Written by Deana Davis
On November 4, 2016 President Vladimir Putin and Patriarch Kirill presented a new monument next to the Kremlin, a statue of Prince Vladimir holding a cross. Prince Vladimir is certainly a figure to be commemorated – he led the conversion of Old Rus’ to the Orthodox Christianity it still follows today, over 1,000 years later. President Putin stated that Vladimir ‘laid the foundation for the moral values, which define our life even until now.’ Coincidentally, a movie about Prince Vladimir, seven years in the making, premiered in December, directed by Andrei Kravchuk and with Danila Kozlovsky in the starring role. Titled Viking, it focuses on Vladimir’s uniting the lands of Old Rus’ under his rule and his conversion to Orthodox Christianity in the 10th century.
In many aspects, Viking can rival any western historical movie. It follows recent tendencies to reenact, or perhaps to revel in; the brutalities of the past, and its many battle scenes are masterfully conceived, showing the battle tactics of the Pechenegs while riding their horses around a group of Scandinavian mercenaries to isolate them.
While the battles and the political intrigue are fascinating, the premise and plot are far more so, though for different reasons. Viking moves away from traditional Soviet interpretation of history. While the 12th century Primary Chronicle details the invitation of the Swedish Rus to rule over the Slavs, the Soviets treated their only native primary source skeptically, seeking to downplay Western influences. The title, therefore, is brave for a Russian movie. It implies that not only did Vladimir have ties with Scandinavia, but also that he and the Rurikids dynasty were “slavic” Scandinavians; in fact Vladimir is shown speaking with his Scandinavian mercenaries in their tongue. However, this is never really followed through.
Viking also closely follows the events outlined in the Primary Chronicle, with the film depicting Vladimir’s capture of the town of Polotsk, the cruel seizure of his bride Rogneda, and the struggle with his brother Yaropolk. The story of Vladimir choosing among three religions is wisely avoided, as academics generally agree that its nature is apocryphal. Instead, Vladimir is shown choosing Orthodox Christianity for political reasons, mostly to safeguard his lands from threat of the Pechenegs. The advantage of the Byzantines is made clear in one of the many battle scenes when a Pecheneg leader states that they do not fight the Romans.
Most important of all is Prince Vladimir’s progression from sinner to saint. Patriarch Kirill stated that Vladimir ‘was not a political schemer…he always had integrity and was honest.’ Other accounts, perhaps less biased, define Vladimir differently. According to historian Maksim Kuzakhmetov, he was a man of his time – “a brother-killer, a simple criminal’. While the film strives to be historically accurate and has Vladimir repent his crimes to a Byzantine priest, the movie shies away from condemning him. Vladimir accidentally witnesses the preparation of a berserker before the taking of Polotsk, and pressured by the mercenaries to be one of them, drinks the trance-inducing brew. Consequently, he is mentally absent from the battle until he sees the dead bodies of Rogneda’s parents. Vladimir also shows only remorse for Yaropolk’s death, as he cries over his brother’s body. In a word, his conversion is made more innocent, yet less profound.
Despite historical inconsistencies, which any movie is bound to have, Viking is worth a watch for the sheer spectacle and relevant political stances. As testament, the distribution rights for this “Russian blockbuster” have been sold worldwide. We certainly have not seen the last of Vladimir.
Буланов, К. (Bulanov, K.)“Путин на открытии памятника Владимиру
напомнил о современных угрозах (Putin at the Opening of the Monument to Vladimir warned of current threats)”, 4 November 2016, http://www.rbc.ru/politics/04/11/2016/581c61a49a794740ee5dee98; accessed 4 February 2017
Егорова Е. (Egorova, Е.) “Путин удивил политиков и снайперов на открытии
памятника князью Владимиру (Putin surprised politicians and snipers at the opening of the monument to Prince Vladimir)”, 4 November 2016, http://www.mk.ru/politics/2016/11/04/putin-udivil-politikov-i-snayperov-na-otkrytii-pamyatnika-knyazyu-vladimiru.html; accessed 1 February 2017
“Кто вы, князь Владимир? (Who are you, Prince Vladimir?)”, Interview with
Максим Кузахметов (Maksim Kuzakhmetov)12 January 2017,
http://echo.msk.ru/programs/Diletanti/1906766-echo/; accessed 30 January 2017
“Russian historical blockbuster ‘Viking’ to hit world screens”, 13 January 2017,
http://tass.com/society/924920; accessed 1 February 2017