Putin's Crimean Jerusalem, the real history

BERLIN – In his state-of-the-nation speech Thursday, Russian President Vladimir Putin put forward an astonishing justification for his annexation of Crimea: the peninsula, he said, is as sacred to Russians as Temple Mount in Jerusalem is to Muslims and Jews. “It was here, in Crimea, in ancient Chersonesus, or Korsun as the Russian chroniclers called it, that Prince Vladimir took baptism, before he baptized all of Rus’,” Putin said.

The actual history behind that claim is murky, but it strongly suggests that the Crimean exploits of Putin’s namesake, Vladimir the Great, set a precedent for Crimea’s seizure rather than any sacral meaning.

Putin’s claim is based on one of the fullest and most eloquent sources on Russia in the Dark Ages, the Primary Chronicle, also known as the Tale of Bygone Years, written in Kiev in the 12th century. It describes how, in the 980s, representatives of the world’s major religions – Muslims, Jews, Catholics and Greek Orthodox priests – visited Prince Vladimir in Kiev and tried to convert the pagan Varangian – or Viking – ruler to their respective faiths. Vladimir, the belligerent leader of the Norse-Slavic polity called Rus’, a precursor of the modern Russian and Ukrainian states, hesitated for years and then dispatched envoys to see the different religions’ services. When they came back, they reported the Greek liturgy they witnessed in Constantinople after being received by the brother emperors Basil and Constantine, was the most beautiful and inspiring. That, according to the Primary Chronicle, swayed Vladimir and he decided to be baptized.

He couldn’t, however, just do it quietly. Having made his decision, he marched with his troops to Chersonesus – on the outskirts of modern Sevastopol in southern Crimea – and besieged it. He threatened to spend three years under the city walls if necessary, but the Greeks would not surrender. The Slavs and Norsemen heaped earth next to the wall so they could climb it, but the townsfolk breached the wall from the inside and dug under the mound to lower it. After months of this, Vladimir got lucky:

“A certain Korsun man, named Anastas, sent an arrow, writing on it: ‘Dig up the pipes that carry water from wells to the east of you.’ Having heard of this, Vladimir looked at the sky and said, ‘If this happens, I will take baptism!' And immediately he ordered that the pipes be cut off and he redirected the water. The people became exhausted by thirst and surrendered. Vladimir entered the city with his force and he sent word to Kings Basil and Constantine to say: ‘Here I have taken your glorious city; I have heard you have a maiden sister; if you do not give her to me, I will do unto the capital what I did to this city.’ Having heard this, the kings were saddened and they sent word to him: ‘It is not proper for Christians to give women in marriage to pagans. If you are baptized, then you will have her, and receive the Kingdom of Heaven, and be of the same faith as us.’

For Vladimir, who already liked the idea of adopting the Greek faith, this wasn’t much of a compromise. The snobbish Byzantine princess hated the idea of marrying a barbarian, but her brothers forced her to go to Chersonesus, fearing Vladimir would make good on his threat. She came accompanied by priests. And as Vladimir waited for her, the story goes, he was afflicted by an illness that made him temporarily sightless. As soon as he was baptized, however, his eyesight returned and he married the princess.

Another version of events, from a 15th century Life of St. Vladimir, has the Kievan prince raping the daughter of the Chersonesus ruler while her parents watched, and then killing them and giving the defiled woman to the man who betrayed the besieged city – in this source, a Varangian like the prince himself.

As is often the case with such ancient sources, they are not definitive. In a 1908 work, the eminent Russian historian Alexei Shakhmatov described the Korsun version of Vladimir’s baptism as a “legend.” An ancient work called “The Memory and Praise of Russian Prince Vladimir,” whose origins have been traced to the 11th century, asserts that the prince was baptized in Kiev, three years before his Chersonesus expedition.

All the sources agree on just a few things: that Prince Vladimir besieged and conquered Chersonesus; that the weak Byzantine emperors gave him their sister Anna in marriage; and that they needed the alliance because they were containing a military insurgency and could not afford to have him as an enemy. Regardless of Vladimir’s spiritual journey, which led him to Christianity around the same time, today’s chroniclers would have described his Crimean thrust as a geopolitical and opportunistic one.

Leaving aside the uncomfortable fact that Vladimir ruled ancient Rus from Kiev – which is why Ukrainians, who call him Volodymyr, consider him one of their own – Putin’s claim of Crimea’s mystical importance for modern Russia is as groundless, and irrelevant to today’s political situation, as the forays of politicians into history usually are. Moreover, few people living in Russia or Crimea today know or care about Vladimir’s religious quests and military feats, or indeed his recorded disregard for the wishes of women he bedded.

The Chersonesus legend is just a vignette in Crimea’s modern story, a quaint Dark Ages rhyme to the actions of a modern-day would-be conqueror, Vladimir the not-so-Great.

Berlin-based writer Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View contributor.