Baptism of Vladimir I Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

When Vladimir, the prince of Kiev, converted to Orthodox Christianity through his baptism, he linked the cultural, economic, and political fortunes of the Rus with the Byzantine world.

Summary of Event

In 1988, the Russian Orthodox Church Orthodox Church;Russia celebrated the millennial anniversary of its founding. Early sources reveal that Vladimir, grand prince of Kievan Rus, was baptized an Eastern Christian in 988 and then compelled his subjects to be baptized in the Dnieper River. Christianity certainly penetrated Russian society much earlier. Russian churchmen insist that Saint Andrew visited Russia in the first century, an event used by chroniclers to show the apostolic origins of Russian Orthodoxy. In reality, he probably never got farther than the Crimea. [kw]Baptism of Vladimir I (988) [kw]Vladimir I, Baptism of (988) Vladimir I Christianity;Kievan Rus Kievan Rus;Christianity Russia;988: Baptism of Vladimir I[1340] Government and politics;988: Baptism of Vladimir I[1340] Religion;988: Baptism of Vladimir I[1340] Vladimir I Anna, Princess of the Byzantine Empire Basil II (958-1025) Igor Olga, Saint Svyatoslav I

The Christian Church of Saint Elias existed in Kiev during the rule of Igor Igor , and members of his military retinue were Christians when the Rus signed a treaty with Constantinople in 945. Igor’s widow, Grand Princess Olga Olga, Saint , grandmother to Vladimir, was even baptized a Christian in the Byzantine capital ten years later, although the pagan faith remained the religion of her Kievan state. A number of merchants in Kiev were known to be Christians as well, but Christianity gained official status only with Vladimir.

Born in Kiev sometime around 956, Vladimir was the son of Malusha (Malfried), a former housekeeper of his grandmother, Olga, and Svyatoslav I Svyatoslav I , grand prince of Kievan Rus. When the latter died in 972, civil wars erupted among the sons—Yaropolk, Oleg, and Vladimir—over the succession to the grand princely throne. With Viking armies, Vladimir emerged, and as grand prince he forged a new union of Novgorod and Kiev. To maintain this empire required a common religious bond.

Early in his reign, Vladimir considered the adoption of a new pagan cult to unify the realm, binding ruled and ruler. He had already created a pagan pantheon of gods, using regional cults in conjunction with the state cult of Perun, the god of thunder and lightning. He came to realize that the pagan cult could have limited use in foreign affairs and that a modern religion would best facilitate territorial expansion. The Rus were surrounded by adherents of the new religions: the Khazars Khazars adopted Judaism in the ninth century, the Volga Bulgars Bulgars chose Islam in the early tenth century, and Latin Christianity was spreading among the Poles, Hungarians, and other Eastern Europeans.

Chroniclers relate the famous story of emissaries sent to investigate the various religions and the discussions the grand prince had with each of them. There is undoubtedly some truth to the prince’s aversion to the fasting from drink and to the practice of circumcision among the Jews and Muslims, as well as to his particular attraction for the beauty of the Byzantine liturgy over that of the Roman and his dislike of Islamic mosques. Yet it seems that the decisive issue involved the establishment of close political and economic ties of Kiev with Constantinople, as well as strong apprehension concerning submission to the central authority of Rome. Religion;Kievan Rus Kievan Rus;religion

The early rulers of Russia (top left to bottom right): Vladimir I, Rurik, Dmitry Donskoy, Michael Romanov, Alexis, Ivan the Great, Ivan the Terrible, Fyodor III, Yaroslav the Just.

(F. R. Niglutsch)

There was yet another factor. In January of 988, Vladimir sent a bodyguard of six thousand Varangian warriors to aid Emperor Basil II Basil II to quell a rebellion in his empire. This force was the origin of the famed Varangian Guard Varangian Guard in Constantinople. When Basil hesitated on his promise to send his sister to Vladimir in marriage, however, an angry grand prince attacked the Byzantine port of Chersonesus (Kherson) in the Crimea. The emperor relented and sent his sister, Anna, Anna, Princess of the Byzantine Empire to marry Vladimir in Chersonesus on the condition that he become a Christian. Marriage as a political tool;Byzantine Empire The local bishop and the priestly retinue of Anna were responsible for Vladimir’s formal conversion to the Christian religion that year in Chersonesus. On returning to his capital city, Vladimir ordered the statue of Perun to be dragged through the main avenue of Kiev and tossed over the falls in the Dnieper River. The populace was ordered to the river for their own baptism, and a similar command was sent to all the towns of the Kievan realm.

The decision of Vladimir for the Orthodox faith meant the adoption of an entire culture, replete with the artistic tradition of icon painting, Byzantine style architecture, monasticism, religious education, legal principles, and other patterns of thought. It is worth noting that one feature was absent from the legacy of the Byzantine Empire—namely, the interest in theological speculation. Several modern authorities argue that Vladimir and the Kievan Rus were so entranced by the beauty of Orthodoxy that tampering with doctrinal formulations was thought to be tampering with perfection. Another modern analysis holds that the Russians were not really converted to Christianity so much as they overlaid a shallow veneer of Christianity on a pagan base.

How much Vladimir himself was changed by the religious conversion is disputed. Chroniclers make frequent mention of his weekly feasts, wherein he invited his retinue and others to dine at court, while servants would distribute food to the poor in the streets. Notice is also made of his newfound aversion to capital punishment and the cessation of his harem. He continued to exercise little restraint in warfare, allowing his soldiers to pillage at will, although it was the usual custom of the time.

Some Western elements are found in Vladimir’s religious policies, such as his introduction of the tithe to support his plans for a cathedral. Vladimir gave the Church a broad charter of immunity from the civil law and allowed the Church’s own jurisdiction to include not only moral and liturgical matters but also family disputes and inheritances. Such issues corresponded more to Western than Greek practices.





Russian churchmen adopted two central features of the Byzantine traditions: the sacramental and mystical element of Christianity, which was best expressed in the veneration of icons; and the Platonic ideal that stressed the Spirit as reality. This last was illustrated by the strength of monasticism in Russia. In both traditions, the liturgy assumed major importance with its icon screens, chants, and a general air of the unworldly. Like the Byzantine caesar, Vladimir also assumed the role as a church leader in Kievan Russia.

Byzantine traditions sometimes blended with the Russian pagan traditions, which included the Cult of Mother Earth: the Paraskeva, when the crops, rivers, and forests were venerated, where one is lost in nature. These traditions included the Rusolki, or stories of female spirits, and the inclination to ancestor worship evident in the continued use of the patronymic. There was the residue also of other pagan customs such as beating with palms, decorating Easter eggs, and the cult of Grandfather Frost. Such a blend of Christian and pagan practices was the case in the early Roman Church as well. Paganism;Kievan Rus


Russians refute the accusation sometimes made in the West that they were not Christianized before Vladimir’s time because they were too savage, barbaric, and illiterate. Evidence shows the existence of a written language in Smolensk from a much earlier period. Scholars have also made note of a complicated trade agreement between the Rus and Byzantines in 907, which must have involved sophisticated language. Pre-Christian artistic traditions lasted even into the age of Andrei Rublev in the early fifteenth century. The voluminous secular graffiti and business discussions on the walls of the churches of Saint Sophia in Kiev and in Novgorod in the early eleventh century indicate that society at that time was not unsophisticated in this genre. In short, Vladimir’s decision to become a Christian did not begin Russian civilization.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cross, Samuel Hazard, and Olgerd P. Sherbowitz-Wetzor, eds. and trans. The Russian Primary Chronicle. Cambridge, Mass.: Medieval Academy of America, 1953. Contains the Laurentian Chronicle, the principal annals of Vladimir’s era.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dukes, Paul. A History of Russia: Medieval, Modern, Contemporary, circa 882-1996. 3d ed. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1998. Part 1 of this historical study introduces medieval Russia and the construction and then collapse of Kiev (882-1240). Extensive bibliography and an index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fedotov, George P. The Russian Religious Mind: Kievan Christianity. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1946. A classic exploration of the historical roots of Russian Orthodoxy and its relations with the state by a writer who combines scholarship with beautiful prose.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fennell, John. A History of the Russian Church to 1448. New York: Longman, 1995. This last work by a respected medieval scholar stresses the extent of Christianity in Kievan Rus as the context for Vladimir’s conversion.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Franklin, Simon, and Jonathan Shepard. The Emergence of Rus: 750-1200. New York: Longman, 1996. This book examines the medieval origins and development of the Slavic peoples of Eastern Europe, focusing upon Scandinavian, Byzantine, and barbarian influences. Includes an important chapter on the period from 960 to 1015 and Vladimir’s role in expanding and shoring up the power structure in Kiev. Maps, extensive bibliography, list of genealogies, and excellent index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Grekov, B. A. “The Reign of Prince Vladimir Svyatoslavich.” In Kievan Rus. Moscow: Foreign Languages, 1959. The most noted work by a Soviet scholar on the Kievan era of Russian history. In it he argues that paganism yielded to Christianity because the former was a tribal religion whereas the latter was essentially class oriented.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Grunwald, Constantin De. “Saint Vladimir.” In Saints of Russia. New York: Macmillan, 1960. A concise, intelligent account of Vladimir’s life, using many Nordic sources, which stresses Vladimir’s Scandinavian ties. Argues that the conversion of the Kievan people took place in 990.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lobachev, Valeri, and Vladimir Prevotorov. A Millennium of Russian Christianity. Moscow: Novosti Press, 1988. A concise view of the Soviet point of view on the question of Russian Christianity.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Korpela, Jukka. Prince, Saint, and Apostle: Prince Vladimir Svjatoslavic of Kiev, His Posthumous Life, and the Religious Legitimization of the Russian Great Power. Wiesbaden, Germany: Harrassowitz, 2001. This ingenious study examines how Vladimir has been described and represented in Russia since his death. It looks at how the figure of Vladimir in religious discourse was used to support and even legitimate several rulers of Russia, especially Ivan the Terrible.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pospielovsky, Dimitry V. The Orthodox Church in the History of Russia. Crestwood, N.Y.: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1998. Includes separate chapters on the events leading up to the conversion, the conversion itself, and its political aftermath.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Vernadsky, George. Kievan Russia. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1948. The standard account of Vladimir’s conversion by a well-respected scholar whose discussion of the grand prince is still not challenged.

Categories: History