Also known as the "ladder system," the rota system describes a collateral pattern of succession, according to which princes of the Rurikid dynasty ascended the throne of Kiev, the main seat of Kievan Rus. The system prevailed from the mid-eleventh century until the disintegration of Kievan Rus in the thirteenth century. It also determined succession for the main seats in secondary principalities within Kievan Rus and survived in the northern Rus principalities into the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.
The design for the rota system has been attributed to Prince Yaroslav the Wise (d. 1054), who in his "Testament" or will divided his realm among his sons. He left Kiev to his eldest son. He assigned secondary towns, which became centers of principalities that comprised Kievan Rus, to his younger sons and admonished them to obey their eldest brother as they had their father. Although the Testament did not provide a detailed order for succession, the nineteenth- and early twentieth-century historians Sergei Soloviev and Vasily Klyuchevsky concluded that it set up an arrangement for the entire Rurikid dynasty to possess and rule the realm of Kievan Rus. It created a hierarchy among the princely brothers and, in later generations, cousins that was paralleled by a hierarchy among their territorial domains. It anticipated that when the prince of Kiev died, he would be succeeded by the most senior surviving member of his generation, who would move from his seat to Kiev. The next prince in the generational hierarchy would replace him, with each younger prince moving up a step on the ladder of succession. When all members of the eldest generation of the dynasty had died, succession would pass to their sons. For a prince to become eligible for the Kievan throne, however, his father must have held that position.
The rota system was revised by a princely agreement concluded at Lyubech in 1097. The agreement ended the practice of rotation of the princes through the secondary seats in conjunction with succession to Kiev. Instead, a designated branch of the dynasty would permanently rule each principality within Kievan Rus. The princes of each dynastic branch continued to use the rota system to determine succession to their primary seat. The exceptions were Kiev itself, where rotation among the eligible members of the entire dynasty resumed after 1113, and Novgorod, which selected its own prince after 1136.
Succession to the Kievan throne was, nevertheless, frequently contested. Scholars have interpreted the repeated internecine conflicts and their meaning for the existence and functionality of the rota system in a variety of ways. Some regard the rota system to have been intended to apply only to Yaroslav's three eldest sons and the three central principalities assigned to them. Others have argued that the system was not fully formulated by Yaroslav, but evolved as the dynasty grew, took possession of a greater expanse of territory, and had to confront, by diplomacy and by war, unforeseen complications in determining "seniority." Others contend that the Rurikid princes had no succession system, but threatened or used force to determine which prince would sit on the Kievan throne.
Despite the conflicts over succession, which have been cited as an indicator of a weak political system and a lack of unity within the ruling dynasty, the rota system has also been interpreted as a constructive means of accommodating competing interests and tensions among members of a large dynasty. It enabled the dynasty to provide a successor to the Kievan throne in an age when high mortality rates tended to reduce the number of eligible princes. It also emphasized the symbolic centrality of Kiev even as the increasing political and economic strength of component principalities of Kievan Rus undermined the unity of the dynastic realm.
After the Mongol invasions of 1237 through 1240 and the disintegration of Kievan Rus, the rota system continued to prevail in the northeastern Rus principalities until Yuri (ruled 1317–1322) and Ivan I Kalita (ruled 1328–1341) of Moscow, whose father had not held the position, became grand princes of Vladimir. Their descendants monopolized the position and replaced the rota system with a vertical succession system, according to which the eldest surviving son of a reigning prince was heir to the throne.
See also: kievan rus; yaroslav vladimirovich
Dimnik, Martin. (1987). "The 'Testament' of Iaroslav 'The Wise': A Re-examination." Canadian Slavonic Papers 29 (4):369–386.
Kollmann, Nancy Shields. (1990). "Collateral Succession in Kievan Rus'." Harvard Ukrainian Studies 14 (3/4): 377–387.
Stokes, A. D. (1970). "The System of Succession to the Thrones of Russia, 1054–1113." In Gorski Vijenac: A Garland of Essays offered to Professor Elizabeth Mary Hill, ed. R. Auty, L. R. Lewitter, A. P. Vlasto. Cambridge, UK: The Modern Humanities Research Association.