Medieval Prince Vladimir deepens Russia-Ukraine split

Vladimir the Great - oil on wood panel Image copyright Public domain
Image caption Prince Vladimir - also called Volodymyr - is venerated as a saint in both Russia and Ukraine

The legacy of a medieval prince has added a new dimension to the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, as both countries mark the 1,000th anniversary of his death.

Russians celebrate Prince Vladimir the Great as the man who converted their country to Christianity, but for some Ukrainians this represents an attempt to steal their history.

For them, Prince Volodymyr - as he is known in Ukraine - is an ancient Ukrainian leader who ruled from Kiev and Christianised the country that was then known as Kievan Rus, before Moscow had even been built.

Supporters of close Russian-Ukrainian ties cite the two states' common origins in Prince Vladimir's Rus. Some of them question Ukraine's secular and religious independence.

Prince Vladimir is venerated as a saint in both countries. An independent Orthodox church was established in Ukraine after the USSR fell apart, but the Russian Orthodox Church - which enjoys a close relationship with the Kremlin - does not recognise it and condemns its clerics as schismatics.

The head of the independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Filaret, was excommunicated by the Russian Orthodox Church.

Image copyright Wikipedia
Image caption Prince Vladimir depicted on the Millennium of Russia monument in Veliky Novgorod, Russia

Saint of discord

Despite its deepening economic crisis, Russia is spending 1bn roubles (about £11m; $17m) on commemorative events nationwide, culminating in a gala reception on Tuesday for 400 guests at the Kremlin, hosted by President Vladimir Putin.

The main ceremonial prayer in Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Saviour was led by Russian Patriarch Kirill and relayed live by state TV channels.

Image copyright AP
Image caption Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) and Patriarch Kirill honoured the saint at Moscow's Prince Vladimir Cathedral

The celebrations "unite Orthodox believers in all corners of the globe into what they call the Russian world", said government-run Rossiya 1.

Unlike Russia, Ukraine chose not to stage grand events, limiting the commemoration to prayers and religious processions.

Ukraine's rival Orthodox churches - the independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church and the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate - held prayers at separate venues (Kiev's St Volodymyr Cathedral and the ancient Pechersk Lavra, respectively).

President Petro Poroshenko and his wife Maryna attended the ceremony at St Volodymyr's, while several opposition MPs attended a Moscow Patriarchate service a day earlier.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption In Kiev, the 1,000th anniversary of the death of Vladimir the Great was marked with ceremonial prayers

'Russian' symbol

Back in Russia, the official veneration of St Vladimir also created tension.

Plans in Moscow to commemorate the prince with a 25m (82.5ft) statue of him bearing a sword and holding a cross drew much criticism, including from architects.

The idea of a monument in Moscow, which did not even exist when Vladimir was baptised, is seen by some as evidence of "a small nation's [inferiority] complex".

"Is there really no-one in Russian history, apart from dubious characters from the 10th Century, with real, unquestioned achievements?" asked Carnegie Centre expert Maxim Samorukov.

But pro-Kremlin columnists seemed to have no doubt.

Russia "has every right" to erect its own monument to the Kievan prince, wrote blogger and columnist Amiram Grigorov on the pro-Kremlin LifeNews website, arguing that Vladimir ruled a territory covering parts of Russia and Ukraine.

The festivities in Russia are meant to draw parallels between the prince and Mr Putin, in connection with Russia's annexation of Crimea, according to some experts.

"Prince Vladimir was baptised in Crimea and Putin returned Crimea to Russia," historian Nikolai Svanidze told the RBK website.

"This parallel should enhance the president's standing in the eyes of his contemporaries and descendants, as well as give a blessing to Crimea's merger with Russia."

Ukraine calls the annexation a flagrant violation of international law, and Mr Putin's move was widely condemned.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Russian sculptor works on the model for a monument to Vladimir the Great at his workshop in Moscow

Independence struggle

Meanwhile, Ukrainian commentators view Russia's large-scale commemorations as part of an ongoing information war meant, among other things, to strip Ukraine of the right to its own interpretation of history.

Olexiy Kopytko, an analyst at the Information Resistance think-tank, described Russia's "hype over Prince Volodymyr" as "a shining example of the manipulations that help Russia to wage a war against Ukraine over its history".

A correspondent of the popular Kiev-based daily Segodnya, Valeriy Moiseyev, ridiculed Russia's "patriotic-ecclesiastic fervour" and its lavish spending on "turning a historical figure into a symbol".

He warned Ukraine against being dragged into "a senseless fight to privatise Prince Volodymyr".

The website of internet-based Espreso TV poked fun at Russians for "idolising" the prince, who was quite merciless when dealing with the tribes that inhabited the territory of present-day Russia.

The website said - satirising the nationalist and anti-Kiev language of Russian state media - that Prince Volodymyr was no less than "the head of the first Kiev junta", who led cruel "anti-terrorist operations" against disobedient subjects north of Kiev, and resorted to help from "foreign legions" of Vikings and Normans.

Image copyright Wikipedia
Image caption The St Volodymyr Monument is one of the most prominent landmarks in Kiev

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