Anna Porphyrogenita, Princess of Kiev and the Christianization of Rus – a quick view

Anna was the sister of Emperor Basil II who was married to Vladimir I of Kiev in 988. She was a reward to Vladimir I for sending Varangians to aid Basil II in suppressing the revolts of Bardas Phokas and Bardas Skleros. However, Basil II stipulated that Vladimir convert, and, thus, Anna’s marriage led to what is arguably the most significant single event in Russian history, the conversion of Vladimir I and of the Rus.

(Source: «Historical Dictionary of Byzantium», by John H. Rosser)


Anna was the daughter of Byzantine Emperor Romanos II and the Empress Theophano. She was also the sister of Emperors Basil II Bulgaroktonos (The Bulgar-Slayer) and Constantine VIII. Anna was a Porphyrogenita, a legitimate daughter born in the special purple chamber of the Byzantine Emperor’s Palace. Anna’s hand was considered such a prize that some theorize that Vladimir became Christian just to marry her.

Anna did not wish to marry Vladimir and expressed deep distress on her way to her wedding. Vladimir was impressed by Byzantine religious practices; this factor, along with his marriage to Anna, led to his decision to convert to Eastern Christianity. Due to these two factors, he also began Christianizing his kingdom. By marriage to Grand Prince Vladimir, Anna became Grand Princess of Kiev, but in practice, she was referred to as Queen or Czarina, probably as a sign of her membership of the Imperial Byzantine House. Anna participated actively in the Christianization of Rus: she acted as the religious adviser of Vladimir and founded a few convents and churches herself. It is not known whether she was the biological mother of any of Vladimir’s children, although some scholars have pointed to evidence that she and Vladimir may have had as many as three children together.



Anna was born in March of 963. Anna’s father, the Emperor Romanus II, died just two days after her birth, leaving her and her older brothers Basil (5 years) and Constantine (2 years) orphans. At the time of her marriage to Vladimir, Anna was thus twenty-six. Her elder sister had already been given in a major marriage alliance to Otto, Emperor of the West.

These two royal sisters caught the attention of the famous 18th-century Enlightenment historian Edward Gibbon. Gibbon described how, after Otto’s death, Anna’s sister ruled as regent in the restored Western Empire in Rome, Italy and Germany. Gibbon’s historical instincts were excellent. He devoted particular attention to the marriage or nuptial diplomacy of the Byzantine Empire in these years, particularly as it related to barbarian disorder in the territories north of Constantinople.

Later historians sometimes write in ignorance of this vital diplomatic practice. They often describe the wedding of Anna and Vladimir as if Anna were little more than moveable property, offered in a gentleman’s agreement between the Byzantine emperors and the barbarian Prince Vladimir. In some accounts Anna remains unnamed, as if to suggest that this was a simple two-way conversation between the emperors and Vladimir. Evidence suggests that this was not the case at all.

In a bold military move, Kievan Prince Vladimir had just taken from Byzantium the Black Sea coastal city Kherson. He opened negotiations with the Byzantine emperors with an eye to withdrawal from this strategic city if arrangements could be made which were favorable to him. A marriage alliance was part of the discussion, but Anna resisted the simple exchange, her troth for her brothers’ temporary diplomatic advantage. “I’m being sent as nothing other than a hostage,” she is reported to have said.

Between the lines one might read that Vladimir had surprised and shaken Anna’s brothers. From Kherson he was a real threat to Constantinople. Vladimir sought by swift and unexpected military victory to pressure Constantinople into a hasty and one-sided alliance sealed by marriage. While Basil and Constantine were inclined to accept Vladimir’s terms, Anna balked.

She apparently took the position that, rather than wed a heathen prince simply to gain a moment’s advantage, “it would be better to stay here and die.” Anna apparently sought a third alternative, and in this she appears to have been guided by a strategic grasp of the situation which was superior to that of her brothers. For one thing, she insisted on Vladimir’s personal conversion to Christianity. She was also attracted to the possibility that her efforts might bring the whole heathen nation to repentance [pokaiane], i.e., that she might become the agent of Christianization in these northern regions beyond the coastal city Kherson, a vast region even more vital to the strategic position of Byzantium. She was eventually convinced that she could avoid either of the two prospects presented by her brothers. She could do more than serve as hostage to the pagan prince or remain in Constantinople and die. Instead she left for Kherson to meet her groom, with some prospect of a vast and visionary third alternative in mind.

There is more than a suggestion here that Vladimir sought something like the opposite of Olga’s objectives thirty years earlier. Olga embraced Byzantine Christianity but resisted a marriage alliance with Byzantium. Vladimir sought a marriage alliance, but does not appear to have had a natural inclination toward Christianity. That was before Anna’s intervention. Anna put her foot down. Gibbon has it just about right: “the conversion of Wolodomir was determined, or hastened, by his desire of a Roman bride”.

We can add much to the old Gibbon’s account, but we should probably heed Gibbon’s Enlightenment skepticism about the causal power of divine agencies. In Kherson–so say the chroniclers–Anna found Prince Vladimir stricken blind. Anna warned him that his sight would not return if he did not immediately accept baptism. He consented, and, as the story goes, his sight returned immediately. He was convinced beyond any doubt of the wisdom of accepting Christianity. Anna persuaded or compelled Vladimir to become Christian; then she accepted him as husband. That was step one in her ambitious plan: personal conversion of the prince.

Step two was the conversion of all Rus’, and that was a more complex and less documented episode. It did not happen immediately, though we sometimes conflate the personal conversion of Vladimir with the national conversion that followed. Vladimir’s personal conversion might have ended the religious story right there in Kherson for the time being. But after returning to Kiev, some time after the personal baptism and wedding, Vladimir embarked on the Christianization of all Rus’. What was first a family drama became a national drama when Vladimir forced all of Rus’ to undergo baptism. Anna was the sixth wife of Vladimir. He had about a dozen children by the earlier marriages. One of Anna’s first jobs back in Kiev was to convert Vladimir’s children. And she continued the effort beyond the walls of the princely domicile, outward to all Russia. A contemporary of these events, Ditmar von Walbeck [Thietmar, Bishop of Merseburg], stated explicitly that Anna was responsible for the Christianization of Russia. Ditmar doesn’t grant much to Vladimir; he had views on the Rus Prince, labeling him nothing more than a “fornicatur immensus”.

Many factors entered into the conversion of Rus’, and we cannot discount the contribution of Anna. We cannot forget the long-term spread of Christianity in Russia in the decades prior to Anna’s marriage to Vladimir. The causes of Christianity’s success there are multiple. But we cannot escape the sense of historical bump and jolt in this previously slow process, first with Vladimir’s own earlier intensification of pagan observances in Kiev, then the Kherson wedding. Swiftly there followed dramatic events. The huge statue of the pagan god Perun was dragged from its high pedestal through the streets of Kiev and the population herded into the Dnepr River for mass baptism.

We can well imagine, on the basis of what we know about her character and her later accomplishments, that Anna played a role, not only in the personal conversion of Vladimir, but also in the decision to convert all of Rus’. She was active as adviser to Vladimir and managed considerable lands and a large retinue on her own authority as Princess. Nearly all sources agree that it was largely due to her effort that the construction of the original Christian churches in Kiev got under way.

Anna was not simply a bargaining chip in the dealings between Byzantium and Rus’; she helped decide the fate of her adopted homeland. And Anna was responsible for a certain amount of reciprocal Rus’ influence on Constantinople. Anna worked to maintain and strengthen ties between her adopted homeland and her motherland, Byzantium. She dispatched a retinue of Rus’ warriors to serve at the side of her brother Constantine.

Anna’s daughter, Mariia, extended the tradition of marriage diplomacy when she became the wife of the Polish king Casimir. That tradition was yet further extended when in 1051 the great-granddaughter of Anna, daughter of Kievan Prince Yaroslav Mudryi [the wise], became the wife of French King Henry I. Mariia signed the nuptial vows in Cyrillic and Latin script while the Frenchman scrawled his illiterate “X”.

Anna apparently was the mother of Boris and Gleb, the first great Russian martyred saints. Vladimir supplied the fist behind the Christianization of Rus’, but it seems that it was Anna who supplied the will and the spirit. And yet how little credit she receives on the pages of history. As Gibbon remarked so well, “Wolodomir and Anne” are saints of the Russian Church, “yet we know his vices, and are ignorant of her virtues”.

The documentation of this early era is thin and frequently of questionable veracity, so our ignorance of Anna’s virtues cannot be fully dispelled. In his old-fashioned way of expressing himself, the influential Russian historian Nikolai Karamzin concluded that Anna “was an instrument of Heavenly beneficence, who brought Russia out from the darkness of idolatry”. Anna not only helped Christianize Russia, she also gave Russian rulers their first real claim to imperial descent. Some early documents refer to Anna as “tsaritsa” (wife of a Caesar or tsar), rather than “tsarevna” (daughter of a Caesar). Patriotic tradition in Russian historiography sought to employ the solid fulcrum of Anna’s pedigree, heightened by these terminological slips in the documentation, to lever Vladimir into the exalted title “tsar” long before history was ready yet to grant Russian princes such stature. The memory of the union of Byzantium and Russia, through Anna, was important also in Byzantium. It guided a future Byzantine Emperor Manuel II to give his son John in nuptial diplomatic union to the granddaughter (also named Anna) of Prince Dmitrii Donskoi. By the time of Ivan IV, the descent of Russian tsars from the purple of Anna had become stock in trade of Muscovite pride and pretense.


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