Feast Day : July 15
Patronage: converts; kings; murderers; parents of large families; Russia
Also known as: Vladimir Svyatoslavich, Vladimir the Great, Svyatoy Vladimir, Vladimir Veliky
Grand Duke Vladimir I was the illegitimate third son of Svyatoslav by his favorite court mistress Olga Malushka. His great-grandfather, the Varangian adventurer Oleg, had ousted the Viking invaders from the Slavic city-state of Novgorod in the ninth century and eventually expanded his kingdom to include the principality of Kiev, forming Kievan Rus. By the early 10th century, Kievan Rus was economically stable enough to challenge the nearby Byzantine Empire and establish trade routes. Oleg’s son Igor, Vladimir’s grandfather, was killed in 945 during a trading expedition. Vladimir’s grandmother, St. Olga, could not convert her son Svyatoslav to Christianity, and his three sons—Yaropolk, Oleg and Vladimir—lived as pagan chieftains. Before Svyatoslav’s murder in 970 at the hands of his own barbarian tribes (legend tells that the men were so angry at their defeat by the Byzantines at Arcadiopolis that they used Svyatoslav’s empty skull as a drinking vessel), he had divided his kingdom, giving the grand duchy of Kiev to Yaropolk and the Drevlani (now part of Poland and Hungary) to Oleg. Vladimir received the rebellious Russian capital of Novgorod. War broke out between Yaropolk and Oleg, with Yaropolk conquering Drevlani and ousting his brother. Vladimir feared a similar fate and fled to his Varangian uncle in Scandinavia, leaving Novgorod vulnerable to attack. Yaropolk conquered the city and united all the principalities of Russia under his reign. But by 980 Vladimir had not only retaken Novgorod but had also conquered the city of Polotzk and slain its prince, Ragvald, and had married Ragvald’s daughter Ragnilda, who was supposed to marry Yaropolk. Vladimir then took Kiev and Rodno, where he killed Yaropolk, and declared himself grand duke of Kiev and all Russia. Russia now extended from the Ukraine to the Baltic Sea. Vladimir lived like an Eastern pasha, with at least four, and possibly six, other wives besides Ragnilda and many concubines. He built pagan temples and was rumored to practice strange rites. Before becoming grand duke, Vladimir had nominally converted to Islam, but he reverted to his pagan upbringing. Realizing, however, what a unifying force religion could be, Vladimir reportedly invited representatives of Latin Christianity, Eastern Christianity, Judaism and Islam to make presentations for his consideration. He liked the Muslim practice of having many women to enjoy but disliked the rules against drink. The German Christians were no better since they emphasized fasting and celibacy (the Germans also represented a political threat to Russian sovereignty). And Vladimir could not believe the Khazarian Jews had any real religious authority if God had scattered them throughout the world as punishment for their unfaithfulness. Finally a representative from the Orthodox patriarch made his appeal, and Vladimir supposedly chose the Eastern Church because of its beautiful liturgy and art. A more likely consideration was Vladimir’s desire to maintain independence from the Germans. He remembered that his grandmother, St. Olga, had been Orthodox. About 987, Byzantine emperor Basil II appealed to Vladimir for help in putting down an insurrection, and Vladimir requested marriage to Basil’s sister Anne in return. Basil II replied that his sister, a devout Christian, could not marry a heathen, but that he would consider the union if Vladimir converted. Vladimir acquiesced, and a pact was reached. In 988 Vladimir was baptized by the Orthodox metropolitan Michael and took the baptismal name Basil, then married Princess Anne. Marriage to Anne was quite a coup, as she was born in the Porphyra, the purple marble bedroom of the Byzantine empress, and was thereby considered the most desirable consort in Christendom. It is from this that the phrase “to the purple born” originates. Emperor Otto I had already sought Anne’s hand for his son Otto II, as had the French king Hugh Capet for his son Robert. Vladimir was the first foreigner to marry a “purple” princess. Vladimir may have chosen Christianity because of political reasons, but once he accepted the faith he embraced it wholeheartedly. Upon his marriage to Anne he put away all other wives and concubines. He built churches and monasteries, ordered the conversion of Kiev and Novgorod with penalties for resistance, and threw pagan idols into the Dnieper River. Although Vladimir adopted the Byzantine rites in the Old Church Slavonic language, he maintained ties with Rome, introduced tithing in the East, and exchanged papal legates. He expanded schools and the justice system, even questioning the use of capital punishment. In 989 he built the large Church of St. Mary Ever Virgin in Kiev, usually called the Desyatinnya Sobor, or Cathedral of the Tithes. Anne and Vladimir, now called the Fair Sun, had two sons, Boris and Gleb, martyrs also known as SS. Romanus and David. When Anne died in 1011, Vladimir remarried, and their daughter became the consort of Casimir I, Restorer of Poland. Vladimir’s later years were spent in dealings with his children from the earlier marriages. In keeping with ancestral custom, Vladimir had divided his kingdom among his children. One son, Vsevolod, prince of Volhynia, met an untimely death in a fire when his pursuit of the widowed queen Sigrid of Sweden displeased her. Vladimir’s son Yaroslav became prince of Novgorod, but he rebelled against homage to his father and refused service and tribute. In 1014 Vladimir prepared to march on Novgorod, but Yaroslav called in Varangian forces, just as his father had done 34 years earlier. Vladimir died while on campaign in Berestova, near Kiev, on July 15, 1015. His death ignited a brutal civil war, with Yaroslav the eventual victor over his brother Mstislav. Yaroslav came to be called “the Wise” as he ruled over a united Russia; supported trade, education and the arts; built the Great Gate of Kiev; and helped draft the Ruskais Pravda, the first law code in Russia.