The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 5

Author: A. N. Mouravieff  | Date: A.D. 988-1015

Conversion of Vladimir the Great;
Introduction of Christianity into Russia

A.D. 988-1015


According to early Greek and Roman writers, Russia in their time was inhabited by Scythians and Sarmatians. The Greeks established commercial relations with the most southerly tribes. In the fourth and fifth centuries, during the migrations of the nations, Russia was invaded by Goths, Alans, Huns, Avars, and Bulgarians, who, however, made no settlements. They were followed by the Slavs, who are looked upon as the Sarmatians already mentioned.

The Slavs settled as far north as the upper Volga. The chief settlements were Novgorod and Kieff, which became the capitals of independent principalities, Novgorod especially becoming an important commercial and trading centre.

The commerce northward through the Baltic was subject to the attacks of the Scandinavian Northmen, known as Varangians. They demanded tribute of the Slavs, and on its refusal attacked and captured Novgorod. A little later Novgorod established its independence as a republic; but within a few years we find this section controlled by a Varangian tribe from Rus, a district of Sweden. This tribe was led by three brothers, Ruric the Peaceful, Sineous the Victorious, and Trouvor the Faithful, who settled and ruled in different parts of the country.

In 864, on the death of his brothers, Ruric consolidated their territories with his, assumed the title of grand prince, peaceably took possession of Novgorod and made it his capital, naming the country Russia, after his native place.

With the advent of the Varangians the authentic history of Russia begins. The millenary of that event was celebrated in 1862 at Novgorod, as the foundation of the Russian empire.

Ruric died in 879. In the next hundred years his successors conquered many neighboring lands and added them to the empire. Kieff became the capital. Numerous invasions into the territory of the Greek empire were made and Constantinople was frequently attacked, resulting sometimes in repulse, and at others in exacting heavy tribute from the Eastern Emperor. Treaties were executed and a gradual growth of commerce and intercourse between the Greeks and Russians took place. Olga, the famous and popular widow of Ruric’s son, Igor, became a Christian and was baptized in Constantinople in 9551 and during the rest of her life lent her powerful influence to the spread of the faith. And though her son, the emperor Sviatoslaf, remained a pagan throughout his reign, Christianity continued to grow, and the general Christianization of Russia during the reign of her grandson, Vladimir, was aided materially by the great example of the good queen Olga.

In 970 Sviatoslaf divided his empire among his three sons, Iaropolk I, Oleg, and Vladimir. After the death of Sviatoslaf in 972 Civil war began between the three brothers. Oleg was killed and Vladimir fled to Sweden. In 980, supported by a force of Varangians, Vladimir returned, captured Novgorod and Kieff, and put Iaropolk to death. Under Vladimir, later known as Vladimir the Great, Russia increased in importance, and civilization was enhanced by the spread of Christianity through the missionary efforts of the Greek Church, now the Holy, Orthodox, Catholic, Apostolic, Oriental Church. It is, therefore, not strange that the Russian prelates were distinguished by their loyalty and fidelity to the Greek Church throughout the continued conflicts between it and the Roman Church which resulted in their separation in 1054.

In the fifteenth century, with the consent of the patriarchate of Constantinople, the Orthodox Graeco-Russia Church assumed national independence, and became the state church; and after the establishment of Mahometanism in Constantinople, since its capture by Mahomet II In 1453, the reigning Czar of Russia has come to be regarded not only as the temporal and spiritual head of the Greek Church by the great mass of adherents which form the bulk of the population in Russia, but also as the champion of all the followers of the church in Greece and throughout the orient.

The story of the introduction of Christianity into Russia presents an interesting psychological study of the growth and development of the religious sentiment inherent in man—be he never so brutalized and barbarous. Notwithstanding its display of national pride and bias, pardonable in a native historian, Mouravieff’s account is exceedingly interesting.

The Russian Church, like the other orthodox churches of the East, had an apostle for its founder. St. Andrew, the first called of the Twelve, hailed with his blessing long beforehand the destined introduction of Christianity into our country; ascending up and penetrating by the Dnieper into the deserts of Scythia, he planted the first cross on the hills of Kieff. "See you," said he to his disciples, "these hills? On these hills shall shine the light of divine grace. There shall be here a great city, and God shall have in it many churches to his name."

Such are the words of the holy Nestor, the monk and annalist of the Pechersky monastery, that point from whence Christian Russia has sprung.

But it was only after an interval of nine centuries that the rays of divine light beamed upon Russia from the walls of Byzantium, in which city the same apostle, St. Andrew, had appointed Stachys to be the first bishop, and so committed, as it were, to him and to his successors, in the spirit of prescience, the charge of that wide region in which he had himself preached Christ. Hence the indissoluble connection of the Russian with the Greek Church, and the dependence of her metropolitans during six centuries upon the patriarchal throne of Constantinople, until, with its consent, she obtained her own equality and independence in that which was accorded to her native primates.

The Bulgarians of the Danube, the Moravians, and the Slavonians of Illyria had been already enlightened by holy baptism about the middle of the ninth century, during the reign of the Greek emperor Michael and the patriarchate of the illustrious Photius. St. Cyril and St. Methodius, two learned Greek brothers, translated into the Slavonic the New Testament and the books used in divine service, and according to some accounts even the whole Bible.

This translation of the Word of God became afterward a most blessed instrument for the conversion of the Russians, for the missionaries were by it enabled to expound the truths of the Gospel to the heathens in their native dialect, and so win for them a readier entrance to their hearts.

Oskold and Dir, two princes of Kieff and the companions of Ruric, were the first of the Russians who embraced Christianity. In the year 866 they made their appearance in armed vessels before the walls of Constantinople when the Emperor was absent, and threw the Greek capital into no little alarm and confusion. Tradition reports that "The patriarch Photius took the virginal robe of the Mother of God from the Blachern Church, and plunged it beneath the waves of the strait, when the sea immediately boiled up from underneath and wrecked the vessels of the heathen. Struck with awe, they believed in that God who had smitten them, and became the first-fruits of their people to the Lord." The hymn of victory of the Greek Church, "To the protecting Conductress," in honor of the most holy Virgin, has remained a memorial of this triumph, and even now concludes the Office for the First Hour in the daily Matins; for that was, indeed, the first hour of salvation to the land of Russia.

It is probable that on their return to their own country the princes of Kieff sowed there the seeds of Christianity; for, eighty years afterward, on occasion of a conference for peace between the prince Igor and certain Byzantine ambassadors, we find mention already of a "Church of the Prophet Elias" in Kieff where the Christian Varangians swore to the observance of the treaty. Constantine Porphyrogenitus and other Greek annalists even relate that in the lifetime of Oskold there was a bishop sent to the Russians by the emperor Basil the Macedonian, and the patriarch St. Ignatius, and that he made many converts, chiefly "in consequence of the miraculous preservation of a volume of the Gospels, which was thrown publicly into the flames and taken out after some time unconsumed." Also in Condinus, Catalogue of Sees Subject to the Patriarch of Constantinople, the metropolitical see of Russia appears as early as the year 891.

Lastly, it is certain that many of the Varangians who served in the Imperial bodyguard were Christians, and that the Greek sovereigns never lost sight of any opportunity of converting them to their own faith, by which they hoped to soften their savage manners. When the emperor Leo was concluding a peace with Oleg, he showed not only his own treasures to the ambassadors of the Russian prince, but also the splendor of the churches, the holy relics, the precious icons, and the "instruments of the Passion of our Lord," if by any means they might catch from them the spirit of the faith.

Some such influences as these, while Christianity as yet was only struggling for an uncertain existence at Kieff, produced in good time their effect on the wisest of the daughters of the Slavonians, the widowed princess Olga, who governed Russia during the minority of her son Sviatoslaf. She undertook a voyage to Constantinople for no other end than to obtain a knowledge of the true God, and there she received baptism at the hands of the patriarch Polyeuctes; the emperor Constantine Porphyrogenitus himself, who admired her wisdom, being her godfather. Nestor draws an affecting picture of the patriarch foretelling to the newly illumined princess the blessings which were to descend by her means on future generations of the Russians, while Olga, now become Helena by baptism—that she might resemble both in name and deed the mother of Constantine the Great—stood meekly bowing down her head and drinking in, as a sponge that is thirsty of moisture, the instructions of the prelate concerning the canons of the Church, fasting, prayer, almsgiving, and continence, all which she observed with exactness on her return to her own country.

Although, in spite of all her entreaties, the fierce and warlike prince Sviatoslaf persisted in refusing to humble his proud heart under the meek yoke of Christ, he had still so much affection for his mother as not to persecute such as agreed with her in religion, but even to allow them freely to make open profession of their faith under the protection of that princess. He confided his children to her care during his incessant military expeditions, and so enabled her to confirm the saving impressions of Christianity among the people who respected her, and to instil them into the mind of her young grandson Vladimir; for nothing sinks so deep into the heart as the simple and affectionate words of a mother. The princess had with her a priest named Gregory, whom she had brought from Constantinople, and by him she was buried after her death in the spot which she had herself appointed, without any of the usual pagan ceremonies. The people, by whom she had been surnamed "the wise" during life, began to bless her for a saint after her death, when they came themselves to follow the example of this "Morning Star" which had risen and gone before to lead Russia into the path of salvation.

Nowhere has Christianity ever been less persecuted at its first introduction than in our own country. The Chronicle speaks of only two Christian martyrs, the Varangians Theodore and John, who were put to death by the fury of the people because one of them, from natural affection, had refused to give up his son when he had been devoted by the prince Vladimir to be offered as a sacrifice to Peroun.

Probably the very zeal of this prince for the heathen deities, to whom he set up statues and multiplied altars, may have inspired the neighboring nations with the desire of converting so powerful a ruler to their respective creeds; and thus his blind impulse toward the Deity, which was unknown to him, received a true direction. The Mahometan Bulgarians were the first to send ambassadors to him, with the offer of their faith; but the mercy of Providence—for so it plainly was—inspired him to give them a decided refusal on the ground that he did not choose to comply with some of their regulations; though else a sensual religion might well have enticed a man who was given up to the indulgence of his passions.

The Chazarian Jews flattered themselves with the hope of attracting the Prince by boasting of their religion and the ancient glory of Jerusalem. "But where," demanded the wise grandson of Olga, "is your country?"

"It is ruined by the wrath of God for the sins of our fathers," was their answer. Vladimir then said that he had no mind to embrace the law of a people whom God had abandoned. There came also western doctors from Germany, who would have persuaded Vladimir to embrace Christianity, but their Christianity seemed strange to him; for Russia had hitherto no acquaintance but with Byzantium.

"Return home," he said; "our ancestors did not receive this religion from you."

A Greek embassy had the best success of them all. A certain philosopher, a monk named Constantine, after having exposed the insufficiency of other religions, eloquently set before the Prince those judgments of God which are in the world, the redemption of the human race by the blood of Christ, and the retribution of the life to come. His discourse powerfully affected the heathen monarch, who was burdened with the heavy sins of a tumultuous youth; and this was particularly the case when the monk pointed out to him on an icon, which represented the last judgment, the different lot of the just and of the wicked.

"Good to these on the right hand, but woe to those on the left" exclaimed Vladimir, deeply affected. But sensual nature still struggled in him against heavenly truth. Having dismissed the missionary, or ambassador, with presents, he still hesitated to decide, and wished first to examine further concerning the faith, in concert with the elders of his council, that all Russia might have a share in his conversion. The council of the Prince decided to send chosen men to make their observations on each religion on the spot where it was professed; and this public agreement explains in some degree the sudden and general acceptance of Christianity which shortly after followed in Russia. It is probable that not only the chiefs, but the common people also, were expecting and ready for the change.

The Greek emperors did not fail to profit by this favorable opportunity, and the patriarch himself in person celebrated the divine liturgy in the Church of St. Sophia with the utmost possible magnificence before the astonished ambassadors of Vladimir. The sublimity and splendor of the service struck them; but we do not ascribe to the mere external impression that softening of the hearts of these heathens, on which depended the conversion of a whole nation. From the very earliest times of the Church, extraordinary signs of God’s power have constantly gone hand-in-hand with that apparent weakness of man by which the Gospel was preached; and so also the Byzantine Chronicle relates of the Russian ambassadors, "That during the Divine liturgy, at the time of carrying the Holy Gifts in procession to the throne or altar and singing the cherubic hymn, the eyes of their spirits were opened, and they saw, as in an ecstasy, glittering youths who joined in singing the hymn of the ’Thrice Holy.’"

Being thus fully persuaded of the truth of the orthodox faith, they returned to their own country already Christians in heart, and without saying a word before the Prince in favor of the other religions, they declared thus concerning the Greek: "When we stood in the temple we did not know where we were, for there is nothing else like it upon earth: there in truth God has his dwelling with men; and we can never forget the beauty we saw there. No one who has once tasted sweets will afterward take that which is bitter; nor can we now any longer abide in heathenism."

Then the boyars said to Vladimir: "If the religion of the Greeks had not been good, your grandmother Olga, who was the wisest of women, would not have embraced it."

The weight of the name of Olga decided her grandson, and he said no more in answer than these words: "Where shall we be baptized?"

But Vladimir, led by a sense which had not yet been purged by Greece, thought it best to follow the custom of his ancestors, who made warlike descents upon Constantinople, and so win to himself, sword in hand, his new religion. He embarked his warriors on board their vessels and attacked Cherson in the Taurid, a city which was subject to the emperors Basil and Constantine.

After a long and unsuccessful siege a certain priest, named Anastasius, by means of an arrow shot from the town, informed the Prince that the fate of the besieged depended upon his cutting off the aqueducts, which supplied them with water. Vladimir in great joy made a vow that he would be baptized if he gained possession of the town; and he did gain possession of it. Then he sent to Constantinople to demand from the Greek Emperor the hand of their sister Anna, and they in answer proposed as a condition that he should embrace Christianity; for though they themselves desired an alliance with so powerful a prince, they at the same time took care to follow the prudent and pious policy of their predecessors, who had ever sought to bring their fierce neighbors under the humanizing influence of the faith. The Prince declared his consent; because, in his own words, he had "long since examined and conceived a love for the Greek law."

It was her faith alone which influenced the princess to sacrifice herself at once for the temporal interests of her own country and for the eternal welfare of a strange people. Accompanied by a venerable body of clergy, she sailed for Cherson, and on her arrival induced the Prince to hasten his baptism. "For it was so ordered," says the pious annalist, "by the wisdom of God, that the sight of the Prince was at that time much affected by a complaint of the eyes, but at the moment that the Bishop of Cherson laid his hands upon him, when he had risen up out of the bath of regeneration, Vladimir suddenly received not only spiritual illumination, but also the bodily sight of his eyes, and cried out, ’Now I have seen the true God!’"

Many of the Prince’s suite were so struck by his miraculous recovery that they followed his example and were baptized in like manner; and these were doubtless afterward zealous for the introduction of Christianity into their country. The baptism and marriage of Vladimir were both celebrated in the Church of the Most Holy Mother of God; and hence, no doubt, arose his peculiar zeal for the most pure Virgin, to whose honor he afterward erected a cathedral church in his own city of Kieff. In Cherson itself he built a church, in the name of his angel or patron St. Basil; and taking with him the relics of St. Clement, Bishop of Rome, and his disciple Thebas, with church vessels and ornaments and icons, he restored the city to be again under the power of the emperors, and returned to Kieff, accompanied by the princess, their daughter, and her Greek ecclesiastics.

Nestor makes no mention of any of the bishops and priests from Constantinople and Cherson who followed in the train of the Prince, excepting only of one, Anastasius, the priest who had rendered him such good service during the siege; but the Books of the Genealogies give the name of Michael, a Syrian by birth, and of six other bishops who were sent together with him to Cherson by the patriarch Nicholas Chrysoberges. Some have ventured to suppose that Michael was the name of the bishop of the times of Oskold; but Nestor says nothing about him, and this much only is certain, that he stands the first in the list of the metropolitans of Russia.

After his return to Kieff the "Great Prince" caused his twelve sons to be baptized, and proceeded to destroy the monuments of heathenism. He ordered Peroun to be thrown into the Dnieper. The people at first followed their idol, as it was borne down the stream, but were soon quieted when they saw that the statue had no power to help itself.

And now Vladimir, being surrounded and supported by believers in his own domestic circle, and encouraged by seeing that his boyars and suite were prepared and ready to embrace the faith, made a proclamation to the people, "That whoever, on the morrow, should not repair to the river, whether rich or poor, he should hold him for his enemy." At the call of their respected lord all the multitude of the citizens in troops, with their wives and children, flocked to the Dnieper; and without any manner of opposition received holy baptism as a nation from the Greek bishops and priests. Nestor draws a touching picture of this baptism of a whole people at once: "Some stood in the water up to their necks, others up to their breasts, holding their young children in their arms; the priests read the prayers from the shore, naming at once whole companies by the same name." He who was the means of thus bringing them to salvation, filled with a transport of joy at the affecting sight, cried out to the Lord, offering and commending into his hands himself and his people: "O great God! who hast made heaven and earth, look down upon these thy new people. Grant them, O Lord, to know thee the true God, as thou hast been made known to Christian lands, and confirm in them a true and unfailing faith; and assist me, O Lord, against my enemy that opposes me, that, trusting in thee and in thy power, i may overcome all his wiles."

Vladimir erected the first church—that of St. Basil, after whom he was named—on the very mount which had formerly been sacred to Peroun, adjoining his own palace. Thus was Russia enlightened.

So sudden and ready a conversion of the inhabitants of Kieff might well seem improbable—that is, unless effected by violence—did we not attend to the fact that the Russians had been gradually becoming enlightened ever since the times of Oskold, for more than a hundred years, by means of commerce, treaties of peace, and relations of every kind with the Greeks, as well as with the Bulgarians and Slavonians of kindred origin with ourselves, who had already been long in possession of the Holy Scriptures in their own language. The constant endeavors of the Greek emperors for the conversion of the Russians by means of their ambassadors and preachers, the tolerance of the princes, the example and protection of Olga, and the very delay and hesitation of Vladimir in selecting his religion must have favorably disposed the minds of the people toward it; especially if it be true, as has been asserted, that Russia had already had a bishop in the time of Oskold. in a similar way, though under different circumstances, in the vast Roman Empire, the conversion of Constantine the Great suddenly rendered Christianity the dominant religion, because, in fact, it had long before penetrated among all ranks of his subjects.

Vladimir engaged zealously in building churches throughout the towns and villages of his dominions, and sent priests to preach in them. He also founded many towns all around Kieff, and so propagated and confirmed the Christian religion in the neighborhood of the capital, from whence the new colonies were sent forth. Neither was he slow in establishing schools, into which he brought together the children of the boyars, sometimes even in spite of the unwillingness of their rude parents. In the mean time the Metropolitan with his bishops made progresses into the interior of Russia, to the cities of Rostoff and Novgorod, everywhere baptizing and instructing the people. Vladimir himself, for the same good end, went in company with other bishops to the district of Souzdal and to Volhynia. The boyars on the Volga and some of the Pechenegian princes embraced the gospel of salvation together with his subjects, and rejoiced to be admitted to holy baptism.

The pious Prince wished to see in his own capital a magnificent temple in honor of the birth of the most holy Virgin, to be a likeness and memorial of that at Cherson, in which he himself had been baptized; and the year after his conversion he sent to Greece for builders, and laid the foundation of the first stone cathedral in Russia, on the very same spot where the Varangian martyrs had suffered. But the first metropolitan was not to live to its completion; only his holy remains were buried in it, and were thence translated afterward to the Pechersky Lavra. Another metropolitan, Leontius, a Greek by birth, sent by the same patriarch Nicholas, consecrated the new temple, to the great satisfaction of Vladimir, who made a vow to endow it with the tenth part of all his revenues; and from hence it was called "the Cathedral of the Tithes."

These tithes, according to the ordinance ascribed to Prince Vladimir, consisted of the fixed quota of corn, cattle, and the profits of trade, for the support of the clergy and the poor; and besides this there was a further tithe collected from every cause which was tried; for the right of judging causes was granted to the bishops and the metropolitan, and they judged according to the Nomocanon. The canons of the holy councils and the Greek ecclesiastical laws, together with the Holy Scriptures, were taken, from the very first, as the basis of all ecclesiastical administration in Russia; and together with them there came into use some portions also of the civil law of the Greeks, through the influence of the Church. The care of the new temple and the collection of tithes for its support were intrusted to a native of Cherson named Anastasius, who enjoyed the confidence of Vladimir and his successors.

The light of Christianity had now been diffused throughout the whole of Russia; but still the faith was nowhere as yet firmly established, because there were no bishops regularly settled in the towns. The metropolitan Leontius formed the first five dioceses, and appointed Joachim of Cherson to be Bishop of Novgorod, Theodorus of Rostoff, Neophytus of Chernigoff, Stephen the Volhynian of Vladimir, and Nicetas of Belgorod. Assisted by Dobrina, the uncle of the "Great Prince," who had long governed in Novgorod, the new bishop Joachim threw the statue of Peroun into the Volkoff, and broke down the idolatrous altars without any opposition on the part of the citizens; for they, too, like the inhabitants of Kieff, from their comparative degree of civilization and from their relations of intercourse with the Greeks, were in all probability already favorably disposed for the reception of Christianity. Tradition asserts that even as far back as the time of St. Olga the hermits Sergius and Germanus lived upon the desolate island of Balaam in the lake Ladoga, and that from thence St. Abramius went forth to preach Christ to the savage inhabitants of Rostoff.

The attempt to found a diocese at Rostoff was less successful. The first two bishops, Theodore and Hilarion, were driven away by the fierce tribes of the forest district of Meri, who held obstinately to their idols in spite of the zeal of St. Abramius. It cost the two succeeding bishops, St. Leontius and St. Isaiah, many years of extraordinary labor and exertion, attended frequently by persecutions, before they at length succeeded in establishing Christianity in that savage region, from whence it spread itself by degrees into all the surrounding districts.

Thus Vladimir, having piously observed the commandments of Christ during the course of his long reign, had the consolation of seeing before his death the fruits of his own conversion in all the wide extent of his dominions. He departed this life in peace at Kieff, and was soon reckoned with his grandmother Olga among the guardian saints of Russia. John, the third metropolitan, who had been sent from Constantinople upon the death of Leontius, buried the Prince in the Church of the Tithes, which he had built, near the tomb of the Grecian princess, his wife, and the uncorrupted relics of St, Olga were translated to the same spot.


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Chicago: A. N. Mouravieff, "Conversion of Vladimir the Great; Introduction of Christianity Into Russia," The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 5 in The Great Events by Famous Historians. Lincoln Memorial University Edition, ed. Rossiter Johnson (Harrogate, TN: The National Alunmi, 1926), Original Sources, accessed November 29, 2022,

MLA: Mouravieff, A. N. "Conversion of Vladimir the Great; Introduction of Christianity Into Russia." The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 5, in The Great Events by Famous Historians. Lincoln Memorial University Edition, edited by Rossiter Johnson, Harrogate, TN, The National Alunmi, 1926, Original Sources. 29 Nov. 2022.

Harvard: Mouravieff, AN, 'Conversion of Vladimir the Great; Introduction of Christianity Into Russia' in The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 5. cited in 1926, The Great Events by Famous Historians. Lincoln Memorial University Edition, ed. , The National Alunmi, Harrogate, TN. Original Sources, retrieved 29 November 2022, from