Young Folks' History of Russia - Nathan Dole

Vladimir, the Beautiful Sun of Kief

Holy Fame's son, Fiery Host, left Lord of Kief, attacked his brother Oleg, Prince of the Forest Folk, and put him to death. His half-brother, Vladimir, chosen Prince of Novgorod, fled beyond the sea. Fiery Host conquered the Petchenegs and remained master of all Russia. But his younger brother returned from Norway with a well-armed band of warriors and sent word to him,—

Vladimir is coming against thee; prepare to defend thyself." And he again took possession of Novgorod.

Fiery Host was to marry Rogneda, the beautiful daughter of Rogvolod, who had come from the other side of the sea and was Prince of Polotsk, but Vladimir had heard of her beauty and he vowed to win her hand. He sent word: "I wish to marry thee;" but the princess, knowing that Vladimir's mother was only a serving-woman, answered,—

"I will never wed the son of a slave."

Vladimir, angry at the insult, gathered together a great army, sacked Polotsk and killed the prince and his two sons and forced the proud and scornful Rogneda to be his wife. Then, without losing time, he marched against Kief. His brother listened to the counsels of the traitor Blud, and fled, and was soon after put to death by the Normans of Vladimir, who in turn ruled over all Russia. These bloody civil wars were accompanied by fearful signs in the sun, moon, and stars; thunder-storms and hurricanes desolated the fields and the habitations of men.



Vladimir, freed from all rivals, went out against the Poles and many other ferocious tribes, and forced them to pay tribute. When he returned to Kief he offered up victims to the false gods on the hill of Perun, and the lot fell on the son of a Christian Norman, who said,—

"Your gods are not gods, but only sticks of wood which soon perish, for they cannot eat nor drink nor speak, but they are made by the hand of man. There is only one God and him the Greeks adore. It is he who made the universe and man. But what have your gods done? I will not give my son to the devil."

The men of Kief were angry at this speech, and they destroyed the Christian's house and put him and his son to death. These were the first Christian martyrs in Russia, and the Church of the Holy Mother of God was afterwards built upon the site of their ruined house.



Soon afterwards Vladimir conquered the Bulgars and made a peace which was to last until stones should float and hops sink. The Bulgars, who were Mahometans, sent their missionaries to him, but he would not adopt their faith because he was unwilling to forswear pork and wine.

Then came Catholic missionaries from Germany, but he sent them back, saying, Our fathers did not believe in your religion." The Jews also tried to convert him, but the prince said to them,—

"What! you wish to teach others,—you whom your God has dispersed and punished on account of your sins? If it were true that God loved you and your land, he would not have allowed you to wander through the earth. Perchance you want us to suffer the same fate."

Finally the Greeks sent a philosopher who taught the prince the history of the world from the creation, and told him of the world to come. Vladimir was puzzled and did not know what to do. By the advice of his elders he sent wise men to search for the best religion, and they came back with their report:—

"We first visited the Bulgars and their temples, and we saw their service and how they act like madmen; their religion is not good. Then we went to the Germans and saw their churches and their mode of prayer; but we found neither ornament nor beauty. And last of all we came among the Greeks and were shown their divine service, and it seemed as though we were in heaven, for in sooth on earth it is vain to find such magnificence."

They told the prince of the glory of Santa Sophia; the multitude of candles, the clouds of incense, the sacred hymns, and the gorgeously robed priests, and how they saw beautiful youths with wings, descending in shining robes, singing, "Holy, Holy, Holy." Then the elders said,—

"If the Greek religion were not the best thy grandmother Olga, the wisest of mortals, would not have adopted it."

This decided Vladimir, but he would not beg for baptism; he would conquer it by force of arms. The next year he attacked Korsun, the last city of southern Russia that remained subject to the Greeks. He entered it in triumph and sent a proud message to the Emperors Basil and Constantine, demanding the hand of their sister Anna unless they wished Constantinople to be treated as he had treated Korsun.

Interior of St. Sophia


Driven to despair by internal revolts, they consented on condition that Vladimir should be baptized; and the Greek princess, in spite of her tears and her protests, was sent by ship to the wily barbarian who already had as many wives as Solomon.

As soon as Vladimir was baptized he was miraculously cured of his sore eyes, and was married to Anna, the Grecian heiress of the emperors of Rome. When he came back to Kief with captive priests and their sacred ornaments and relics, he sent the proclamation through the streets,—

"Whoever, rich or poor, laborer or beggar, shall not come to the banks of the river shall be treated as a rebel."

The inhabitants of the city said among themselves,—

"If baptism were not a good thing our prince and our elders would not have submitted to it."

So they all came to the Dnieper, and Vladimir broke up the false idols, and the golden-bearded image of Perun was tied to the tail of a horse and whipped by a dozen men. When it was pitched into the river the current washed it upon the shore and all the people instantly rushed to worship their old god; but the prince's soldiers cast it back, and then all the Kievans, men and women, masters and slaves, old and young, plunged into the "consecrated waters of the old pagan stream" and paddled around, while the Greek priests, standing on the shore with Vladimir and the princess, repeated the solemn service.

Vladimir sent to every city and village throughout his land, and catechised the people and forced them to be baptized.

It was not without opposition that the new faith was thus given to the Russians. At Novgorod the idol of Perun swam against the stream and its voice was heard summoning the inhabitants to remain true. Riots broke out in various parts of the land. Even though the Christ was worshipped in the new churches, secretly in the depths of the forest still rose the smoke of sacrifice to Perun and Volos; the peasants still celebrated their marriages around the "brush of broom;" in every village the witch or soothsayer still foretold the future, unriddled auguries, and was believed to have power to drive away evil spirits and the Fever Sisters, to bring fertilizing rains or terrible droughts and storms.

"The Beautiful Sun of Kief" no longer cared for war, but occupied himself in founding cities, in building and ornamenting churches, and establishing schools, where the children were taught the magic of writing, and he became so gentle that brigands began to take advantage. At last the bishops came to him and said,—

"Thieves and robbers increase marvellously; why dost thou not punish them?"

"I fear to sin," was the prince's reply.

"God placed thee here to chastise the wicked and reward the good," said the bishops, and Vladimir quickly made an example of the robbers.

The Petchenegs also came to trouble him, and they had a mighty giant for a champion. The Petcheneg prince sent a challenge to the Beautiful Sun of Kief, that if the Russian champion overcame the champion of the Petchenegs there should be peace between them for three years, but if his champion won there should be merciless war.

Vladimir sought for a David to fight with this Goliath, and at last an old man, a leather-worker, came and said that he had a young son at home whom no one had ever been able to throw.

The youth was sent for, and to prove his strength he tore in pieces an angry bull. The lists were formed and the two champions grappled. The giant was horrible to see, but the tanner's son seized him and stifled him to death in his arms. The Petchenegs fled in dismay and were cut down by Vladimir and his men.

Afterwards, while the prince was at Novgorod with the flower of his army, the Petchenegs besieged his favorite town, the White City, and reduced the inhabitants to the verge of starvation. But they let down into a well great caldrons of dough and honey-water, and showed them to the Petchenegs, who, thinking that it would be impossible to take a town where the soil naturally produced such abundance of food and drink, raised the siege and departed.

The Russian epic poems are full of these marvellous doings of Vladimir, who seems to take the place of the divinities which he destroyed. His mighty men fight and kill the winged monster, the nightingale whose nest weighs down seven trees, and the serpent of the mountain, Shark the giant, the forty brigands, and the terrible maiden with the falcon. He is the King Arthur of Russia and has his Round Table. His knights complain that they have to eat from wooden bowls: he gives them cups of silver adorned with gold, saying,—

I cannot every day get friends with gold and silver, but with friends I can win both, as did my father and my grandfather before me."

Every week he gave splendid feasts and distributed game and the flesh of oxen and mead and kvas to the poor. And to the people who told his exploits he was always the Beautiful Sun of Kief.