War & Military

Medieval Kherson and Ukraine

In an announcement disputed by Ukrainian officials, Russian forces announced that they had seized Kherson on the morning of Wednesday, March 2, in their nearly week-old invasion of Ukraine. Kherson is an important city at the mouth of the Dnieper River, where it exits into the Black Sea. The city’s conquest by the Russians is emblematic of Vladimir Putin’s efforts to claim Ukraine and their shared heritage of the medieval kingdom of Rus for himself.

In the tenth century, the medieval polity of Rus was ruled over by Volodimer (Vladimir, Volodymyr) Sviatoslavich from his capital in Kiev (Kyiv). He was a pagan ruler who had tried to create a pantheon of his own, comprised of Slavic, Scandinavian, Baltic and other gods, but it did not grant him the centralization of his kingdom that he desired. Thus, he sought out conversion to one of the monotheistic religions, such as Christianity, Islam, or Judaism.

Reverse of srebrenik of Vladimir the Great now in the Odessa Numismatics Museum. Credit: Wikipedia

The Povest’ vremennykh let, our main source for this period of Rusian history, contains multiple accounts of this attempt at conversion, with emissaries representing Judaism, Islam, and both Latin and Byzantine Christianity speaking with Volodimer. One of the most famous lines to come from this is Volodimer’s pithy statement, upon hearing of the ban on alcohol among Muslims, that “drink is the joy of the Rusians.” The chronicle, written later by monks in the twelfth century, tells the story knowing the end point, which was the conversion of Volodimer and an importation of bishops from Byzantium, but the story is more complicated than it is made to seem.

In 988, Emperor Basil II of the Byzantine (Eastern Roman) Empire was faced with a revolt from not one, but two, generals. As a result, Basil reached out to Volodimer to supply mercenaries. Volodimer was able to do this, both from within his own kingdom and sourcing them from Scandinavia, the origin of his own dynasty, but he had a price. Volodimer wanted to marry Basil’s sister Anna. Anna was a porphyrogenite – a daughter ‘born in the purple’, meaning while her father was emperor in Constantinople (now known as Istanbul).

To borrow a modern, and possibly too gendered phrase, Anna was at the time the most eligible bachelorette in all of medieval Europe. Rulers of both the German Empire and France had sought her hand for their respective sons. It was inconceivable, certainly from Anna’s reaction we are told, that she should be married to a barbarian from the wild territory north of the Black Sea. Yet, Basil had little choice; he needed Volodimer’s soldiers and thus he agreed to the marriage, with the sole stipulation that Volodimer must convert to Christianity.

It is here that Kherson re-enters our story for Basil took the soldiers, defeated his generals and brought peace back to the empire, but he refused to send Anna to Rus. In retribution, Volodimer took the Byzantine city of Kherson, their sole outpost in the northern part of the Black Sea, and held it hostage for the fulfillment of his agreement with Basil. To get the rich trading center of Kherson back, Anna had to be delivered to Volodimer; and she was. In return, Volodimer accepted baptism at the hands of the bishop of Kherson, rather than from the priests accompanying Anna – a small point, but one relevant in Volodimer’s quest to maintain his own ecclesiastical independence.

Baptism of Volodimer from the Radziwill Chronicle.

Related to that, a later chronicle tells of how the papacy heard of Volodimer’s conversion in Kherson and sent their own delegation to him while he was there. They brought with them relics of St. Clement as a gift to the newly Christian king. St. Clement had been an early bishop of Rome who had been exiled to the northern part of the Black Sea. During his mission to Khazaria, Constantine (later St. Cyril) found the relics of Clement in the ninth century and brought them to Rome. Thus, the papal mission was connecting a Roman bishop and saint with a Rusian ruler, via the connection of Kherson where the former had been exiled and died and where the latter now ruled. This connection with the papacy did not tie Volodimer to them, but it did present him with additional options that he had not had before, and embassies between the two sides are reported to have continued.

After Volodimer’s baptism, and his subsequent marriage to Anna, the couple returned to Kiev and Volodimer forced the people of the city into the Dnieper River to receive baptism. The year was 989, and it became known as the baptism of Rus. The Christian history of the kingdom is said to begin there, and when the current president of Russia Vladimir Putin – his Christian name is important here – speaks of Kiev as “the mother of Russian cities” it is to this moment that he is specifically referring.

The kingdom of Rus continued to grow and prosper into the eleventh century. Though Volodimer and Anna had no children, his children from previous relationships ruled after him, most famously Iaroslav (known as “the Wise” though the epithet is only assigned to him later in time). Iaroslav and his children married and made connections throughout Europe and wove Rus into the tapestry of the medieval Christian world, actions that would only continue through the next several generations. Eventually, the Rusian kingdom stretched far enough to the northeast to encompass the region between the Volga and the Oka Rivers, and Volodimer’s great-great grandson Iurii (called “Long Arm” – Dolgorukii – in another late epithet) founded a new power center there called, perhaps predictably, Vladimir.

One small town in the region, subordinate to Vladimir-on-the-Kliazma was Moscow. It would not be for another several generations before Moscow gained a powerful ruler or began to make a name for itself. Its connection to Kiev is direct, but long and only by later inference does it become the direct heir to that city.

St Vladimir the Great Statue in Moscow. Credit: Wikipedia.

In 2015, Putin erected a statue of St. Vladimir (Volodymyr) in Moscow. Only a year before he had launched an invasion of Crimea and claimed the territory for Russia, and the erection of this statue was taken as a way of enhancing his claim to the territory and the shared past. A Ukrainian joke and political cartoon started gaining popularity in the immediate aftermath of the erection of the statue. It shows the statue of St. Vladimir waking up and looking around saying, “where am I?” and the people walking below looking up at him and saying, “who is that?”

Vladimir wouldn’t know Moscow, and Muscovites wouldn’t know Volodimer – but in Putin’s history that would all change.


  1. Thank you, Dr. Raffensperger. A segment of my Medieval training nearly blank – except for the conversion issue, and, of course the booze. I think I might understand Putin’s obsession a little bit better now. Belated congratulations on your Wray Chair appointment

  2. Please, I need a list of sources and references on the history of Kherson in the Middle Ages

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