Sts. Vladimir & Olga (July 15)

WHEN TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY AMERICANS think of the Vikings, they may picture seafarers from Scandinavia sailing to Iceland and Greenland or raiding the coasts of England and Ireland. We rarely think of their inland cousins, whose rule extended into what is Russia today in the ninth to fourteenth centuries. Two of the saints commemorated this week were leaders of these “inland Vikings” who changed the face of Europe.

Beginning in AD 862 the Viking prince Rurik and his brothers established a network of states in the territory of today’s Romania, Ukraine and western Russia which came to be called Kievan Rus’. Around 945 the Grand Prince of Kiev, Igor, Rurik’s youngest son, was killed by rebellious Dravidian tribesmen. Igor’s wife, Olga (c. 890-969), avenged her husband by destroying the Dravidian towns and enslaving their leaders. Olga then ruled, first as regent on behalf of their young son. Sviatoslav. The young prince came of age in 962 but Olga was frequently in charge of Kiev thereafter during Sviatoslav’s military expeditions.

“Equal to the Apostles”

There had been some Christians in Kiev since the ninth century when St Photios the Great sent them a missionary bishop. The local governor Askold reputedly accepted the faith at that time. Olga became the first ruler of Kievan Rus’ to embrace Christianity. She was baptized in Constantinople in 957, taking the name Helena, and attempted to extend the Christian presence in Rus’. She is said to have built the churches of St. Nicholas over Askold’s grave and of the Holy Wisdom at Kiev (sites revered to this day), of the Annunciation at Vytebsk, and of the Holy Life-Creating Trinity at Pskov. She tried unsuccessfully to secure the appointment of a resident metropolitan for Kiev. Nor did she convince her son Sviatoslav to become a Christian. At first he tolerated the growing Christian presence in his realm for her sake, but later would destroy some of their churches, including ones she had built. It would be his son, Vladimir, himself raised by his grandmother, who would make of his realm a Christian nation.

Olga died on July 11, 969. In 1007, during the reign of her grandson Prince Vladimir, the relics of St Olga were transferred to the Desyatin Church of the Dormition in Kiev and placed in a special sarcophagus. She was the first woman canonized by the Russian Church. One of only five women saints proclaimed as Equal to the Apostles, she was so honored for her pioneering role in Slavic Christianity.

St. Vladimir the Great

Olga’s grandson, Vladimir, was the third son of Sviatoslav, reportedly by his mother’s servant, Malusha. In 969 Sviatoslav had given Kiev to his oldest son, Yaropolk, made his second son, Oleg, prince of the Drevlians, and placed Vladimir as prince of Novgorod while he was engaged in fighting the Bulgars. The brothers were soon engaged in fighting one another and Vladimir was driven from Novgorod by Yaropolk’s forces. With help from his cousin Haakon, the ruler of Norway, Vladimir retook Novgorod and marched on Kiev. In 978 he defeated his brother Yaropolk and became Grand Prince of all Kievan Rus’ extending his rule throughout surrounding territories over the next few years.

The Tale of Bygone Years

In 1113 the Monk Nestor compiled a history of Kievan Rus’ from AD 850 to 1110. Also known as the Russian Primary Chronicle, this work tells of the founding and early history of Kiev. Nestor relates how Vladimir adopted Christianity and suppressed the worship of the local gods at Kiev.

According to Nestor, “Vladimir summoned together his vassals and the city elders, and said to them: ‘Behold, the Bulgars came before me urging me to accept their religion. Then came the Germans and praised their own faith; and after them came the Jews. Finally the Greeks appeared, criticizing all other faiths but commending their own, and they spoke at length, telling the history of the whole world from its beginning. Their words were artful, and it was wondrous to listen and pleasant to hear them.”

The nobles urged Vladimir to send his own people to investigate the claims of these rival religions. On their return, they reported, “When we journeyed among the Bulgars, we beheld how they worship in their temple, called a mosque, while they stand ungirt. The Bulgarian bows, sits down, looks hither and thither like one possessed, and there is no happiness among them, but instead only sorrow and a dreadful stench. Their religion is not good.

“Then we went among the Germans, and saw them performing many ceremonies in their temples; but we beheld no glory there. Then we went on to Greece, and the Greeks led us to the edifices where they worship their God, and we knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth. For on earth there is no such splendor or such beauty, and we are at a loss how to describe it. We know only that God dwells there among men, and their service is fairer than the ceremonies of other nations. For we cannot forget that beauty. Every man, after tasting something sweet, is afterward unwilling to accept that which is bitter, and therefore we cannot dwell longer here.

“Then the vassals spoke and said, ‘If the Greek faith were evil, it would not have been adopted by your grandmother Olga, who was wiser than all other men.’”

What had so impressed the Kievans? Nestor explained it this way: “On the morrow, the emperor sent a message to the patriarch to inform him that a Russian delegation had arrived to examine the Greek faith, and directed him to prepare the church and the clergy, and to array himself in his sacerdotal robes, so that the Russians might behold the glory of the God of the Greeks. When the patriarch received these commands, he bade the clergy assemble, and they performed the customary rites. They burned incense, and the choirs sang hymns. The emperor accompanied the Russians to the church, and placed them in a wide space, calling their attention to the beauty of the edifice, the chanting, and the offices of the hierarch and the ministry of the deacons, while he explained to them the worship of his God. The Russians were astonished, and in their wonder praised the Greek ceremonial.”

In 988 Vladimir captured the Greek city of Kherson in the Crimea. Nestor reports that Vladimir threatened to march on Constantinople itself unless the emperor sent his sister to marry Vladimir. The emperor replied: “It is not meet for Christians to give in marriage to pagans. If you are baptized, you shall have her to wife, inherit the kingdom of God, and be our companion in the faith.” Nestor reports that the princess urged Vladimir to be baptized if he wanted to be healed of a painful eye ailment. Vladimir accepted and was baptized by the Bishop of Kherson, taking the name Basil. Healed, Vladimir praised God saying, “I have now perceived the one true God.” Many of his companions then accepted baptism as well.

On his return to Kiev Vladimir brought his nobles and retainers to baptism, beginning the Christianization of Kievan Rus’ which continued throughout his reign. Vladimir died in 1015 and his relics were distributed among the churches and monasteries he had founded.

In the thirteenth century July 15 was set as St Vladimir’s feast day to commemorate his intercession for the forces under Grand Prince Alexander Nevsky who defeated Swedish invaders on July 15, 1240.