O God who created heaven and earth: Look down upon these new people and grant them to know You, the true God..." Just months before, the Russian prince who prayed this prayer had been a cruel and lustful playboy. He had even tried to impose a national pagan religion on his people. But Prince Vladimir's thinking had changed. If tradition is correct, it was on this day, June 5, 988, that he was baptized with hundreds of the men and women of Kiev.
It marked the rise of Orthodoxy in Russia. Vladimir's grandmother, Princess Olga, had earlier tried to make Christianity the official religion of her country but without much success. Yet she prayed earnestly for her grandson. Her hopes and prayers were rewarded. Vladimir turned to Christ. It became the boast of Russia that from that day forward (at least until the Communists took over) Russia was never without a recognized saint somewhere within its borders.
Before his conversion, say the old legends, Vladimir examined the great faiths of his age. He immediately rejected Judaism, saying that if they had so offended God that he would not allow them to return to their land, they were unfit to teach him. Islamic teachings on sex appealed to his playboy nature, but their restrictions on wine and swine disgusted him. Vladimir did not care for the Germans who brought Latin Catholicism his way. But an Orthodox teacher, who pointed to fulfilled scripture charmed him. He sent diplomats to observe the various faiths. When the agents who returned from Constantinople claimed that they had been almost transported to heaven during an Orthodox service in Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom), the most splendid church of the age, Vladimir opted for Orthodoxy.
Whether these stories from the ancient chronicle are true or not, there were good reasons for Vladimir to adopt the faith practiced by his immediate neighbors in Byzantium and East Europe. The East European languages were related to Russian and their lands were close to one another. The rich culture of Eastern Christianity also appealed to Russian tastes. Once adopted, Orthodoxy stamped the character of the Russian people. By it their land was transformed from pagan barbarism to become known as Holy Russia. Several times in Russian history, the church became the throbbing heart of the nation as it struggled against foreign invasion or occupation.
Vladimir conversion seems to have been real. He took a genuine interest in Christianity and gave evidence that his heart had changed. Not only did he turn away from his former sexual pleasures, but he lost much of the careless cruelty that had marked him before. He even abandoned the death penalty.
And he himself prayed over baptismal candidates.
- Adapted from an earlier Christian History Institute story.
- Bradbury, Doris. The Russian Orthodox Church. Moscow: Progress, 1982.
- "Russian Christianity." Christian History Magazine #18.
- Shipman, Andrew J. "St. Vladimir the Great." The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton, 1914.
- "Vladimir, St." The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. Edited by F. L. Cross and E. A. Livingstone. Oxford, 1997.
- Various encyclopedia and internet articles.
Last updated May, 2007.