Kievan Rus, Medieval Principalities in Eastern Europe

Reconstructed Kievan Rus house at the Kievan Rus theme park near Kyiv, Ukraine.
Reconstructed Kievan Rus house at the Kievan Rus theme park near Kyiv, Ukraine.

aquatarkus / Getty Images Plus

Kievan Rus (pronounced KeeYEHvan Roos and meaning "Rus of Kyiv") was a group of loosely confederated principalities located in eastern Europe, including much of the modern states of Belarus and Ukraine, and portions of western Russia. The Kievan Rus arose in the 9th century CE, stimulated by the arrival of Norse raiders, and lasted until the 15th century, when they fell under the mass invasion of the Mongol Horde

Fast Facts: Kievan Rus

  • Founding Year: 882 CE
  • Capital: Kiev (Kyiv); lesser capitals at Novgorod, Ladoga, Rostov, Pereiaslavi, Staraia Russa, Smolensk, Chernihiv, others
  • Languages: Old Eastern Slav, Ukrainian, Slavonic, Greek, Latin
  • Currency: Grivna (=1/15 ruble)
  • Form of Government: Federation, at times a chiefdom and military democracy
  • Total Area: 513,500 sq mi

Origins 

The founders of the Kievan Rus were members of the Riurikid Dynasty, Viking (Norse) traders who explored the rivers of Eastern Europe beginning in the 8th century CE. According to the founding mythology, the Kievan Rus originated with the semi-legendary Rurik (830–879), who arrived with his two brothers Sineus and Turvor between 859–862. The three were Varangians, a name given to Vikings by the Greeks, and eventually (10th–14th c) their descendants would become the Varangian Guard, personal bodyguards of the Byzantine emperors.

Rurik's brothers died and in 862, he gained control of Ladoga and founded the Holmgard settlement near Novgorod. When Rurik died, his cousin Oleg (ruled 882–912) took control, and by 885 began the Rus expansion southward towards Constantinople, attacking the city and earning a trading treaty. The capital was established at Kiev, and the Rus economy grew based on the export and the control of three main trade routes across the region.

Timeline and King List of the Rurikid Dynasty

Principalities of the later Kievan Rus (after the death of Yaroslav I in 1054).
Principalities of the later Kievan Rus (after the death of Yaroslav I in 1054). SeikoEn / Public Domain
  • 859–861 CE: Rurik and his brothers begin raiding; Rus are operating as a military democracy
  • 882: Oleg takes control and expands north and southward, establishes a chiefdom with the capital at Kiev
  • 913–945: Rule of Igor (Rurik's son), who continues to consolidate and expand  
  • 945–963: Rule of Ol'ga (Igor's wife), who converts to Christianity 
  • 963–972: Rule of Sviatoslav I (Igor's son), who reestablishes the pagan religion and tries to return to raiding
  • 972–980: Dynastic wars over succession 
  • 980–1015: Rule of Vladimir (Volodymyr) the Great, who establishes Christianity as a state religion 
  • 1015–1019: Four years of wars of succession 
  • 1019–1054: Rule of Yaroslav the Wise, a rule contested until 1036, when he marries his daughters, granddaughters, and sisters to European royalty (France, Poland, Hungary, and Norway) 
  • 1054–1077: State begins to disintegrate, and a string of princes become king and then are killed by rival family members.
  • 1077–1078: Rule of Iziaslav, the surviving son of Yaroslav 
  • 1078–1093: Rule of Vsevolod
  • 1093–1113: Rule of Sviatopolk Izaslavich
  • 1113–1125: Rule of Volodymyr Monomakh (Vladimir II Monomakh)
  • 1125–1132: Rule of Mstislav or Harald, Mstislav I Vladimirovich the Great, son of Volodimir and grandson of Harold Godwinson, last Anglo-Saxon king of England 
  • 1132–1240: The Rus suffer a sharp decline, and remaining city-states become independent regional centers 
  • 1240: Kyiv is sacked by Mongols, who conquer the Rus principalities; Poland and Lithuania absorb the western principalities 

Economy

Although there are limited Slavian records, the economic basis of the Kievan Rus was initially trade. Resources within the region included furs, beeswax, honey, and slaves, and the three trade routes taken over by the Rus included critical trade lines between north and south connecting Scandinavia and Constantinople and east and west from the Balkans to Greece.

Archaeologists have recovered over 1,000 tablets made from birch bark from Kievan Rus cities, particularly Novgorod. These documents written in Old Eastern Slavic are primarily associated with commercial efforts: accounting, credit (documenting debts), and tag tallies (labeling). 

The currency of the Kievan Rus was known as the grivna, and in 15th-century Novgorod, 15 grivnas made up one ruble, equal to 170.1 grams of silver. An advanced system of commercial credit and money lending provided a line of credit open to anyone, and commercial loans were extended to both Rus and foreign merchants and investors.

Social Structure

Reconstructed Kievan Rus fort, at the Kievan Rus theme park near Kyiv, Ukraine.
Reconstructed Kievan Rus fort, at the Kievan Rus theme park near Kyiv, Ukraine. aquatarkus / iStock Editorial / Getty Images Plus

The structure of the Medieval Rus was largely feudalism. By the last half of the eleventh century (and perhaps earlier), each of the principalities in Kievan Rus was headed by a Rurik dynastic prince who lived in a castle in the capital city. Each prince had a group of warriors (druzhina) who manned forts at the frontier and otherwise protected the prince's interests. The most elite of the druzhina were the boiars, who were landowners, some of whom may have had their own castles.

Each boiar had stewards (tivun) to tend the land, several categories of semi-free peasants, and a few categories of patriarchal (household) and classical (estate) slaves originally made up of military captives. Slaves were put to work in agriculture and acted as artisans and merchants, but their status as slaves is debated among scholars and apparently evolved over time.

Religious monasteries were established by the Byzantine church in many of the principalities, with the leader known as the Metropolitan based in Kyiv. Sheriffs (virnik) and mayors (posadnik) were responsible for collecting various fines, tribute, and other fees for the city treasury. 

Religion 

When the Rus arrived in the region, they brought some of their Scandinavian religion and folded it into the local Slavonic culture to establish the earliest Rus religion. How much of the Viking and Slavic culture occurred is debated. Most information comes from the efforts of Vladimir I to create a unifying element to his emerging Eastern Slavic state. 

Shortly after Vladimir took power in 980, he erected six wooden idols to Slavonic gods at his estates in Kyiv. A statue of the Slavic god Perun, the god of thunder and generally associated both with Scandinavian Thor and with northern Iranian gods, had a head of silver with a mustache of gold. The other statues were of Khors, Dazbog, Stribog, Simargl, and Mokosh. 

Becoming Christian

Earlier Slavic rulers had flirted with Christianity—the Byzantine patriarch Photius first sent missionaries in 860—but Christianity was formally established as a state religion under the rule of Vladimir the Great (ruled 980–1015). According to the 12th-century document known as the "Russian Primary Chronicle," Vladimir was approached by missionaries from the Jewish, Islamic, Western Christian (Rome), and Eastern Christian (Byzantine) faiths. He sent emissaries to investigate these religions, and the envoys returned with their recommendations that Byzantium had the best churches and most interesting services. 

Modern scholars believe that Vladimir's choice of the Byzantine church was likely based on the fact that at the time it was at the height of its political might and the most brilliant cultural center of the world, with the possible exception of Baghdad. 

The Varangian Guard

The Varangian Guard (Miniature from the Madrid Skylitzes), 11th-12th century. Collection of Biblioteca Nacional, Madrid, Spain.
The Varangian Guard (Miniature from the Madrid Skylitzes), 11th-12th century. Collection of Biblioteca Nacional, Madrid, Spain. Fine Art Images / Heritage Images / Getty Images

Historian Ihor Sevchenko argued that the decision to pick the Byzantine church as the unifying religion for the Kievan Rus was likely political expediency. In 986, Pope Basil II (985–1025) asked for military assistance from Vladimir to help quell a rebellion. In return, Vladimir requested that he be married to Basil's sister Anne—Vladimir had several wives already, and his family had marriage connections to Polish, French, and German royal houses. The practice would continue in later generations: one of his granddaughters married the Norse king Harald Hardrada; another married Henry Capet of France.

Basil insisted that Vladimir be baptized first, so he was baptized in Kyiv in 987 or 988. Vladimir sent his 6,000-strong Varangian Guard to Constantinople, where they won a victory for Basil in April of 989. Basil backed out of sending his sister, and in retaliation, the guard attacked the city and took it by June. Princess Anne was sent north and they married in Cherson in 989. Vladimir, his bride, and her ecclesiastical entourage proceeded to Kyiv, where the entire Kievan Rus was symbolically baptized; the head of the new church, the Metropolitan, arrived in 997. 

St. Sophia Cathedral in Kiev, built first in the 11th century CE.
St. Sophia Cathedral in Kiev, built first in the 11th century CE. reflection_art / iStock / Getty Images Plus

Under the stimulus of the Byzantine church, the Kievan Rus state developed rapidly, producing important works of art such as the Cathedral of St. Sophia with its mosaics and frescoes, and written documents such as the "Primary Chronicle" of 1113 and Metropolitan Hilarion's "Sermon on Law and Grace" delivered about 1050. But it wouldn't last. 

Decline and Fall of the Kievan Rus

The primary reason for the end of the Kievan Rus was political instability created by the rules of succession. All of the various principalities were ruled by members of the Rurik dynasty, but it was a staircase succession. Members of the dynasty were assigned territories, and the principal one was Kyiv: each territory was led by a prince (tsar), but in Kyiv, the Grand Prince led them all. When the Grand Prince died, the next legitimate heir—the oldest Rurik dynasty heir, not necessarily a son—left his principality and moved to Kyiv. 

After Vladimir died in 1015, there were three years of disarray during which two of his sons (Boris and Gleb) were killed at the request of another son, Sviatopolk. The two would become the first saints of the Slavic church. In 1018, Yaroslav the Wise, one of the surviving sons, ascended to the throne and kept it until 1054. 

Although under Yaroslav's rule, the Kievan Rus continued to expand, and a variety of marriages to royal families in Europe—Poland, Norway, England—continued to maintain the federation's trading power. But when Yaroslav died in 1054, power passed to his son Izaiaslav, who became enmired in a succession battle that lasted through several rulers until 1240, when Mongols attacked Kyiv. The northern part remained in control of the Golden Horde; the remainder became fragmented. 

Selected Sources