St Vladimir the Great (of Kiev)

The Kievan Rus’ Church –to which we belong– today liturgically recalls the memory of Vladimir. The holy Vladimir the Great, grand prince of Kiev and equal of the apostles, in baptism named Basil.

Vladimir descended from the Slavic-Viking line of Rurik. He began his princely career in Novgorod, and eventually, by cunning as much as by prowess, he took over his older brother’s inheritance and became Grand Prince of Kiev and the whole land of Rus’. His motives for becoming Christian were complex, but must have included the example of his grandmother, Olga, the conversion of a Viking cousin who proved Christianity could be a manly religion, and the prospects of allying himself to the Byzantine Empire through marriage. Nonetheless his decision was a momentous one, for it affected his entire domain. The sincerity of his reception of the Gospel is borne out by the effect it had on his rule. At a time when Europe and even the Byzantines were barbaric in punishing criminals, and even slight offenders, Vladimir outlawed torture, mutilation, and capital punishment. He sent food from his own stores to the poor and the sick, and organized social services unknown to any other city in Europe.

Much of the prince’s life was embellished by the legends of the early chronicles and epics have colored the liturgical texts. Tradition relates that he sent envoys to observe the organized religions of his prominent neighbors. What they experienced in Constantinople has remained a by-word for Orthodox liturgy. After attending services in Hagia Sofia, they reported to Vladimir: “We did not know whether we were in heaven or on earth!” In 988 a mass baptism was held in the Dnieper River by command of the prince, and Greek and Bulgarian missionaries began to spread the Gospel throughout Kievan Rus’.

[The Slavic peoples]… have celebrated the millennium of this event, and our own church in America can trace its roots to that first taste of “heaven on earth.”

Vladimir died on this date in 1015 with a prayer on his lips. By mid-thirteenth century he was honored as a saint. In 1313 the first church was dedicated to him, in Novgorod, where he was first prince. (NS)