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The Conversion of Vladimir the Great A succession of religious leaders came to Kiev, hoping to win the wild barbarian Prince to their cause.

In two parts

AD 988
King Ethelred the Unready 978-1016
Music: Modest Mussorgsky

Vasily Petrovich Vereshchagin (1835-1909), via Wikimedia Commons. Licence: Public domain. Source

About this picture …

‘Vladimir chooses a religion’, by Vasily Petrovich Vereshchagin (1835-1909). Vereshchagin specialised in religious scenes and in decorating churches, including the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow (demolished by the Communists in 1931) and the Assumption Cathedral of the Kiev Pechersk Lavra, a monastery dating back to the 11th century. His patron was Grand Duke Vladimir Alexandrovich of Russia, uncle of Tsar Nicholas II.

The Conversion of Vladimir the Great

Part 1 of 2

The Christianity that spread across England in the 7th century spread to Kiev in the 10th, but there it had to compete not just with paganism but with Islam, Judaism, and other flavours of Christianity — and also with Vladimir, Grand Prince of Kiev (r. 980-1015), who liked his religion spicy.

PRINCE Vladimir of Kiev was a superb general, but not without faults.* He was given to drink, kept several wives and hundreds of sex slaves, and encouraged the people to sacrifice their sons and daughters to his idol gods. And all this despite having a Christian grandmother, Olga.

The Muslims of Volga Bulgaria were the first to try to tame him.* Vladimir liked the idea of Allah supplying him with seventy fair women, but circumcision and abstaining from alcohol were deal-breakers. Next came emissaries from the Pope, but they reduced Christianity to mild fasting, hardly Vladimir’s idea of red-blooded religion. The Jews fared no better: the warlike Prince had little time for a religion whose homeland had been conquered.*

Only one man aroused any curiosity: a learned Greek from Constantinople,* who took Vladimir step-by-step through the Bible’s gripping tale of redemption. But still he wavered, so in 987 his noblemen suggested sending emissaries to each place, to observe these competing religions at first hand.*

Jump to Part 2

Vladimir ruled Kiev from 980 to 1015, making him a contemporary of King Ethelred the Unready. Indeed, some ancient sources say that after Cnut seized the English crown in 1016 Ethelred’s grandson Edward the Exile found refuge in Kiev under Vladimir’s son Yaroslav the Wise, and married Yaroslav’s youngest daughter, Agatha — making Queen Margaret of Scotland (r. 1070-1093) Vladimir’s great-granddaughter. See Edward the Exile.

Not Bulgaria, but Volga Bulgaria or Volga–Kama Bulghar, an Islamic Bulgar state at the confluence of the Volga and Kama Rivers, near modern-day Kazan. Over in Bulgaria itself, Prince Boris I had been baptised a Christian back in 864, under the influence (according to the Byzantine chronicler John Skylitzes) of St Methodius, teacher of the Slavs. See The Beautiful Side of the Picture.

By the Muslim caliph Umar ibn al-Khattab in 638. Islam was at that time a new religion, devised by Muhammad ibn Abdullah (?570-632).

Modern-day Istanbul in the northwest corner of Turkey. Since 330, it had been the capital of the Roman Empire; imperial rule was withdrawn from Britannia in 410. The city fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453.

The tale of Vladimir’s hesitation to commit to the Christian religion has echoes of the conversion of King Edwin of Northumbria. See King Edwin and the Hand of Destiny.


The 10th century Prince of Kiev, Vladimir, was a brutal pagan general with blood on his hands. Neighbouring nations sought to rein him in with religion — the Muslims, the Jews, and Christians from Rome and Constantinople. Of these, only the last made any favourable impression, so Vladimir’s counsellors suggested sending emissaries to see these religions in their home environment. (60 / 60 words)

Part Two

© Michael Day, Wikimedia Commons. Licence: CC BY-SA 2.0. Source

About this picture …

The Cathedral of the Holy Wisdom, Agia Sophia, in Constantinople (Istanbul), consecrated in 537 under the Emperor Justinian, and conquered along with the rest of the City by the Ottoman Turks in 1453. After that it became a mosque, and since 1935 a museum. The altar has been replaced with a Mecca-facing niche, icons have been defaced or scrubbed away, and the view is obscured by giant medallions inscribed with the names of Arab caliphs. Nonetheless, something of the breathtaking beauty of the Christian liturgy in Vladimir’s time may still be guessed at. See our story, The Fall of Constantinople.

ON returning to Kiev, Vladimir’s emissaries reported that Islam in Volga Bulgaria had been noisy and unhappy, and that Christian worship in Germany had left them cold. But in Agia Sophia, the cathedral of Constantinople, they were transported to another world. “We knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth” they sighed. “We cannot forget that beauty.”

The heathen Prince’s first reply was to beseige Chersonesus in the Crimea in 988, and send messages to Constantinople demanding Emperor Basil’s sister Anna in marriage. A trembling Basil refused, for Anna recoiled from so heathen a husband; but suddenly Vladimir sent another message, politely asking her to bring priests to baptise him.

There at Chersonesus the Prince was baptised, and Anna married him; after which Vladimir was a changed man. He smashed his blood-soaked idols, established schools, gave generously to the poor, and founded bustling towns around Greek-style churches — all filled with the spellbinding Gospel and unforgettable beauty that had tamed the wild Prince of Kiev.*

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The Baptism of Rus’ in 988 is celebrated every year on July 15th.


Vladimir’s emissaries returned saying that Christianity in Constantinople was the only religion worth considering. Vladimir, however, seemed more interested in besieging the City than adopting its worship, until he suddenly announced a change of heart. He was rewarded with marriage to the Emperor’s sister Anna, and he subsequently reformed both himself and his country completely. (55 / 60 words)


Based on The Primary Chronicle (The Tale of Past Years) attributed to Nestor the Chronicler (?1056-?1114), translated by Samuel Hazzard Cross and Olgerd P. Sherbowitz-Wetzor.

Related Video

In 2016, Stanford University collaborated with Cappella Romana to perform Byzantine chant in a virtual-sound Agia Sophia, by sampling the acoustic of the cathedral and then using software to process the sound of the choir as they sang. As singing is not allowed in Agia Sophia today, this is as close as we can come at present to the sound heard by Vladimir’s emissaries (though the music is of a later era). Stanford have also released a short video documentary about the experiment. In the video below, the choir sings the Cherubic Hymn.

Suggested Music

1 2

Pictures at an Exhibition

Promenade; The Gnome

Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881)

Performed by Evgeny Kissin (piano).

Media not showing? Let me know!

Pictures at an Exhibition

Baba Yaga; The Great Gate of Kiev

Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881)

Performed by Evgeny Kissin (piano).

Media not showing? Let me know!

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