Vladimir, St.

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(d. 1015), grand prince, best known for his role in the Christianization of Kievan Rus.

Sources about Vladimir are scanty, and the most comprehensive one (generally though inaccurately called the Russian Primary Chronicle ) is full of spurious material. Still the following cautious sketch of the prince's career is probably accurate for the most part. Vladimir's male ancestors, though Scandinavian, had been ruling the largely Slavic-speaking land of Rus for at least two generations by the time of his birth. His grandmother Olga had been baptized, probably in Constantinople at some time during the 950s, but had failed to convince his father Svyatoslav to follow her lead. In 970 Svyatoslav installed Vladimir (perhaps still a child) as his subordinate prince in Novgorod. Two years later Svyatoslav died, leaving Vladimir's brother Yaropolk to become grand prince. In 976 a power struggle between Yaropolk and a third brother, Oleg, led to Oleg's death and caused Vladimir to flee Novgorod for Scandinavia. Vladimir returned to Novgorod in 980, presumably with Scandinavian troops, and marched against Yaropolk. In the same year he or his advisers ordered the assassination of Yaropolk at a peace conference. Yaropolk's death left Vladimir in undisputed control of the Kievan realm.

In the year that he came to power, Vladimir erected several idols in Kiev and allegedly authorized that humans be sacrificed to them. He remained a pagan for roughly the first eight years of his reign, during which time he, like his father, expanded and consolidated his power through a series of wars against neighboring tribes. He also fathered several sons including Boris and Gleb, Russia's two most important native saints, and Yaroslav the Wise, who would eventually succeed him.

Vladimir's conversion to Christianity is described at considerable length in the Primary Chronicle, but many details of this account are dubious. However, as the Chronicle suggests, the prince was probably influenced by missionaries and possibly by memories of his Christian grandmother. Political considerations were also important in his decision to convert. Vladimir's own baptism was certainly a condition for his final marriage (the one that forced him to annul multiple prior marriages) to Anne, sister of the Byzantine emperor Basil II. There is some controversy over the precise date of this baptism, as well as the location (the Greek city of Cherson, according to the Chronicle, or Kiev). In any case, Vladimir's personal baptism in 987 or 988 was followed almost immediately by the official Christianization of Rus. After baptism the prince seems to have embarked enthusiastically on a program of destroying pagan temples, building churches, and educating new clergy. The latter two projects were to be vigorously continued by his son Yaroslav.

Although there were Christians in the Kievan state before Vladimir's time, the prince's official conversion of the land marked a historical turning point. As Christians, Vladimir's successors had a religion in common with their counterparts in the rest of Europe, fostering communication and political alliances. The conversion also stimulated the development of literacy in Kievan Rus and its successor states. The conversion had problematic aspects as well. Vladimir's decision to adopt the religion from Byzantium rather than Rome would separate Russia culturally from the West in many respects. The schism between the Western and Eastern churches, already underway in Vladimir's time, became official in 1204 and continues into the early twenty-first century. Moreover, while literate Westerners of all nationalities would communicate with each other freely in Latin for centuries to come, the primary written language of Russia would be Slavic. These factors contributed greatly to the exclusion of Russia (and, to some extent, of Ukraine and Belarus) from many Western European intellectual and cultural developments up to the end of the seventeenth century.

During the Muscovite period Vladimir was regularly represented as the founder of the Russian state. This practice ended with the death of his last ruling descendant through the male line in 1598. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, his reign was romanticized in poems, paintings, and novels. He may also be the prototype of a folkloric ruler named Vladimir in Russia's oral epic poetry.

See also: christianization; kievan rus; olga; primary chronicle; saints; yaropolk i; yaroslav vladimirovich


Cross, Samuel Hazzard, and Sherbowitz-Wetzor, Olgerd P., trs. and eds. (1953). The Russian Primary Chronicle: Laurentian Text. Cambridge, MA: Mediaeval Academy of America.

Hollingsworth, Paul, tr. (1992). The Hagiography of Kievan Rus'. Cambridge, MA: Distributed by Harvard University Press for the Ukrainian Research Institute of Harvard University.

Obolensky, Dimitri. (1971). The Byzantine Commonwealth: Eastern Europe, 5001043. New York: Praeger.

Obolensky, Dimitri. (1989). "Cherson and the Conversion of Rus: An Anti-Revisionist View." Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies 13:244-256.

Poppe, Andrzej. (1976). "The Political Background to the Baptism of Rus': Byzantine-Russian Relations between 986989." Dumbarton Oaks Papers 30:195244. Reprinted in his The Rise of Christian Russia (1982). London: Variorum Reprints.

Francis Butler