Russia History Rurikid History of Rus

History of Rus

The history of the Russian state begins with Prince Rurik, who belonged to a Slavonic tribe inhabiting the southern shores of the Baltic Sea and the island of Ruegen. For over seven centuries, his descendants ruled several Russian princedoms and then the entire country.

Various unions of the East Slavonic tribes displayed all the attributes of statehood. The best known are the tribal unions headed by Kyi (founder of the town of Kiev in the late fifth century) and Gostomysl (head of a Slavonic tribal association based around Novgorod in the ninth century).

Russian statehood is generally regarded as beginning in 859, when Prince Rurik was invited to rule Novgorod, in an attempt to stave off internecine warfare. His reign dates from 862. Two years later, Askold and Dir liberated Kiev from the Khazars. Rurik died in 879, leaving an infant son called Igor. Before his death, he named his relative Oleg as his successor.

In 882, Prince Oleg prepared to wage war against Askold and Dir in Kiev. He invited the two men to his camp, where they were murdered. Two churches were later built on the site of their graves – the Church of St Nicholas for Askold and the Church of St Irene for Dir. Oleg was crowned prince of Kiev and the city became the capital of Old Russia or Kievan Rus.

Kievan Rus was surrounded by aggressive neighbours and was often invaded by the Norman tribes living to the north. The Varangians (Vikings) penetrated deep into the heart of Russia, sailing large boats from the Gulf of Finland down the rivers Neva and Volkov, plundering and killed the inhabitants of the great waterway “from the Varanghians to the Greeks.” The country was attacked from the east by the Khazars, a nomadic tribe living between the rivers Volga and Don. Alexander Pushkin describes the period of constant warfare with them in his poem The Song of Prince Igor (1822).

The Pechenegs came from Central Asia and inhabited the lands bordering on the Black Sea. They often invaded the country on their fast horses, burning, killing and carrying off slaves. The Pechenegs once besieged Kiev, but were unable to overcome the city walls and the heroic defence of the citizens. Kievan Rus thus acted as a bulwark, saving central and western Europe from invasion by the nomadic tribes of Asia.

Kievan Rus had strained relations with the Byzantine Empire. Slavs were highly valued in the Byzantine slave markets and the Byzantine emperors cast covetous eyes on the rich Russian lands. The two countries fought a series of wars. In 911, Prince Oleg signed a peace treaty giving Russian merchants the right to trade without customs or taxes in the Byzantine capital, Constantinople.

Igor’s son, Prince Svyatoslav, continued to strengthen the Russian state. He defeated the Khazars and the Volga Bolgars and repulsed the attacks of the Pechenegs. In 972, however, he was killed at the Dnieper rapids, after falling into a Pecheneg trap planned by Byzantium. Svyatoslav’s skull was made into a gold-plated goblet for the Pecheneg khan, who drank from it at banquets.

Under Svyatoslav’s son, Prince Vladimir, Kievan Rus extended from the River Bug to the Baltic Sea. The prince is responsible for introducing Christianity to Russia, with important consequences for the future development of the nation. In 988, he followed the example of his grandmother, Princess Olga, who had been baptised at the age of fifty in Constantinople.

Prince Vladimir wanted to do more than just borrow the religion of the Byzantine Empire. Planning to conquer the entire country, he captured the port of Korsun (Chersonesos), the most important trading post on the Black Sea. Vladimir wrote to the Byzantine emperor, Basil II, demanding his sister Anna in marriage. In the event of refusal, he threatened to invade Constantinople. The emperor gave in to his demands and sent Anna to Korsun, accompanied by a group of courtiers and priests.

Vladimir and Anna were married in Korsun, where the prince was baptised as Basil. When he returned to Kiev, he threatened to kill anyone who did not convert to Christianity. The prince destroyed pagan idols and temples, building churches in their place. In 988, his family and the entire city of Kiev were baptised in a place called Kreschatik. This event marks the start of Christianity in Russia.

The prince was known as “Vladimir the Fair Sun” for his efforts in uniting and strengthening the Russian state, building new towns and introducing a new faith and culture. In the thirteenth century, he was canonised by the Russian Orthodox Church and ranked equal to the apostles. Catherine the Great later founded the Order of St Vladimir in his memory.

The reign of Vladimir’s son – Prince Yaroslav the Wise – was the golden age of Kievan Rus. He founded the town of Yaroslavl on the River Volga and enjoyed a great victory over the Pechenegs, putting an end to their constant raids on the Russian lands. The borders of the country stretched from the Gulf of Finland in the north to the River Danube in the south and from the Carpathian Mountains in the west to the River Don in the east.

Prince Yaroslav employed the principle of marriage to integrate Kievan Rus with the rest of Europe. He married the daughter of King Olof Skötkonung of Sweden, whose dowry was the province of Karelia. His daughters married the rulers of France (Henry I), Hungary (Andrew I) and Norway (Harold III). Yaroslav’s sister, Dobronega (Maria), married King Casimir of Poland, while his son Vsyevolod married the daughter of the Byzantine Emperor Constantine Monomachus. Yaroslav’s granddaughter Eupraxia was the wife of the Holy Roman emperor Henry IV. Foreign powers sought alliances with Kievan Rus.

Old Russian culture flourished under Yaroslav the Wise. The prince built the St Sophia Cathedral and new city walls with the Golden Gates. Kiev boasted around four hundred churches. The Russian school of religious painting and architecture also flourished. Schools were opened at monasteries.

Perhaps the most important innovation was the formation of a code of laws entitled the Russian Justice or Pravda. Any citizen breaking the law had to pay a fine, depending on the seriousness of the crime. Although the new codex outlawed the practice of blood feuds in Russia, it was now possible to kill a man for money, as each murder entailed a fine. Anyone killing a common man had to pay his relatives five grivnas. The death of a prince’s servant or soldier carried a fine of eighty grivnas. Although the Russian Justice was far from perfect, any legislation was better than none at all.

Before his death in 1054, Yaroslav divided the country up between his five sons and one nephew. The resulting internecine warfare weakened the state, leading to the decline of Kiev and the emergence of several independent princedoms – Chernihiv, Pereyaslavl, Murom, Ryazan, Rostov-Suzdal, Smolensk, Galicia, Vladimir-Volhynia, Polotsk, Turov-Pinsk, Tmutarakan and the lands of Novgorod and Pskov. Each small state was ruled by a branch of the Rurikid family. The result was many years of incessant warfare, between first the sons and then the grandsons of Prince Yaroslav.

In the early twelfth century, Vladimir-Suzdal (or Rostov-Suzdal) was the most powerful state between the rivers Oka and Volga. Such new towns as Yuriev-Polskoi, Nizhny Novgorod, Dmitrov, Zvenigorod, Pereyaslavl-Zalessky, Kostroma, Moscow and Galich emerged, alongside the older cities of Rostov, Suzdal, Vladimir and Yaroslavl. Suzdal was ruled by Vladimir Monomachus’s son Yury, who received the epithet of “Dolgoruky” (“long arms”) for his constant incursions into neighbouring territories.

Yury Dolgoruky founded the city of Moscow in 1147. The first mention of the town in the chronicles dates from 4 April 1147, when Yury held a banquet in honour of his ally, Prince Svyatoslav of Chernihiv. At the banquet, Svyatoslav presented him with a rare and expensive gift – the skin of a snow leopard.

The town of Moscow developed out of the village of Kuchkovo, which stood at the confluence of two rivers – the Moscow and the Neglinnaya. The village was owned by a boyar or nobleman called Stepan Kuchka. Yury Dolgoruky killed the owner, married his daughter to his son Andrei and took over the village, which he renamed Moscow. A town was built here in 1156. In 1954, the people of Moscow erected a monument to the city’s founder.

In 1157, Yury Dolgoruky died and was succeeded by his son Andrei, who moved the capital from Vladimir to Klyazma. He was known as Prince Andrei of Bogolyubovo, after his new white-stoned palace in the village of Bogolyubovo. Kiev lost its former role as the capital of the entire nation and the centre of Russian political life moved to the north-east. Calling himself the “grand prince of all Rus,” Andrei attempted to hold sway over all the other princedoms, but was ultimately murdered in Bogolyubovo in 1174.

One of the most important rivals of Vladimir-Suzdal was Novgorod the Great near Lake Ilmen. Stretching as far as the White Lake and the rivers Onega, Northern Dvina and Ural, Novgorod stood on the trade route “from the Varanghians to the Greeks.” This state was ruled by a popular assembly known as the veche, which had the power to declare war, sign peace and elect its own burgomaster or posadnik. The veche elected such other officials as the head of the army and the archbishop, who was also responsible for foreign policy and finances. The army was commanded by a prince, who was not allowed to own land in Novgorod or to interfere in politics. He was not even allowed to live in Novgorod, but had his own residence called Gorodische outside the city.

Novgorod was a leading centre of the arts and crafts. The local bone and wood carvers, jewellers and blacksmiths were famed throughout and beyond Russia. The streets of Novgorod were paved and had wooden sewage pipes. Surviving birch-bark documents demonstrate the high level of literacy in Novgorod. The town had many famous churches, including St Sofia’s Cathedral (built in the eleventh century) and the Church of the Saviour on Nereditsa (destroyed during the Second World War and now restored).

Galicia-Volhynia in the south-west of the country was another important state, resulting from the union of Galicia and Volhynia under Prince Roman Mstislavich in 1199. Stretching as far as the Carpathian Mountains, Galicia-Volhynia occupied the territory between the rivers Dniester and Pruth and included such large towns as Halych, Vladimir-Volhynia, Kholm, Berestye (Brest), Lviv and Przemysl. These lands were so large that Pope Innocent III allowed Prince Roman to take the title of king. Galicia-Volhynia was a major centre of Old Russian architecture, painting and crafts, famed for its illustrated manuscript books in handsome leather bindings decorated with gold and precious stones. The prince built a magnificent palace and chapel in the town of Halych.

The development of Russian culture and statehood was suddenly interrupted in the thirteenth century, when the country was invaded by the Tatars and Mongols. In 1223, a Russian army was defeated on the River Kalka near the Sea of Azov. After the battle, the Tatars held a victory banquet on wooden boards placed on top of wounded prisoners. Twenty years later, Batu Khan invaded Rus and established the Tatar-Mongol yoke.

For more than two centuries, Rus suffered under the Tatar-Mongol yoke. The population was forced to give up one-tenth of its property and pay tribute in the form of bread, cattle and money. The tribute was collected by special tax collectors called baskaki. Anyone refusing to pay was immediately sold into slavery. The Russian princes were forced to bow down before their overlord, the Tatar khan, and give him expensive presents. The khan permitted them to keep the title of prince and later let them collect the tribute themselves.

Russia’s neighbours took advantage of the Mongol invasion to invade the country from the north. Novgorod led the resistance and Prince Alexander Nevsky defeated the Swedes at the Battle of the Neva in 1240 and the Teutonic Knights at the Battle on the Ice in 1242. The western territories were invaded by Poland and Lithuania. The Lithuanians annexed the Dnieper region, Chernihiv and Minsk, while Galicia was swallowed up by Poland.

Gradually, the years of enslavement were overcome and Russian statehood began to revive. Ruled from 1325 by Prince Ivan Kalita (“Money Bags”), Moscow emerged as the new centre. This was the official residence of the head of the church (metropolitan) and the centre of the Russian Orthodox religion. The town grew throughout the fourteenth century.

In 1378, Moscow refused to pay its annual tribute to the Golden Horde. Khan Mamai decided to punish the country by invading with a large Tatar-Mongol army, which was defeated by Ivan Kalita’s grandson, Prince Dmitry of Moscow. In 1380, Khan Mamai invaded with a new and stronger force. Prince Dmitry led the Russian resistance and defeated the Mongols at the Battle of Kulikovo near the source of the River Don.

Although the foreign yoke still continued and the Mongols captured a series of towns and villages, including Moscow, victory at the Battle of Kulikovo was of tremendous psychological importance. The Russians no longer feared the Mongol hordes. For his role in the victory, Prince Dmitry became known as “Dmitry Donskoi” (“of the Don”). In 1988, he was canonised by the Russian Orthodox Church.

Andrei Rublev was a famous Russian icon-painter who lived around the same time as Dmitry Donskoi. He decorated many Russian churches, including the Annunciation Cathedral in the Moscow Kremlin, the Dormition Cathedral at Vladimir, the Trinity Cathedral in Sergiev Posad and the Cathedral of the Saviour at the St Andronikos Monastery. Rublev was famous for his sublime and inspired images in such works as Old Testament Trinity.

The majority of Russian lands were united under Grand Prince Ivan III of Moscow. The Tatar-Mongol yoke was finally overthrown at the Battle of the River Ugra in 1480. Ivan III regarded himself as the successor to the Byzantine emperors and adopted their coat of arms, which was a double-headed eagle. National laws were introduced throughout the entire country. In 1497, a new codex introduced the institution of serfdom in Russia.

Moscow was rebuilt as the capital of the new, centralised state. The Kremlin was surrounded by high stone walls and turrets, while a new palace was built from stone. The Italian architect Aristotle Fioravanti designed the Dormition Cathedral, while the Palace of Facets was built to host banquets and receptions for foreign kings and ambassadors.

The country was finally united under Grand Prince Basil III, who annexed Pskov and Ryazan and took Smolensk back from Lithuania. Although inhabited by many different nationalities, the new state became known as Russia.

In January 1547, at the age of seventeen, Ivan IV crowned himself in the Dormition Cathedral. In doing so, the new ruler made an important announcement. He declared that he would no longer be called grand prince, but the “tsar of all the Russias.”

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