Historical Tales: 8—Russian - Charles Morris

Vladimir the Great

Vladimir, Grand Prince of Russia before and after the year 1000, won the name not only of Vladimir the Great but of St. Vladimir, though he was as great a reprobate as he was a soldier and monarch, and as unregenerate a sinner as ever sat on a throne. But it was he who made Russia a Christian country, and in reward the Russian Church still looks upon him as "coequal with the Apostles." What he did to deserve this high honor we shall see.

Sviatoslaf, the son of Olga, had proved a hardy soldier. He disdained the palace and lived in the camp. In his marches he took no tent or baggage, but slept in the open air, lived on horse-flesh broiled by himself upon the coals, and showed all the endurance of a Cossack warrior born in the snows. After years of warfare he fell on the field of battle, and his skull, ornamented with a circle of gold, became a drinking-cup for the prince of the Petchenegans, by whose hands he had been slain. His empire was divided between his three sons, Yaropolk reigning in Kief, Oleg becoming prince of the Drevlians, and Vladimir taking Rurik's old capital of Novgorod.

These brothers did not long dwell in harmony. War broke out between Yaropolk and Oleg, and the latter was killed. Vladimir, fearing that his turn would come next, fled to the country of the Varangians, and Yaropolk became lord overall Russia. It is the story of the fugitive prince, and how he made his way from flight to empire and from empire to sainthood, that we are now about to tell.

For two years Vladimir dwelt with his Varangian kinsmen, during which time he lived the wild life of a Norseman, joining the bold vikings in their raids for booty far and wide over the seas of Europe. Then, gathering a large band of Varangian adventurers, be returned to Novgorod, drove out the men of Yaropolk, and sent word by them to his brother that he would soon call upon him at Kief.

Vladimir quickly proved himself a prince of barbarian instincts. In Polotsk ruled Rogvolod, a Varangian prince, whose daughter Rogneda, famed for her beauty, was betrothed to Yaropolk. Vladimir demanded her hand, but received an insulting reply.

"I will never unboot the son of a slave," said the haughty princess.

It was the custom at that time for brides, on the wedding night, to pull off the boots of their husbands; and Vladimir's mother had been one of Queen Olga's slave women.

But insults like this, to men like Vladimir, are apt to breed bloodshed. Hot with revengeful fury, he marched against Polotsk, killed in battle Rogvolod and his two sons, and forced the disdainful princess to accept his hand still red with her father's blood.

Then he marched against Kief, where Yaropolk, who seems to have had more ambition than courage, shut himself up within the walls. These walls were strong, the people were faithful, and Kief might long have defied its assailant had not treachery dwelt within. Vladimir had secretly bought over a villain named Blude, one of Yaropolk's trusted councillors, who filled his master's mind with suspicion of the people of Kief and persuaded him to fly for safety. His flight gave Kief into his brother's hands.

To Rodnia fled the fugitive prince, where he was closely besieged by Vladimir, to whose aid came a famine so fierce that it still gives point to a common Russian proverb. Flight or surrender became necessary. Yaropolk might have found strong friends among some of the powerful native tribes; but the voice of the traitor was still at his ear, and at Blude's suggestion he gave himself up to Vladimir. It was like the sheep yielding himself to the wolf. By the victor's order Yaropolk was slain in his father's palace.

And now the traitor sought his reward, Vladimir felt that it was to Blude he owed his empire, and for three days he so loaded him with honors and dignities that the false-hearted wretch deemed himself the greatest among the Russians.

But the villain had been playing with edge tools. At the end of the three days Vladimir called Blude before him.

"I have kept all my promises to you," he said. "I have treated you as my friend; your honors exceed your highest wishes; I have made you lord among my lords. But now," he continued, and his voice grew terrible, "the judge succeeds the benefactor. Traitor and assassin of your prince, I condemn you to death."

And at his stern command the startled and trembling traitor was struck dead in his presence.

The tide of affairs had strikingly turned. Vladimir, late a fugitive, was now lord of all the realm of Russia. His power assured, he showed himself in a new aspect. Yaropolk's widow, a Greek nun of great beauty, was forced to become his wife. Not content with two, he continued to marry until he had no less than six wives, while he filled his palaces with the daughters of his subjects until they numbered eight hundred in all.

"Thereby hangs a tale," as Shakespeare says. Rogneda, Vladimir's first wife, had forgiven him for the murder of her father and brothers, but could not forgive him for the insult of turning her out of his palace and putting other women in her place. She determined to be revenged.

One day when he had gone to see her in the lonely abode to which she had been banished, he fell asleep in her presence. Here was the opportunity her heart craved. Seizing a dagger, she was on the point of stabbing him where he lay, when Vladimir awoke and stopped the blow. While the frightened woman stood trembling before him, he furiously bade her prepare for death, as she should die by his own hand.

"Put on your wedding dress," he harshly commanded; "seek your handsomest apartment, and stretch yourself on the sumptuous bed you there possess. Die you must, but you have been honored as the wife of Vladimir, and shall not meet an ignoble death."

Rogneda did as she was bidden, yet hope had not left her heart, and she taught her young son Isiaslaf a part which she wished him to play. When the frowning prince entered the apartment where lay his condemned wife, he was met by the boy, who presented him with a drawn sword, saying, "You are not alone, father. Your son will be witness to your deed."

Vladimir's expression changed as he looked at the appealing face of the child.

"Who thought of seeing you here?" he cried, and, flinging the sword to the floor, he hastily left the room.

Calling his nobles together, he told them what had happened and asked their advice.

"Prince," they said, "you should spare the culprit for the sake of the child. Our advice is that you make the boy lord of Rogvolod's principality."

Vladimir did so, sending Rogneda with her son to rule over her father's realm, where he built a new city which he named after the boy.

Vladimir had been born a pagan, and a pagan he was still, worshipping the Varangian deities, in particular the god Perune, of whom he had a statue erected on a hill near his palace adorned with a silver head. On the same sacred hill were planted the statues of other idols, and Vladimir proposed to restore the old human sacrifices by offering one of his own people as a victim to the gods.

For this purpose there was selected a young Varangian who, with his father, had adopted the Christian faith. The father refused to give up his son, and the enraged people, who looked on the refusal as an insult to their prince and their gods, broke into the house and murdered both father and son. These two have since been canonized by the Russian Church as the only martyrs to its faith.

Vladimir by this time had become great in dominion, his warlike prowess extending the borders of Russia on all sides. The nations to the south saw that a great kingdom had arisen on their northern border, ruled by a warlike and conquering prince, and it was deemed wise to seek to win him from the worship of idols to a more elevated faith. Askhold and Dir had been baptized as Christians. Olga, after her bloody revenge, had gone to Constantinople and been baptized by the patriarch. But the nation continued pagan, Vladimir was an idolater in grain, and a great field lay open for missionary zeal.

No less than four of the peoples of the south sought to make a convert of this powerful prince. The Bulgarians endeavored to win him to the religion of Mohammed, picturing to him in alluring language the charms of their paradise, with its lovely houris. But he must give up wine. This was more than he was ready to do.

"Wine is the delight of the Russians," he said: "we cannot do without it."

The envoys of the Christian churches and the Jewish faith also sought to win him over. The appeal of the Jews, however, failed to impress him, and he dismissed them with the remark that they had no country, and that he had no inclination to join hands with wanderers under the ban of Heaven. There remained the Christians, comprising the Roman and Greek Churches, at that time in unison. Of these the Greek Church, the claims of which were presented to him by an advocate from Constantinople, appealed to him most strongly, since its doctrines had been accepted by Queen Olga.

As may be seen, religion with Vladimir was far more a matter of policy than of piety. The gods of his fathers, to whom he had done such honor, had no abiding place in his heart; and that belief which would be most to his advantage was for him the best.

To settle the question he sent ten of his chief boyars, or nobles, to the south, that they might examine and report on the religions of the different countries. They were not long in coming to a decision. Mohammedanism and Catholicism, they said, they had found only in poor and barbarous provinces. Judaism had no land to call its own. But the Greek faith dwelt in a magnificent metropolis, and its ceremonies were full of pomp and solemnity.

"If the Greek religion were not the best," they said, in conclusion, "Olga, your ancestress, and the wisest of mortals, would never have thought of embracing it."

Pomp and solemnity won the day, and Vladimir determined to follow Olga's example. As to what religion meant in itself he seems to have thought little and cared less. His method of becoming a Christian was so original that it is well worth the telling.

Since the days of Olga Kief had possessed Christian churches and priests, and Vladimir might easily have been baptized without leaving home. But this was far too simple a process for a prince of his dignity. He must be baptized by a bishop of the parent Church, and the missionaries who were to convert his people must come from the central home of the faith.

Should he ask the emperor for the rite of baptism? Not he; it would be too much like rendering homage to a prince no greater than himself. The haughty barbarian found himself in a quandary; but soon be discovered a promising way out of it. He would make war on Greece, conquer priests and churches, and by force of arms obtain instruction and baptism in the new faith. Surely never before or since was a war waged with the object of winning a new religion.

Gathering a large army, Vladimir marched to the Crimea, where stood the rich and powerful Greek city of Kherson. The ruins of this city may still be seen near the modern Sevastopol. To it he laid siege, warning the inhabitants that it would be wise in them to yield, for he was prepared to remain three years before their walls.

The Khersonites proved obstinate, and for six months he besieged them closely. But no progress was made, and it began to look as if Vladimir would never become a Christian in his chosen mode. A traitor within the walls, however, solved the difficulty. He shot from the ramparts an arrow to which a letter was attached, in which the Russians were told that the city obtained all its fresh water from a spring near their camp, to which ran underground pipes. Vladimir cut the pipes, and the city, in peril of the horrors of thirst, was forced to yield.

Baptism was now to be had from the parent source, but Vladimir was still not content. He demanded to be united by ties of blood to the emperors of the southern realm, asking for the hand of Anna, the emperor's sister, and threatening to take Constantinople if his proposal were rejected.

Never before had a convert come with such conditions. The princess Anna had no desire for marriage with this haughty barbarian, but reasons of state were stronger than questions of taste, and the emperors (there were two of them at that time) yielded. Vladimir, having been baptized under the name of Basil, married the princess Anna, and the city he had taken as a token of his pious zeal was restored to his new kinsmen. All that he took back to Russia with him were a Christian wife, some bishops and priests, sacred vessels and books, images of saints, and a number of consecrated relics.

Vladimir displayed a zeal in his new faith in accordance with the trouble he had taken to win it. The old idols he had worshipped were now the most despised inmates of his realm. Perune, as the greatest of them all, was treated with the greatest indignity. The wooden image of the god was tied to the tail of a horse and dragged to the Borysthenes, twelve stout soldiers belaboring it with cudgels as it went. The banks reached, it was flung with disdain into the river.

At Novgorod the god was treated with like indignity, but did not bear it with equal patience. The story goes that, being flung from a bridge into the Voikhof, the image of Perune rose to the surface of the water, threw a staff upon the bridge, and cried out in a terrifying voice, "Citizens, that is what I leave you in remembrance of me."

In consequence of this legend it was long the custom in that city, on the day which was kept as the anniversary of the god, for the young people to run about with sticks in their hands, striking one another unawares.

As for the Russians in general, they discarded their old worship as easily as the prince had thrown overboard their idols. One day a proclamation was issued at Kief, commanding all the people to repair to the river-bank the next day, there to be baptized. They assented without a murmur, saying, "If it were not good to be baptized, the prince and the boyars would never submit to it."

These were not the only signs of Vladimir's zeal. He built churches, he gave alms freely, he set out public repasts in imitation of the love-feasts of the early Christians. His piety went so far that he even forbore to shed the blood of criminals or of the enemies of his country.

But horror of bloodshed did not lie long on Vladimir's conscience. In his later life he had wars in plenty, and the blood of his enemies was shed as freely as water. These wars were largely against the Petchenegans, the most powerful of his foes. And in connection with them there is a story extant which has its parallel in the history of many another country.

It seems that in one of their campaigns the two armies came face to face on the opposite sides of a small stream. The prince of the Petchenegans now proposed to Vladimir to settle their quarrel by single combat and thus spare the lives of their people. The side whose champion was vanquished should bind itself to a peace lasting for three years.

Vladimir was loath to consent, as he felt sure that his opponents had ready a champion of mighty power. He felt forced in honor to accept the challenge, but asked for delay that he might select a worthy champion.

Whom to select he knew not. No soldier of superior strength and skill presented himself. Uneasiness and agitation filled his mind. But at this critical interval an old man, who served in the army with four of his sons, came to him, saying that he had at home a fifth son of extraordinary strength, whom he would offer as champion.

The young man was sent for in great haste. On his arrival, to test his powers, a bull was sent against him which had been goaded into fury with hot irons. The young giant stopped the raging brute, knocked him down, and tore off great handfuls of his skin and flesh. Hope came to Vladimir's soul on witnessing this wonderful feat.

Cathedral at Ostankioni


The day arrived. The champions advanced between the camps. The Petchenegan warrior laughed in scorn on seeing his beardless antagonist. But when they came to blows he found himself seized and crushed as in a vice in the arms of his boyish foe, and was flung, a lifeless body, to the earth. On seeing this the Petehenegans fled in dismay, while the Russians, forgetting their pledge, pursued and slaughtered them without mercy.

Vladimir at length (1015 A D.) came to his end. His son Yaroshif, whom he had made ruler of Novgorod, had refused to pay tribute, and the old prince, forced to march against his rebel son, died of grief on the way.

With all his faults, Vladimir deserved the title of Great which his country has given him. He put down the turbulent tribes, planted colonies in the desert, built towns, and embellished his cities with churches, palaces, and other buildings, for which workmen were brought from Greece. Russia grew rapidly under his rule. He established schools which the sons of the nobles were made to attend. And though he was but a poor pattern for a saint, he had the merit of finding Russia pagan and leaving it Christian.