On July 28, the Day of Remembrance of Saint Volodymyr of Kyiv, Ukraine celebrated the 1033rd anniversary of the Baptism of Kyivan Rus’, the stage at which Grand Prince Volodymyr declared Orthodox Christianity the official religion of the land. Though the conversion of citizens took place over several centuries, the Baptism marks a key point in the religious and cultural history of Ukraine and, some argue, laid the foundation for a modern Ukraine. Ukrainians have celebrated the Baptism at the state level since 2008.
Nestor the Chronicler’s The Tale of Bygone Years provides the only confirmation of St. Volodymyr’s baptism and grounds the most broadly accepted account of the event. According to this account, Prince Volodymyr experienced a moral crisis over his continuation of paganism, pushing him to conduct an evaluation of sorts to determine which of the different faiths of the time he and his people should profess. He dispatched envoys to hubs of the major religions—different branches of Christianity, Islam, Judaism—and studied the workings of each one. After examining the religions, capturing the territory of present-day Sevastopol, and deciding to marry Anna of Orthodox Byzantium, Prince Volodymyr and his warriors converted and were baptized.
To immortalize the event, prolific architect Alexander Ton and sculptors Vasiliy Demut-Malinovskya, and Pyotr Klodt erected a monument to Volodymyr the Great in the heart of Kyiv (the former heart of Kyivan Rus’) where some believe the Baptism occurred. First opened to the public in fall of 1853, the monument still stands today. Even during the Soviet era, the monument was preserved, one of the few pre-revolutionary monuments to survive. It remains one of the most significant architectural features of the capital and—scholars believe—Kyiv’s oldest surviving sculptural monument and first monument to a person.
In addition to serving as a landmark cultural anniversary for the people of Ukraine, the Baptism of Kyivan Rus’ functions as a critical part of the historical memory of Ukraine. To further the Russian narrative of Russians and Ukrainians as historically “one people, one whole,” the Kremlin often works to appropriate the Baptism of Kyivan Rus’ into its own history. In Putin’s “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians” of last week, Ukrainians and Russians are both described as the “heirs of Ancient Rus” due to the “spiritual choice of Saint Vladimir, who…[determined their] relationship.”
However, in the words of Ukrainian historian Leonid Zaliznyak, “Moscow’s rights to the historical and cultural heritage of princely Kyiv are no bigger and no less than the rights of Madrid, Lisbon, Paris, and Bucharest to the history and culture of Latin Rome. As the Roman peoples inherited certain heritage of Roman culture, so the Belarusians and Russians absorbed into their ethno-defining complex certain elements of the culture of princely Kyiv. However, neither were the former direct creators of the Latin culture of Rome, nor are the latter indirectly related to the creation of the culture of Kyivan Rus.”
Thus, the Ukrainian celebration of the historic Baptism of Kyivan Rus’ commemorates the past development of a key aspect of Ukrainian heritage, and its accurate memorialization defends the present and future identity of the Ukrainian nation.