How an Insatiable Prince Became a Patron Saint
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because if a pagan prince can turn his game around, what else is spiritually possible?
It’s never too late to repent! Even some of the most venerated saints have had a naughty past. Explore the fine line between sin and sanctity in this original OZY series — Before They Were Holy: Saints Gone Wild.
Prince Vladimir of Kiev wanted more. The youngest son of Grand Prince Sviatsolav Igorevich, Vladimir was by no means a poor young man, but his two older brothers, Oleg and Yaropolk, stood in the way of what he really wanted: the crown.
While his brothers fought a bitter civil war following their father’s death, Vladimir fled to Norway in 977, where he amassed an army of soldiers. Only a few months after his arrival, he sent his troops to Kiev, where Yaropolk, who had murdered Oleg, now sat on the throne. En route to the capital, Vladimir and his men left a trail of death and misery, but the young prince was saving his most violent deed for last.
Upon entering the palace in Kiev, Vladimir had his brother murdered and then took his newly widowed sister-in-law hostage. Though he had achieved his goal, Vladimir delivered a final, brutal blow: He raped his sister-in-law and forced her to become one of his concubines.
When Vladimir was baptized in 988, he traded in his concubines and wives for a single Byzantine bride.
Such savagery is not usually associated with a patron saint of not one but two nations, but that’s the status of brutal Prince Vladimir — patron saint of Ukraine and Russia, known today as the Holy Great Prince Vladimir, equal of the apostles.
Born in 956, Vladimir was the product of an affair between his father, Prince Sviatsolav, and his father’s housekeeper Malusha. According to Norse sagas, Malusha was a pagan prophetess who lived in a cave and was often summoned to the castle to predict the future — and, evidently, to provide some amorous action. Vladimir was also the grandson of genocidal-maniac-turned-saint Princess Olga of Kiev, who famously sought blood vengeance for her husband’s murder by slaughtering the entire Drevlian tribe prior to her conversion to Christianity.
Vladimir certainly seemed to have inherited his grandmother’s bloodthirstiness; scholars are uncertain from whom he got his insatiable sexual appetite. At the beginning of his rule, Vladimir was a staunch pagan and polygamist. At the height of this phase of his life, the prince had 800 concubines and numerous wives.
At the time of Vladimir’s rule, various forms of paganism dominated the religious landscape of his realm, Kievan Rus, which occupied today’s Ukraine and much of western Russia. To create a unified nation under a supreme ruler, the prince launched a campaign to meld the pagan creeds of the realm’s numerous tribes, making their gods objects of national veneration, though he had his eye on the thunder god Perun for the role of supreme deity. “He erected a temple that contained idols of all the local gods,” explains Thomas Craughwell, author of Saints Behaving Badly and This Saint Will Change Your Life. “He consecrated it the old-fashioned way — with human sacrifice.”
When Vladimir’s attempts to unify his people through paganism failed, he turned to a religion that was making some headway in the region: Christianity. Much like his grandmother Olga, he embarked on a mission to convert his kingdom. His motivation was most likely not that of divine inspiration but rather logic: He assumed — correctly, as it turned out — that a religion with only one god aligned better with a nation that had only one ruler.
When Vladimir was baptized in 988, he traded in his concubines and wives for a single Byzantine bride. He forced his subjects to convert to Christianity, destroyed pagan idols and temples, established charities and built churches, schools, libraries and churches throughout Kievan Rus.
Though it took Vladimir decades to consolidate his power and that of Christianity, he eventually succeeded where his grandmother had failed — by unifying the East Slavs in his realm and fortifying his borders to thwart foreign invaders. Furthermore, the forced conversion of his people to Christianity served a powerful diplomatic purpose as Russia entered into alliances with other influential Christian states.
Vladimir died in 1015 and almost immediately became a mythical figure in medieval Ukraine and Russia. The subject of numerous heroic ballads and legends, he was canonized in the mid-13th century, and both the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches celebrate his feast day on July 15.
Today Vladimir’s youthful transgressions are seen as a testament to Christ’s ability to convert sinners into saints. But the former womanizing murderer remains a provocative figure in Ukrainian-Russian relations, as both countries claim him as their compatriot. The 1,000th anniversary of his death, in 2015, added another dimension to the Ukrainian-Russian conflict, with the former claiming that Russia’s planned celebration of St. Vladimir’s death was an attempt to steal their history.
Even postmortem, the marauding princely saint spurs conflict in his realm.