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Early Kievan Rus

Larry Slawson received his master's degree at UNC Charlotte. He specializes in Russian and Ukrainian history.

Photo of Saint Basil's Cathedral.

Photo of Saint Basil's Cathedral.

Origins of Kievan Rus

Kievan Rus formed during the ninth century A.D., following the creation of a federation between Kiev and Novgorod. Both Varangian and Slavic princes helped make Kievan Rus a reality during this time, as a common reliance upon Christianity, language, traditions, and customs all garnered tremendous support from their local populations (MacKenzie and Curran, 24). Historians, however, continue to remain divided over how cohesive and centralized the Kievan state actually was during its early years. Was it comprised of “a loose confederation” of local forces? (MacKenzie and Curran, 24) Or did the “Kievan federation’s institutions [remain] feudal like those of Medieval Europe?” (MacKenzie and Curran, 24).

Early Kievan Rus

Beginning in the ninth century A.D., Kievan Rus’ early history revolved around both violence and expansion as Varangian and Slavic princes sought to extend “their control from the Black Sea to the Baltics” (MacKenzie and Curran, 25). According to historians, many of these early conquests of expansion derived from a desire to expand trade with “Constantinople, the Balkans, and Transcaucasia” (MacKenzie and Curran, 25).

In 878 A.D., Oleg the Varangian abandoned Kievan Rus’ early “imperial designs” and united Kievan Rus through the fusion of Novgorod and Kiev. Through military annexation, Oleg proclaimed Kiev as the “mother of Russian cities,” as its strategic location allowed greater access to the Dnieper River, the Baltics, and the Black Sea (MacKenzie and Curran, 25). This, in turn, provided Oleg with a strategic boost to his economic, political, and military ambitions across the western Eurasian plain.

With the successful takeover of Kiev, Oleg marched his army toward Constantinople in the year 907 A.D.. Using nearly 2,000 ships to support his military campaign, Oleg effectively forced Byzantium to accept his conditions of victory, or face the possibility of complete destruction at his hands. The Russo-Byzantine Treaty of 911 A.D., which followed, “authorized regular and equal trading relations” between Kievan Rus and Byzantium, allowed Rus merchants to enter Constantinople to conduct business and trade and forced Byzantium to pay “a large indemnity” (MacKenzie and Curran, 25).

Prince Igor

Prince Igor

Prince Igor's Rise to Power

Prince Igor, Oleg’s successor, continued many of the former leader’s policies as he fought to maintain both political and economic stability across the kingdom. According to historians, Kiev quickly became the “central core of Rus” during Igor’s reign, as “peripheral Slav tribes paid…tribute in [the form of] furs and money” (MacKenzie and Curran, 25). Each of these tribes and towns was administered by local princes that constituted the Riurik Dynasty. True power, however, continued to remain in the hands of Igor, the grand prince of Kiev.

In an attempt to garner more resources from Byzantium, Igor led two assaults against Byzantine in the years 941 and 944 A.D., respectively. Like Oleg, Igor’s military victories succeeded in establishing greater commercial ties, as well as the introduction of a tribute system in which Byzantine provided regular tributes to Prince Igor. Such gains were short-lived, however, as Derevlians, in 944 A.D. killed Igor in response to heavy taxation.

Igor’s wife, Olga, became the first woman ruler of Kievan Rus in 945 A.D. Under her commanding rule, Olga expanded political authority and consolidated Kievan power through the formation of localized districts. Her reign was also significant as she became the first ruler of Rus to convert to Christianity. Although her son, Sviatoslav, continued to remain pagan in his beliefs, he continued many of his father’s expansionist policies, and successfully incorporated both the Viatichians and Volga Bulgars into Kievan-Rus. Sviatoslav also succeeded in destroying the Khazars and even defeated the Balkan Bulgars before abdicating and leaving control of Kievan Rus to his sons.

Prince Vladimir I

Prince Vladimir I

Prince Vladimir I

Prince Vladimir I took up the throne in 980 A.D. (following the death of Olga), and remained in power until 1015. During his reign, Vladimir continued to assert “Kiev’s authority over the various Slav tribes,” and expanded “Rus to the shores of the Baltic Sea and the eastern frontier” (MacKenzie and Curran, 27). In a manner similar to his grandmother, Olga, Vladimir converted to Christianity in 988 A.D.; forcing his people to undergo conversion in the years and decades that followed. Vladimir’s swift death, however, left Rus in a state of war and conflict as his sons vied for political power for nearly ten years; a conflict that left Iaroslav (later known as Iaroslav the Wise) as a grand prince, following intense fighting with his brothers.

Rise and Fall

The rise of Iaroslav proved fundamental for the development of Kievan Rus, as his nearly twenty-year reign brought Rus “to the peak of its power” (MacKenzie and Curran, 28). Iaroslav’s ascent brought both peace and stability to Rus, and established the kingdom as an integral part of the European continent. According to David MacKenzie, Iaroslav’s “firm rule” established Kiev as a “center for learning,” Christianity, architecture, and written law (MacKenzie and Curran, 28). His partition of towns into local principalities, however, only led to division and strife following his death in 1054, as Iaroslav’s sons vied for political power in the absence of their father.

Concluding Thoughts

In the years that followed, inter-familial conflict resulted in the fragmentation of Kievan Rus. In only a few short years, the once-thriving kingdom quickly “became a loose confederation of independent princes with increasingly tenuous family ties and a vague tradition of national unity” (MacKenzie and Curran, 29). As MacKenzie states, “even before the Mongol invasion, Rus had split into a dozen feuding principalities” that dramatically reduced both its strength and power (MacKenzie and Curran, 29). Such deficiencies proved fatal for Rus, as the kingdom was forced to rapidly capitulate to Mongol pressure in the years that followed.

Works Cited


  • MacKenzie, David and Michael Curran. A History of Russia, the Soviet Union, and Beyond. 6th Edition. Belmont, California: Wadsworth Thomson Learning, 2002.


  • Wikimedia Commons

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2018 Larry Slawson


Larry Slawson (author) from North Carolina on November 03, 2018:

Very neat. I would have loved to see that. I had a professor that went to Kiev during the Soviet era. He described it in the same manner.

Liz Westwood from UK on November 02, 2018:

The buildings were impressive. As it was still in the Soviet Union there were a lot of Lenin posters and statues around at the time.

Larry Slawson (author) from North Carolina on November 02, 2018:

@Eurofile That's really neat! I've always wanted to visit Kiev. Were your impressed by the city?

Liz Westwood from UK on November 02, 2018:

This gives interesting background to a visit I made to Kiev many years ago.