On this day: St. Vladimir the Great

by Gerelyn Hollingsworth

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On this day the Roman Catholic Church, the Anglican Communion, Lutheranism, and Eastern Orthodoxy celebrate the feast of St. Vladimir the Great. He was born about 958 and died on July 15, 1015.

Click here to listen to a troparion for St. Vladimir.

"Vladimir, like Clovis, was at first nothing but a barbarian, — wily, voluptuous, and bloody. Only while Clovis after his baptism is not perceptibly better than he was before, and becomes the assassin of his royal Frankish relations, the Russian annalist seems to wish to establish a contrast between the life led by Vladimir prior to his conversion and the life he led after it. Sviatoslaf left three sons: Iaropolk at Kief, Oleg, ruler of the Drevliane, Vladimir at Novgorod. In the civil wars which followed, and which recall the bloody Merovingian anarchy, Iaropolk slew Oleg, and in his turn died by the hand of Vladimir. He fell in love with Rogneda, Iaropolk's betrothed, and demanded her in marriage from the Variag Rogvolod, who ruled over Polotsk. The princess answered that she would never marry the son of a slave, in allusion to Vladimir's mother having been a servant, though he himself had always been treated by his father as his brothers' equal. Maddened by this insult, Vladimir sacked Polotsk, killed Rogvolod and his two sons, and forced Rogneda to marry him. After the murder of Iaropolk, Vladimir also took the wife whom Iaropolk had left pregnant, a beautiful Greek nun, captured in an expedition against Byzantium. These two women he had deprived, one of her husband, the other of her father and brothers. He had, besides, a Bohemian and a Bulgarian wife, and another, all of whom bore him sons. Finally this bastard, this 'son of a slave,' was so abandoned in his profligacy, that he kept three hundred concubines at Vuishegorod, three hundred at Bielgorod, near Kief, and two hundred at Berestof. Lusting no less after war and plunder, he reconquered Red Russia from the Poles, quelled a revolt of the Viatitchi and Radimitchi, and exacted tribute from the Lithuanian Iatvagi and Livonian tribes of Letts, or Finns."

--History of Russia from the Earliest Times to 1882, Volume 1, by Alfred Rambaud, The Page Company, Boston, 1879, pages 77 - 78.

But there was much more to Vladimir.

"This sensual and passionate barbarian's soul was troubled, notwithstanding, by religious aspirations. At first he turned to the Slav gods, and his reign was inaugurated by a new growth of paganism. On the high sandy cliffs of Kief, which tower above the Dnieper, he erected idols; among them one of Perun, with a head of silver and a beard of gold. Two Variagi, father and son, both Christians, were stabbed at the feet of Perun. But the day of the ancient gods was passed; Vladimir was undergoing the religious crisis in which all Russia labored. He felt that he must have another form of belief: so, according to the testimony of Nestor, he took it into his head, like the Japanese of to-day, to institute a search after the best religion. His ambassadors forthwith visited Mussulmans, Jews, and Catholics: the first represented by the Bulgarians of the Volga, the second probably by the Khazarui or the Jewish Kharaites, the third by the Poles and Germans. Vladimir declined Islanrisui, which prescribed circumcision and forbade 'the wine, which was dear to the Russians '; Judaism, whose disciples wandered through the earth; and Catholicism, whose ceremonies appeared wanting in magnificence. The deputies that he sent to Constantinople, on the contrary, returned awe-stricken. The splendors of Saint Sophia, the brilliancy of the priestly vestments, the magnificence of the ceremonies, heightened by the presence of the emperor and his court, the patriarch and the numerous clergy, the incense, the religious songs, had powerfully appealed to the imagination of the barbarians." Pages 78 - 79.

The Grand Prince of Kiev and his boyars were won over by the beauty of the Orthodox liturgy. The people of the higher classes followed them into Christianity, but the "peasants kept their old pagan ceremonies, and continued to contract their marriages 'around the bush of broom.' They preserved even longer their faith in magicians and sorcerers, who were often of more authority than the priests." Page 80.

Eventually, in their minds, Vladimir joined the beloved old ones.

"We see in the popular songs of what a marvellous cycle of legends Vladimir has become the centre; but in these poems he is neither Vladimir the Baptist, nor the Saint Vladimir of the orthodox Church, but a solar hero, successor of the divinities whom he destroyed. To the people, still pagans at heart, Vladimir is always the 'Beautiful Sun' of Kief." Page 81.

Click here for the Wikipedia article on Vladimir and here for the Catholic Encylopedia article.

Click here for images of St. Vladimir.

On this site, "The Holy Equal-to-the-Apostles Great Prince Vladimir" is pictured with his grandmother, St. Olga.

Troparion - Tone 4

Holy Prince Vladimir,
you were like a merchant in search of fine pearls.
By sending servants to Constantinople for the Orthodox Faith,
you found Christ, the priceless pearl.
He appointed you to be another Paul,
washing away in baptism your physical and spiritual blindness.
We celebrate your memory,
asking you to pray for all Orthodox Christians
and for us, your spiritual children.

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