Saintly Leader, or Vengeful Opportunist? The Story of Vladimir the Great

Vladimir the Great(or Volodymyr) is a controversial figure. Commemorated as an exemplary leader, saint and statesman by some, the story of his life is also evidence of a vengeful, murderous and womanizing rapist who forced the pagan Slavs into Christianity. Today he is remembered for bringing Christianity to the Kyivan Rus’ (Kievan Rus’), the ancestors of the modern-day nations of Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia.

Just like every powerful sailing ship needs a capable commander, so does a nation rely on an ambitious and able leader. For the medieval state of Kievan Rus’, decisive and skilled rulers were a must. When enemies surround you and autonomy becomes questionable, a true leader can lead a nation towards the top. This early medieval state emerged as a “confederation” of various East Slavic tribes and assimilated many Slavicized Viking rulers.

These Norsemen brought their cunning, wealth, and skill in warfare, and managed to establish a powerful ruling dynasty at the head of the new nation known as the Kievan Rus’. The dynasty of Rurikids would come to rule for many centuries, bringing with them many a powerful historical figure to history’s playground. Vladimir the Great, also known as Volodymyr, certainly stands out for his crucial contribution to the story of emerging Rus’, as well as his exciting and intriguing path to the throne. This is his story.

Sviatoslav the Great, father of Volodymyr/Vladimir the Great, has been remembered a glorious and iconic Slavic figure due to his successful rule and consolidation of the largest state in Europe. (Public domain)

Sviatoslav the Great, father of Volodymyr/Vladimir the Great, has been remembered a glorious and iconic Slavic figure due to his successful rule and consolidation of the largest state in Europe. ( Public domain )

A Great Son of a Great Father: Early Life of Sviatoslav and Volodymyr

During his time, this ruler was known as Volodymyr, as per the Old East Slavic transliteration (Volodiměrъ Svętoslavičь, Володимѣръ Свѧтославичь). Nowadays however, two transliterations are accepted: the Russian Vladimir, and the Ukrainian Volodymyr. Both will be used in this text. Right from the get-go, we must address Volodymyr’s birth. He was the youngest son of the famed Grand Prince Sviatoslav the Brave.

As a ruler, Sviatoslav was a glorious and iconic Slavic figure who etched his name into the walls of history through his highly successful rule and many exploits. Sviatoslav managed to contrast his father’s mediocre and short reign, and to greatly expand the borders of his nation. His continuous campaigns against his many enemies managed to position the Kievan Rus’ as one of the influential nations of the time, while greatly weakening his age-old enemies. These successful campaigns were instrumental in the chain reactions that follow the demise of huge empires.

Sviatoslav’s traditional enemies lay mostly to the east and south of the Kievan Rus’ lands. These were the Turkic nomads , Pechenegs, and the Turkic-Slavic Bulgars of the First Bulgarian Empire . Much like his father, he also worked on subduing the numerous smaller Slavic tribes in his region, exacting tribute from them and enlisting them in his armies. Thus it was, that during his reign he managed to create the largest state in Europe. Alas, such successful leaders gain many an enemy. Sviatoslav died very young – around 30 years old –in an ambush. His enemy made a drinking cup out of his skull.

This abrupt demise meant that Sviatoslav did not get a chance to consolidate all his territorial gains into a unified and working empire, leaving a hefty task for his three sons. His oldest son was Yaropolk I, while his middle son was Oleg. Both came from his first marriage. He also had a third, legitimate son, the youngest Volodymyr, from his marriage with a Slavic serving woman, Malusha. Three sons in those times meant certain dispute. So, when Sviatoslav died this is exactly what came to pass. The big question was who was to rule over all the land?

The Russian Vladimir / Ukrainian Volodymyr the Great. (Public domain)

The Russian Vladimir / Ukrainian Volodymyr the Great. ( Public domain )

When a Great Man is Gone: Brothers Descend into Bitter Conflict

Sviatoslav was killed in 972 AD, but only three years prior, he entrusted the rule of Novgorod the Great to his youngest son, Vladimir. To his heir Yaropolk, he bequeathed the rule of Kiev, while the middle son Oleg became the ruler of the Drevlyan Slavic tribe. Still, even though each got a “piece of the cake,” when Sviatoslav was gone, his two oldest sons descended into war. In 976 they began their struggle for power. When Oleg, Prince of the Drevlyans, killed one of Yaropolk’s chief advisors after seeing him hunt in his own lands, the latter used this incident as a pretense to go to war.

In 977, after being pursued by Yaropolk and his men, Oleg died accidentally after falling into the moat that surrounded Ovruch (Vruchiy) the capital of Drevlyans. Numerous historical sources state that Yaropolk didn’t intend to kill his own brother, and that he often expressed regret for his death and the accident. Nevertheless, Vladimir feared that he was the next target for Yaropolk, and promptly fled his capital of Novgorod in 977 and went abroad, to Norway, seeking aid from his cousin, Haakon Sigurdsson .

Painting of Volodymyr the Great and Rogneda. (Public domain)

Painting of Volodymyr the Great and Rogneda. ( Public domain )

Rogneda of Polotsk and Her Forced Marriage to Volodymyr

One year later, young Vladimir/ Volodymyr returned to Kievan Rus’ ready for action. At the head of a sizeable band of Viking mercenary warriors from Sweden and Norway, he was prepared to face his brother Yaropolk and retake his rightful legacy, Novgorod the Great. Yaropolk realized that a conflict with his youngest brother was inevitable and that only one of them would end up ruling over Kievan Rus’ and the lands of their father. But even before they saw each other, Vladimir/Volodymyr had his first taste of conflict.

Before he reached Novgorod or Kiev, Vladimir/Volodymyr stopped at Polotsk, an important stronghold of the Varangian chieftain Rogvolod (Ragnvald) located in modern day Belarus. He sought an alliance with this influential ruler, possibly to strengthen his forces against Yaropolk. To achieve this alliance, he approached Rogvolod with the offer of marrying his young daughter, Rogneda (Ragnhild). Alas, during the negotiations, the young woman decided to opt for Yaropolk, and proceeded to insult Volodymyr and his parentage, calling him a son of a serving woman.

Such an insult couldn’t be left unaddressed: Vladimir/Volodymyr brought his forces against Polotsk and its ruler Rogvolod, attacking the town and ultimately winning. He then forcibly raped young Rogneda, possibly before the eyes of her parents, thus taking her for a wife against her will. Immediately after he killed both Rogvolod and his sons. This was the first insight into Volodymyr’s pride and decisiveness, as well as his ferocity. Sources claim that he had a lofty appetite for women and that later in his reign he had as many as 800 concubines.

Yaropolk was tricked by the promise of peace, and murdered. Volodymyr then became the sole ruler of Kievan Rus’. (Public domain)

Yaropolk was tricked by the promise of peace, and murdered. Volodymyr then became the sole ruler of Kievan Rus’. ( Public domain )

Treachery Wins the Day: The Death of Yaropolk

After this victory, he marched on Kiev itself. Possibly outnumbered, Yaropolk decided to abandon the town in an attempt to consolidate his forces and seek aid from abroad, perhaps from Pecheneg mercenaries. On the recommendation of his traitorous chief advisor Blud, Yaropolk fled Kiev and Volodymyr seized Kiev successfully. Blud then told Yaropolk to flee further and seek refuge in the fortress of Rodnya. He did so, and soon found himself besieged by Volodymyr’s forces. After a time of starvation, Yaropolk was forced to accept negotiations, believing both Blud’s and his brother’s promises of peace.

While entering into Volodymyr’s tent, Yaropolk was killed and beheaded by two Varangian mercenaries. Whether Vladimir intended for this to happen or not, remains unknown. Perhaps it was done by his closest advisors. Nevertheless, from that point on, Volodymyr became the sole ruler of Kievan Rus’ having eliminated the competition to his rule. He at once began to consolidate the territories which his father gained, conducting military campaigns to expand them even further.

Volodymyr began his offensives almost immediately. In 981 he came into conflict with neighboring West Slavic tribes of Poles, chiefly the Lendians, with whom the Kievan Rus’ had a lasting dispute over the so called Red Cities, better known as Cherven Grods. This was a border region between the Kievan Rus’ and the Kingdom of Poland, with several important strongholds. Volodymyr managed to seize the region in this offense. In the centuries to follow it would repeatedly change hands between the two sides. In the very next year, Volodymyr Sviatoslavich continued his successes. He subdued the rebellious Slavic tribe of Vyatichi in 982, and in 983 he subdued the West Baltic tribe of Yotvingians to his north. Radimichs, another key Slavic tribe were subdued in 984, while 985 saw a campaign against the Volga Bulgar tribes.

While Volodymyr erected monuments to the Slavic pagan gods, there was also widespread persecution of Christians in Kievan Rus’. Fyodor and his son Ioann (also known as Theodore the Varangian and John) were Christians murdered at the time. They have gone down in history as the first martyrs of the Russian Orthodox Church. (Public domain)

While Volodymyr erected monuments to the Slavic pagan gods, there was also widespread persecution of Christians in Kievan Rus’. Fyodor and his son Ioann (also known as Theodore the Varangian and John) were Christians murdered at the time. They have gone down in history as the first martyrs of the Russian Orthodox Church. ( Public domain )

The Great Religious Shift: From Gods to God

Volodymyr’s early rule was marked by his adherence to Slavic pagan faith and Slavic traditions. There are records of him erecting monuments to pagan gods on several occasions. One such occurrence is well documented. It describes him raising a glorious temple in Kiev to honor the gods and also to gain more trust from his subjects. This temple shows as an important insight into the various deities that were amalgamated into the East Slavic paganism from the neighboring Baltic, Finnic, and other tribes.

On a tall hill in Kiev, he raised several wooden monuments to gods, as the basis of the temple. One was for Perun, the pan-Slavic god of thunder, war, luck, masculinity, and so on. Another was for Stribog, the Slavic god of weather, overflowing rivers, the grandfather of all winds, god of air currents. The next was for Dazhbog (Dabog), a very important Slavic god of sun, rain, giving, and so on. But other deities in this temple show a clear influence from neighboring tribes, and are mostly attested in East Slavic tribes: Mokosh, the Great Mother, symbolizing nature, was perhaps borrowed from the Finnic tribes; Khors and Simargl are also venerated, borrowed from Iranian beliefs.

Contemporary to the documented raising of this heathen temple is a widespread persecution of Christians in Kievan Rus’, of which there was a growing number. Soon after, two Christians were murdered by raging mobs. These were the first two martyrs of the Russian Orthodox Church: Fyodor and his son Ioann. It is said that when the gathered crowds drew lots to see who will be the human sacrifice for the gods, young Ioann’s name came up. His father claimed they were Christians and refused to give his son. They were then lynched.

Seemingly, this event left a lasting impression on Volodymyr, as he realized that Christianity was increasingly encroaching on Kievan Rus’. Most certainly he realized the political importance of the new global religion, and soon after began receiving envoys from Islam, Roman Catholicism, and Judaism. None of these he approved of. However, his envoys in Constantinople were greatly impressed by Byzantine Orthodoxy.

Volodymyr, the Grand Prince Vladimir, received envoys from the various new global religions. In this Ivan Eggink painting, he can be discussing religion with an Orthodox priest, while a papal envoy looks on. (Public domain)

Volodymyr, the Grand Prince Vladimir, received envoys from the various new global religions. In this Ivan Eggink painting, he can be discussing religion with an Orthodox priest, while a papal envoy looks on. ( Public domain )

Baptized Against Their Will: The Christianization of Kievan Rus’

In 988, Volodymyr conquered an important Greek (Byzantine) town in Crimea, Chersonesos. At the time, Kievan Rus’ was an enemy of the Byzantine Empire , and their growing might was a huge threat for the venerable empire. When negotiating with the Byzantines, Volodymyr once again showcased his boldness and arrogance when he requested the hand of Anna, the sister of Emperor Basil II himself. Never before had a barbarian been married to a princess of the Byzantine imperial court.

However preposterous, the tough political position of the Emperor forced him to agree. Most likely the reason was a set of harsh revolts in the Empire: prominent generals Bardas Sclerus and Bardas Phocas revolted against Basil II in 987. In exchange for the hand of the princess, Volodymyr would send a large army to quell these revolts. However, Basil could never give the hand of his sister to a pagan Slav: Volodymyr would have to be baptized first.

Due to growing political influence of Christianity and the socio-political image of Europe at the time, Volodymyr Sviatoslavich renounced his pagan Slavic faith and adopted Eastern Orthodox Christianity. Following his baptism, he returned to Kiev and ordered all its citizens to a forced baptism. He issued a proclamation that all citizens must appear at the river, lest they be considered the enemies of the Grand Prince and the state. He marched them into the waters of the River Dnieper, where they were baptized en-masse. He also tore down all Slavic pagan temples, including the one he had raised himself, and hacked and burned all the heathen idols.

However, it is important to note that the common Slavic people largely retained their ancient pagan practices and customs. Within their respective Orthodox churches, they transferred their beliefs into Christian imagery. For example, Perun’s day is still celebrated, only as the day of St. Elijah the Thunderer. Saint Basil is venerated on Veles’ day, while all Christmas traditions are fully heathen in origin and form. This is common even today in Slavic countries that are Eastern Orthodox, chiefly Serbia, Ukraine, Russia, and Belarus.

In around 988, Volodymyr ordered the citizens of Kiev to a forced baptism. (Public domain)

In around 988, Volodymyr ordered the citizens of Kiev to a forced baptism. ( Public domain )

Deeds Etched in Time

Volodymyr the Great was one of the most important rulers in the history of Kievan Rus’ , known as the leader who expanded and solidified their power in Europe. His decision to adopt Christianity, combined with his boldness and arrogance in every aspect of his rule, was a successful recipe that launched his state to enormous heights. With around 800 concubines, Volodymyr has also been remembered for having numerous offspring, which included twelve legitimate sons, and around nine daughters. His later life was marked by peace on most of his borders, except the repeated incursions of Pecheneg bands. He died in 1015, at age 57.

Top image: Vladimir the Great, known as Volodymyr in the Ukraine, or even Saint Vladimir, seen here during his baptism, has gone down in history as the leader which brought Christianity to the pagan Slavs. Source: Public domain

By Aleksa Vučković

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