Holy Nobleborn Prince Vasilii (Vasil'ko) of Rostov belonged in lineage to the Suzdal' Monomashichi, famed in Russian history. The saint's great-grandfather was Yurii Dolgoruky, and his grandfather was Great-prince Vsevolod III "Bol'shoe Gnezdo" ("Big‑Nest", + 1212), brother to Saint Andrei Bogoliubsky (+ 1174, Comm. 4 July), who had been heir to and continuer of Saint Andrei 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 of him, that he could "splash the Volga with oars, and the Don with helmets bail out".
Saint Vasil'ko – was the oldest of the fledglings of the "Big Nest". The oldest grandson of Vsevolod from his oldest son Konstantin, – Saint Vasil'ko (Vasilii, Basil) was born on 7 December 1208 in Rostov, where his father ruled as prince. He spent there his childhood, and in 1216, when Konstantin Vsevolodovich became Great-prince of Vladimir, Rostov was apportioned to Vasil'ko (he was then eight years old) as his princely appanage-realm to rule himself.
Military valour, 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 Vasil'ko. The saint's father, Great-prince Konstantin, died on 2 February 1218, when Vasil'ko was not yet ten years of age. The guide of the young Rostov prince then became his uncle – the Vladimir Great-prince Saint Yurii (+ 1238, Comm. 4 February). For twenty years Prince Yurii ruled the Vladimir land, and for all these years Vasil'ko was his closest friend and confidant. The chronicles take note of the vibrantly handsome figure of Vasil'ko, his bright and majestic glance, his daring in the trapping of wild game, his beneficence, his mind and deep studiousness, together with his mildness and good-naturedness in relations with the boyar-nobles: "For whoever occasioned to serve him, whoever ate his bread and drank the cup with him, that one moreover could never be the servant of another prince". In the year 1219 Vasil'ko 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, where Nizhni Novgorod then held Saint Yurii hostage.
In 1223 the first Tatars (Mongols) appeared on the Southern steppes, "an unknown people", coming out of the depths of Asia. Their first victims were the Polovetsians allied with Rus'. The Russian princes, conjointly with the Polovetsian khans (many of whom had accepted Holy Baptism), decided to give resistance to the plunderers of the steppes before they reached the Russian Land. Saint Vasil'ko headed an auxiliary detachment, sent by Great-prince Yurii for participation in the All-Russian steppe campaign. The enemy showed up sooner than they expected. And the centuries old division of appenage principalities proved itself incapable of effective conjoint action in large scale war. The detachment of Vasil'ko 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 Kal'ka on 16 June 1223. This was a bad omen, and from the East loomed the storm. Vasil'ko with his company returned to Rostov.
In 1227 (or 1228) Vasil'ko Konstantinovich married, taking as his wife Maria – daughter of Saint Michael of Chernigov (+ 1246, Comm. 20 September). Vasil'ko's uncle, Saint Yurii, had earlier married the sister of this prince, Saint Michael [i.e. Vasil'ko's uncle Yurii had married Maria's aunt]. In 1231 was born Vasil'ko's oldest son, Boris.
Over Rus' the storm-clouds thickened. On 3 May 1230, wrote the chronicler, "the earth did shake during Liturgy", and famine and pestilence that year came upon Rus'. In 1232 the Tatars made winter camp, having barely just reached the capital of the Volga Bulgars. Life took its course, and Prince Yurii in 1236 married off his sons Vladimir and Mstislav, and Vasil'ko made merry at their weddings. All of them however had little more than a year yet to live – the Tatars having already taken the Volga-Bulgarian land.
In 1237 the Tatar whirlwind broke upon Rus'. In December Ryazan fell under the blows of Batu. Prince Yurii had decided not to throw his forces over to aid it, since he was faced with the difficult defense of the Vladimir land. The Tatars offered him peace, and he was prepared to negotiate. But the conditions of the peace – tribute and vassal dependence under the khan, were unacceptable. "A glorious fight, – decided the prince, – is better than a shameful peace". The first battle with the Tatars was at Kolomna, and Vsevolod Yur'evich commanded the troops, but they were cut to pieces. The enemy turned then towards Moscow, which they then captured and burned. Another son of Yurii, Vladimir, leading the defense of Moscow, fell captive.
Saint Yurii and his faithful companion Saint Vasil'ko were resolute to fight "for the Orthodox Christian faith" against the "godlessly vile Tatars". Having organised his defenses and leaving at Vladimir his sons Vsevolod and Mstislav, Prince Yurii went off beyond the Volga to gather new troops to replace those annihilated by Batu.
With him were his nephews – Saint Vasil'ko of Rostov and his company and his brothers, Vsevolod and Vladimir Konstantinovich. The great-prince awaited the arrival of his brothers – Yaroslav and Svyatoslav with their forces.
On Meatfare Saturday, 3 February 1238, quickly and without hindrance upon the wintry roads, the Tatar army came nigh to Vladimir. Despite heroic defense, the fate of the city was sealed. Bishop Mitrophan for spiritual strength tonsured into the angelic form all the princes and princesses remaining in the city. On 7 February the city fell. The final outpost of the Vladimirites became the Uspenie cathedral, repository of the chief most holy thing in the Russian Land – the wonderworking Vladimir Icon of the Mother of God. The Tatars piled wood and kindling around the cathedral and made a tremendous blazing bon-fire. In the fire and in the smoke, together with the thousand defenseless women and children, perished also Bishop Mitrophan and all the family of holy Prince Yurii: his wife Agathia, daughter Theodora, daughters-in-law Maria and Christina, and the infant grandson Dimitrii. His sons Vsevolod and Mstislav, together with the earlier captured Vladimir, were subjected to tortures and then slaughtered "before the eyes of the khan". (In several of the old Mesyatseslav Saint-accounts, – all these are listed among the Saints).
Saint Yurii had been with his forces near Yaroslavl'. Learning about the destruction of the capital and the death of those near and dear to him, in the words of the chronicle, "he did lament in a loud voice with tears, bewailing as becometh the Orthodox Christian faith and Church". "Better were I dead, than to live yet in this world, – said he, ‑- since I alone do remain". Saint Vasil'ko, arriving timely with the Rostov company, encouraged him to continue on with the military effort.
On 4 March 1238 occurred the decisive battle at the River Sita. The Tatars managed in an unexpected manner to encircle the Russian army. A slaughter ensued. Few Russian warriors came out alive from this terrible battle, but the enemy paid an expensive price for its victory. Saint Yurii was cut down in distinguished combat, and the wounded Vasil'ko they brought to the headquarters of Batu.
The Tatars demanded that he "follow their vile customs, be subject to their will and fight for them". With anger the holy prince refused the thought of betraying his Rodina ("Native-Country") and Holy Orthodoxy. "In no way can ye take from me the Christian faith", – said the holy prince, reminiscent of the ancient Christian confessors. "And much they did torture him, and then did kill him, felling him in the Shernsk woods". Thus did holy Prince Vasil'ko commit his soul to God, resembling in death the holy Passion-Bearer Boris, that first of the Rostov princes, whom he had copied in life. And just as with Saint Boris, Saint Vasil'ko was not yet even thirty years of age.
The Rostov bishop Kirill, going out on the field of carnage, gave burial to the fallen Orthodox warriors, and he sought out the body of holy Prince Yurii (they did not succeed in finding his cut-off head in the mass of broken bodies). And he conveyed the venerable remains to Rostov – to the Uspenie cathedral. The body of Saint Vasil'ko was found in the Shernsk woods by a priest's son and conveyed to Rostov. And there the wife of the prince, his children, bishop Kirill and all the Rostov populace met the body of their beloved prince with bitter wailing, and they buried him beneathe the arches of the cathedral church.
Describing the burial of Prince Vasil'ko, the chronicler characterised him thus: "The multitude of Orthodox people did weep bitterly, in beholding a departed father and nourisher of orphans, a great comforter of the saddened, and for the begloomed – the setting of a luminous star. For with all the church clergy God did grant him remission in heartfelt eyes, and all the church people, and the poor, and the grieving – were as with a beloved father... By his martyr's blood was washed away his transgressions together with that of his brethren".
The people saw an especial sign of God's mercy in this, that the two princely comrades-in-arms were buried side by side in the Rostov cathedral church: "For behold the wonder, that in death God hath put together their bodies". (Later on, the relics of holy Prince Yurii were transferred to the restored Vladimir Uspenie cathedral).
The Church venerates Saints Vasil'ko and Yurii as ascetic 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 about the life and deeds of holy Princes Vasil'ko and Yurii is preserved in the Lavrent'ev (Laurentian) Chronicle, written by the monk Lavrentii with the blessing of Sainted Dionysii, Archbishop of Suzdal', in the year 1377 – three years before the Kulikovo Pole battle.