"Behind every great man stands a woman," goes the saying. In a real sense that was true of the Russian prince Vladimir. Credited with Christianizing Russia, Vladimir was following in the steps of his grandmother, Princess Olga of Kiev, who attempted the task earlier and can be given partial credit for preventing Russia from turning Islamic.
Olga became regent for her son Svyatoslav in 954 upon the assassination of her husband, Igor I, Prince of Kiev. His costly wars had brought Russia to ruin. She immediately executed his murderers and ruled for the next twenty years, implementing fiscal and other reforms throughout the principality. Possibly already a convert to Christianity, she visited Constantinople and in 957 was baptized there. She returned to Russia with a Christ-like hunger for souls and attempted to lead her people to Orthodoxy. At the same time, she sent envoys to Rome, requesting teachers be sent to train her people in the faith. Led by her son, Svyatoslav, the pagan nobles resisted Christ and her efforts failed. Svyatoslav himself almost converted to Islam. Byzantium diplomacy averted that danger. No doubt Olga's influence had a hand. Certainly she had created a political faction which was interested in seeing Russia Christianized.
Olga died in 969. Her pagan son gave her a Christian burial. She is recognized as a saint in both the Catholic and Orthodox branches of the church. Her feast day is July 11th.
Her grandson Vladimir began as a cruel playboy. He was, however, wise enough to recognize that a common faith could give his country unity. According to legend, he sent messengers to investigate the three great faiths of the Mid East: Islam, Judaism, and the Roman and Orthodox branches of Christianity. The epicure in Vladimir thought Judaism and Islam, with their dietary restrictions, undesirable. He found Roman Catholicism "too simple." But his messengers sold him with their report of the ritual they witnessed in Byzantium. Speaking of the worship they saw in the Hagia Sophia they said, "We did not know whether we were in heaven or on earth. It would be impossible to find on earth any splendor greater than this...Never shall we be able to forget so great a beauty."
Vladimir embraced Orthodoxy and wed Anna, sister of a Byzantine emperor. After his marriage and conversion he is reported to have changed direction, to have put away former wives and to have become kinder. At any rate, the Christianity Olga had tried to transplant to Russia now took root. Vladimir's subjects did not balk as had hers. In time the whole Northeastern Europe and North Asia was Christianized. One man's personal tastes and political cunning had added a precious jewel to the kingdom of Christ. Russian orthodoxy came to rival the Greek in its extent, prestige and arts.