Борис Бурда
Author: Boris Burda
Journalist, writer, bard. Winner of the "Diamond Owl" intellectual game "What? Where? When?"
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ROOTS AND WINGS with Boris Burda: Vladimir the Great – Prince of Kiev, who baptized Rus’ (Part I. Pagan)

ROOTS AND WINGS with Boris Burda: Vladimir the Great - Prince of Kiev, who baptized Rus’ (Part I. Pagan)
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It is rather difficult to write about a character who has been a hero of folklore for centuries, moreover, practically a children’s fairy tale. Personally, I knew quite well about him already in preschool age –  do I want to learn new things about him? I already know everything about this personality.

Moreover, mostly good and very good things are known. We live in a rather cold area, not in the tropics – what bad thing can we associate with the nickname “Red Sun”? Obviously not with a debilitating drought – rather with a blessed warmth.

ROOTS AND WINGS with Boris Burda: Vladimir the Great - Prince of Kiev, who baptized Rus’ (Part I. Pagan)
Prince Vladimir – cartoon character

The scene on which the action associated with this character unfolds is usually luxurious chambers, most often a rich table, at which he treats the heroes who carry out his orders – first of all, Ilya Muromets, Dobrynya Nikitich and Alyosha Popovich.

Obeying his orders, the heroes easily destroy various adversaries – both enemy kings, like Kalina and Idolische Poganoe, and monsters like the Serpent Gorynych and Nightingale the Robber. So Vladimir is shown in epics as a wise leader of great warriors – what is better?

He also has unpleasant features – he does not fight himself, only orders the heroes, unjustly imprisons Ilya and Dobrynya … But at the decisive moment everything is settled, the heroes save the capital Kiev City from another foe, and Vladimir turns out to be a great ruler again.

ROOTS AND WINGS with Boris Burda: Vladimir the Great - Prince of Kiev, who baptized Rus’ (Part I. Pagan)
Viktor Vasnetsov. Heroes. 1881-1898




Well, with epics it is clear: a fairy tale – it is a fairy tale. But  we also have some kind of legendary image of the historical prince Vladimir. First of all, because there is little data about him and they are unreliable. Even the dates of birth and death are known with a possible error of two-digit years.

The very historical role of the baptist of the country is very conducive to the creation of legends. Moreover, legends about the circumstances of the change of faith are usually not very convenient to refute – the victorious faith can become very angry, especially during the creation of documents about it.

Who among the readers of The Tale of Bygone Years a couple of hundred years ago would have noticed that the faith of the Germans, according to this legend, is one, and the faith of the Greeks is different? And by the way, there was about half a century before the split of Orthodoxy and Catholicism – obviously the information we know now was invented later.

And the very image of Prince Vladimir, according to the same historical sources, is very contradictory – either it is worth wondering how much a person has changed, or wondering whether this person is the same … It is clear that such an image simply does not fit into the epic, but what really happened?

ROOTS AND WINGS with Boris Burda: Vladimir the Great - Prince of Kiev, who baptized Rus’ (Part I. Pagan)
The Tale of Bygone Years. The Monk Nestor the Chronicler. Source: lavra.com




The very birth of Prince Vladimir contains a riddle, a paradox, and a curiosity. Everything is in relative order with the father of the Grand Duke – he, as one would expect, is also a Grand Duke, and even as picturesque as Svyatoslav. But with the mother, everything is much more interesting.

The name of her chronicles has been preserved – Malusha. She was, apparently, a servant of Princess Olga – either a housekeeper, or a dispenser of alms (other historians interpret the word “charity” simply as “favorite” or “darling”). Not the very bottom of society, but noone knows exactly.

Of course, there was no official relationship between the heir to the throne and his mother’s maidservant. Olga categorically disapproved of her behavior and even, having known about her pregnancy, punished her with exile to the village of Budutin (possibly Budyatichi in Volyn).

In this village, the illegitimate son of Prince Vladimir was born and grew up. An important role in his upbringing was played by his uncle, Malusha’s brother, with the name Dobrynya, which is well known to us by epics. No one doubts that part of his biography is the primary source of the epics about Dobryna Nikitich.

Another thing is unclear – if brother Nikitich, why is Malk Lyubechanin considered her father? And where does this Malk come from – from Lubech near Chernigov or Hanseatic Lubeck, as Tatishchev writes? Not to mention the hypothesis that her father is the Drevlyane prince Mal, punished by Olga for the murder of Igor … Hardly.

But if Vladimir is an illegitimate son, why did he inherit the throne? All agree that in pagan times the legitimacy of birth was not as essential as in the Christian world. That is, Vladimir himself established the order under which he would not have come to the throne? It turns out interesting …




When the child grew up a little, his father took him to Kiev, where he was at court under his uncle’s supervision – that is, Svyatoslav himself did not reject him and to some extent recognized him. But, going on a campaign, he left for himself on the throne, which is understandable, the eldest son from his legal wife – Yaropolk.

Oleg left his youngest son Svyatoslav to manage the Drevlyans. And neither Yaropolk nor Oleg wanted to go to the very important Novgorod principality. The disgruntled Novgorodians even said that if so, they would find a prince for themselves, but they were offered Vladimir, and they agreed.

So Vladimir became a prince, and at a very tender age – he was about 12-14 years old. Of course, his uncle Dobrynya really managed, but he was gaining experience. Soon Svyatoslav died in a battle with the Pechenegs, but for a long time his sons got along peacefully with each other.

The balance was disturbed in 975, when the son of Yaropolkov, the governor Sveneld Lyut, and Prince Oleg did not share the hunting grounds near Kiev, and Prince Oleg killed Lyut. Sveneld thirsted for revenge, actively pushed Yaropolk to attack Oleg and eventually achieved his goal – the brother fought against his brother.

Yaropolk won the battle, in which Oleg died, and seized his possessions. Hearing about this, Vladimir did not act so well as a chivalrous – he was afraid that his elder brother would get to him, and fled across the sea to Sweden. Yaropolk seized the ownerless Novgorod and began to reign alone.

ROOTS AND WINGS with Boris Burda: Vladimir the Great - Prince of Kiev, who baptized Rus’ (Part I. Pagan)
V.P. Vereshchagin. Grand Duke Yaropolk. 1896




It seemed that the issue of succession to the throne after Svyatoslav was completely closed – the eldest son received everything, the younger and illegal received nothing, and there was no one and nowhere to appeal this verdict of history. But everything turned out to be not so simple and ended completely differently.

Vladimir in Sweden was not going to sit quietly like a mouse under a broom – he recruited a considerable army from the local Vikings, ready for the sake of rich prey and at greater risk. It is unlikely that he possessed large funds – they clearly believed him that he would pay off after the victory.

It turned out that Yaropolk’s positions in Novgorod were absolutely nonexistent – his mayor was driven out of the city without much difficulty. This will be only the first of five conflicts between Novgorod and Kiev for power over Russia in pre-Mongol times – Novgorod won all five times.

Of course, it was not only a confrontation between them – willy-nilly, other cities were also involved in it. For example, the oldest city of Belarus, Polotsk, located about halfway between Novgorod and Kiev – until you pass it, you still can’t fight.


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Prince Rogvolod ruled Polotsk at that time.He had a daughter named Rogneda. However, it is quite possible that his name was Ragnwald, and hers was Ragnhild.These are ordinary Norman names, and their Norman origin is quite likely. Historians have no consensus on this matter.

Chronicles report that Vladimir wooed Rogneda, but she refused him in an insulting manner, saying: “I don’t want to take a robichich’s shoes off (the son of a slave), I want to take Yaropolk’s shoes off” (on the wedding night, the wife had to take off her husband’s shoes). She did not reject Yaropolk’s matchmaking and was considered his bride.

Such an insulting allusion to the low social status of his mother Malusha clearly did not add to Vladimir’s sympathy for Polotsk, especially considering that he had already decided to fight Yaropolk – at the first opportunity he captured the city and captured Rogvolod and Rogneda.

The Tale of Bygone Years writes that Vladimir ordered the murder of Rogvolod and his sons. In a number of other sources, everything was even worse – Vladimir, on Dobrynya’s advice, raped Rogneda in front of her father and brothers, and only then ordered them to be killed, and married Rogneda, a pagan can …

ROOTS AND WINGS with Boris Burda: Vladimir the Great - Prince of Kiev, who baptized Rus’ (Part I. Pagan)
A.P. Losenko. Vladimir and Rogneda. 1770




After the capture of Polotsk, the position of Yaropolk deteriorated sharply. But even worse was the fact that his confidant with the Scandinavian name Blud (“bloody”, that’s what it means) decided that Yaropolk could not resist and needed to change the owner.

To begin with, he began to inspire the prince that the people of Kiev were secretly conspiring with Vladimir and would hand him over to their half-brother – he listened to him and went to the Rodnya fortress. And there Blud began to frighten Yaropolk that there was famine in the fortress and still could not resist – we had to put up.

Yaropolk agreed and went to negotiations in Kiev, already occupied by Vladimir. Blud warned Vladimir ahead of time, and he took action. When Yaropolk entered his palace, Blud closed the doors behind him, and two Varangians “lifted him under their bosoms with swords” – that was the end of the war.

Yaropolk’s wife, a Greek woman, Vladimir also took as a concubine, and when her son was born, he either adopted him, or simply treated him like his own (this does not necessarily mean good). History remembered him – this is the same Svyatopolk Okayannyiy, fratricide.

ROOTS AND WINGS with Boris Burda: Vladimir the Great - Prince of Kiev, who baptized Rus’ (Part I. Pagan)
B. A. Chorikov. The murder of Yaropolk.




Tatishchev says that Vladimir killed Blud – they say, why do I need a murderer of a prince, if I am a prince myself? It seems that this is a fairy tale – fornication later fought together with Prince Vladimir against the Polish king Boleslav the Brave, mocked his fullness, was defeated and was killed.

Since Yaropolk rather sympathized with Christianity, it is not surprising that Vladimir began his reign with the strengthening of paganism. He erected a splendid temple to the chief pagan gods, and in the “Tale of Bygone Years” there is even that human sacrifices were brought under him.

Paganism provided him with a number of opportunities that Christianity would not have given him – for example, polygamy. Chronicles ascribe up to 800 wives to him – they write about his sons known in history: “from Chekhin”, “from Greek”, “from Bulgarian”: in this matter he was an internationalist …

To fight often is not a reproach to a pagan prince. Vladimir fought with the Poles, conquered the Yatvingians and the Radimichs, imposed a tribute on the Vyatichs and the Khazars, and fought off the Pechenezh raids. Look at the map of his campaigns – it looks like a predatory spider, spreading tentacles in all directions …

ROOTS AND WINGS with Boris Burda: Vladimir the Great - Prince of Kiev, who baptized Rus’ (Part I. Pagan)
Map of the campaigns of Prince Vladimir. Source: poznaemvmeste.ru




But the flourishing of paganism in the principality somehow did not suit Vladimir. Other countries chose other paths, Europe became Christian, monotheism supplanted polytheism – note that all the religions that will be discussed later were monotheistic.

How Vladimir’s thoughts actually proceeded – he knows better. In the annals, everything was presented as a dialogue between Vladimir and preachers of different religions (to be more precise, with representatives of different nations), who offered to join their choice.

At first, the Muslim Bulgars offered their religion to Vladimir. The woman-loving Vladimir listened for a long time about polygamy, but circumcision, refusal of pork and, most importantly, sobriety, he categorically rejected the famous phrase “Rus’ is joyful: we cannot be without it”.

Then they came from Rome (for some reason the Germans – in the sense of dumb, do not speak our way). But they were also rejected – allegedly due to the lack of strictness in observing the fast, they were told: “Go where you came from, for our fathers did not accept it”. The fathers generally adhered to the old faith – so what?

Nothing broke off and the Khazars-Jews. Vladimir easily forced them to confess that they were scattered in different countries for their sins, and asked them: “If God loved you and your law, you would not have been scattered in foreign lands. Or do you want the same for us? “

Only then did the Greek philosopher appear. Vladimir talked with him for a long time, practically having listened to the Holy Scriptures from him in a short, half-page, retelling, presented him with generous gifts and let him go – already leaning to his side, but wanted to clarify everything to the end.

ROOTS AND WINGS with Boris Burda: Vladimir the Great - Prince of Kiev, who baptized Rus’ (Part I. Pagan)
Radziwill Chronicle, fol. 49v., XV century. Conversation between Prince Vladimir and a Greek philosopher about the Christian faith.

Vladimir brought his thoughts to the court of the boyars, and they decided to look at everything with their own eyes. They visited the Bulgars, and the Khazars, and the Romans, but they liked everything only among the Greeks, “and did not know whether we were in heaven or on earth: for there is no such spectacle and such beauty on earth”. On that and decided.

Read Part II

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