Feast Day: 15 July
It’s fair to say that if you had known Vladimir of Kiev in his early life you never would have guessed that he would later be known as a saint. Vladimir was the king of Kievan Rus, what we now know as modern day Ukraine and part of Russia. He was the grandson of Saint Olga, who herself had quite the colourful life before converting; however while she had converted, her son and therefore his sons as well had all remained pagan.
Ruling with an iron fist
Vladimir of Kiev in many ways embodied the classic idea of a pagan warlord. He was a brutal and violent conqueror who started his rule by usurping the lands and thrones of his brothers that came before him in succession as he was illegitimate. Vladimir had over 800 concubines and multiple wives.
He worshipped the Slavic gods and would regularly perform human sacrifices to them to ensure his victory in the numerous military campaigns he fought. He was known to rule with an iron fist, decimating any tribe who thought to stand against him. All this began to change after a chance encounter during one of his sacrificial rites.
In 983, after another of his military successes, Prince Vladimir and his army thought it necessary to sacrifice human lives to the gods. A lot was cast and it fell on a youth, Ioann by name, the son of a Christian, Fyodor.
His father stood firmly against his son being sacrificed to the idols. More than that, he tried to show the pagans the futility of their faith: “Your gods are just plain wood: it is here now but it may rot into oblivion tomorrow; your gods neither eat, nor drink, nor talk and are made by human hand from wood; whereas there is only one God — He is worshiped by Greeks and He created heaven and earth; and your gods? They have created nothing, for they have been created themselves; never will I give my son to the devils!”
Alas, both Ioann and Fyodor were slaughtered and became the first martyrs of Russia. It was this speech, however, that began to cause Vladimir to ponder over whether or not to convert to Christianity.
A radical conversion to Christianity
When he became convinced of the true nature of God being one, he sent envoys to examine the monotheistic religions: Christianity, Islam and Judaism. He spoke with delegations from each but ultimately decided Christianity was the true faith.
On becoming Christian, he transformed his life radically. He gave up his hundreds of concubines and married but one woman. He ruled justly and was so well regarded and brought such prosperity to his country that he received the epithet ‘the Great’ to describe how much of a positive impact he had on his country.
Why is Vladimir of Kiev important
A reflection from someone in our young Catholic community
Saint Vladimir first inspired me by the radicalness of his conversion. At the time I first discovered his story, I wasn’t actually Catholic and only learnt about him because I was studying early Russian history.
Vladimir’s story was one that stuck with me because whereas before I believed most people’s religions were heavily influenced by the society they grew up in, here was a man who had gone from living a life completely opposed to Christianity to one fervently following it.