The title of "grand prince" designated the senior prince of the Rurikid dynasty in Rus principalities from the era of Kievan Rus until 1721.
In scholarly literature on Kievan Rus the term grand prince is conventionally used to refer to the prince of Kiev. Succession to the position of grand prince was determined by principles associated with the rota system, according to which the position passed laterally from the eldest member of the senior generation of the dynasty to his younger brothers and cousins. When all members of that generation died, those members of the next generation whose fathers had actually held the position of grand prince of Kiev became eligible to inherit the position in order of seniority.
Despite common usage of the term in scholarly literature, the absence of the title "grand prince" and even the title "prince" in contemporary sources, including chronicles, treaties, charters, diplomatic documents, seals, and coins, suggests that they were rarely used during the Kievan era. The title "grand prince" in tenth-century treaties concluded between the Rus and the Byzantines has been interpreted as a translation from Greek formulas rather than a reflection of official Rus usage. The title also occurs in chronicle accounts of the deaths of Yaroslav the Wise (1054), his son Vsevolod (1093), and Vsevolod's son Vladimir Monomakh (1125), but this usage is regarded as honorific, borrowed from Byzantine models, and possibly added by later editors.
"Grand prince" was first used as an official title not for a prince of Kiev, but for Vsevolod "the Big Nest" of Vladimir-Suzdal (ruled 1176–1212). Within their principality it was applied to his sons Konstantin and Yuri as well. Outside of Vladimir-Suzdal, however, recognition of Vsevolod as grand prince, despite his dynastic seniority, was inconsistent, and during the very late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries the title was occasionally attributed to rulers of Kiev.
The title "grand prince" came into more common and consistent use during the fourteenth century. In addition to its use by the prince of Vladimir, it was also adopted by the princes of Tver, Riazan, and Nizhny Novgorod by the second half of the century. The princes of Moscow, who acquired an exclusive claim to the position of grand prince of Vladimir during this period, joined the title to the phrase "of all Rus" to elevate themselves above the other grand princes. During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, as they absorbed the other Rus principalities into Muscovy and subordinated their princes, they not only monopolized the title "grand prince," but also began to use other titles conveying the meaning of sovereign (gosudar or gospodar). From 1547, when Ivan IV "the Terrible" was coronated, until 1721, when Peter I "the Great" adopted the title "emperor," the rulers of Muscovy used "grand prince and tsar" as their official titles.
See also: kievan rus; rota system; rurikid dynasty
Poppe, Andrzej. (1989). "Words That Serve the Authority: On the Title of 'Grand Prince' in Kievan Rus." Acta Poloniae Historica 60:159–184.