rus’.
But when Vladimir defeated Phokas, they did not fulfill their obligations. Then Vladimir conquered Korsun, thereby forcing the Emperors to keep their promise. He returned Korsun to the Greeks as a ransom for his bride. His army was baptized and, according to the “Tale of the Baptism of Russia,” he himself was baptized. This was in 988, and the Chronicle says that before Baptism he became blind, but received his sight when he came out of the water. However, Jacob Mnikh (XI century) writes that Vladimir captured Korsun when he was already a Christian, and that he was baptized in 987 at his estate Vasiliev (now Vasilkov).
When Prince Vladimir returned to Kiev, the Orthodox priests who came with him were obviously Bulgarians (Bulgaria was then subject to the Byzantine Empire). They baptized the people of Kiev at the confluence of the river, then called Khreshchatyk, with the Dnieper. They brought with them liturgical books translated into Slavonic by Saints Cyril and Methodios (May 11), the enlighteners of the Slavs. With them was Metropolitan Michael of Kiev (June 15, September 30). At Kiev, where people had heard of Christianity, the Faith was quickly established. In the north, at Novgorod, Rostov, and Murom, paganism lasted longer, and it took a great deal of effort for princes and preachers to uproot it.
Prince Vladimir was twenty-five years old at the Baptism of Rus’. With all the fervor of youth, he began to fulfill the precepts of Christ, especially those about helping the poor, sick and disadvantaged. This assistance was provided on a large scale. Throughout Russia, the poor were sought and were given everything they needed, and the sick also received treatment. During Saint Vladimir’s reign, the state served the people, which was very unusual in those days. In ancient times there was no death penalty in Russia. Instead, there was a “penalty,” that is, a monetary fine. Saint Vladimir confirmed this custom, saying: “I am afraid of sin.” This custom became law and entered the Code of Laws compiled under his son, Great Prince Yaroslav under the name “Russkaya Pravda.”
The people loved their Prince, praising him in songs and epics, calling him the Beautiful Sun. Saint Vladimir summoned the elders of the people from all over Russia for meetings and provided feasts for them. The memory of these feasts is also preserved in the epics. He built new cities, such as Volodymyr-Volynsky (where his palace once stood), Vladimir in the land of Suzdal, and others. He strengthened the boundaries of his possessions as a defense against the neighboring pagan tribes. In order to unite Russia, he sent his sons to rule in different cities: at Rostov, Murom, Novgorod, Polotsk, and other places. Soon the influence of the Varangians began to wane, and the importance of the Slavs increased. In Kiev, at the place where the Russian Protomartyrs Theodore and John were murdered, he built the church of the Tithes and dedicated it to the Dormition of the Most Holy Theotokos, donating a tenth of his income for its upkeep.
The Holy Prince Vladimir reposed on July 15, 1015 in his beloved village of Berestov and was buried in the church of the Tithes. A piece of his holy relics was kept in Holy Wisdom Cathedral, established by his son, Great Prince Yaroslav the Wise.
The Feast Day of Saint Vladimir was instituted by Saint Alexander Nevsky (November 23) after May 15, 1240, because of Saint Vladimir’s help and intercession at Saint Alexander’s renowned victory over the Crusaders at the Neva River. In Russia, the Church veneration of the Holy Prince began much earlier. In Saint Hilarion’s “Word of Law and Grace,” the holy Prince is called “an apostolic sovereign,” similar to Saint Constantine (May 20); and his evangelization of the Russian land is likened to the preaching of the Gospel by the Holy Apostles.
Saint Vladimir is commemorated on July 15 (the day of his repose) and on the second Sunday of Great Lent, along with the Synaxis of the Venerable Fathers of the Kiev Caves, and all Saints who shone forth in Little Russia.