Kievan Rus was the first organised state on present-day Russian territory. It is widely regarded as the spiritual predecessor to today’s Russian state.
A medieval European state, Kievan Rus was founded in 882AD by Prince Oleg. It was made up of a number of co-operating principalities, with it’s capital in Kiev. Spread across territory from the Baltic Sea in the North to the Black Sea in the South, it prospered because it controlled all of the major Eastern European trade routes.
Kievan Rus’ power and influence waned during the 12th and 13th centuries and, against a backdrop of internal disputes, it was overrun by the Mongol invasion of Rus in the early 13th century.
Foundation of Kievan Rus
Kievan Rus can be traced back to the arrival of Rurik, a Norse Varangian Chieftan, and his brothers Sineus and Truvor. Together, they established themselves as leaders of Novgorod, Beloozero and Izborsk. On the death of his brothers, Rurik took over as leader of all three regions.
The reason for their arrival is disputed. Some believe that the account given in the Primary Chronicle is correct. This more or less contemporary document records that the divided tribesmen of the region invited Rurik and his brothers to assume leadership and restore order.
“They said to themselves, “Our land is great and rich, but there is no order in it. Come to rule and reign over us.” They thus selected three brothers, with their kinsfolk, who took with them all the Rus’ and migrated. The oldest, Rurik, located himself in Novgorod; the second, Sineus, at Beloozero; and the third, Truvor, in Izborsk. On account of these Varangians, the district of Novgorod became known as the land of Rus’.”
More recently some historians, perhaps mindful of the saying ‘History is written by the victors’, have argued that Rurik and his brothers took control of the region through force.
Rurik is widely regarded as the founding father of Russia.
But, considering that Rurik gave his name to the Rurik Dynasty that would rule Kievan Rus and its successor states (including the Duchy of Moscow and the Tsardom of Russia) for seven centuries, we actually know very little about him. There are some who believe that he is actually more legend than man.
The essence of his story comes mostly from the Russian Primary Chronicle which simply records that, after a search in Varangia, Rurik and his brothers were “selected” to “rule over us and judge us according to the Law.”
Recent archeological discoveries would seem to support the common belief that political control of the region passed to Varangians in the mid 9th century, or perhaps even slightly earlier. Evidence has been found that the town of Lagoda was formed at about that time, and pottery from Jutland, home of the Varangians, has been found in the area.
Others have argued that Rurik was of mixed Varangian-Slavic descent, although there is no clear evidence for this. More recently, historians have been considering the theory that Rurik might actually have been Rorik of Dorestad – a Chieftan from northern Germany.
The true formation of Kievan Rus came when Prince Oleg of Novgorod, Rurik’s successor, began to expand southwards, rapidly gaining control of many of the prosperous trading cities along the Dnieper river.
By 882, Oleg felt confident enough to move his capital to the more central, and defensible, city of Kiev and announce the formation of the new state of Kievan Rus.
A audacious raid on Constantinople in 907 further assured the prosperity and security of the newly established Kievan Rus’. Taking 80,000 men and 2,000 ships Oleg quickly overpowered his Greek foes. The Rus’-Byzantine Peace treaty that followed provided a very generous tribute (12 grivnas for each of Oleg’s boat) and established a profitable trading route that benefited both parties.
The Golden Age of Kiev
As Kievan Rus expanded, it evolved into an organised group of small states, each governed by a Prince. Each paid tribute to the Grand Prince of Kiev, who held overall leadership.
One unusual feature of this political system is that the title of Grand Prince did not automatically pass from father to son. Instead, claims to leadership of Rus were based on seniority among the princes, something that gave each of the princes of Kiev the opportunity to advance and increase their power over time.
This flexible political system worked well at first, allowing Kievan Rus to develop into a solid state that prospered thanks to its control of the main trade routes of Eastern Europe. The 11th century is therefore widely known as the Golden Age of Kievan Rus’.
As the wealth of Kievan Rus grew, art and architecture flourished. Influenced heavily by Byzantium, churches were built and icons painted. In fact, a number of the churches built in this era – like the pictured St Sophia Cathedral in Kiev – still stand today.
The first Russian legal code was also developed. Known as the Russkaya Pravda, it used a system of fines to guarantee property rights, something which was a great boon for the economy.
Through the 9th and 10th centuries, the Princes of Kievan Rus’ gradually moved away from Paganism and adopted Christianity. The Primary Chronicle records that Vladimir the Great (980-1015) studied the religions of neighbouring countries, and received Islamic, Roman Catholic, Jewish and Orthodox Christian emissaries. Before finally settling on Orthodox Christianity, Vadlimir is famously reported to have rejected Islam, saying that ‘Drinking is the joy of all Rus. We cannot exist without that pleasure.’
Decline and Fall of Kievan Rus’
The unusual political structure that had allowed Kievan Rus to expand into prosperity evolved over time into a warped reflection. Fratricide became common as princes sought to increase their relative power and constant squabbling between Princes undermined the state’s unity.
Internal failures were compounded by events elsewhere. To the South and West the Crusades laid waste to once profitable trade routes. In particular, the Crusaders’ sacking of Constantinople in 1204 crippled the trade routes on the Volga River.
But the final blow was dealt by invaders from the East – Mongols.
A heavy defeat at the Battle of the Kalka River in 1223 should have given the Kievan Princes pause for thought, but their squabbling continued unabated. When the Mongols came back, thirteen years later, the Principalities were picked off, one by one. The city of Kiev finally fell in December 1240, marking the end of the first organised state on Russian soil.
Two hundred years of domination by the Golden Horde – a Mongol Khanate just to the East – followed.
The greater legacy, though, was the persistent Russian desire to defend its long and open borders – something which remains at the forefront of Russian leaders’ minds, even today.