From The Rurik Dynasty Exhibition / Visit St. Petersbug
The Varangians ruled the medieval state of Kievan Rus between the 9th and 11th centuries.
Edited by Matthew A. McIntosh / 08.29.2018
Rurik and the Foundation of Rus’
Introduction to Rurik
Rurik (also spelled Riurik) was a Varangian chieftain who arrived in the Ladoga region in modern-day Russia in 862. He built the Holmgard settlement = near Novgorod in the 860s and founded the first significant dynasty in Russian history called the Rurik Dynasty. Rurik and his heirs also established a significant geographical and political formation known as Kievan Rus’, the first incarnation of modern Russia. The Rurik rulers continued to rule Russia into the 16th century and the mythology surrounding the man Rurik is often referred to as the official beginning of Russian history.
The identity of the mythic leader Rurik remains obscure and unknown. His original birthplace, family history, and titles are shrouded in mystery with very few historical clues. Some 19th-century scholars attempted to identify him as Rorik of Dorestad (a Viking-Age trading outpost situated in the northern part of modern-day Germany). However, no concrete evidence exists to confirm this particular origin story.
A page from the Primary Chronicle or The Tale of Bygone Years: This rare written document was created in the 12th century and provides the most promising clues as to the arrival of Rurik in Ladoga.
The debate also continues as to how Rurik came to control the Novgorod region. However, some clues are available from the Primary Chronicle. This document is also known as The Tale of Bygone Years and was compiled in Kiev around 1113 by the monk Nestor. It relates the history of Kievan Rus’ from 850 to 1110 with various updates and edits made throughout the 12th century by scholarly monks. It is difficult to untangle legend from fact, but this document provides the most promising clues regarding Rurik. The Primary Chronicle contends the Varangians were a Viking group, most likely from Sweden or northern Germany, who controlled trade routes across northern Russia and tied together various cultures across Eurasia.
A monument celebrating the millennial anniversary of the arrival of Rurik in Russia: This modern interpretation of Rurik illustrates his powerful place in Russian history and lore.
The various tribal groups, including Chuds, Eastern Slavs, Merias, Veses, and Krivichs, along the northern trade routes near Novgorod often cooperated with the Varangian Rus’ leaders. But in the late 850s they rose up in rebellion, according to the Primary Chronicle. However, soon after this rebellion, the local tribes near the Novgorod region began to experience internal disorder and conflict. These events prompted local tribal leaders to invite Rurik and his Varangian leaders back to the region in 862 to reinstate peace and order. This moment in history is known as the Invitation of the Varangians and is commonly regarded as the starting point of official Russian history.
Development of Kievan Rus’
According to legend, at the call of the local tribal leaders Rurik, along with his brothers Truvor and Sineus, founded the Holmgard settlement in Ladoga. This settlement is supposed to be at the site of modern-day Novgorod. However, newer archeological evidence suggests that Novgorod was not regularly settled until the 10th century, leading some to speculate that Holmgard refers to a smaller settlement just southeast of the city. The founding of Holmgard signaled a new era in Russian history and the three brothers became the famous founders of the first Rus’ ruling dynasty.
Kievan Rus’ in 1015: The expansion and shifting borders of Kievan Rus’ become apparent when looking at this map, which includes the two centers of power in Novgorod and Kiev.
Rurik died in 879 and his successor, Oleg, continued the Varangian Rus’ expansion in 882 by taking the southern city of Kiev from the Khasars and establishing the medieval state of Kievan Rus’. The capital officially moved to Kiev at this point. With this shift in power, there were two distinct capitals in Kievan Rus’, the northern seat of Novgorod and the southern center in Kiev. In Kievan Rus’ tradition, the heir apparent would oversee the northern site of Novgorod while the ruling Rus’ king stayed in Kiev. Over the next 100 years local tribes consolidated and unified under the Rurik Dynasty, although local fractures and cultural differences continued to play a significant role in the attempt to maintain order under Varangian rule.
Vladimir I and Christianization
Introduction to Vladimir I
Vladimir I, also known as Vladimir the Great or Vladimir Sviatoslavich the Great, ruled Kievan Rus’ from 980 to 1015 and is famous for Christianizing this territory during his reign. Before he gained the throne in 980, he had been the Prince of Novgorod while his father, Sviatoslav of the Rurik Dynasty, ruled over Kiev. During his rule as the Prince of Novgorod in the 970s, and by the time Vladimir claimed power after his father’s death, he had consolidated power between modern-day Ukraine and the Baltic Sea. He also successfully bolstered his frontiers against incursions from Bulgarian, Baltic, and Eastern nomads during his reign.
Early Myths of Christianization
The original Rus’ territory was comprised of hundreds of small towns and regions, each with its own beliefs and religious practices. Many of these practices were based on pagan and localized traditions. The first mention of any attempts to bring Christianity to Rus’ appears around 860. The Byzantine Patriarch Photius penned a letter in the year 867 that described the Rus’ region right after the Rus’-Byzantine War of 860. According to Photius, the people of the region appeared enthusiastic about the new religion and he claims to have sent a bishop to convert the population. However, this low-ranking official did not successfully convert the population of Rus’ and it would take another twenty years before a significant change in religious practices would come about.
The stories regarding these first Byzantine missions to Rus’ during the 860s vary greatly and there is no official record to substantiate the claims of the Byzantine patriarchs. Any local people in small villages who embraced Christian practices would have had to contend with fears of change from their neighbors.
Vladimir I and His Rise to Power
The major player in the Christianization of the Rus’ world is traditionally considered Vladimir I. He was born in 958, the youngest of three sons, to the Rus’ king Sviatoslav. He ascended to the position of Prince of Novgorod around 969 while his oldest brother, Yaropolk, became the designated heir to the throne in Kiev. Sviatoslav died in 972, leaving behind a fragile political scene among his three sons. Vladimir was forced to flee to Scandinavia in 976 after Yaropolk murdered their brother Oleg and violently took control of Rus’.
Vladimir I: A Christian representation of Vladimir I, who was the first Rus’ leader to officially bring Christianity to the region.
Vladimir fled to his kinsman Haakon Sigurdsson, who ruled Norway at the time. Together they gathered an army with the intent to regain control of Rus’ and establish Vladimir as the ruler. In 978, Vladimir returned to Kievan Rus’ and successfully recaptured the territory. He also slew his brother Yaropolk in Kiev in the name of treason and, in turn, became the ruler of all of Kievan Rus’.
Constantinople and Conversion
Vladimir spent the next decade expanding his holdings, bolstering his military might, and establishing stronger borders against outside invasions. He also remained a practicing pagan during these first years of his rule. He continued to build shrines to pagan gods, traveled with multiple wives and concubines, and most likely continued to promote the worship of the thunder god Perun. However, the Primary Chronicle (one of the few written documents about this time) states that in 987 Vladimir decided to send envoys to investigate the various religions neighboring Kievan Rus’.
According to the limited documentation from the time, the envoys that came back from Constantinople reported that the festivities and the presence of God in the Christian Orthodox faith were more beautiful than anything they had ever seen, convincing Vladimir of his future religion.
Another version of events claims that Basil II of Byzantine needed a military and political ally in the face of a local uprising near Constantinople. In this version of the story, Vladimir demanded a royal marriage in return for his military help. He also announced he would Christianize Kievan Rus’ if he was offered a desirable marriage tie. In either version of events, Vladimir vied for the hand of Anna, the sister of the ruling Byzantine emperor, Basil II. In order to marry her he was baptized in the Orthodox faith with the name Basil, a nod to his future brother-in-law.
17th-century Church of the Tithes: The original stone Church of the Tithes collapsed from fire and sacking in the 12th century. However, two later versions were erected and destroyed in the 17th and 19th centuries.
He returned to Kiev with his bride in 988 and proceeded to destroy all pagan temples and monuments. He also built the first stone church in Kiev named the Church of the Tithes starting in 989. These moves confirmed a deep political alliance between the Byzantine Empire and Rus’ for years to come.
Baptism of Kiev
On his return in 988, Vladimir baptized his twelve sons and many boyarsin official recognition of the new faith. He also sent out a message to all residents of Kiev, both rich and poor, to appear at the Dnieper River the following day. The next day the residents of Kiev who appeared were baptized in the river while Orthodox priests prayed. This event became known as the Baptism of Kiev.
Monument of Saint Vladimir in Kiev: This statue sits close to the site of the original Baptism of Kiev.
Pagan uprisings continued throughout Kievan Rus’ for at least another century. Many local populations violently rejected the new religion and a particularly brutal uprising occurred in Novgorod in 1071. However, Vladimir became a symbol of the Russian Orthodox religion, and when he died in 1015 his body parts were distributed throughout the country to serve as holy relics.
Yaroslav the Wise
aroslav the Wise was the Grand Prince of Kiev from 1016 until his death in 1954. He was also vice-regent of Novgorod from 1010 to 1015 before his father, Vladimir the Great, died. During his reign he was known for spreading Christianity to the people of Rus’, founding the first monasteries in the country, encouraging foreign alliances, and translating Greek texts in Church Slavonic. He also created some of the first legal codes in Kievan Rus’. These accomplishments during his lengthy rule granted him the title of Yaroslav the Wise in early chronicles of his life, and his legacy endures in both political and religious Russian history.
Youth and Rise to Power
Yaroslav was the son of the Varangian Grand Prince Vladimir the Great and most likely his second son with Rogneda of Polotsk. His youth remains shrouded in mystery. Evidence from the Primary Chronicle and examination of his skeleton suggests he is one of the youngest sons of Vladimir, and possibly a son from a different mother. He was most likely born around the year 978.
Facial reconstruction of Yaroslav I by Mikhail Gerasimov
He was set as vice-regent of Novgorod in 1010, as befitted a senior heir to the throne. In this same time period Vladimir the Great granted the Kievan throne to his younger son, Boris. Relations were strained in this family. Yaroslav refused to pay Novgorodian tribute to Kiev in 1014, and only Vladimir’s death in 1015 prevented a severe war between these two regions. However, the next few years were spent in a bitter civil war between the brothers. Yarsolav was vying for the seat in Kiev against his brother Sviatopolk I, who was supported by Duke Boleslaw I of Chrobry. In the ensuing years of carnage, three of his brothers were murdered (Boris, Gleb, and Svyatoslav). Yaroslav won the first battle at Kiev against Sviatopolk in 1016 and Sviatopolk was forced to flee to Poland.
After this significant triumph Yaroslav’s ascent to greatness began, and he granted freedoms and privileges to the Novgorod Republic, who had helped him gain the Kievan throne. These first steps also most likely led to the first legal code in Kievan Rus’ under Yaroslav. He was chronicled as Yaroslav the Wise in retellings of these events because of his even-handed dealing with the wars, but it is highly possible he was involved in the murder of his brothers and other gruesome acts of war.
Saint Sophia Cathedral in Kiev: This iconic cathedral fell into disrepair and was almost destroyed during the Soviet era, but it was saved and restored to its former glory.
The civil war did not completely end in 1016. Sviatopolk returned in 1018 and retook Kiev. However, Varangian and Novgorodian troops recaptured the capital and Sviatopolk fled to the West never to return. Another fraternal conflict arose in 1024 when another brother of Yaroslav’s, Mstislav of Chernigov, attempted to capture Kiev. After this conflict, the brothers split the Kievan Rus’ holdings, with Mstislav ruling over the region left of the Dnieper River.
Yaroslav the Wise was instrumental in defending borders and expanding the holdings of Kievan Rus’. He protected the southern borders from nomadic tribes, such as the Pechenegs, by constructing a line of military forts. He also successfully laid claim to Chersonesus in the Crimea and came to a peaceful agreement with the Byzantine Empire after many years of conflict and disagreements over land holdings.
Golden Gate of Kiev in 2016: This important monument was one of the great architectural accomplishments created under Yaroslav the Wise, and now features a monument to the ruler, seen in the foreground.
Yaroslav the Wise garnered his thoughtful reputation due to his prolific years in power. He was a ruler that loved literature, religion, and the written language. His many accomplishments included:
- Building the Saint Sophia Cathedral and the first monasteries in Russia, named Saint George and Saint Irene.
- Founding a library and a school at the Saint Sophia Cathedral and encouraging the translation of Greek texts into Church Slavonic.
- Developing a more established hierarchy within the Russian Orthodox Church, including a statute outlining the rights of the clergy and establishing the sobor of bishops.
- Beautifying Kiev with elements of design taken from the Byzantine Empire, including the Golden Gate of Kiev.
- Compiling the first book of laws in Kievan Rus’, called the Pravda Yaroslava. This first compilation set down clear laws that reflected the feudal landscape of the 11th century. This initial legal code would live on and be refined into the Russkaya Pravda in the 12th century.
- Establishing primogeniture, which meant that his eldest son would succeed him as Grand Prince over Novgorod and Kiev, hoping that future conflict between his children would be avoided.
Family and Death
Yaroslav married Ingegerd Olofsdotter, the daughter of the king of Sweden, in 1019. He had many sons and encouraged them to remain on good terms, after all the years of warfare and bloodshed with his own brothers. He also married three of his daughters to European royalty. Elizabeth, Anna, and Anastasia married Harald III of Norway, Henry I of France, and Andrew I of Hungary respectively. These marriages forged powerful alliances with European states.
Daughters of Yaroslav the Wise: This 11th-century fresco in Saint Sophia’s Cathedral shows four of Yaroslav’s daughter, probably Anne, Anastasia, Elizabeth, and Agatha.
Daughters of Yaroslav the Wise: This 11th-century fresco in Saint Sophia’s Cathedral shows four of Yaroslav’s daughter, probably Anne, Anastasia, Elizabeth, and Agatha.
The Mongol Threat
The Mongol Empire expanded its holdings in the 13th century and established its rule over most of the major Kievan Rus’ principalities after brutal military invasions over the course of many years.
The Mongol invasion of the Kievan Rus’ principalities began in 1223 at the Battle of the Kalka River. However, the Mongol armies ended up focusing their military might on other regions after this bloody meeting, only to return in 1237. For the next three years the Mongol forces took over the major princely cities of Kievan Rus’ and finally forced most principalities to submit to foreign rule and taxation. Rus’ became part of what is known as the Golden Horde, the western extension of the Mongol Empire located in the eastern Slavic region. Some of the new taxes and rules of law lasted until 1480 and had a lasting impact on the shape and character of modern Russia.
Fragmented Kievan Rus’
The principalities of Kievan Rus’ at its height, 1054-1132: The princely regions were relatively unified into the 12th century but slowly separated and became more localized as fights over regions and power among the nobility continued.
After the end of the unifying reign of Yaroslav the Wise, Kievan Rus’ became fragmented and power was focused on smaller polities. The great ruler’s death in 1054 brought about major power struggles between his sons and princes in outlying provinces. By the 12th century, after years of fighting amongst the princes, power was centered around smaller principalities. This unsettled trend left Kievan Rus’ much more fragmented. Power was passed down to the eldest in the local ruling dynasty and cities were responsible for their own defenses. The Byzantine Empire was also facing major upheaval, which meant a central Russian ally and trading partner was weakened, which, in turn, weakened the strength and wealth of Kievan Rus’.
The already fragile alliances between the smaller Rus’ principalities faced further tension when the nomadic invaders, the Mongols, arrived on the scene during this fractured era. These invaders originated on the steppes of central Asia and were unified under the infamous warrior and leader Genghis Khan. The Mongols began to expand their power across the continent. The Battle of the Kalka River in 1223 initiated the first attempt of the Mongol forces to capture Kievan Rus’. It was a bloody battle that ended with the execution of Mstislav of Kiev executed the Kievan forces greatly weakened. The Mongols were superior in their military tactics and stretched the Rus’ forces considerably, however after executing the Kievan prince, the forces went back to Asia to rejoin Genghis Khan. However, the Mongol threat was far from over, and they returned in 1237.
The Sacking of Suzdal in 1238 by Batu Khan: This 16th-century depiction of the Mongol invasion highlights the bloodshed and military might of the invaders.
Over the course of the years 1237 and 1238, the Mongol leader, Batu Khan, led his 35,000 mounted archers to burn down Moscow and Kolomna. Then he split his army into smaller units that tackled the princely polities one at a time. Only Novgorod and Pskov were spared major destruction during this time. Refugees from the southern principalities, where destruction was widespread and devastating, were forced to flee to the harsh northern forests, where good soil and resources were scarce. The final victory for Batu Khan came in December 1240 when he stormed the great capital of Kiev and prevailed.
Tatar Rule and the Golden Horde
A map of the Mongol Empire as it expanded: This illustration shows the rapid expansion of the Mongol Empire as it traveled west into what became known as the Golden Horde.
The Mongols, also known as the Tatars, built their new capital, Sarai, in the south along the Volga River. All the major principalities, such as Novgorod, Smolensk, and Pskov, submitted to Mongol rule. The age of this economic and cultural rule is often called the Tatar yoke, but over the course of 200 years, it was a relatively peaceful rule. The Tatars followed in the footsteps of Genghis Khan and refrained from settling the entire region or forcing local populations to adopt specific religious or cultural traditions. However, Rus’ principalities paid tribute and taxes to the Mongol rulers regularly, under the umbrella of the Golden Horde (the western portion of the Mongol Empire). Around 1259 this tribute was organized into a census that was enforced by the locals Rus’ princes on a regular schedule, collected, and taken to the capital of Sarai for the Mongol leaders.
Effects of Mongol Rule
Despite the fact that the established Tatar rule was relatively peaceful, demanding taxation and the devastation from years of invasion left many major cities in disrepair for decades. It took years to rebuild Kiev and Pskov. However, Novgorod continued to flourish and the relatively new city centers of the Moscow and Tver began to prosper. Another downside to the Tatar presence was the continued threat of invasion and destruction, which happened sporadically during their presence. Each new military invasion meant heavy tolls on the local population and years of reconstruction.
Culturally, the Mongol rule brought about major shifts during the first century of their presence. Extensive postal road systems, military organization, and powerful dynasties were established by Tatar alliances. Capital punishment and torture also became more widespread during the years of Tatar rule. Some noblemen also changed their names and adopted the Tatar language, bringing about a shift in the aesthetic, linguistic, and cultural ties of Russia life. Many scholars also note that the Mongol rule was a major cause of the division of East Slavic people in Rus’ into three distinctive modern-day nations, Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus.
Ivan I and the Rise of Moscow
The small trading outpost of Moscow in the north of Rus’ transformed into a wealthy cultural center in the 14th century under the leadership of Ivan I.
Moscow was only a small trading outpost in the principality of Vladimir-Suzdal in Kievan Rus’ before the invasion of Mongol forces during the 13th century. However, due to the unstable environment of the Golden Horde, and the deft leadership of Ivan I at a critical time during the 13th century, Moscow became a safe haven of prosperity during his reign. It also became the new seat of power of the Russian Orthodox Church.
Ivan I (also known as Ivan Kalita) was born around 1288 to the Prince of Moscow, Daniil Aleksandrovich. He was born during a time of devastation and upheaval in Rus’. Kiev had been overtaken by the invading Mongol forces in 1240, and most of the Rus’ principalities had been absorbed into the Golden Horde of the Mongol Empire by the time Ivan was born. He ascended to the seat of Prince of Moscow after the death of his father, and then the death of his older brother Yury.
Ivan I: He was born around 1288 and died in either 1340 or 1341, still holding the title of Grand Prince of Vladimir.
Ivan I stepped into a role that had already been expanded by his predecessors. Both his older brother and his father had captured nearby lands, including Kolomna and Mozhaisk. Yury had also made a successful alliance with the Mongol leader Uzbeg Khan and married his sister, securing more power and advantages within the hierarchy of the Golden Horde.
Ivan I continued the family tradition and petitioned the leaders of the Golden Horde to gain the seat of Grand Prince of Vladimir. His other three rivals, all princes of Tver, had previously been granted the title in prior years. However they were all subsequently deprived of the title and all three aspiring princes also eventually ended up murdered. Ivan I, on the other hand, garnered the title from Khan Muhammad Ozbeg in 1328. This new title, which he kept until his death around 1340, meant he could collect taxes from the Russian lands as a ruling prince and position his tiny city as a major player in the Vladimir region.
During this time of upheaval, the tiny outpost of Moscow had multiple advantages that repositioned this town and set it up for future prosperity under Ivan I. Three major contributing factors helped Ivan I relocate power to this area:
- It was situated in between other major principalities on the east and west so it was often protected from the more devastating invasions.
- This relative safety, compared to Tver and Ryazan, for example, started to bring in tax-paying citizens who wanted a safe place to build a home and earn a livelihood.
- Finally, Moscow was set up perfectly along the trade route from Novgorod to the Volga River, giving it an economic advantage from the start.
Ivan I also spurred on the growth of Moscow by actively recruiting people to move to the region. Inaddition, he bought the freedom of people who had been captured by the extensive Mongol raids. These recruits further bolstered the population of Moscow. Finally, he focused his attention on establishing peace and routing out thieves and raiding parties in the region, making for a safe and calm metaphorical island in a storm of unsettled political and military upsets.
Kievan Rus’ 1220-1240: This map illustrates the power dynamics at play during the 13th century shortly before Ivan I was born. Sarai, the capital of the Golden Horde, sat to the southeast, while Moscow (not visible on this map) was tucked up in the northern forests of Vladimir-Suzdal.
Ivan I knew that the peace of his region depended upon keeping up an alliance with the Golden Horde, which he did faithfully. Moscow’s increased wealth during this era also allowed him to loan money to neighboring principalities. These regions then became indebted to Moscow, bolstering its political and financial position.
In addition, a few neighboring cities and villages were subsumed into Moscow during the 1320s and 1330s, including Uglich, Belozero, and Galich. These shifts slowly transformed the tiny trading outpost into a bustling city center in the northern forests of what was once Kievan Rus’.
Russian Orthodox Church and the Center of Moscow
Ivan I committed some of Moscow’s new wealth to building a splendid city center and creating an iconic religious setting. He built stone churches in the center of Moscow with his newly gained wealth. Ivan I also tempted one of the most important religious leaders in Rus’, the Orthodox Metropolitan Peter, to the city of Moscow. Before the rule of the Golden Horde the original Russian Orthodox Church was based in Kiev. After years of devastation, Metropolitan Peter transferred the seat of power to Moscow where a new Renaissance of culture was blossoming. This perfectly timed transformation of Moscow coincided with the decades of devastation in Kiev, effectively transferring power to the north once again.
Peter of Moscow and scenes from his life as depicted in a 15th-century icon: This religious leader helped bring cultural power to Moscow by moving the seat of the Russian Orthodox Church there during Ivan I’s reign.
One of the most lasting accomplishments of Ivan I was to petition the Khan based in Sarai to designate his son, who would become Simeon the Proud, as the heir to the title of Grand Prince of Vladimir. This agreement a line of succession that meant the ruling head of Moscow would almost always hold power over the principality of Vladimir, ensuring Moscow held a powerful position for decades to come.