The Historical Setting

In 1036, the Kievan Rus' state was at its political apogee. As yet not seriously fragmented into dozens of small principalities only nominally tied to the Grand Prince in Kiev, Kievan Rus' was largely untroubled by the nomadic peoples who would eventually overrun them in the 13th century. Iaroslav the Wise was considered an effective and strong leader, who had in 1036 just outlived the last of his brothers to become the sole Prince. But how did the Kievan state arrive at this point?

Our story begins with a Varangian (Scandinavian) -- Oleg, the son of Rurik, (who would give his name to the princely dynasty). Oleg was able to impose his rule upon Kiev around 882. According to the Primary Chronicle, the people of Novgorod had invited Oleg1s father and uncles to rule there in 854, thus establishing a permanent Varangian presence in the area. How many Varangians there were and how deeply they affected the society they came to rule is still the subject of heated debate between "Normanists", who claim that the culture of the Rus1 was essentially Scandinavian, and "anti-Normanists", who claim that Slavic elements are more prominent. The middle ground is probably the best supported, and that is the view I will present. Thus, a relatively small number of Varangians, attracted by the trade route "from the Varangians to the Greeks" via Russia's waterways, stayed and settled in Rus'. For about a century, the military and political elite was dominated by Varangians, but as time passed, they intermarried with the mixed Slavic population in the areas where they settled, adapting themselves to the society they found, so that like the Norman Vikings in France, a century after settling they were perhaps more Slavic than the Slavs.

In the early part of the tenth century, the leaders of Rus' were often at odds with Byzantium. Oleg led a successful campaign against the Byzantines in 907, and before his death in 913 negotiated a favourable treaty with Constantinople. He was able to enlist the cooperation of other Slavic tribes in this endeavor, though he was probably not able to actually establish his rule over them. Oleg1s son and successor, Igor, continued this work, fighting a losing battle against Constantinople in 941 (where his forces were devastated by Greek Fire), but successfully expanding Kiev's authority over other tribes and battling the newest wave of nomads, the Pechenegs. Igor was killed while collecting tribute from Slavic tribes in 945, leaving his widow Olga as regent for their son Sviatoslav.

Olga ruled the Rus' from 945 to 962 or so. During her rule, Kiev drew closer to Byzantium. Olga herself visited the city and was personally received by the Emperor, Constantine Porphyrogenitus, and his family. Olga had already converted to Christianity in 954 or 955, though she did not enforce this on either her people or her own family. Olga worked to strengthen Kiev1s authority over the Slavs, using harsh punishment where necessary.

Her son Sviatoslav ruled only ten years, from 962 to 972, but in this brief time attained near legendary status for his bravery and daring as he attempted to extend his authority eastward and westward. In the east, he subjugated the Khazars and took control of the Volga-Caspian trade routes; in the West, he battled the Bulgars in the Balkans, winning a great victory before being forced to return home to deal with the Pechenegs, who were threatening Kiev. Sviatoslav then initiated a campaign against Byzantium, who had become aware of the pressing danger of having the Rus1 so close in the Balkans and wanted them out. After a series of battles, Sviatoslav was forced to withdraw; on the way home, he was ambushed by the Pechenegs and killed.

Civil war ensued among three of Sviatoslav's sons: Iaropolk, who had governed Kiev in his father1s absence; Oleg, who had been sent to govern the Drevliane; and Vladimir, the youngest, who had been sent to Novgorod. At first Iaropolk was able to defeat his brothers; Oleg was killed and Vladimir had to go into exile. But Vladimir returned a couple of years later with a mercenary army; he was able to gain local support as well and defeat his brother.

Vladimir continued to strengthen Kiev's hegemony in the area, also successfully containing the Pechenegs and fortifying the frontiers. After a brief attempt to instill a pagan revival, Vladimir converted to Orthodox Christianity. As the legend has it, he rejected Islam because it prohibited alcohol and his emissaries found the nearest Muslims--the Volga Bulgars -- to be smelly and unkempt; he rejected Judaism because the nearest Jews-- the Khazars-- were a defeated people without a state; and he rejected Western Christianity because the liturgy was lifeless, in stark contrast to the beauty of the Orthodox liturgy, which overwhelmed his emissaries when they witnessed it in the Cathedral of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople. (Just setting foot in Hagia Sophia at its height, when the towering vaults and domes were covered in gilt mosaic and lit by thousands of flickering candles would probably induce a conversion experience even in skeptical moderns.) Vladimir made a marriage alliance with Byzantium, at this point apparently formally repudiating his multiple wives and concubines, though not their sons. Christianity, which had claimed significant numbers among the Rus1, now spread quickly, particularly in the south; in the north, the spread was slower. There are few accounts of active persecution of pagans after the conversion; Rus' culture continued to tolerate paganism well into the eleventh century.

Upon Vladimir's death in 1015, civil war once again broke out. Vladimir had at least 12 sons, some of whom had clear designs on rule in Kiev. Sviatopolk, the eldest son, with the aid of the Poles, was able to eliminate a number of his rivals, including Sviatoslav, Boris, and Gleb. The latter two were made saints after a younger brother, Iaroslav, who had ruled in Novgorod, defeated and killed Sviatopolk in 1019, permanently sticking him with the epithet "The Damned". Iaroslav divided his realm with another brother, Mstislav, who ruled the area around Tmutorokan as a quasi-independent principality. Upon Mstislav1s death in 1036, Iaroslav became sole ruler. The next year, he decisively defeated the Pechenegs, ending that threat for twenty-five years.

So that brings us "up-to-date", as it were. In 1036, Iaroslav has just consolidated his rule over the entire Kievan State. He has successfully reestablished his rule in areas which Poland assumed in return for support of Sviatopolk. Next year, he will end the Pecheneg threat. Thus, perhaps it is time that he establish the line of succession....

Copyright 1997 Susan Carroll-Clark. All rights reserved.