Kievan Rus’

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Kievan Rus

Type of Government

The dynasty that ruled Kievan Rus’ for nearly four hundred years emerged from warring pagan tribes in the area that later became Russia and the Ukraine. After consolidating their power through a series of conquests and alliances, the grand princes of Kiev built an impressive stronghold in this city on the Dnieper River that became the cultural, economic, and ecclesiastical capital for the entire region. Though the princes held absolute power, they relied on a council of trusted men to guard their safety at home and in war as well as advise them in key decisions and aid with administration of their holdings. In its earliest form in this first Russian state, the council was called the Druzhina, or “men of the prince.”


The dynasty of Kievan Rus’ began around 862, when one of the many tribes in the area either invited a Varangian (Viking) Rus’ named Rurik (d. c. 879) to rule them or were conquered by force. The Varangian Rus’ were a mix of Slavs and Scandinavians living near Russia’s present-day border with Finland. The tribe in question lived at Ladoga, a settlement near the lake of the same name in northern Russia. Rurik quickly moved to secure Novgorod, an important trading city, and by 882 his successor, Oleg (d. c. 912), had seized Kiev.

Government Structure

The ruler of Kievan Rus’ was based in Kiev, where the prince’s residence was enclosed in the kremlin (citadel). Dynastic succession was ordered according to the eldest descendant of Rurik, who became prince in Kiev, instead of a line of inheritance that went from father to son. In the earliest years of the empire, the common bond that united its people was the acknowledgment of the Rurikid princes at Kiev as their rulers. The tribes that came into the Kievan Rus’ alliance paid tribute to the capital, usually in the form of grain or furs.

Provincial capitals elsewhere in the empire came to include Chernihiv, Novgorod, Suzdal’, Turov, Tver’, Vladimir, and Volhynia, with each ruled by a male member of the family. In time, formal taxes supplanted the tribute sent to Kiev, and the local princes were expected to collect the levies as well as provide for defense of their realm and safeguard the routes of communication and trade. They were permitted to command their own armies, which had replaced the druzhina, but the practice of keeping a trustworthy, appointed council remained, as did the demonstration of gratitude for loyalty with gifts of land.

Political Parties and Factions

The rulers of Kievan Rus’ were all descendants of Rurik, but their multiplying branches competed with one another to rule Kiev. In 1097, to quell these divisions, Vladimir II (1053–1125) summoned all the princes to a congress at Lubyech. There, a rota system of succession was agreed upon, which was complex rotation of princely seats anchored by the velykyi kniaz (grand duke or grand prince), who would be considered the supreme ruler in Kiev. When the grand prince died, the title was passed to the prince with the highest seniority; the remaining princes were to move on to the next available city and its princely seat. The Rurikid princes rarely adhered to the rota system, however, and instead continued to war with one another.

Major Events

Rurik’s grandson Svyatoslav I (d. 972) greatly expanded Kievan Rus’ territory after he advanced to the throne in 945. His three sons fought for the throne after his death in 972, and the period of war finally concluded with the victory of one of them, Vladimir I (c. 956–1015), in 980, who introduced Christianity to Kievan Rus’. This was Vladimir’s attempt to unify the warring factions of what had become the largest single state (by territory) in Europe at the time. It also allied his empire with the mighty Byzantine power in Constantinople, a former foe. Yaroslav (980–1054), Vladimir’s son, came to the throne in 1019 and instituted many reforms, including the Russkaya Pravda (Russian Truth), a code of law.

Irrevocably fractured by internal rivalries, the princes were unable to present a united front when the Mongols began moving westward in the 1230s, determined to plunder the wealthy, culturally developed cities of Kievan Rus’ and force them to submit to a Mongol overlord. The last independent grand prince of Kiev was Mikhail Vsevolodovich (1179?–1246). After being captured, he was taken to the Mongol court of Batu Khan (d.1255), the grandson of Genghis Khan (c. 1162–1227), and murdered.


Kiev did not reemerge as a significant metropolis until the nineteenth century, but the namesake empire it once anchored was the first important political formation in the lands of the Eastern Slavs. The descendants of Rurik continued to rule over various parts of this region, including Moscow, and the term grand prince came into later use to signify the primary ruler of all Russian lands. The dynasty finally ended in 1598 with the death of Fyodor I Ivanovich (1557–1598), the son of Ivan IV Vasilyevich (also known as Ivan the Terrible; 1530–1584). It was replaced by the Romanov line, which descended from Fyodor’s mother, Anastasia Romanovna Zakharyina (d.1560). The Romanovs ruled Russia until the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution.

Franklin, Simon, and Jonathon Shepard. The Emergence of Rus’, 750–1200. London: Longman, 1996.

Hamm, Michael F. Kiev: A Portrait, 1800–1917. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1993.

Martin, Janet. Medieval Russia 980–1584. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995.