Sts. Vladimir and Olga: Unlikely Converts and “Equal to the Apostles”

Rarely, perhaps never, in the history of the Church have there been two such unlikely converts.

LEFT: An icon of St. Vladmir. RIGHT: Painting of St. Olga by Mikhail Nesterov (1862–1942).
LEFT: An icon of St. Vladmir. RIGHT: Painting of St. Olga by Mikhail Nesterov (1862–1942). (photo: Wikimedia Commons)

St. Olga, princess of Kiev, was so vengeful, so hate-filled, so bloody-minded she would have scared Attila the Hun. But her grandson was worse.

Olga (c. 879-969; feast day July 11) and her husband Igor ruled over a large stretch of territory in what is now Ukraine. They had subjugated some neighboring tribes who every year sent tribute payments to the royal couple. One of these tribes, the Drevalians, tired of this arrangement and asserted their independence—by murdering Igor.

Olga took the death of her husband badly. When the Drevalians sent ambassadors to Kiev to smooth things over with Olga, she treated them graciously. Once she had lulled them into a false sense of security, she had the ambassadors seized, bound, thrown into a pit, and buried alive.

Then she sent a message to the Drevalian prince, saying she was pleased to make peace, and would even be open to an offer of marriage. The prince, who believed his embassy must have gone very well, sent another delegation to Kiev to invite Olga to the Drevalian capital to settle the details of their new relationship. Olga had these emissaries burned alive. Then she sent her own messengers to her prospective groom saying she was on her way.

The prince must have bee a bit slow on the up-take since it did not trouble him that Olga arrived at his city with an escort of 500 armed men before any of his ambassadors had returned home. Nonetheless, he threw a lavish banquet for his guests, a kind of raucous engagement party. The more the ale, and mead, and wine flowed, the less the Drevalians noticed that Olga and her men were going easy on the alcohol. Once all the Drevalians were stupefied with drink, the men of Kiev drew their weapons and cut down every Drevalian in the hall—including the prince. No accurate body count has come down to us, but it’s likely that Olga looked on as her men slaughtered several hundred of her enemies.

But Olga wasn’t done yet. She returned to Kiev, assembled an army, and marched on the Drevalian capital. By now the people of the city were terrified of this woman. They sent her a message, offering to pay anything she demanded in tribute, but Olga did not want money. She ordered her soldiers to set the city ablzae. As flames engulfed the wooden houses and walls, the inhabitants streamed out the gates, running into the open plain between their burning town and Olga’s army. Many of them were massacred by Olga’s troops. The ones who survived Olga sold into slavery.

With the destruction of the Drevalians, Olga’s desire for vengeance was satisfied.

Nine years later, in 954, Olga traveled to Constantinople to forge an alliance with the emperor, Constantine Porphyrogenitos. Constantinople was the greatest, the richest, the most luxurious city in the Mediterranean world. It was also the heart of Christendom in the East.  Olga had never seen anything like the splendid palaces and glorious churches that filled the city. In fact, she had never seen a church at all. Nor had she experienced anything comparable to the awesome beauty and solemn magnificence of the Divine Liturgy, as the Mass is known among Eastern Christians. In Constantinople, Olga was touched by grace. She asked to be instructed in the faith, and was baptized. And it seems that it was the Divine Liturgy that was the means by which Christ drew Olga from her murderous ways to Him.

Olga brought back to Kiev priests, deacons, icons, relics of the saints, sacred books and sacred vessels—everything necessary to establish Christianity among her people. She built churches, but no one would attend them. She invited missionaries from Germany to come help the Constantinople priests convert her kingdom—her people killed them. Her own son rejected Christianity, telling her that Christ was a weakling no warrior prince would worship. On her deathbed, Olga grieved that her attempt to make her land a Christian nation had been a colossal failure.

Paganism was still firmly rooted in Kiev when Olga’s grandson, Vladimir (956-1015, feast day July 15) came to power. As an illegitimate son he was not entitled to inherit, but Vladimir was not the kind of man to let such a petty detail derail his ambition. He murdered his half-brother, the legitimate heir, then added his sister-in-law to his harem. The chroniclers claim that Vladimir’s harem ran to several hundred women, who were housed in the various cities of his kingdom so that no matter where he traveled, he would not be lonely.

His grandmother Olga had built churches; Vladimir built a grandiose temple to the pagan gods, setting up statues of them all—including the gods of the neighboring Turkic tribes, just to be on the safe side. To consecrate the temple he revived an old custom—human sacrifice. As victims, he chose a warrior named Theodore, and the man’s young son, John. They were two of the very few Christians in Kiev. Perhaps Vladimir thought the sacrifice of a man and a boy who had turned their backs on the old religion would appease the gods.

Like his grandmother, Vladimir was ferocious in war. He conquered tribe after tribe, greatly expanding his realm, and earning the fear, and reluctantly, the respect of his most powerful neighbor, the Christian king of Poland. To forestall an invasion of his own realm, the Polish king made a treaty with Vladimir. Even Basil, the emperor in Constantinople, recognized Vladimir’s success as a fighter—when Basil was having trouble with the Bulgars to the west, he appealed to Vladimir for help.

Vladimir crushed the Bulgar army, and then asked for a reward from the emperor: he wanted Basil’s sister, Anna, to be his wife.

The request was outrageous. No Byzantine princess had ever married a foreigner, let alone a heathen who indulged in human sacrifice and kept of small army of concubines. But Vladimir was a dangerous and powerful man, so Basil agreed to Vladimir’s request, but on one condition—he must abandon his evil habits and convert to Christianity. Basil hoped this would be the deal-breaker, that Vladimir would reject the emperor’s terms and settle for another, less controversial reward. Instead, Vladimir agreed to be baptized. And after his baptism, he married Anna.

No one in Constantinople or Kiev expected that Vladimir’s “conversion” was sincere, they believed his baptism was a political ploy to seal an alliance with Basil. But they were wrong. Vladimir’s conversion was genuine. Back in Kiev with his bride, he destroyed the images of the gods and tore down the great temple he had built to house them. He invited architects from Constantinople to come build churches throughout his realm. He gave vast sums of money to assist the poor, to tend the sick, and to relieve the homeless. Every morning he sent out carts to bring food to the hungry. He even abolished the death penalty—which at this time existed in every Christian kingdom and virtually no one regarded as immoral. Impressed by the depth of their prince’s change of heart, many members of Vladimir’s inner circle embraced the Christian faith. They were followed by the ordinary people, many of whom were recipients of Vladimir’s new-found compassion. What Grandmother Olga had prayed for years earlier was coming to fruition at last.

Rarely, perhaps never, in the history of the Church have there been two such unlikely converts. Yet, if Olga and Vladimir’s sins have not been forgotten, they certainly have been forgiven. In Ukraine and Russia, Catholics and Orthodox honor St. Olga and St. Vladimir with a title we do not have in the West: “Equal to the Apostles.”