Russia: Rurik to Monomakh, 862-1097


Svjatoslav’s lands were divided by his sons, who fought a war of succession.

By Dr. Sanderson Beck
Author and Historian

The influence of the Vikings on the origins of the Russian state is still controversial, though it is generally recognized that Slavs had been living in the area for many generations. The legendary Varangian (Viking) Rurik ruled Novgorod in 862 and was succeeded by Oleg, who may have been his younger brother. Oleg united many Russian tribes and took over Kiev in 882. He imposed on the Drevlians the tax of a marten’s fur from every house, and he obtained a beneficial trade treaty with the Byzantine empire in 911. Oleg was succeeded by his son Igor (r. 913-945). Igor’s forces attacked Constantinople in 941, but they were defeated by the Byzantine navy and its Greek fire. The Russians campaigned in Persia in 943, and the treaty with the Byzantine emperor the next year was not as favorable for the Russians as the earlier one. Igor tried to collect tribute in the land of the Drevlians, but they killed him in 945. Since their son Svjatoslav was only a boy, Oleg’s widow Olga ruled Russia for the next seventeen years. She was converted to Christianity shortly before her journey to Constantinople in 957; but her son and most of the people remained pagans.

In 964 Svjatoslav (r. 962-972) subjugated an eastern Slavic tribe called the Viatichi, who had been paying tribute to the Khazars instead of Kiev. After bringing some Finnic-speaking tribes into his kingdom, Svjatoslav went down the Volga and attacked the Khazar capital at Itil, took their fortress Samandar on the Caspian Sea, and defeated the Alans and tribes in the northern Caucasus, finally storming the Khazar fortress of Sarkil before returning to Kiev in 967. The next year Svjatoslav joined Byzantine emperor Nicephorus Phocas in an attack on the Bulgarian kingdom. The Russians captured their capital and took their ruler Boris prisoner. However, defeating the Khazars and Bulgarians had opened the way for the Pechenegs (Patzinaks), who besieged Kiev while the Russian army was away. Svjatoslav decided that he liked the Danube region better than the Volga, because of the enriching trade opportunities. The Greeks brought gold, silks, wine, and fruit; Hungary and Bohemia contributed silver and horses; and the Russians offered furs, wax, honey, and slaves. When John Tzimisces became Byzantine emperor in 969, he challenged the Russians in the Balkans, but Svjatoslav’s forces captured Philippopolis and threatened Adrianople and Constantinople. Yet the Russians had to make peace and retreat again in 971. On his way back to Russia Svjatoslav was killed by Patzinaks. The Russian army had been reduced from 60,000 to 22,000.

Miniature of Vladimir the Great from a 17th-century MenaionWikimedia Commons /

Svjatoslav’s lands were divided by his sons, who fought a war of succession until the illegitimate Vladimir was victorious about 980, and he ruled until 1015. Vladimir regained Galician towns from Poland and conquered the Lithuanian tribes of the Iatviags in the north while managing to withstand the Patzinaks by building fortresses and towns. After sacking Cherson in the Crimea, Vladimir sent a message to Byzantine emperor Basil that he would adopt Christianity in his kingdom if he could marry the Emperor’s sister Anne, or he would attack Constantinople. Vladimir married Anne in 988 and was baptized on the same day. Images of the pagan god Perun were scourged, and masses of Russians were all baptized on a single day. According to legend the Russians rejected Islam because it prohibited alcohol, and they liked to drink, while Judaism was not selected, because its people were defeated and had no state. Cyril’s Slavic translation of the Bible was imported from Bulgaria to educate the people. Greek bishops urged Vladimir to replace private revenge with public punishments such as imprisonment, convict labor, flogging, torture, mutilation, or death; but the Russians preferred the payment of wergild or fines that did not offend human dignity and helped the treasury.

Another war between princes followed the death of Vladimir in 1015. Sviatopolk won some victories with the help of Poland. According to the chronicler Nestor, his brothers Boris and Gleb refused to add to the violence, imitating Jesus, and were murdered by Sviatopolk’s orders. However, Sviatopolk was defeated by his brother Yaroslav (r. 1019-1054). Yet war continued, and in 1026 Yaroslav had to divide the kingdom with his brother Mstislav, who ruled the east from Chernigov until he died ten years later. In 1031 Yaroslav regained the land Poland had taken for helping Sviatopolk. After the Russians defeated the Patzinaks in 1037, there was a generation of peace. Yaroslav wed a Swedish princess, and his relatives and many Russian nobles married into aristocratic families from Poland, Germany, Hungary, and Bohemia. Yaroslav is credited with developing the first Russian legal code. He established a large school and library at Kiev and patronized the arts.

The only contemporary image of Yaroslav I the Wise, on his seal / Wikimedia Commons

Before he died, Yaroslav assigned his sons cities and their regions by rank, giving the oldest son Iziaslav Kiev and Novgorod; Sviatoslav got Chernigov; Vsevolod got Petreiaslav; Viacheslav got Smolensk; and Igor got Volynia. Iziaslav was blamed for not controlling the Polovtsy (Cumans) in the Lower Dnieper region, and his two brothers, fearing he was going to disinherit them, expelled him in 1073. Iziaslav took refuge at the court of Germany’s Heinrich IV, who was pacified by gold from Sviatoslav’s envoys. Sviatoslav became king, and at his death in 1076 Vsevolod was going to move up; but the Polish helped Iziaslav to come back. Iziaslav and Vsevolod took Chernigov territory from the sons of Sviatoslav. After Iziaslav died two years later, Vsevolod (r. 1078-1093) became king. He was succeeded by Iziaslav’s son Sviatopolk II, who was a bad ruler. Yet Vsevolod’s son Vladimir Monomakh refused to overthrow him while trying to fight the evils of the Kiev regime. Deprived of his land, Oleg Sviatoslav joined with the Polovtsy in a civil war. While winning the civil war Monomakh called a conference at Liubech in 1097. The system of dividing the kingdom was finally abandoned as the princes agreed that each son should rule what his father had ruled, and they united to fight the Polovtsy.

Originally published by Sanderson Beck, Medieval Europe, 610-1250, free and open-access, republished for educational, non-commercial purposes.