The conversion of Vladimir the Great (c. 958 – 1015) and the Rus’ to Christianity was an event orchestrated by the prince himself. While earlier in his reign Vladimir attempted to organize a pantheon of Baltic and Slavic gods, he appears to have had an interest in the monotheistic religions of some of its neighbors. On the other hand Christianity was not unknown to the Rus’: Vladimir’s grandmother, Ol’ga, was a convert and archaeological evidence of Christianity in Rus’ is known from before Vladimir’s conversion. The Rus’ maintained close trading links with Byzantium, and a Byzantine civil war provided an opportunity for a mutually beneficial alliance between Vladimir and Emperor Basil II (976-1025). In exchange for military assistance for the beleaguered emperor, Vladimir received Basil’s sister in marriage. The only condition for that was his conversion to Christianity. He subsequently imposed Christianity upon his subjects.
There were many religious beliefs and practices in the tenth-century Rus’, which comprised parts of modern Russia and Ukraine. The ruling class of the state was made up primarily of Scandinavians who brought northern beliefs with them. The population was subject to influences from East Slavic religions, as well as the Judaism of the neighbouring Khazar Khanate, Islam from the nearby Volga Bulgars, and Latin Christianity from the Holy Roman Empire to the west. The Rus’ travelled and traded extensively, and visitors to Constantinople and Baghdad brought varying religious ideas and objects back with them. Some material points to Christianity amongst the Rus’ elite as early as the late ninth century, although the evidence is scant. More notably, Vladimir’s grandmother Olga had journeyed to Constantinople in the middle of the tenth century where she received baptism with Emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogennitos (908-959) as sponsor at the baptismal font. She returned to Kiev, where she ruled as regent for two decades. However, she was not accompanied by Byzantine church officials on the way home, nor was any attempt made to convert the Rus’ population. The 944 treaty between Byzantium and the Rus’ makes provisions for Rus’ Christians, suggesting that personal conversions were not unusual. Tenth-century burial assemblages in Russia and Ukraine include such artifacts as crosses, as well as pendants in the form of the hammer of the Norse god, pointing to religious syncretism and to some degree of openness of the Rus’ elites towards Christianity. Although many influences were present in the Kievan state, contact with Byzantium meant that Christianity was not an unfamiliar religion when Vladimir converted.
The story of Vladimir’s conversion derives almost entirely from the Russian Primary Chronicle (known in Old Slavonic as Povest’ vremennykh let or The Tale of Bygone Years; hereafter Povest’). It first tells of Vladimir’s coming to power in Kiev, and how once he had established himself there he set up a pantheon of Baltic and Slavic deities whose worship was required and in which child sacrifice was practiced. This was probably instituted as part of a broader attempt to centralize the state around Kiev and to bring Vladimir the legitimacy that he lacked. As he had come to power in Kiev following a civil war with only an army of Scandinavian mercenaries to secure his throne, a common religion with a centre established in Kiev was useful for uniting the disparate parts of the polity over which he ruled.
However, this pagan pantheon was not to last. Perhaps dispirited by his failure to defeat the Volga Bulgars, Vladimir sent envoys to explore the faiths of neighbouring states. The first group visited the Muslims in Volga Bulgharia, before investigating Latin Christianity amongst the Germans, and finally Byzantine Christianity in the empire to the south. Notably, the Jewish Khazars had originally sent a mission to Vladimir encouraging him to join their faith. That Vladimir did not send an embassy there is indicative of what he wanted out of his new religion. If Vladimir was looking for a religion that would bring him victory on the battlefield, the lack of interest in the Khazars can only be explained in terms of the rapid decline of their polity in the aftermath of the expedition led against them by Sviatoslav, Vladimir’s father. Unfortunately, the Povest’ has very limited details of the embassies to the Volga Bulgars and the Germans. The treatment of the visit in Constantinople is given more attention, and the Rus’ are described as being very impressed with the liturgy celebrated presumably in the Church of the Holy Wisdom in Constantinople. Vladimir then agreed to accept baptism in the Byzantine rite. The religious plurality of Kievan Rus’ and frequent contacts with the neighbors would certainly have furnished Vladimir with all the knowledge he needed about potential religious choices. More likely, these embassies were seeking what sort of political gain conversion would bring. Alternatively, some scholars have suggested that Vladimir already intended to convert to Byzantine Christianity and instead sent the embassies to show to Byzantium that he had other options available. While impossible to demonstrate, this idea does fit nicely with later eleventh century Rus’ attempts to not be drawn too far into Constantinople’s orbit.
While certain details remain unclear, at this point Byzantine sources are able to supply further information on Vladimir’s conversion. The visit of the Rus’ ambassadors to Constantinople seems to have entailed more than just participation in the liturgy, and more significant negotiations were carried out. At this time the reigning emperor in Constantinople, Basil II, was faced with a serious revolt in which an aristocratic rebel held most of Byzantine Anatolia, leaving Basil in a precarious position which was further weakened after suffering a major defeat from the Bulgars in 986. His power in serious danger, Basil reached out to Vladimir. He promised to send his sister Anna to marry Vladimir in exchange for Vladimir’s baptism, the overseeing of the nascent Rus’ church by the Byzantine bishopric of Cherson, and the provision of the constituent clergy. While this agreement may seem to have been in Basil’s favour, the long-standing Byzantine prohibition on marrying imperial princesses to foreigners was broken, thus revealing the weakness of Basil’s position.
Vladimir sent the troops as promised, which Basil used to end the civil war in his favor. Although scholars debate what happened next, Vladimir attacked the Byzantine city of Cherson in the Crimea and then demanded that Basil send him his promised bride. Since this took place after the agreements, Vladimir may have attempted to force Basil to keep his word . Indeed, at the time Basil was no longer in the weak position he was when promising the hand of his sister to Vladimir, and with Asia Minor back in under the control of Constantinople he probably felt no need to honor the original agreement. In response to Basil’s attempt to renege on their pact, Vladimir forced the issue by attacking Cherson. Apparently convinced by this demonstration of military muscle, Basil sent Anna to marry Vladimir, and she was accompanied by a large entourage, which included churchmen for the conversion of the Rus’. Cherson was returned to the Byzantines.
Vladimir was publicly baptised in 988 or 989, although whether this took place at Cherson or Kiev is still a matter of debate. The Povest’ reports that Vladimir was suffering from an ailment of the eyes, and on Anna’s arrival she informed him that converting to Christianity would cure him. Considering that this is directly contradictory to the earlier decision to convert, this story should probably be seen as part of the legend that grew up around Vladimir that attempted to portray him as a new Constantine of the Rus’. In an apocryphal legend, Constantine I was said to have been suffering from leprosy, but Pope Sylvester promised him his health in exchange for his baptism. This would not be Vladimir’s last attempt to imitate Byzantium. Vladimir’s issued coinage in imitation of the Byzantine style, and his son and successor Yaroslav the Wise (1019 – 1054) would build a church in Kiev in direct imitation of the architecture of Constantinople.
Following Vladimir’s return to Kiev, he dismantled his former pantheon, throwing the idol of the god Perun into the Dnieper. The next day, Vladimir organized a mass baptism in the Dnieper for his subjects, and he ordered a church to be built on the hill where his pantheon had previously stood.
Vladimir’s conversion to Christianity should be seen as a political event. Although Christianity was well-known in the Rus’ lands prior to the conversion it was not the only option, and Vladimir appears to have used it as a means to secure his legitimacy. A view of the broader world also provides some context, as through the 960s and 970s rulers of Poland, Hungary, and of the Danes had all converted to Christianity, perhaps inspiring Vladimir to find a religion for his state. Ultimately, this was a success, and Vladimir faced little opposition to his imposition of Christianity over the Rus’. His position was secure and his marriage to the sister of the Byzantine emperor brought him great prestige. However, aware of the sway that Constantinople might come to exercise over their state, the Rus’ were careful to remind the Byzantines of their effective independence.