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Rurikid Dynasty


Ruling family of Kievan Rus, the northern Rus principalities, and Muscovy from the ninth century to 1598.

The Rurikid dynasty ruled the lands of Rus from the ninth century until 1598. The dynasty was allegedly founded by Rurik. According to an account in the Primary Chronicle he and his brothers, called Varangian Rus, were invited in 862 by East Slav and Finn tribes of northwestern Russia to rule them. Rurik survived his brothers to rule alone a region stretching from his base in Novgorod northward to Beloozero, eastward along the upper Volga and lower Oka Rivers and southward to the West Dvina River. Although it has been postulated that Rurik was actually Rorik of Jutland, there is no scholarly consensus on his identity, and the account of his arrival is often considered semilegendary. Varangians or Vikings, however, had been operating in the region as adventurers and merchants. The tale of Rurik represents the stabilization and formalization of the relationship between these groups of adventurers and the indigenous populations.

After Rurik died (879), his kinsman Oleg (r. 882912), acting as regent for Igor, identified as Rurik's young son, seized control of Kiev (c. 882), located on the Dnieper River. From Kiev, which became the primary seat of the Rurikid princes until the Mongol invasions between 1237 and 1240, Igor (r. 913945), his widow Olga (r. 945c. 964), their son Svyatoslav (r. c. 964972), and his son Vladimir (r. 9801015), replacing other Varangian and Khazar overlords, subordinated and exacted regular tribute payments from the East Slav tribes on both sides of the Dnieper River and along the upper Volga River. Their strong ties to Byzantium resulted in Prince Vladimir's conversion of his people to Christianity in 988. The dynasty and the church combined to provide a common identity to the disparate lands and peoples of the emerging state of Kievan Rus.

The Rurikids enlarged Kievan Rus territory and through diplomacy, war, and marriage established ties with other countries and royal houses from Scandinavia to France to Byzantium. But the Rurikids themselves were not always unified. Vladimir as well as his son Yaroslav the Wise gained the Kievan throne through fraticidal wars. To avoid further succession struggles, Yaroslav wrote a testament for his sons before he died in 1054. In it he assigned the central princely seat at Kiev to his eldest, surviving son Izyaslav. He gave other towns, which became centers of principalities within Kievan Rus, to his other sons while admonishing them to respect the seniority of their eldest brother.

Although Yaroslav's testament did not prevent internecine warfare, it established a dynastic realm shared by the princes of the dynasty. Members of each generation succeeded one another by seniority through a hierarchy of princely seats until each in his turn ruled at Kiev. This system, known as the rota or ladder system of succession, functioned imperfectly. Ongoing discord combined with attacks from the Polovtsy (nomads of the steppe, also known as Kipchaks or Cumans) motivated the princes to meet at Lyubech in 1097; they agreed that each branch of the dynasty would rule one of the principalities within Kievan Rus as its patrimonial domain. Kiev alone remained a dynastic possession.

Under this revised method of succession Svyatopolk Izyaslavich ruled Kiev to 1113. He was succeeded by his cousin, Vladimir Vsevolodich, also known as Vladimir Monomakh (r. 11131125), and subsequently by Monomakh's sons. Although the system brought order to dynastic relations, it also reinforced division among the dynastic branches, which was paralleled by a weakening in the cohesion among the component principalities of Kievan Rus.

By the end of the twelfth century the dynasty had divided into approximately a dozen branches, each ruling its own principality. The princes of four dynastic lines, VladimirSuzdal, Volynia, Smolensk, and Chernigov, remained in the Kievan rotational cycle and engaged in fierce competition particularly when the norms of succession were challenged. One campaign, launched by Andrei Bogolyubsky of Vladimir, resulted in the sack of Kiev in 1169. Although fought to defend the traditional succession system, this campaign is often cited as evidence of the fragmentation of the dynasty and Kievan Rus.

When the Mongols invaded and destroyed Kievan Rus, many members of the Rurikid dynasty were killed in battle. Nevertheless, with the approval of their new overlords, surviving princes continued to rule the lands of Rus. By the mid-fourteenth century, however, the dynasty lost possession of Kiev and other western lands to Poland and Lithuania. But in the northeast the princes of Moscow, a branch of the dynasty descended from Vladimir Monomakh's grandson Vsevolod and his grandson Alexander Nevsky, gained control over the principality of Vladimir-Suzdal. Symbolized by Dmitry Donskoy's victory at the Battle of Kulikovo (1380), they cast off Mongol suzerainty and expanded their realm to create the state of Muscovy.

The Moscow princes also reordered internal dynastic relations. After an unsuccessful challenge to Basil II (ruled 14251462) by his uncle and cousins that resulted in an extended civil war (14301453), a vertical pattern of succession firmly replaced the traditional collateral one. Ivan III (ruled 14621505), selecting his second son over his grandson (the son of his eldest but deceased son), defined the heir to the Muscovite throne as the eldest surviving son of the ruling prince. Basil III (ruled 15051533) divorced his barren wife after a twenty-year marriage in order to remarry and produce a son rather than allow the throne to pass to his brother.

Dynastic reorganization enhanced the power and prestige of the monarchs, who formally adopted the title "tsar" in 1547. But when Fyodor, the son of Ivan IV "the Terrible," died in 1598, and left no direct heirs, the Rurikids' seven-century rule came to an end. After a fifteen-year interregnum, known as the Time of Troubles, the Romanov dynasty, related to the Rurikids through Fyodor's mother, replaced the Rurikid dynasty as the tsars of Russia.

See also: alexander yaroslavich; basil i; basil ii; basil iii; donskoy, dmitry ivanovich; fyodor ivanovich; ivan iii; ivan iv; oleg; olga; rurik; vladimir monomakh; vladimir, st; vikings; yaroslav vladimirovich; yury vladimirovich


Dimnik, Martin. (1978). "Russian Princes and their Identities in the First Half of the Thirteenth Century." Mediaeval Studies 40:157185.

Kollmann, Nancy Shields. (1990). "Collateral Succession in Kievan Rus." Harvard Ukrainian Studies 14 (3/4): 377387.

Janet Martin

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