Volodymyr vs. Vladimir: How rival statues explain the Russia-Ukraine conflict Ukrainians call a legendary 10th-century ruler Volodymyr the Great. Russians call him Vladimir the Great. Here's a story on their dueling statues — and historical narratives — in Kyiv and Moscow.

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

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A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Ukraine and Russia have very different narratives about the current war and about history. One of Ukraine's most legendary figures is Volodymyr the Great. He ruled Kyiv in the 10th century and is honored with a huge statue in Ukraine's capital.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Yet Russia also claims him as central to their history. Russians, who know him as Vladimir the Great, built an even larger statue just outside the Kremlin walls. NPR's Greg Myre in Kyiv and Charles Maynes in Moscow have this tale of two statues and how these monuments are built into the current conflict between Russia and Ukraine. We begin with Greg.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: It's a gorgeous spring day in Kyiv. I'm next to a statue of Volodymyr overlooking the Dnipro River that bisects the city. I'm very close to the office of the man who currently leads the country - another guy named Volodymyr - Zelenskyy. Both are protected against a Russian attack. Volodymyr the president is in 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.

GEORGE KOVALENKO: (Through interpreter) And it's his city.

MYRE: Standing at the statue, priest and religious scholar George Kovalenko says Volodymyr put ancient Kyiv on the map. He united fractious tribes, opened trade to other parts of Europe. And his most enduring legacy was...

KOVALENKO: (Through interpreter) That he brought Christianity to Kyiv. It's also Volodymyr who led to the great construction of Kyiv. So there's a lot of credit that is owed to him.

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: So here's the scene. I am also looking at a statue of the Grand Prince, only I'm in Moscow, just outside the Kremlin. And here, they call him Vladimir. In fact, it was another Vladimir, Vladimir Putin, who played a key role in bringing him to the city back in 2016.

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UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing in non-English language).

MAYNES: At an unveiling ceremony, surrounded by orthodox priests and politicians, Putin said Vladimir the Great's embrace of Christianity set the course for modern Russia as power shifted to Moscow over the centuries.

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PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN: (Through interpreter) Prince Vladimir went down in history as a unifier and defender of Russian lands and a far-sighted politician who created the foundations for a strong, unified, centralized state.

MAYNES: If that sounds vaguely like Putin could also be talking about Vladimir Putin, it's no coincidence, says Sergei Chapnin, a scholar of Orthodox Christian studies who formerly worked in the Moscow Patriarchate.

SERGEI CHAPNIN: Not only great Prince Vladimir has this name. So you have to figure out, who is the main Vladimir among them?

MAYNES: Chapnin says the Moscow monument's arrival was part of a wider effort by the Kremlin to place Putin's Russia at the center of Slavic political and spiritual life, an idea Putin has stressed as he watched Ukraine drift towards the West.

CHAPNIN: So he erected this huge monument, trying symbolically to present this idea that the heritage of Prince Vladimir is somehow transferred from Kyiv to Moscow.

MYRE: Here in Kyiv, Ukrainians say Russia is attempting to erase their history, just as they say Russia's military campaign is trying to erase their country. Religious scholar George Kovalenko says Russian leaders have been trying to crush this notion of an independent Ukraine for centuries.

KOVALENKO: (Through interpreter) So it's very important to understand that this is a long-standing history of imperial conquest.

MYRE: When Volodymyr ruled a millennium ago, his territory included parts of modern-day Ukraine and Russia. Moscow didn't exist. The day I spoke with Kovalenko, Kyiv was marking its 1,540th anniversary. Moscow, he noted dryly, is not even 900 years old.

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UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing in non-English language).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

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

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KIRILL: (Non-English language spoken).

MAYNES: "A monument to a father could be anywhere his children live," said Kirill. "What's bad is when those same children forget that they had one father to begin with." But some say the Moscow monument foreshadowed the militarism emanating from today's Kremlin.

NIKITA SOKOLOV: (Non-English language spoken).

MAYNES: Russian historian Nikita Sokolov notes that while both monuments show the Grand Prince carrying a cross, Moscow's Vladimir is dressed for battle, with a conspicuous sword at his side.

SOKOLOV: (Non-English language spoken).

MAYNES: "It was an act of symbolic war with Ukraine," said Sokolov. Unlike his Kyiv counterpart, the Moscow statue is militaristic and imperial.

SOKOLOV: (Non-English language spoken).

MYRE: In Kyiv, religious scholar George Kovalenko says Russia treats their Vladimir like a character in a fairy tale. While here, Volodymyr's legacy is real.

KOVALENKO: (Through interpreter) For people who live here in Kyiv, he's not a myth. He was here. He built the buildings that we walk past, that we pray in, that we see every day.

MYRE: And he looms every day over Kyiv and Moscow.

MAYNES: One man, two names, dueling statues and conflicting narratives.

MYRE: Very much part of the battle taking place today. I'm Greg Myre in Kyiv.

MAYNES: And I'm Charles Maynes in Moscow.

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