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Early Russian History

The Russian steppe throughout history was a mixing place for a myriad group of peoples. Though many groups moved into the region during the first millennia AD, they were mostly absorbed by the East Slavs already living there. With an adoption of Viking peoples coming into the area a new city would be established. Kiev had the advantage of being situated on the trade road that linked the Vikings in the north, with Constantinople in the south and Baghdad in the southeast and so became a major city in the east and the founder of the first Russian state.

The southern plains of Russia had long held many peoples. Iranians were said to live in the area in very early times, as well as the nomadic Scythians, whose skill as horsemen and warriors is legendary. The Scythians occupied the region from circa 600 BC to 200 BC and gradually declined in power or were absorbed. They were replaced by many migrating groups, including the Goths, Huns, Avars and Magyars, all of whom passed through the region, in the first millennium AD, during their migrations toward the west. Though some of those nomads did subjugate the Slavic peoples of the area, they seldom left any lasting impression. Throughout it all though, the Slavs would rise to dominance by the 7th century AD.

The early history of the Slavic peoples is very much vague. Archeologists believe that the Slavs originally settled in present day Belarus and over time moved south and east throughout areas stretching from the Danube Basin through the East European Steppe and into Northern Russia. Of those that settled in the steepe, many came under the control of the control of the Turkic tribe by the name of the Khazars, who controlled the Volga region and the Caucasus, throughout the late first millennia.

Kiev is Established

With the rise of the Vikings, a Scandinavian tribe of raiders and merchants (in the case of the Vikings those are not mutually exclusive terms) by the name of the Varangians began to move into and eventually settle the steppe of Russia. The founding of the Kievan region seems to settle around on Varangian by the name of Rurik, who initially conquered Novgorod, in northwestern Russia south of present-day St. Petersburg, and eventually extended his domain to the area of Kiev. Rurik is said, in legend, to be the man from who the Kievan Rus’ line would descend. A later Varangian leader named Oleg would beat back the Khazar tribes and settled Kievan Rus’ sometime around the year 880 AD. During the next 35 to 40 years Oleg would subjugate the East Slavic tribes around his new domain, gradually brining the area under his control and forming the nucleus of Kievan Rus’.

In 907 AD Oleg led a campaign against the Byzantine Empire, via the Volga River and Black Sea, which raided the coast leading up to the city of Constantinople and even laid siege to the city. Oleg’s forces actually were almost able to break through the cities famed defenses, which were weaker on the seaward side, but were eventually beaten back. The lost campaign had benefits for both the new Kievan state and the Byzantium though. Through his raids, the peoples of Kiev became aware of the great empire to their south and the peoples of the Byzantium became aware of a new trading partner and culture to be taught to the north.

In 911 AD a treaty was signed between the emperor in Constantinople and Oleg that bound the two states as equal partners in trade. The Kievan lands, stretching from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea were in a unique place in the area, linking trade from north to south and were able to make much profit from the new commerce that resulted from the agreement. Beyond even that, the Kievan supplies of wax, honey, furs and slaves were in great demand in the south, both in Constantinople and Baghdad, further burgeoning the fledgling economy.

The Golden Age Kievan Rus’

Kievan Rus’ greatest power came under the rule of two men, Vladimir I (ruled 978 -1015) and Yaroslav I (ruled 1019 – 1054). Vladimir took the sister of the Byzantine Emperor as his wife to enhance his own power and prestige and to tie the two nations closer together. But most importantly, he was the converter of Kievan Rus’ to the Eastern Orthodoxy of the Byzantium. His decision would have far ranging consequences for the eastern world and established the only major Orthodox nation outside of the Byzantium. His conversion to Christianity was followed by a spree of church building, most importantly the Desyatinnaya Church in Kiev.

It is expected that Vladimir’s decision to choose Orthodoxy over the Latin Church was a reflection of his close ties with the Constantinople, both through his wife and through trade. While this could be seen as enough, it must be understood that the Byzantium absolutely dominated the region in this era. Their control, while not de facto on the northern Black Sea coast was there, Constantinople was the center of trade for thousands of miles and the empire was a major center of civilization in the world. Beyond even this, the monks of the Church in Constantinople had long ago translated the Christian texts into Cyrillic, in fact it is even said that these monks created the Cyrillic language in order to make the translation.

Yaroslav I would some come to power in 1019 AD, after defeating his older brother Sviatopolk I in a civil war. Sviatopolk I had murdered three of his brothers upon ascending to the throne, but Yaroslav, from his base in Novgorod remained alive. A civil war was to break out and over the next four years Yaroslav managed to win the kingdom. During Yaroslav’s reign Kievan Rus’ would receive its first code of laws Rus'ka Pravda (Justice of Rus’). He also built the cathedrals of St Sophia in Novgorod and Kiev, patronized the clergy and is even said to have developed an education system. Yaroslav I made one major decision at the end of his reign which would have far reaching and potentially devastating consequences on Kievan Rus’. He chose to give each of his sons their own patrimony and made none truly senior over another, though his first son was made Grand Prince. He is said to have expected his sons to die in order and the power to be gathered peacefully into one hand again. Such was not the case.

Kievan Class Structure

By the eleventh century the princes, and those they associated themselves with, had come to dominate society in Kievan Rus’. Classes were a relatively fluid thing for the time and, unlike Western Europe, Feudalism was not a fact of life. Indeed, the large peasant class very often was forced to live on lands held by princes or other landholders, but this was typically because they owed debts. The debts, except in the case of abusive members of the aristocracy, were typically able to be paid back by the peasants, at which point the peasants and their families could move on if they wished. Among the landholders were many officials of the kingdom and generals, who often received land for their services. In towns and cities across Kievan Rus’ the common people had the right to make their voices heard in the city assembly or veche.

The Russians Spread and Kiev Declines

Over the centuries the peoples of Kievan Rus’ had settled lands outside of what was normally considered the domains of Kiev. Slowly they spread north, into the forests and these families over time were joined by other families. Across the huge forests of northern Russia, cities like Vladimir and Ryazan and Suzdal would slowly creep up through the wilderness as more people colonized deeper into the forest. The areas here were very wet, and unlike the drier south where people had to typically establish themselves by rivers, the north’s sheer amount of water allowed settlements to be spread over the area. The growth of the Orthodox Church also helped spread the Russian peoples. A few monks here and there would go off into the forests and establish monasteries where eventually they might be joined by other monks. These monasteries would then attract peasants and a settlement would grow. Eventually the monks would move on and find quieter pastures further on and the cycle would repeat. Over the centuries, the north began to have a life of its own.

Yaroslav’s I policy of splitting up his patrimony would also begin the breaking up of Kievan Rus’. The new regional powers at first were typically bound together by close family lines. But as time passed and families got bigger, the family lines got forgotten and the new regional princes turned towards a view centered more on their regional domain and less on Kievan Rus’ as a whole. And finally the unthinkable would happen.

When the Fourth Crusade smashed into the Byzantine Empire and sacked Constantinople, the glory of the eastern world was extinguished in one fell swoop. Yes, Constantinople would live on for more than another century, but their hegemony was almost completely destroyed. Trade that had previously flowed through Kiev now went through new routes. The Russian peoples lost their connection to the rest of the world and since they had never had to learn Greek or Latin to join the Christian Church, unlike more western nations, they found themselves cut off linguistically also. Slowly the Russian world would draw apart, the new settlements in the north would become the Great Russians or those that the world calls Russians today, while Kievan Rus’ and the steppe would become the Little Russians or the Ukrainians and those to the west became the White Russians or Byelorussians.

Far to the north, the city of Novgorod, though having lost its ancient trade route from Kiev continued to prosper, becoming one of the trading cities within the Hanseatic League. The territory of Muscovy also began its rise during this time, after the Slavic settlers moving into the area had integrated with the original Finno-Ugric tribes of the region. Further east, the city of Suzdal quickly eclipsed the old city of Rostov in power and then was eclipsed by Vladimir and eventually the two united to become the principality of Vladimir-Suzdal, a principality which would dominate the next era of Kievan Rus’.

Kievan Rus’ was not dead yet by a long shot. Though it had continued to move more and more into a period of fragmentation, the regions were all still united under the name Kievan Rus’, but Kiev itself was in fact starting to lose its influence and the region of power was beginning to shift and become too loose and easy to seize.

In 1169, Andrey Bogolyubskiy, the prince of Vladimir-Suzdal, sacked Kiev and installed his younger brother on the throne of Kiev. Andrey retired to Suzdal after installing his brother on the throne and ruled Kievan Rus’ from there; and so the power in the region had shifted north for the time. But it was to shift again with the conquest of Kiev by a new force, this one under Prince Roman Mstislavich of Galicia-Volhynia.

Galicia and Volhynia had been settled by Slavic peoples moving west. Nestled in the protection of the Carpathian Mountains, these two provinces were active in relations with their Hungarian, Polish and Lithuanian neighbors. The early thirteenth century would see the two provinces united by Roman Mstislavich, who would then conquer Kiev. Roman would become the Grand Duke of Kievan Rus’ and his son, Daniil, would succeed him and actually be crowned by Papal Legate. So it was that the crown of Kievan Rus’ had moved twice in short time, the land’s end was drawing near, but no one could have foreseen the storm that would finally sweep the nation away.

The Mongols

In 1223 AD a Mongolian army crossed into the Russian Steppe. Under the command of one Juji Khan, this army was many tens of thousands strong, but sent out merely as a scouting mission. In the same year a Kievan Rus’ army, united with the southern Turkic Polovtisans, faced off with the Mongol army and were completely destroyed. But the Mongols left the area and the battle’s horrific results seemed to come to naught. In 1237, the Mongols returned, this time under Batu Khan. The army swept through the land and by 1240 Kiev had been sacked and the army of Batu had moved in Poland and Lithuania. Of all the Kievan Rus’ principalities only Novgorod was spared destruction and even they had to pay tribute. The Metropolitan of Kiev was forced to flee Kiev before the Mongol’s army and resettled in Vladimir-Suzdal. In just a few short years, Kievan Rus’ was gone.

Under the new overlords a different Russia would arise. The three Russians people would became separated and distinct from one another and the northern Great Russians would become the dominate group. And a small town would survive their sack by the Mongols and under their new overlords would even prosper. So it was that in the ashes of destruction, the town of Moscovy grew.


Lawrence, J. (1993). A History of Russia. Penguin Books: New York, New York.

Library of Congress (1996). Russia: Early history. Retrieved January 18, 2004 from http://lcweb2.loc.gov/frd/cs/rutoc.html#ru0014

Norwich, J. J. (1988). A short history of Byzantium. Vintage Books.

Unknown Author (1996-1997). Russia: Ancient history. Retrieved January 22, 2004 from http://www.interknowledge.com/russia/

Unknown Author (1996-1997). The early settlements. Retrieved January 20, 2004 from http://www.russia.net/~oldrn/history/settlements.html

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