Saint of the Day: St. Vladimir of Russia

(Welcome to our Saint of the Day series! Each weekday, we present you with an excerpt from Fr. George Poulos' Orthodox Saints series, published by Holy Cross Orthodox Press. Today we commemorate St. Vladimir, whose account is found in Volume 3 of the series.)

Saint Vladimir (Basil) of Russia

Empire builder, statesman, soldier, leader, and ultimately an extraordinary missionary, Vladimir of Russia has been referred to by historians as nothing more than Prince Vladimir, but Christianity knows him as a saint, a title that exceeds that of “emperor” or “the great.” The latter title, however, could have been accurately applied to Vladimir, a man who combined in his lifetime enough careers for an entire cabinet of ministers. His impressive credentials in secular life notwithstanding, it was his introduction of Christianity to a nation that was to swell in number to two hundred fifty million that placed him in the hallowed company of saints.

The son of Svyatoslav I, ruler of a fragmented Russia, Vladimir was born in Kiev in 972. With the death of his father, Vladimir fully expected to take over the reins of government but instead was forced into exile by powerful enemies. Taking refuge in Scandinavia, he secretly organized an army. With considerable daring and military skill, he put his enemies to flight and firmly established himself as prince of Russia.

A pagan since birth, Vladimir saw the need for a common religion among his own people that could assure a genuine unification. To that end he sent emissaries to Constantinople, Germany and the Muslim countries with directions to report what they could about the respective religions. The Russian monk Nestor records the report of the observer of the Muslims: “There was no gladness among them, only sorrow and a great stench; their religion is not a good one.” The observer in Germany saw “no beauty” in the Latin ritual. But in Constantinople, where the full festive ritual of the Orthodox Church was unveiled in all its splendor, the emissaries wrote back to Vladimir, “We no longer knew whether we were in heaven or on earth, for such beauty we know not how to tell of it.” The news elated Vladimir, who himself had been greatly attracted to Orthodoxy and Byzantine civilization. 

In the course of his introduction to Christianity, Vladimir also wanted to marry the sister of Emperor Basil, who saw in this marriage a way of making an ally of this powerful ruler of the north. Soon after he was baptized, taking the name of Emperor Basil, Vladimir and Basil’s sister Anna were married and returned to Kiev.

Christianity transformed Vladimir from pagan wretchedness to God’s glorious love, and he plunged into the formidable task of bringing the word of Christ into the hearts of all the people of his country. By word of mouth and courier, the only media of the day, it took a great deal of skill, determination and missionary zeal to see that the darkened reaches of the country were illuminated with the love of Christ.

Into an area larger than Europe, Vladimir untiringly applied himself to establishing not only churches, but schools, seminaries, convents, monasteries and every form of Christian expression. The logistics of such an undertaking are breathtaking and required not only the skill of an able administrator, but the zeal of an apostle who had pledged himself to the spiritual enlightenment of an entire country. This great work culminated in the erection in 989 of the “Cathedral of the Tithes,” which symbolized the great Christian zeal of Vladimir and his countrymen who came to call their ruler the “St. Paul of Russia.” The work of Christianizing Russia was facilitated by the use of the Slavonic alphablet (invented by the great Greek missionaries Sts. Cyril and Methodios), into which the gems of Christian literature were translated.

Prince Vladimir died in 1015, with the whole of Russia as his legacy to the Christian faith, which, despite its history of communism, to this day sees to the spiritual needs of the Christian community. The father of his country as well as its church, Prince Vladimir, whose gravesite has witnessed many miracles, was proclaimed a saint of the Church and accorded the rare title of Isapostolos, “Equal-to-the-Apostles.”

Text from Fr. George Poulos' Orthodox Saints. Image from Wikipedia

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