Prince Vladimir was the first to embrace and choose the Heavenly Kingdom together with the Russian people. I say, “with the people” because there were separate individuals before his time who were joining themselves to the heavenly kingdom, like his grandmother Olga, Theodore and John – martyrs of Kiev, and others. But Vladimir was the first to set out on the path of the Cross along with his whole people. For him, this could not have been but related to a big inner struggle, a struggle that was spiritual and more intense than the one endured by the Serbian King Lazar and by the last Emperor of Russia. Those two, being raised Christian, only had to choose from two options – to stand firm or not on the established path of Christian self-sacrifice. But at that time, the pagan Vladimir, a son of a man called “the wild leopard” had to decide on a completely new path, completely unknown in Russia until that time.
That man who would not hold back from any earthly pleasures, who reached the limits of every looseness, debauchery, uncontrolled blood-thirstiness, thievery, violent vengeance – had to die with his old soul and start living with a new one. According to the words of Christ, “He who loses his soul shall save it.” Choosing a spiritual death is, I reckon, harder than choosing a bodily death, because the spiritual death which the lewd Prince of Kiev chose was not a temporal death which happens once, but a daily and multiple death, according to the words of the Apostle Paul, “Brethren, I die daily!”
Accepting the Christian faith, Vladimir knew that he was choosing the hardest of the three available religions. Chroniclers state that he pondered for a long time before he decided to accept one. He knew that the Christian religion is the path of the cross, and that the path of the cross means, first of all, a departure from one’s former foolish ways, a break with old habits, with one’s old soul. He also knew that it is not enough to drag Perun from the hills of Kiev and sink him into the Dniepr, but that he himself and each one of his subjects had to also cast out all idols from their soul. But woe, the idols of the Slavs, like all idols, were made up earthly gods, greatest vanities with most exalted names – deaf and numb agents of the earthly kingdom which chained people’s souls to the ground, promising only the earthly kingdom, the illusory fortune of the world which no man has ever seen with his eyes.
Slavic idolatry, with its center in Kiev, made the Slavs the most savage people in Europe. As Vladimir was – a pagan, such were also the Russian Slavs: a savage herd of thieves, plunderers, gluttons, drunkards, destroyers. Their widows were burned alive at stake. They offered slaughtered children as sacrifice to the idols. They were fear and trembling of all cultured peoples, especially for Byzantium, the most cultured among them. Their greatest pleasure was the destruction of things they did not build, and plundering of what they did not earn.
What sort of a force under the sun could have turned that savage herd into a people, tame them, give them rebirth, transform them, resurrect them, give them a holy soul instead of a bestial one? Only the force of Christ’s faith could have worked such a supernatural wonder among the Russians. It turned Vladimir the wolf into Vladimir the lamb. Having been a womanizer, Vladimir immediately dismissed his harem and started living wisely. Vladimir – the glutton and the drunk – started fasting, and fasting until exhaustion at that; that same Vladimir who mocked the muslim faith for forbidding the consumption of pork and wine. Vladimir the blood-spiller started visiting hospitals and prisons, providing alms and comfort. Vladimir – a night owl and a party animal – started spending nights in tearful prayers, with bows and prostrations and in pondering God’s judgment and his soul. Vladimir the shameless made himself more modest that a girl. Vladimir the executioner turned into a meek, repentant and merciful Samaritan. In short, Vladimir the idolater was transformed and became a Christian God-pleaser in such manner as if one would erase a picture of a demon off the wall and draw in its place a picture of an Angel. Indeed, it was a more shocking miracle than the turning of a worm into a butterfly.
They say that no miracles were worked at the grave of Saint Vladimir. But didn’t this chosen man perform the greatest miracle during his life, on himself? All the miracles which the Saints perform with faith, such as healings from illnesses, deliverance from passions, rebirth of the sinful, all those miracles Vladimir performed on himself. If there were any more miracles performed on his grave on top of those initial ones, I reckon that people would declare him to be a god, not a Saint.
The very transformation which occurred in Vladimir’s soul during his life is such a great wonder that it can be ascribed not so much to efforts of a man as to the power and mercy of God. Perhaps some of those trying to reach the understanding of God’s providence will wonder in doubt why God chose for a baptizer and reviver of the Russian people such a man who in the first half of his life outdid in evil perhaps all of his pagan ancestors and contemporaries. Well, did the same One Who turned Saul the persecutor into an Apostle of Christ’s faith not know what He was doing when He chose a pagan like Vladimir for the greatest mission for such a great people? Indeed, it is hard to separate all the threads in the exact fabric of Divine Providence, but in this case, the thread can be distinguished easily enough. Namely, the repentant sinner had to be placed at the head of all Russian generations. On the threshold of the new Russia, a consecrated pagan had to be placed so that he could stand like the brass serpent and by his example warn, encourage and heal all the stumbling and fallen sons of Russia in the times to come. The greatest form of a cure would be the example of this healed Russian prince, who was once sick, so that beholding him, all others would gladly run to that same thing which had made him whole. Among all the miracles that are worked with faith in Christ, the most useful one is the turning of a sinner into a righteous man. Marked by this miracle, Saint Vladimir now stands at the gates of the Christian Rus’ and as if loudly proclaims to every Russian, “I was the night, but I turned into day! What have you been, and what are you turning into now?”
“Vladimir the Beautiful Sun!” that’s what the Russian people call their forefather. With those words, the sensible and pious people has described the person of the baptized, baptizer prince better than with any others. A coarse, sensual-bodily mass became the “beautiful sun”. This indeed happened with Vladimir. And Vladimir remained the “beautiful sun” throughout the whole history of the Russian people, during the past nine centuries. During those nine centuries many holy men and women lived in Russia, wonderworkers and saints, among whom also two sons of Vladimir – Saints Boris and Gleb. They healed the sick, exorcised the possessed, raised the dead. But they are all debtors to Saint Vladimir. And it was easier for all of them to become Saints than it was for Vladimir, the great Prince and a wealthy man who had to pass through the eye of the needle in order to enter the Kingdom of Heaven and who had no predecessors in the Menaion of Saints of his people.
In that way, holy prince Vladimir was not just an ordinary great man among other great men, nor an ordinary saint among the saints. He was the pioneer of greatness and holiness among Russian people, and along with that, the first politician who made long lasting greatness and long lasting gory a state program. Worthy of admiration is the state program which cannot be fulfilled until each citizen fulfills it within himself, following the personal example of Vladimir! From the time of that God-pleasing statesman, the new Russia begins, a new people. Saint Vladimir turned the long Russian night into the bright Russian day. If someone would dig up an underground river and bring it to surface, carve out a new bed for it on the ground under the sun and then use it in a hundred different directions, his work would match that of Vladimir, even though it would have been much smaller and easier than his work. The darkened Russian pagan mob had become, through baptism and with time, the “beautiful sun” shining among other nations. We can also exclaim, “O Russian people, the beautiful sun!”
If we look around now and trace the life of the Russian people from the time of holy prince Vladimir until now, we will see that it has followed the path on which it was set by the spirit and the example of its baptizer. Generation after generation was born on the Russian land and a choice between two kingdoms was put before it; they chose heavenly kingdom and they departed. Millions after millions came into the world, accepted the cross of Vladimir upon themselves, and crying out to Christ, “Hosanna!” they made room for the next millions. The harvest of Christ became all the greater and all the more plentiful. But this historic flow of Russian life was not without obstructions, not without wavering, not without fiery trials. It included stops, waiting for the infirm and the fatigued, calling out to the lost, washing of the dirtied, just as is the case with any travelers. The river of the Russian people’s history flowed in a certain direction – and that is the most important thing – sometimes swiftly, sometimes slowly, sometimes so calmly that it was hard to distinguish if it was moving forward or backward.
Printed according to the publication of the Parish of Saint Vladimir, Berlin, early 1940s