Holy Prince Basil of Rostov belonged in lineage to the Suzdal Monomashichi, famed in Russian history. The saint’s great-grandfather was Yuri Dolgoruky, and his grandfather was Great Prince Vsevolod III “Big-Nest” (+ 1212), brother to St Andrew Bogoliubsky (July 4), who had been heir to and continuer of St Andrew Bogoliubsky’s work. From Vladimir-on-Klyazma, which became the capital of the old Rostovo-Suzdal principality, Vsevolod “Big-Nest” single-handedly set the course of affairs of the whole of Great Rus. The “Lay of Igor’s Campaign” (“Slovo o polku Igoreve”) says that he could “splash the Volga with oars, and bail out the Don with helmets.”
St Basil (Vasilko) was the oldest child of the “Big Nest”. The oldest grandson of Vsevolod from his oldest son Constantine, St Basil was born on December 7, 1208 in Rostov, where his father ruled as prince. He spent his childhood there, and in 1216, when Constantine Vsevolodovich became Great Prince of Vladimir, Rostov was apportioned to Basil (he was then eight years old) as his princely appanage to rule himself.
Military valor, sacred duty of service to country, the sense of justice and the heeding of one’s elders, all these are traditional features of a Russian princely defender of the land, and all were present in Basil. The saint’s father, Great-prince Constantine, died on February 2, 1218, when Basil was not yet ten years of age. The guide of the young Rostov prince then became his uncle, the Great Prince St Yuri of Vladimir (February 4).
For twenty years Prince Yuri ruled Vladimir, and for all these years Basil was his closest friend and confidant. The chronicles take note of the vibrantly handsome figure of Basil, his bright and majestic glance, his daring in trapping wild game, his beneficence, his mind and deep studiousness, together with his mildness and good-nature in relations with the nobles: “Whoever served him, whoever ate his bread and drank the cup with him, could never be the servant of another prince.”
In the year 1219 Basil participated in a campaign of the Vladimir-Suzdal forces against the Volga Bulgars, and in 1221 in a campaign to the mouth of the River Oka. St Yuri was then held hostage at Nizhni Novgorod.
In 1223 the first Tatars (Mongols) appeared on the southern steppes, “an unknown people”, coming out of Asia. Their first victims were the Polovetsians allied with Rus. The Russian princes, with the Polovetsian khans (many of whom had accepted Holy Baptism), decided to resist the plunderers of the steppes before they reached the Russian Land. St Basil headed an auxiliary detachment, sent by Great Prince Yuri to participate in the Russian steppe campaign.
The enemy showed up sooner than they expected. And the centuries-old division of appenage principalities proved incapable of effective action in a large scale war. The detachment of Basil was not in time for the decisive battle, and from Chernigov came the sad news of the destruction of the Russian forces at the River Kalka on June 16, 1223. This was a bad omen, and the storm loomed on the east. Basil and his company returned to Rostov.
In 1227 (or 1228) Basil married, taking Maria, daughter of St Michael of Chernigov (September 20) as his wife. Basil’s uncle, St Yuri, had previously married St Michael’s sister [i.e. Basil’s uncle Yuri had married Maria’s aunt]. In 1231 Basil’s oldest son Boris was born.
The storm clouds thickened over Russia. On May 3, 1230, “the earth shook during Liturgy”, and famine and pestilence came upon Rus that year. In 1232 the Tatars made winter camp, having barely reached the capital of the Volga Bulgars. Life took its course, and Prince Yuri in 1236 married off his sons Vladimir and Mstislav, and Basil rejoiced at their weddings. All of them, however, had little more than a year to live, for the Tatars had already taken the Volga-Bulgarian land.
In 1237 the Tatar whirlwind broke upon Rus. In December Ryazan fell under Batu. Prince Yuri had decided not to send his forces over to provide assistance, since he was faced with the difficult defense of Vladimir. The Tatars offered him peace, and he was prepared to negotiate. But the conditions of the peace, tribute and vassal servitude under the Khan, were unacceptable. “A glorious fight,” said the prince, “is better than a shameful peace.” The first battle with the Tatars was at Kolomna, and Vsevolod Yurievich commanded the troops, but they were cut to pieces. The enemy turned then towards Moscow, which they captured and burned. Yuri’s other son, Vladimir, was captured while leading the defense of Moscow.
St Yuri and his faithful companion St Basil were determined to fight “for the Orthodox Christian Faith” against the “godlessly vile Tatars.” Having organized his defenses and leaving his sons Vsevolod and Mstislav at Vladimir, Prince Yuri went beyond the Volga to gather new troops to replace those annihilated by Batu.
With him were his nephews, St Basil of Rostov and his company, and his brothers, Vsevolod and Vladimir. The Great Prince awaited the arrival of his brothers Yaroslav and Svyatoslav and their forces.
On Meatfare Saturday, February 3, 1238, quickly and without hindrance upon the wintry roads, the Tatar army approached Vladimir. Despite heroic defense, the fate of the city was sealed. Bishop Metrophanes for spiritual strength tonsured all the princes and princesses remaining in the city into the angelic schema. The city fell on February 7.
The final outpost of the Vladimirites was the Dormition cathedral, repository of the most holy object in Russia: the wonderworking Vladimir Icon of the Mother of God. The Tatars piled wood and kindling around the cathedral and made a tremendous fire. Bishop Metrophanes died in the fire and smoke, together with a thousand defenseless women and children, and Prince Yuri’s entire family: his wife Agathia, daughter Theodora, daughters-in-law Maria and Christina, and the infant grandson Demetrius. His sons Vsevolod and Mstislav, together with the previously captured Vladimir, were subjected to tortures and then slaughtered “before the eyes of the Khan”. (In several of the old collections of Saints’ Lives, all of them are listed as saints).
St Yuri had been with his forces near Yaroslavl. Learning of the destruction of the capital and the death of those near and dear to him, “he lamented in a loud voice with tears.” He said it would be better for him to die rather than continue to live in this world, since he alone survived. St Basil, arriving with the Rostov company, encouraged him to continue with the military effort.
On March 4, 1238 the decisive battle took place at the River Sita. The Tatars unexpectedly managed to encircle the Russian army, and a slaughter ensued. Few Russian warriors remained alive after this terrible battle, but the enemy paid an expensive price for its victory. St Yuri was cut down in distinguished combat, and the wounded Basil was brought to Batu’s headquarters.
The Tatars demanded that he “follow their vile customs, be subject to their will and fight for them.” The holy prince angrily refused to betray his homeland or Holy Orthodoxy. “You cannot take the Christian Faith from me” said the holy prince, like one of the ancient Christian confessors. “They tortured him a great deal, and then killed him in the Shernsk woods.” Thus did holy Prince Basil commit his soul to God, resembling in death the holy Passion-Bearer Boris (July 24), the first of the Rostov princes, whom he had imitated in life. Like St Boris, St Basil was not even thirty years of age.
Bishop Cyril of Rostov, going out on the field of carnage, buried the fallen Orthodox warriors, and he sought the body of holy Prince Yuri (they did not find his cut-off head in the mass of broken bodies). He brought his holy relics to Rostov, to the Dormition cathedral. The body of St Basil was found in the Shernsk woods by a priest’s son and was taken to Rostov. There the prince’s wife, his children, Bishop Cyril and all the inhabitants of Rostov met the body of their beloved prince with bitter wailing, and they buried him beneath the arches of the cathedral church.
Describing the burial of Prince Basil, the chronicler said: “The multitude of Orthodox people wept bitterly, when they saw the departed father and nourisher of orphans, the great comforter of the sorrowful, and... the setting of a luminous star.... By his martyr’s blood his transgressions and those of his brethren were washed away.”
The people regarded it as a sign of God’s mercy that the two princely comrades-in-arms were buried side by side in the Rostov cathedral church: “Behold the wonder, in death God has placed their bodies together.” (Later on, the relics of holy Prince Yuri were transferred to the restored Vladimir Dormition cathedral).
The Church venerates Sts Basil and Yuri as Passion-Bearers, and heroic defenders of the Russian Land. Their holy example has inspired Russian soldiers in the fight against hostile invaders. The most detailed account of the life and deeds of holy Princes Basil and Yuri is preserved in the Lavrentiev Chronicle, written by the monk Laurence with the blessing of St Dionysius, Archbishop of Suzdal, in the year 1377, three years before the Battle of Kulikovo Pole.