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Tales Of the Rus’: Vladimir I

Vladimir I
Vladimir I

Sometimes tales of heroes and their accomplishments are forgotten, or lose resilience, stuck amid the folds of the pages of history. But somehow our curiosity seeks them out, and then once found, our imagination plays those legends out on the silver screen inside our minds. The story of Vladimir the Great and his Varangians is one such tale.

The wind was strong along the Dnieper River. The icy waters converged toward his treacherous brother’s capital of Kiev. His thoughts dwelled on the sizeable army that his uncle Haakon Sigurdsson of Norway had amassed to help him reclaim his throne from the claws of that treacherous sibling Yaropolk, and to gain revenge and redemption for his other brother Oleg’s death. His newly acquired wife, Ragnhild, looked on him with fiendish fury. Rightly so, as Vladamarr (Vladimir) had killed her father, destroyed their homeland and taken her forcefully, after her refusal to be his woman. 

His warriors were of Varangian stock, the fiercest warriors from Sweden and Norway, loyal to the bone, they will make their ancestors proud on this day. His mother Malusha the prophetess, foresaw his victory against Yaropolk the Kinslayer. Great Odin, father of all gods watched over Vladimir that day, and Thor lent his strength to his Rus’ (Ruddermen), as he set his wrathful gaze upon Kiev.

The story of Vladimir the Great, or as he is known in the Norse Sagas, Vladamarr Sveinaldsson, seemed ordained from his birth in 958, in Budnik (what is today the Pskov Oblast in Russia). A son to his father Sviatoslav and their housekeeper Malusha, this prince of the Kievan Rus’ earned title through his father,  Lord of Novogorod, and his brothers; Yaropolk and Oleg the regions of Kiev and the Drevlian lands in Polesia respectively.

Vlad’s rise to the united throne of all Kievan Rus’ first began with his great father’s death in 972, when Vladimir was only 14 years old. 4 Years later in 976 a civil war broke out among his brothers Yaropolk of Kiev and Oleg of the Drevlians. The following year Oleg had perished, turning Yaropolk’s attention to his youngest brother, Vladimir. Vladimir having no substantial army, fled to his kinsman Haakon Sigurdsson of Sweden, the ruler of all Norway at the time. He bode his time, taking a year to gather all of the northmen and shield brothers he could to retake his father’s throne from his kin slaying brother. Vladimir and Haakon sailed for his home, retaking his lands along the way to Kiev.

On their warpath, Vladimir asked the Prince of Polotsk, Ragnvald, for his daughter’s hand in marriage. She however would not adjoin herself with the son of a servant. Upon hearing the bad news, Vladimir was infuriated, and marched on Polotsk (a key fortress on the way to Kiev, probably the reason why he wanted to marry her), conquered the city, killed her father, and took her by force.

After he took Polotsk and Smolensk, two key cities if one were to take Kiev at the time, his army marched on Kiev as his brother fled to Rodnya. There Vladimir ruthlessly besieged and starved his brother and his forces into negotiations. Yaropolk relented, being fooled by his trusted advisor, who betrayed him into leaving the city, was killed by two of Vlad’s Varangians from Norway. Vladimir’s thirst for revenge had been quenched, his lands restored to him. The bastard son of Sviatoslav was caronated as the Kynaz or Grand Prince of the Kievan Rus’.

From that point on, he searched to make a greater name for himself, wishing to expand his father’s already extensive territories. From 981 to 985 he fought the Poles, Volga Bulgars, and Yotvingians, squashed the Vyatichi rebellion, as well as conquered the Radimichs. On his path, new colonies, settlements and fortresses sprung up along the way.

Unknown Artist. Baptism of Grand Prince St Vladimir

A devout Pagan at the time, his subjects were a mix of Slavic pagans, and Christians, and so to appease the masses he established the slavic thunder god Perun as an all powerful deity. This led to the persecution of his christian subjects, and the martyrdom of Fyodor and Ioann. He regretted his decision, contemplating the possibilities to unite his people religiously. His plan? To send envoys to all across the known world at the time to see their religions first hand. His envoys were received by the Muslim Bulgars of the Volga, upon seeing no joy amidst them, only despair and a foul stink, as well as no allowance at all for drinking or pork, of which Vladimir’s Rus’ derived a good deal of their happiness from, he considered Islam no more. His envoys went into the Roman Catholic parts of Europe, his envoys saw the churches and observed no beauty among them in their Gothic style. Jewish envoys visited Vlad’s court, beseeching him to found a Jewish state, however musing upon the matter, Vladimir deemed Judaism as a false religion as well, for the loss of Jerusalem was a son that god had forsaken them.

The St. Vladimir statue by sculptor Salavat Shcherbakov

However, Vladimir's envoys entered the magnificent city of Constantinople, where the religious festival of their Eastern Orthodox beliefs was in full swing, and seeing the joy, beauty, and splendour of the people, and gazed upon the great Hagia Sofia, the emissaries returned. “We knew no longer whether we were in heaven, or on earth. Nor such beauty had we ever seen, we know not how to tell you of it.”

Gaining word of this, he conquered the city of Chersonesos in Crimea, and asked the Emperor of the Byzantine Empire for his sister Anna’s hand in marriage. Never in its time had a Christian woman married a devout pagan. So he was baptized in the Eastern Orthodox religion, and took the name of Basil into his out of respect for his brother in law, and returned triumphant to Kiev. Whereupon he destroyed all pagan monuments, establishing churches throughout his lands, and as well as the famous church of the Tithes, and a church dedicated to St.Basil.

Monument to Vladimir the Great and the monk Fyodor at Pushkin Park in Vladimir, Russia

Upon his marriage to Anna and his conversion to Christianity, Basil II, his brother in law, asked for his assistance against a would be usurper of the imperial throne of Constantinople. Receiving word of the event, Vladimir sent 6000 Varangian warrior to Basil, crushing the usurper and his forces. Thus founding the infamous imperial guard of the Byzantines, the Varangian Guard.

in his later years, Vladimir lived in relative peace with his neighbors in Poland, Hungary, yet fighting with the White Croats over territorial disputes along the modern day border of Ukraine. His 12 sons over his many principalities. However his eldest son, Yaroslav the Wise refuse to pay him tribute in 1014. Seeing this as an affront to his authority, and great disrespect, he amassed forces to march against his boy. Before he could reprimand his son, he fell ill, and became bedridden in Berestovo, outside of Kiev. He soon died there, leaving his sons to dispute over his throne. Only one could rule from his throne. After disputes with Sviatopolk the Accursed, Yaroslav the wise ascended the throne in 1019 and ruled until his own death from old age, like his father before him.

The legacy that Vladimir has resonated through the ages, shaping Russia into the country it is today, as well as the religious belief and culture of the people who inhabit Ukraine, Russia, Belarus, and many more nations and regions. His Achievements were unthinkable for any Rus’ at the time, or any Norseman, which leaves him standing alone among his ancestors,as truly, the greatest of them all. This was his story.