Kievan Rus

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Kievan Rus, the first organized state located on the lands of modern Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus, was ruled by members of the Rurikid dynasty and centered around the city of Kiev from the mid-ninth century to 1240. Its East Slav, Finn, and Balt population dwelled in territories along the Dnieper, the Western Dvina, the Lovat-Volkhov, and the upper Volga rivers. Its component peoples and territories were bound together by common recognition of the Rurikid dynasty as their rulers and, after 988, by formal affiliation with the Christian Church, headed by the metropolitan based at Kiev. Kievan Rus was destroyed by the Mongol invasions of 12371240. The Kievan Rus era is considered a formative stage in the histories of modern Ukraine and Russia.

The process of the formation of the state is the subject of the Normanist controversy. Normanists stress the role of Scandinavian Vikings as key agents in the creation of the state. Their view builds upon archeological evidence of Scandinavian adventurers and travelling merchants in the region of northwestern Russia and the upper Volga from the eighth century. It also draws upon an account in the Primary Chronicle, compiled during the eleventh and early twelfth centuries, which reports that in 862, Slav and Finn tribes in the vicinity of the Lovat and Volkhov rivers invited Rurik, a Varangian Rus, and his brothers to bring order to their lands. Rurik and his descendants are regarded as the founders of the Rurikid dynasty that ruled Kievan Rus. Anti-Normanists discount the role of Scandinavians as founders of the state. They argue that the term Rus refers to the Slav tribe of Polyane, which dwelled in the region of Kiev, and that the Slavs themselves organized their own political structure.

According to the Primary Chronicle, Rurik's immediate successors were Oleg (r. 879 or 882 to 912), identified as a regent for Rurik's son Igor (r. 912945); Igor's wife Olga (r. 945c. 964), and their son Svyatoslav (r. c. 964972). They established their authority over Kiev and surrounding tribes, including the Krivichi (in the region of the Valdai Hills), the Polyane (around Kiev on the Dneper River), the Drevlyane (south of the Pripyat River, a tributary of the Dneper), and the Vyatichi, who inhabited lands along the Oka and Volga Rivers.

The tenth-century Rurikids not only forced tribal populations to transfer their allegiance and their tribute payments from Bulgar and Khazaria, but also pursued aggressive policies toward those neighboring states. In 965 Svyatoslav launched a campaign against the Khazaria. His venture led to the collapse of the Khazar Empire and the destabilization of the lower Volga and the steppe, a region of grasslands south of the forests inhabited by the Slavs. His son Vladimir (r. 9801015), having subjugated the Radimichi (east of the upper Dnieper River), attacked the Volga Bulgars in 985; the agreement he subsequently reached with the Bulgars was the basis for peaceful relations that lasted a century.

The early Rurikids also engaged their neighbors to the south and west. In 968, Svyatoslav rescued Kiev from the Pechenegs, a nomadic, steppe Turkic population. He devoted most of his attention, however, to establishing control over lands on the Danube River. Forced to abandon that project by the Byzantines, he was returning to Kiev when the Pechenegs killed him in 972. Frontier forts constructed and military campaigns waged by Vladimir and his sons reduced the Pecheneg threat to Kievan Rus.

Shortly after Svyatoslav's death, his son Yaropolk became prince of Kiev. But conflict erupted between him and his brothers. The crisis prompted Vladimir to flee from Novgorod, the city he governed, and raise an army in Scandinavia. Upon his return in 980, he first engaged the prince of Polotsk, one of last non-Rurikid rulers over East Slavs. Victorious, Vladimir married the prince's daughter and added the prince's military retinue to his own army, with which he then defeated Yaropolk and seized the throne of Kiev. Vladimir's triumphs over his brothers, competing non-Rurikid rulers, and neighboring powers provided him and his heirs a monopoly over political power in the region.

Prince Vladimir also adopted Christianity for Kievan Rus. Although Christianity, Judaism, and Islam had long been known in these lands and Olga had personally converted to Christianity, the populace of Kievan Rus remained pagan. When Vladimir assumed the throne, he attempted to create a single pantheon of gods for his people, but soon abandoned that effort in favor of Christianity. Renouncing his numerous wives and consorts, he married Anna, the sister of the Byzantine Emperor Basil. The Patriarch of Constantinople appointed a metropolitan to organize the see of Kiev and all Rus, and in 988, Byzantine clergy baptized the population of Kiev in the Dnieper River.

After adopting Christianity, Vladimir apportioned his realm among his principal sons, sending each of them to his own princely seat. A bishop accompanied each prince. The lands ruled by Rurikid princes and subject to the Kievan Church constituted Kievan Rus.

During the eleventh and twelfth centuries Vladimir's descendants developed a dynastic political structure to administer their increasingly large and complex realm. There are, however, divergent characterizations of the state's political development during this period. One view contends that Kievan Rus reached its peak during the eleventh century. The next century witnessed a decline, marked by the emergence of powerful autonomous principalities and warfare among their princes. Kiev lost its central role, and Kievan Rus was disintegrating by the time of the Mongol invasion. An alternate view emphasizes the continued vitality of the city of Kiev and argues that Kievan Rus retained its integrity throughout the period. Although it became an increasingly complex state containing numerous principalities that engaged in political and economic competition, dynastic and ecclesiastic bonds provided cohesion among them. The city of Kiev remained its acknowledged and coveted political, economic, and ecclesiastic center.

The creation of an effective political structure proved to be an ongoing challenge for the Rurikids. During the eleventh and twelfth centuries, princely administration gradually replaced tribal allegiance and authority. As early as the reign of Olga, her officials began to replace tribal leaders. Vladimir assigned a particular region to each of his sons, to whom he also delegated responsibility for tax collection, protection of communication and trade routes, and for local defense and territorial expansion. Each prince maintained and commanded his own military force, which was supported by tax revenues, commercial fees, and booty seized in battle. He also had the authority and the means to hire supplementary forces.

When Vladimir died in 1015, however, his sons engaged in a power struggle that ended only after four of them had died and two others, Yaroslav and Mstislav, divided the realm between them. When Mstislav died (1036), Yaroslav assumed full control over Kievan Rus. Yaroslav adopted a law code known as the Russkaya Pravda, which with amendments remained in force throughout the Kievan Rus era.

He also attempted to bring order to dynastic relations. Before his death he issued a "Testament" in which he left Kiev to his eldest son Izyaslav. He assigned Chernigov to his son Svyatoslav, Pereyaslavl to Vsevolod, and lesser seats to his younger sons. He advised them all to heed their eldest brother as they had their father. The Testament is understood by scholars to have established a basis for the rota system of succession, which incorporated the principles of seniority among the princes, lateral succession through a generation, and dynastic possession of the realm of Kievan Rus. By assigning Kiev to the senior prince, it elevated that city to a position of centrality within the realm.

This dynastic system, by which each prince conducted relations with his immediate neighbors, provided an effective means of defending and expanding Kievan Rus. It also encouraged cooperation among the princes when they faced crises. Incursions by the Polovtsy (Kipchaks, Cumans), Turkic nomads who moved into the steppe and displaced the Pechenegs in the second half of the eleventh century, prompted concerted action among Princes Izyaslav, Svyatoslav, and Vsevolod in 1068. Although the Polovtsy were victorious, they retreated after another encounter with Svyatoslav's forces. With the exception of one frontier skirmish in 1071, they then refrained from attacking Rus for the next twenty years.

When the Polovtsy did renew hostilities in the 1090s, the Rurikids were engaged in intradynastic conflicts. Their ineffective defense allowed the Polovtsy to reach the environs of Kiev and burn the Monastery of the Caves, founded in the mid-eleventh century. But after the princes resolved their differences at a conference in 1097, their coalitions drove the Polovtsy back into the steppe and broke up the federation of Polovtsy tribes responsible for the aggression. These campaigns yielded comparatively peaceful relations for the next fifty years.

As the dynasty grew larger, however, its system of succession required revision. Confusion and recurrent controversies arose over the definition of seniority, the standards for eligibility, and the lands subject to lateral succession. In 1097, when the intradynastic wars became so severe that they interfered with the defense against the Polovtsy, a princely conference at Lyubech resolved that each principality in Kievan Rus would become the hereditary domain of a specific branch of the dynasty. The only exceptions were Kiev itself, which in 1113 reverted to the status of a dynastic possession, and Novgorod, which by 1136 asserted the right to select its own prince.

The settlement at Lyubech provided a basis for orderly succession to the Kievan throne for the next forty years. When Svyatopolk Izyaslavich died, his cousin Vladimir Vsevolodich Monomakh became prince of Kiev (r. 11131125). He was succeeded by his sons Mstislav (r. 11251132) and Yaropolk (r. 11321139). But the Lyubech agreement also acknowledged division of the dynasty into distinct branches and Kievan Rus into distinct principalities. The descendants of Svyatoslav ruled Chernigov. Galicia and Volynia, located southwest of Kiev, acquired the status of separate principalities in the late eleventh and twelfth centuries, respectively. During the twelfth century, Smolensk, located north of Kiev on the upper Dnieper river, and Rostov-Suzdal, northeast of Kiev, similarly emerged as powerful principalities. The northwestern portion of the realm was dominated by Novgorod, whose strength rested on its lucrative commercial relations with Scandinavian and German merchants of the Baltic as well as on its own extensive empire that stretched to the Ural mountains by the end of the eleventh century.

The changing political structure contributed to repeated dynastic conflicts over succession to the Kievan throne. Some princes became ineligible for the succession to Kiev and concentrated on developing their increasingly autonomous realms. But the heirs of Vladimir Monomakh, who became the princes of Volynia, Smolensk, and Rostov-Suzdal, as well as the princes of Chernigov, became embroiled in succession disputes, often triggered by attempts of younger members to bypass the elder generation and to reduce the number of princes eligible for the succession.

The greatest confrontations occurred after the death of Yaropolk Vladimirovich, who had attempted to arrange for his nephew to be his successor and had thereby aroused objections from his own younger brother Yuri Dolgoruky, the prince of Rostov-Suzdal. As a result of the discord among Monomakh's heirs, Vsevolod Olgovich of Chernigov was able to take the Kievan throne (r. 11391146) and regain a place in the Kievan succession cycle for his dynastic branch. After his death, the contest between Yuri Dolgoruky and his nephews resumed; it persisted until 1154, when Yuri finally ascended to the Kievan throne and restored the traditional order of succession.

An even more destructive conflict broke out after the death in 1167 of Rostislav Mstislavich, successor to his uncle Yuri. When Mstislav Izyaslavich, the prince of Volynia and a member of the next generation, attempted to seize the Kievan throne, a coalition of princes opposed him. Led by Yuri's son Andrei Bogolyubsky, it represented the senior generation of eligible princes, but also included the sons of the late Rostislav and the princes of Chernigov. The conflict culminated in 1169, when Andrei's forces evicted Mstislav Izyaslavich from Kiev and sacked the city. Andrei's brother Gleb became prince of Kiev.

Prince Andrei personified the growing tensions between the increasingly powerful principalities of Kievan Rus and the state's center, Kiev. As prince of Vladimir-Suzdal (Rostov-Suzdal), he concentrated on the development of Vladimir and challenged the primacy of Kiev. Nerl Andrei used his power and resources, however, to defend the principle of generational seniority in the succession to Kiev. Nevertheless, after Gleb died in 1171, Andrei's coalition failed to secure the throne for another of his brothers. A prince of the Chernigov line, Svyatoslav Vsevolodich (r. 11731194), occupied the Kievan throne and brought dynastic peace.

By the turn of the century, eligibility for the Kievan throne was confined to three dynastic lines: the princes of Volynia, Smolensk, and Chernigov. Because the opponents were frequently of the same generation as well as sons of former grand princes, dynastic traditions of succession offered little guidance for determining which prince had seniority. By the mid-1230s, princes of Chernigov and Smolensk were locked in a prolonged conflict that had serious consequences. During the hostilities Kiev was sacked two more times, in 1203 and 1235. The strife revealed the divergence between the southern and western principalities, which were deeply enmeshed in the conflicts over Kiev, and those of the northeast, which were relatively indifferent to them. Intradynastic conflict, compounded by the lack of cohesion among the components of Kievan Rus, undermined the integrity of the realm. Kievan Rus was left without effective defenses before the Mongol invasion.

When the state of Kievan Rus was forming, its populace consisted primarily of rural agriculturalists who cultivated cereal grains as well as peas, lentils, flax, and hemp in natural forest clearings or in those they created by the slash-and-burn method. They supplemented these products by fishing, hunting, and gathering fruits, berries, nuts, mushrooms, honey, and other natural products in the forests around their villages.

Commerce, however, provided the economic foundation for Kievan Rus. The tenth-century Rurikid princes, accompanied by their military retinues, made annual rounds among their subjects and collected tribute. Igor met his death in 945 during such an excursion, when he and his men attempted to take more than the standard payment from the Drevlyane. After collecting the tribute of fur pelts, honey, and wax, the Kievan princes loaded their goods and captives in boats, also supplied by the local population, and made their way down the Dnieper River to the Byzantine market of Cherson. Oleg in 907 and Igor, less successfully, in 944 conducted military campaigns against Constantinople. The resulting treaties allowed the Rus to trade not only at Cherson, but also at Constantinople, where they had access to goods from virtually every corner of the known world. From their vantage point at Kiev the Rurikid princes controlled all traffic moving from towns to their north toward the Black Sea and its adjacent markets.

The Dnieper River route "from the Varangians to the Greeks" led back northward to Novgorod, which controlled commercial traffic with traders from the Baltic Sea. From Novgorod commercial goods also were carried eastward along the upper Volga River through the region of Rostov-Suzdal to Bulgar. At this market center on the mid-Volga River, which formed a nexus between the Rus and the markets of Central Asia and the Caspian Sea, the Rus exchanged their goods for oriental silver coins or dirhams (until the early eleventh century) and luxury goods including silks, glassware, and fine pottery.

The establishment of Rurikid political dominance contributed to changes in the social composition of the region. To the agricultural peasant population were added the princes themselves, their military retainers, servants, and slaves. The introduction of Christianity by Prince Vladimir brought a layer of clergy to the social mix. It also transformed the cultural face of Kievan Rus, especially in its urban centers. In Kiev Vladimir constructed the Church of the Holy Virgin (also known as the Church of the Tithe), built of stone and flanked by two other palatial structures. The ensemble formed the centerpiece of "Vladimir's city," which was surrounded by new fortifications. Yaroslav expanded "Vladimir's city" by building new fortifications that encompassed the battlefield on which he defeated the Pechenegs in 1036. Set in the southern wall was the Golden Gate of Kiev. Within the protected area Vladimir constructed a new complex of churches and palaces, the most imposing of which was the masonry Cathedral of St. Sophia, which was the church of the metropolitan and became the symbolic center of Christianity in Kievan.

The introduction of Christianity met resistance in some parts of Kievan Rus. In Novgorod a popular uprising took place when representatives of the new church threw the idol of the god Perun into the Volkhov River. But Novgorod's landscape was also quickly altered by the construction of wooden churches and, in the middle of the eleventh century, by its own stone Cathedral of St. Sophia. In Chernigov Prince Mstislav constructed the Church of the Transfiguration of Our Savior in 1035.

By agreement with the Rurikids the church became legally responsible for a range of social practices and family affairs, including birth, marriage, and death. Ecclesiastical courts had jurisdiction over church personnel and were charged with enforcing Christian norms and rituals in the larger community. Although the church received revenue from its courts, the clergy were only partially successful in their efforts to convince the populace to abandon pagan customs. But to the degree that they were accepted, Christian social and cultural standards provided a common identity for the diverse tribes comprising Kievan Rus society.

The spread of Christianity and the associated construction projects intensified and broadened commercial relations between Kiev and Byzantium. Kiev also attracted Byzantine artists and artisans, who designed and decorated the early Rus churches and taught their techniques and skills to local apprentices. Kiev correspondingly became the center of craft production in Kievan Rus during the eleventh and twelfth centuries.

While architectural design and the decorative arts of mosaics, frescoes, and icon painting were the most visible aspects of the Christian cultural transformation, Kievan Rus also received chronicles, saints' lives, sermons, and other literature from the Greeks. The outstanding literary works from this era were the Primary Chronicle or Tale of Bygone Years, compiled by monks of the Monastery of the Caves, and the "Sermon on Law and Grace," composed (c. 1050) by Metropolitan Hilarion, the first native of Kievan Rus to head the church.

During the twelfth century, despite the emergence of competing political centers within Kievan Rus and repeated sacks of it (1169, 1203, 1235), the city of Kiev continued to thrive economically. Its diverse population, which is estimated to have reached between 36,000 and 50,000 persons by the end of the twelfth century, included princes, soldiers, clergy, merchants, artisans, unskilled workers, and slaves. Its expanding handicraft sector produced glassware, glazed pottery, jewelry, religious items, and other goods that were exported throughout the lands of Rus. Kiev also remained a center of foreign commerce, and increasingly reexported imported goods, exemplified by Byzantine amphorae used as containers for oil and wine, to other Rus towns as well.

The proliferation of political centers within Kievan Rus was accompanied by a diffusion of the economic dynamism and increasing social complexity that characterized Kiev. Novgorod's economy also continued to be centered on its trade with the Baltic region and with Bulgar. By the twelfth century artisans in Novgorod were also engaging in new crafts, such as enameling and fresco painting. Novgorod's flourishing economy supported a population of twenty to thirty thousand by the early thirteenth century. Volynia and Galicia, Rostov-Suzdal, and Smolensk, whose princes vied politically and military for Kiev, gained their economic vitality from their locations on trade routes. The construction of the masonry Church of the Mother of God in Smolensk (11361137) and of the Cathedral of the Dormition (1158) and the Golden Gate in Vladimir reflected the wealth concentrated in these centers. Andrei Bogolyubsky also constructed his own palace complex of Bogolyubovo outside Vladimir and celebrated a victory over the Volga Bulgars in 1165 by building the Church of the Intercession nearby on the Nerl River. In each of these principalities the princes' boyars, officials, and retainers were forming local, landowning aristocracies and were also becoming consumers of luxury items produced abroad, in Kiev, and in their own towns.

In 1223 the armies of Chingis Khan, founder of the Mongol Empire, first reached the steppe south of Kievan Rus. At the Battle of Kalka they defeated a combined force of Polovtsy and Rus drawn from Kiev, Chernigov, and Volynia. The Mongols returned in 1236, when they attacked Bulgar. In 12371238 they mounted an offensive against Ryazan and then Vladimir-Suzdal. In 1239 they devastated the southern towns of Pereyaslavl and Chernigov, and in 1240 conquered Kiev.

The state of Kievan Rus is considered to have collapsed with the fall of Kiev. But the Mongols went on to subordinate Galicia and Volynia before invading both Hungary and Poland. In the aftermath of their conquest, the invaders settled in the vicinity of the lower Volga River, forming the portion of the Mongol Empire commonly known as the Golden Horde. Surviving Rurikid princes made their way to the horde to pay homage to the Mongol khan. With the exception of Prince Michael of Chernigov, who was executed, the khan confirmed each of the princes as the ruler in his respective principality. He thus confirmed the disintegration of Kievan Rus.

See also: olga; primary chronicle; route to greeks; vikings; yaroslav vladimirovich


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Janet Martin