St. Vladimir

St. Vladimir, Grand Prince of Kyiv (ca. 958–15 July 1015), was the sixth Ryurikovich ruler of Kyivan Rus. He was the youngest son of Prince Svyatoslav and his servant-turned-wife Malusha.

In 969, Svyatoslav moved his capital to Pereyaslavets (modern-day Nufǎru, Romania). To his oldest son, Yaropolk, he gave Velikiy Novgorod (Great Novgorod), and to Vladimir he gave Kyiv.

Svyatoslav was slain by Pechenegs in 972, and in 976, a fratricidal war erupted between Yaropolk and his younger brother Oleg, Prince of the Drevlyans (an East Slavic tribe). After Yaropolk killed Oleg in battle, Vladimir fled to their relative Haakon Sigurdsson, Norway’s ruler.

Haakon sent many warriors to fight against Yaropolk. When Vladimir returned from Norway the next year, he marched against Yaropolk.

On his way to Kyiv, Vladimir sent ambassadors to Prince Rogvolod of Polatsk (an ancient East Slavic city) to sue for the hand of his daughter, Princess Rogneda (962–1002), who was engaged to Yaropolk.

When Rogneda refused, Vladimir attacked Polatsk, raped Rogneda in front of her parents, and murdered her parents and two of her brothers.

Vladimir secured both Polatsk and Smolensk, and took Kyiv in 978. Upon his conquest of the city, he invited Yaropolk to negotiations at which he was murdered.

Vladimir was proclaimed Grand Prince of all Kyivan Rus.

Vladimir expanded Kyivan Rus far beyond its former borders. He gained Red Ruthenia (Chervona Rus), and the territories of the Yatvingians, Radimiches, and Volga Bulgars.

He had 800 concubines, and at least nine daughters and twelve sons from his seven legitimate wives.

Though Vladimir’s grandma Olga had converted to Christianity and begun Christianizing Kyivan Rus, Vladimir was an unrepentant pagan. He erected many statues and shrines to pagan deities, elevated thunder god Perun to supreme deity, instituted human sacrifices, destroyed many churches, and murdered many clergy.

When a Christian Varangian named Fyodor refused to give his son Ioann for sacrifice, a mob descended upon his house. Fyodor and Ioann, both seasoned soldiers, met the mob with weapons in hand.

The mob, realizing they’d be overpowered in a fair fight, smashed up the entire property, rushed at Fyodor and Ioann, and murdered them. They became Russia’s first recognized Christian martyrs.

Vladimir thought long and hard about this. In 987, he sent envoys to study the major religions and report back on their findings. The envoys also returned with representatives of these faiths.

Vladimir rejected Islam because he couldn’t give up pork or drinking, and didn’t want to be circumcised. He rejected Judaism because he felt the destruction of Jerusalem was “evidence” we’d been “abandoned” by God.

Vladimir found no beauty in Catholicism, but was very impressed by the beauty of Orthodox Christianity.

Vladimir agreed to become Orthodox in exchange for the hand of Anna Porphyrogenita, sister of Emperor Basil II of Byzantium. (Porphyrogenita, “born in the purple,” was an honorific for someone born to a Byzantine emperor after he’d taken the throne.)

Kyivan Rus and Byzantium were enemies, but after the wedding, Vladimir agreed to send 6,000 troops to protect Byzantium from a rebels’ siege. The revolt was put down.

Upon his return to Kyiv, Vladimir compelled his subjects into a mass baptism in the Dnepr River, and burnt all the pagan statues he’d erected.

After the mass conversion, Vladimir formed a great council from his boyars, gave his subject principalities to his twelve legitimate sons, founded the city of Belgorod (Bilhorod Kyivskyy), and embarked on a short-lived campaign against the White Croats.

Though his conversion was politically motivated, Vladimir nevertheless became very charitable towards the less fortunate. He gave them food and drink, and journeyed to those who couldn’t reach him.

He married one final time, to Otto the Great’s daughter (possibly Rechlinda Otona).

In 1014, he began gathering troops against his son Yaroslav the Wise. They’d long had a strained relationship, and when Yaroslav refused to pay tribute to his brother Boris, heir apparent, it was the last straw.

Vladimir’s illness and death prevented a war. His dismembered body parts were distributed to his many sacred foundations and venerated as relics.

Several cities, schools, and churches in Russia and Ukraine are named for Vladimir. He also appears in many folk legends and ballads. His feast day is 15 July.

An ikon of St. Vladimir is one of the things my character Ivan Konev throws into a valise before he escapes into his root cellar to hide from vigilante Bolsheviks who’ve broken into his house in April 1917.

That ikon becomes very dear to Ivan and his future wife Lyuba. They believe Vladimir protected them during the Civil War. When their oldest son Fedya goes to fight in WWII, they lend him the ikon.

The Umileniye ikon

The Umileniye (Tenderness) ikon is extremely unusual in Eastern Orthodoxy, in that it shows Mary alone. Almost all Orthodox Marian ikons depict Mary with Baby Jesus, in contrast to most Catholic images of Mary.

This ikon was very precious to St. Serafim of Sarov, one of the most beloved of all Russian saints. He was very fond of praying before this ikon. The oil from the lamp he kept burning in front of it was used to anoint the sick and bless visitors who came to make confession.

It was the last thing he saw in that lifetime, as he died while in prayer by it. He called this ikon “Joy of All Joys.”

In 1903, the year Serafim was canonized, Tsar Nicholas II and Empress Aleksandra went to the Sarov monastery to desperately pray for a son. Since so many miracles had been attributed to him, they felt he surely would answer their prayers.

They finally got their boy, but not in the way they’d expected. Their prayers were answered differently, more challengingly.

The Umileniye is believed to show Mary at the moment of the Annunciation, when she was told she’d have a child and humbly accepted this mission, with the reply, “Let it be to me according to your word.”

The Slavonic words around her halo say, “Rejoice, O Virgin Bride,” which is the refrain of the much-beloved Akathist Hymn.

Though some people think the ikon may have been inspired by Catholic art, it’s very common for the holy doors of an ikonostasis to depict Mary at the moment of Annunciation.

Today, the ikon is housed in the home of Patriarch Kirill of Moskva. A copy was left with the Trinity Cathedral of the Serafim-Diveyevskiy Monastery, a nunnery in the Nizhniy Novgorod district of Diveyevo.

On feast days, the original ikon is often brought out for public veneration.

Near the end of his life, St. Serafim gave the nuns of Diveyo 1,000 rubles to create an appropriate place for this precious ikon. After his death, the abbot of Sarov gave the ikon over to them. Presently, the sisters honored it with a silver riza.

A riza, which means “robe” in Russian, is a covering which protects ikons from damage by candle wax, incense smoke, and oil.

In 1903, after Serafim’s canonization, Tsar Nicholas II donated precious stones to make the ikon even more beautiful.

The Diveyevskiy Monastery has written this prayer to offer before the Umileniye:

My character Inga Savvina is very drawn to the Umileniye (and Theotokos [Mary] of Tolga) when she stays by her best friend and penpal Yuriy Yeltsin-Tsvetkov’s family’s summer home on Vancouver Island in the summer of 1947. She’s seen many ikons in her paternal relatives’ homes, but this is new to her.

Klarisa, the older of Yuriy’s two little sisters, tells Inga Mary is everyone’s mother, and that she’s very special to people without mothers. She suggests when Inga misses her real mother (who’s serving twenty years in Siberia), she can talk to Mary.

Though Inga has been raised an atheist, and resisted all religion during her five years in America, her unexplainable pull towards these ikons continues. She sees Mary as a loving, universal mother figure who’ll always support and listen to her, and eventually begins praying to her.

Yuriy performs an emergency baptism of Inga just before she falls unconscious from polio in August, and after she recovers enough to leave the hospital and marry Yuriy, she agrees to be chrismated by a priest.

Inga’s Orthodox conversion isn’t motivated by genuine spiritual awakening or religious belief, but she makes a genuine effort to grow into real belief. Along with her baptismal cross, she always wears a necklace with a miniature of the Umileniye, and continues building her relationship with Mary.

WeWriWa—Twelve-dish Christmas supper


Welcome back to Weekend Writing Warriors and Snippet Sunday, weekly Sunday hops where writers share 8–10 sentences from a book or WIP. To mark the recent Russian Orthodox Christmas, this snippet comes from my fourth Russian novel, in a scene featuring the traditional twelve-dish supper of Christmas Eve (6 January). This is the beginning of 1949.

NYU freshmen and Irish twins Igor and Ilya are living with their great-aunt Valeriya and her second husband, Grigoriy Golitsyn (a prince by birth). Their guests are Valeriya and Mr. Golitsyn’s oldest child together, Vasya; his wife Dusya; and their children, 6-year-old Stella and 2-year-old Nora. Also present is Valeriya and Mr. Golitsyn’s daughter Vasilisa, who’s seriously dating another prince by birth.


After the Troparion, Mr. Golitsyn takes out a blue and white bowl of honey and makes the sign of the cross on each person’s forehead in turn, starting with Valeriya and ending with Nora.

“In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, may you all have sweetness and many good things in life and in the new year,” he pronounces after Nora has been anointed.

Valeriya lights a large yellow candle in the center of the table, contained in a red and white porcelain dish, symbolizing the star of Bethlehem.  Then Stella stands up on her chair and reads the Nativity story from the Gospel of Matthew.  The youngest child is traditionally supposed to read it, but Nora doesn’t know how to read anything yet.  Finally, Mr. Golitsyn asks for God’s blessings on the wine, bread, and food, breaks the round, twisted kalach bread, and distributes it to the other eight people.

The first proper meal of the supper is kutya, cooked barley kasha sweetened with chopped walnuts, honey, dried cranberries, and poppy seeds.  Also around the table are caviar, mushroom soup, fish soup with dumplings, cabbage soup, pickled mushrooms, pirozhki, stuffed carp, baked trout, draniki, pickled cabbage, boiled potatoes with dill from Vasya and Dusya, raspberry tea, wine, blueberry vareniki, walnut pudding, and assorted dried fruits.


Draniki are potato pancakes; pirozhki are baked or fried buns stuffed with things like mushrooms and beef; and vareniki are kind of like blintzes or crêpes, dough pockets stuffed with either savory or sweet foods. The Troparion is a one-stanza hymn, with many different forms.

The Semicircular Hall, the Sorbonne, and St. Serafim of Sarov



The Semicircular Hall is one of the best-known gala halls and rooms of the Aleksandr Palace. Over the years, it’s remained just as Giacomo Quarenghi designed it, with the exception of replacing the Russian stoves on either side of the entrance with marble fireplaces. The walls are of white marble, and the apse’s central doors look out onto a terrace overlooking the palace’s gardens. The hall itself opens through broad, columned arches into the Billiard and Portrait Halls.


Copyright Vitold Muratov

The Semicircular Hall was used for balls, gala dinners, receptions, and other special events. Because the Aleksandr Palace was meant as a summer palace, the doors to the gardens and the palace’s front doors were open when the hall was used, revealing quite a beautiful vista. This immense, airy hall could seat up to 400 or 500 people during one of its famously large gala dinners or social events.

During the final years of the dynasty, the Semicircular Hall was also used to show films and slideshows, usually on Saturday nights. This hall was sadly the last place the Imperial Family saw before their exile to Tobolsk. On Aleksey’s 13th birthday, 30 July/12 August 1917, they stayed up all night and day waiting in the hall with their luggage, until finally the train was cleared and the order was given to move out early the next morning.

The Sorbonne, as seen from Rue Saint-Jacques, Copyright (WT-shared) Riggwelter

Le Collège de Sorbonne is the historical home of the University of Paris, which today houses several higher educational institutes. It was founded in 1257 as a theological college, and soon rose to become France’s most distinguished theological institute. In 1792, during the French Revolution, it was closed, but then reopened by Napoléon in 1808. It never regained its former prestige, though it continued operating till 1882. A new building was constructed from 1884–89.

Door to the Sorbonne, Copyright François Trazzi

In my alternative history, Aleksey attends the Sorbonne from 1922–26, on the suggestion of Grand Duke Mikhail, his uncle and Regent. He’s the first Tsar to receive a university education instead of immediately coming to the throne as soon as he’s of age. Without a well-rounded education and real-world experience outside of palace gates, his desire to be a good, reforming Tsar won’t automatically translate into successful actions. During his time in Paris, he lives in the Belleville neighbourhood of the Twentieth Arrondissement, a very working-class area with many immigrants.

Saint Serafim of Sarov (né Prokhor Isidorovich Moshnin), 19 July/1 August 1754 or 1759–2/14 January 1833

St. Serafim of Sarov is one of the most belovèd Russian saints and mystics. He was born in Kursk, and at age 19 joined a monastery in Sarov. In 1786, he took his final vows and received the name Serafim. Shortly after becoming a monastic priest, he adopted a hermitic lifestyle. He was attacked by bandits while chopping wood one day, beaten with his own axe, and left for dead. Miraculously, he survived, but was left with a hunchback.

Ikon depicting St. Serafim’s life

He became a confessor in 1815, and many miracles and prophecies were attributed to him. Hundreds of pilgrims came to him every single day. Though he was very tough on himself, given his ascetic lifestyle, he greeted everyone joyously, treated them very kindly and gently, and called them “My joy.” He died while praying before the beautiful Umileniye ikon, believed to show Mary at the moment of Annunciation. This is one of those rare Orthodox Marian ikons depicting Mary alone.

In 1903, the year he was canonised, Tsar Nicholas II and Empress Aleksandra travelled to the Sarov monastery. Since so many miracles had been attributed to him over the years, they felt he might finally answer their desperate prayers for a son.


The Umileniye (Tenderness) Ikon, of which St. Serafim was very fond, and before which Nicholas and Aleksandra might’ve prayed in 1903. A replica of this ikon was also in the Imperial Family’s private chapel in their belovèd Fyodorovskaya Cathedral.

Obviously, their prayers were finally answered, but not in the way they’d expected. Their prayer was just answered differently, more challengingly. They still got a beautiful little boy who constantly bounced back from the jaws of Death and grew into a sensitive, compassionate young man who promised to be a great Tsar.

The Passage and Peter and Paul Cathedral


The Passage (central building) in 1917

The Passage (Russian name Passazh) is a venerable, historical, élite department store on the equally-venerable and historic Nevskiy Prospekt in St. Petersburg. It opened its doors on 9 May 1848, and took its name from the wide passage between Nevskiy Prospekt and Italyanskaya Street. This gallery formed the main passage through the department store, and was covered by an arched steel and glass roof. The three-story building was one of Russia’s first to use gas lighting. They also had an underground floor, which had electricity installed in 1900.

Top of the building, Copyright Helvin spb

The Passage initially specialised in luxury goods, expensive clothes, and jewelry, but the common people came as well, excited to see this innovative, new, fashionable department store. In response, an entrance fee of 50 kopeks was instituted in order to limit who could go inside. Soon, The Passage grew to include a wax museum, coffeehouses, restaurants, confectionaries, a small zoo, an anatomical museum, a concert hall, and panoramas.

The concert hall became a popular site for literary readings and lectures, with venerable attendees including Ivan Sergeyevich Turgenev, Fyodor Mikhaylovich Dostoyevskiy, and Taras Hryhorovych Shevchenko. In 1900, a fourth story was added, as part of the revamping which followed a devastating fire in 1898. The concert hall was also transformed into a theatre. In 1908, Soleille, one of St. Petersburg’s largest cinemas, was added.

Passage interior in 1902

Following the cataclysm of the Revolution and Civil War, The Passage was turned into a supermarket. In 1933, it reverted to a department store. The Children’s World section was particularly popular. The store closed again during the brutal Siege of Leningrad, but the employees bravely chose to remain. Miraculously, The Passage took precious little damage in spite of the glass roof being extensively bombed. In 1947, it was renovated and reopened. Since 1961, it’s specialised in women’s goods.

The Passage in modern times, Copyright Helvin spb

In my alternative history, the newlywed Imperial couple go to The Passage in December 1929, when the new Tsaritsa, Arkadiya, is inspired to create new Christmas traditions in the Aleksandr Palace and get some updated ornaments and decorations much more to her liking. Everyone is stunned to see Their Majesties mingling with normal people at a department store, and a little girl asks why they’re not wearing crowns if they’re really the Tsar and Tsaritsa.


Peter and Paul Cathedral, Copyright Dezidor

The Peter and Paul Cathedral (Russian name Petropavlovskiy Sobor) is located within the Peter and Paul Fortress in St. Petersburg, and the resting place for all Russia’s rulers starting from Peter the Great. The only rulers not buried there are the unmemorable Peter II and Ivan VI. It’s the city’s oldest and first landmark.

In the modern era, the only Imperial burials within its walls have been for Nicholas II, Empress Aleksandra, and their three oldest daughters in 1998, and the reinterment of Nicholas II’s mother, Mariya Fyodorovna (Dagmar of Denmark), in 2006. Shamefully, Anastasiya and Aleksey still haven’t been buried with the rest of their family (or even buried anywhere), so many years since their remains were finally found.


Copyright sailko

The cathedral is St. Petersburg’s first building made from stone, and was constructed from 1712–33. Its famous golden spire is 404 feet (123 metres) high, and ends with an angel holding a cross. This angel is one of the city’s most important symbols.


Cathedral interior, Copyright Deror avi

The cathedral was closed in 1919 and turned into a museum in 1924, though has been used for religious services since 2000.


Ikonostasis, Copyright Massimilianogalardi