A Marriage Proposal
Vladimir saw an opportunity to increase his influence and consolidate his power in the region when the Byzantine emperor, Basil, requested his help to put down a rebellion in Constantinople. Vladimir was only too glad to help, provided he could marry Basil’s sister, the beautiful Greek Princess Anna. It was not a bad deal, and Basil agreed.
The only problem with this arrangement was that the respective emperors forgot to inform Princess Anna about this decision! (Men. They’re all the same.) After Vladimir provided 6,000 Russian soldiers to help Basil put down the rebellion, the bill came due, and Vladimir was ready to tie the knot.
But by then, Anna – who found out by text message that she was scheduled for a royal wedding (just kidding) – adamantly refused to marry Vladimir. Given that kind of treatment, I can’t say I blame her, but her reason for refusing was both interesting and principled: apparently, she was horrified at the thought of marrying an unbaptized barbarian (I told you this was a soap opera.)
A curious thing then happened. Vladimir asked Basil to send a delegation of Orthodox priests – along with his sister Anna – to Kiev so that the Slavic prince could be baptized and married in the Christian faith. Funny how that is.
So, in effect, the conversion of an entire large empire happened because a good Christian woman refused to accept an arrangement that would have compromised her own faith. How different the world would be if Christian women everywhere stood so strong! But there is even more to this story.
The Grace Behind the Throne
We shouldn’t look at Vladimir merely as an opportunist who used a sacred reality like baptism to further his political ambitions. Historians also believe he was a sincere religious seeker who actively sought to adopt a religion that would provide his people with cultural stability, economic prosperity, and also a pathway to eternal salvation. He may have been a pagan, but he seems also to have been a shrewd and honest man.
The real force of grace behind Vladimir’s throne, however, was his grandmother, St. Olga, who is a canonized saint in the Eastern Churches. In a visit to the Byzantine capital sometime in the 950s, she was baptized by the Patriarch of Constantinople and was given the Christian name of Helena, reminiscent of Constantine’s mother. (It was Constantine who had effectively legalized Christianity in the Roman Empire with his own conversion in the 4th century.)
Queen Olga returned to her territory and followed the same path as Helena in converting an empire. Although she had no luck whatsoever converting her own son, Sviatoslav, she did get him agree to cease persecuting Christians in his territory. That in itself was a major victory on the order of Constantine’s reform.
Olga had greater influence, however, over her grandson Vladimir both in his early education and also later by being the example for his conversion to Christianity. Olga died in 969 when Vladimir was young, but he always retained a deep affection for her. Once again, it seems a medieval princess exerted a decisive impact on the fate of world history.
Fr. William Slattery in his book, Heroism and Genius, describes Olga’s influence as part of a distinct pattern of that age: “the quiet but powerful feminine role in the conversion of Europe” (54). He mentions other queens and abbesses like Bertha of Kent, Heloise of France, Margaret of Scotland, Blanche of Castile and many other amazing women who literally changed the world by their fidelity to Christ and His Church.
Now we come to the coup de grâce.
The Epic Delegation
When Vladimir was considering the specific religion to adopt, he did a careful study of all the monotheistic religions. Islam offered no attraction to him because it forbade alcohol (that really was his reason!). With a warrior’s mindset, he also discounted Judaism because he thought their religion was weak. After all, they let the Romans destroy their Temple (that, too, was actually his reason!)
Interestingly, as he looked to the West, the Latin Rite Church did not attract him either because he thought their churches were ugly. (Imagine! He’d be in for quite a surprise today.) Remember, this was the period before all the great Gothic cathedrals were built (from 1150-1300 AD).
Based on the memory of his saintly grandmother, Vladimir finally sent a delegation to Constantinople to inquire about the Christian faith as it was manifested in the Eastern Churches. They made a visit to the Church of Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom), which was the Patriarch’s cathedral, and this was their stunned reaction, which they reported to Vladimir upon their return: