Volodymyr vs. Vladimir: How rival statues explain the Russia-Ukraine conflict

One of Ukraine’s most legendary figures is Volodymyr the Great. He ruled Kyiv from the year 980 to 1015, launching major building projects, pulling together divided tribes and introducing Christianity. Today, he’s honored with a soaring statue in Kyiv overlooking the Dnipro River that bisects the city.

Yet Russia also claims him as central to its political and religious history. They know him by the Russian version of his name — Vladimir the Great. Six years ago, Russia built an even larger statue just outside the Kremlin walls.

This isn’t just some minor historical tiff, with Russia trying to outdo Ukraine in monument building. Rather, it speaks to fundamentally different narratives about the past, and the debate over modern Russian and Ukrainian statehood playing out in the current conflict.

“Ukraine is not just a neighboring country for us,” Russian President Vladimir Putin said in a televised speech on Feb. 21, just three days before Russian troops entered Ukraine. “It is an inalienable part of our own history, culture, and spiritual space.”

In Ukraine’s capital Kyiv, Volodymyr’s statue is short walk from the office of the man who currently leads this country — another guy named Volodymyr — President Zelenskyy.

Both are protected against a potential Russian attack. Volodymyr the president works from a heavily fortified compound. Volodymyr the statue is draped in green canvas, surrounded by scaffolding that notes he’s occupied this commanding spot since 1853.

“It’s his city,” George Kovalenko, a priest and religious scholar, said of the elder Volodymyr. He spoke to NPR in the shadow of Volodymyr’s statue.

Volodymyr, he said, put Kyiv on the map. In addition to uniting his realm, he opened trade to other parts of Europe and was a skilled diplomat. Yet his most enduring legacy, Kovalenko said, was in the year 988 when “he brought Christianity to Kiev and founded the beginning of this Christian state.”

He’s also a man of many titles. Kovalenko said he had just invoked Volodymyr’s name in church, calling him, “Holy, Equal-to-the-Apostles, Grand Prince Volodymyr.”

A different narrative in Russia

In Moscow, the grand prince is known as Vladimir the Great. It was another well-known VladimirRussia’s President Putin — who played a key role in bringing the monument to the city in 2016.

Speaking at the statue’s unveiling ceremony surrounded by Orthodox priests and politicians, Putin said Prince Vladimir’s embrace of Christianity had set the course for modern Russia — as power shifted to Moscow over the centuries

Prince Vladimir went down in history as a unifier and defender of Russian lands, and a far-sighted politician who created the foundations of a strong, unified, centralized state, which eventually united different peoples, languages, cultures and religions into one big family,” said Putin.

If those words echo Putin’s own messianic vision for modern-day Russia, that’s no coincidence, said Sergei Chapnin, a scholar of Orthodox Christian studies who formerly worked in the Moscow Patriarchate.

“Not only Great Prince Vladimir has this name. So you have to figure out, who is the main Vladimir among them?” said Chapnin in an interview with NPR.

Chapnin says the Moscow monument is part of a wider Kremlin effort to redefine modern Russia at the center of Slavic political and spiritual life — an idea Putin has increasingly embraced as he watched Ukraine drift towards the West.

“So he erected this huge monument in center of Moscow trying symbolically to present this idea: that the heritage of Prince Vladimir is somehow transferred from Kyiv to Moscow,” said Chapnin.

Ukrainians see an attempt to eliminate their identity

What the Ukrainians see is a Russian attempt to take over their history, just as they say Russia today is trying to take over their country.

Kovalenko, the religious scholar, said Russian leaders dating back to Peter the Great in the early 1700s have been trying to crush the notion of an independent Ukraine.

“It’s very important to understand that this is a long-standing history of imperial conquest,” he said.

He said Moscow conveniently chooses to ignore key historical facts. When Volodymyr ruled, his territory included parts of modern-day Ukraine, Russia and Belarus. The city of Moscow didn’t exist.

On the day Kovalenko spoke with NPR, Kyiv was marking its 1,540th anniversary. Moscow, he noted dryly, is less than 900 years old.

A ruler dressed for battle

A millennium ago, the very Kremlin near where Prince Vladimir now stands was a patch of marsh.

Indeed, initial plans to place the monument on the high bank of the Moscow river were scuttled amid concerns the soil could give way — sending Vladimir into the waters below.

When the Moscow monument was unveiled in 2016, Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox church, defended building a statue of a man who never lived in the city.

“A monument to a father can be anywhere his children live,” said Kirill. “But it’s bad when those same children forget that they had one father to begin with.”

Indeed, in the Moscow monument, some observers saw hints of growing militarism inside the Kremlin.

Russian historian Nikita Sokolov notes that while both statues show the Grand Prince with a cross, Moscow’s Vladimir is dressed for battle and conspicuously carries a sword.

“It was an act of symbolic war with Ukraine,” Sokolov told NPR. “Unlike his Kyiv counterpart, the Moscow statue is militaristic and imperial.”

Volodymyr’s living legacy in Kyiv

In Kyiv, George Kovalenko said Russia treats their Vladimir as if he’s a character from a fairly tale. But in Ukraine, he added, Volodymyr’s legacy is very real.

“People in Moscow see Volodymyr as this mythical figure, as this idea that is very far away,” he said. “For people who live here in Kyiv, he’s not a myth. He was here. He built the buildings that we walked past, that we pray in, and that we see every day.”

He said Volodymyr was not a perfect man.

“He was at times a brutal ruler, and I have to understand the context in which he lived and ruled,” he said. “We can glorify him, but at the same time, understand that he was a figure of his time.”

He’s also, it seems, a figure of these troubled times. One man, two names, dueling statues and conflicting narratives that are very much part of today’s battle.

Charles Maynes is NPR’s Moscow correspondent.

Greg Myre is an NPR national security correspondent currently on assignment in Ukraine. Follow him @gregmyre1.

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