Vladimir (c 955-1015), Prince of Kiev, may have been converted to Christianity primarily for political reasons. Yet faith immediately took root in him, turning a promiscuous thug into an outstanding exemplar of his new religion.
Kiev had been conquered in 882 by Scandinavian Vikings, who became known as Verangians. Vladimir was the great-grandson of Rus, a Verangian prince traditionally regarded as the founder of the Russian state.
In his youth Vladimir, the illegitimate offspring of Sviatoslav I of Kiev and his housekeeper Malusha, became notorious for brutishness. One chronicler recorded that his “desire for women was too much for him”. Indeed, he has been credited with some 800 concubines, along with numerous wives.
An enthusiastic pagan, Vladimir built temples dedicated to the thunder god. It was said that he took part in ceremonies of human sacrifice.
In 970 he was created Prince of Novgorod by his father, only to be forced within two years to flee from his rebellious brothers to Scandinavia. He returned with a vengeance, and by 980 had established himself as the ruler of the Kievan province.
In the late 980s Vladimir, facing another revolt, was forced to seek aid from Byzantium. Under the terms of the treaty he was obliged both to marry Anne, daughter of the Emperor, Basil II, and to become a Christian.
Vladimir immediately cast off his mistresses and former wives. Moreover, the chronicler records, “when in a moment of passion he fell into sin, he at once sought to make up for it by penitence and almsgiving”.
He ordered that pagan idols should be destroyed and supported the work of Greek missionaries among his people. Subjects who did not hearken unto the word of the Lord were liable to find themselves facing severe penalties.
Vladimir now stands forth as the ruler who began the conversion of the Russian people. The first Christians, however, were mainly nobles and merchants in Kiev. For a long time paganism continued to thrive in the countryside. There can be no doubts about Vladimir’s own spiritual advance, as he set about giving away all his personal possessions. He even began to wonder whether he had the right to punish robbers and murderers by putting them to death. Christian theologians, however, were able to reassure him on this point.
Although Vladimir’s Christianity was essentially Byzantine, he never adopted a narrow view. He adopted the western custom of collecting tithes, exchanged ambassadors with the Pope and helped St Boniface with his mission to the Pechenegs, a semi-nomadic people living between the Danube and Don rivers.
In heaven there will be more joy over one sinner who repents, than over 99 souls who are justified and have no need of repentance.