The births of the Russians took place in the A.D. 1st millennium when a large number of small tribes living in the northern part of present-day Russia joined together. Kievan Rus’, which was founded in the late ninth century, was the first state established on the territory of modern Russia. In 988 Orthodox Christianity was declared the official religion of this state, which thereafter maintained close relations with the Byzantine Empire. In the thirteenth century, a weakened and fragmented Kiev was overrun by a Mongol invasion. [Source: Library of Congress, October 2006 **]

In the 14th and 15th centuries Russians spread out to south and east, occupying the Don region, the northern Black Sea coast, the valley of the Terek River and parts of the Caucasus and Siberia, in the process absorbing many Finnish-speaking and Turkic-speaking ethnic groups. As they spread southward their culture was absorbed by the Ukrainians and other groups.

The Mongol occupation, which lasted until 1480, provided the conditions for a new state, Muscovy, to emerge and eclipse Kiev. Under a series of strong rulers, by 1600 Muscovy had consolidated a large portion of what later was European Russia. The concurrent decline of the Byzantine Empire led to a longstanding claim that Moscow was the “Third Rome,” and an independent Russian Orthodox Church emerged in 1589.

Before the creation of the Russian Empire, Russian territory included a number of independent and semi-independent princedom and republics such as Novgorod, Pskov and Tver. Other groups were created such as the Cossacks and Old Believers mainly on the periphery of the empire.

Book: “The Icon and the Axe” by James Billington, the Librarian of Congress

Rurik and Other Early Russia Leaders

The first ruler to unify the Slavic tribes in Russia was Rurik (ruled 862-82). He established a lose confederation of city states based in Novgorod and became the Prince of Novgorod in A.D. 862. Russians date the beginning of the Russian empire to the arrival of Rurik. The Rurik dynasty lasted until the 16th century and ended with the son of Ivan the Terrible.

According to some Russian scholars Rurik and his successor were Slavs with links Scandinavians. Most Western historians believe he was a Scandinavian from Jutland asked by the Slavs, who often fought among themselves, to rule over them. According to the much disputed 11th and 12th century Primary Chronicle by Nestor, warring Slavic tribes invited three Viking princes to rule over them and bring order. Among them were Rurik, his two younger brothers and Rus warriors.

When Rurik died he was succeeded by his relative Oleg (ruled 882-912), who became the Grand Duke of Novgorod. In 882, Oleg seized Kiev, uniting two Varangian domains and later moved the capital of their kingdom to Kiev and ruled there as the Grand Dukes of Kiev. In 907, Oleg attacked Constantinople, resulting in trade agreements that helped the Kievian Rus economy.

Prince Svyatoslav (ruled 962-72) was a 10th-century grand duke. He expanded the Kievian domain to the Danube and the Volga by uniting quarreling Varangian princes. He made Kiev the capital of a large unified Rus state that prospered from control over the trade routes between the Baltic and Blacks Seas. By the 11th century the Rus state of Kiev stretched from the Baltic to the Black Sea. Large parts of what had been Kievian Rus are now part of Poland and Lithuania. Svyatoslav defeated the Khazars but his ambitions were checked by the Byzantines and he was ultimately killed by the Turkic Pechenegs.


Novgorod is one of Russia's oldest city and the site of early Viking trading post located where the Viking traders hauled their boats overland from the Baltic lakes to the Dnieper River. Founded by the Rurik dynasty in the A.D. 860s, it lay at the crossroads of international trade routes and was inhabited by Finno-Ugrians, Slavs and Varangians (Scandinavian merchants and warriors).

Novgorod was comprised of wooden building placed around streets consisting of pine logs placed over the marshy ground. The pine log streets were replaced every 20 to 30 years. In some places archeologist have unearthed 30 layers of logs.

Later Novgorod was supplanted by Kiev but the Republic of Novgorod prospered as part of Kievan Rus' because it controlled trade routes from the Volga River to the Baltic Sea. The destruction of Novgorod in World War II gave archeologist a unique opportunity to excavate the city. Birch-bark documents uncovered in Novgorod from the 11th and 12th century included lists of saints and requests for payments and mentioned fishing, weaving, embroidery and production of various kinds of cloth. One read: "Greeting from Nastasia to my lord, to my brother. My Boris is not alive anymore." Another read: "From Mikita to Ulianica. Marry me. I want you and you want me. Send Ignat as a witness.”

Prince Vladimir

Prince Vladimir I (ruled 980-1015) was the son of Svyatoslav and grand prince of Kiev. Regarded as the father of Russia, he was a dynamic, powerful man who reportedly had 800 concubines and "was insatiable in vice." One chronicler described him as "”fornicator immensis et crudelis”." Prince Vladimir advanced in bloody medieval Russia with help of foreign mercenaries and most likely became leader by organizing the ambush murder of his brother.

Vladimir's greatest achievement was the Christianization of Kievan Rus', a process that began in 988. He built the first great edifice of Kievan Rus', the Desyatinnaya Church in Kiev. Vladimir's conversion to the Byzantine (Orthodox) Christian faith in 988 is generally regarded as the moment when Russia was founded. They 1,000th anniversary of the event, 1988, was celebrated with great fanfare on the Soviet Union. Vladimir converted to Orthodox Christianity in 988 largely for the political and economic advantages it offered. [Source: Merle Severy, National Geographic, December 1983]

Prince Vladimir forged a loose confederation of Slavic peoples and began his rule as the leader of a loose confederation of semi-independent principalities from a hilltop palace in Kiev. Despite his ruthless early years, he is remembered most as the man who urged eastern Slavs in present-day Russia and the Ukraine to abandon their warlike ways and embrace Christianity. Vladimir introduced the beginning of feudal structure, which replaced clan alliances. Some places were ruled by democratically-elected local assembles called “veches”.

Prince Vladimir Chooses Among the Great Religions

The Rus were initially pagans. Byzantines referred to Rus as "ax-bearing barbarians." Prince Vladimir reportedly gave great thought to choosing which religion was right for his people. He welcomed envoys from the great religions of the time—Judaism, Catholicism, Islam and Orthodox Christianity— and listened to their arguments. A devoted womanizer, he liked the Muslim promise after death of fulfillment of carnal desires but he didn't like the Jewish and Muslim required circumcision and prohibition on alcohol and the eating of pork.

According to “Tales of Bygone Years”, compiled two centuries after Vladimir in the 1180s, Vladimir listened to the Muslims, "for he was fond of women and indulgence...But circumcision and abstinence from pork, and wine were disagreeable to him. 'Drinking,' he said, 'is a joy to the Russes. We cannot exist without that pleasure."

Prince Vladimir was also greatly impressed the churches and clergy in Constantinople. After visiting the monuments and treasures in the Byzantine capital his emissaries reported back, "[we] knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth. For on earth there is no such splendor...We only know that God dwells there among men..."

Historian often dismiss this interpretation of events and argue that Vladimir most likely converted to Orthodox Christianity to unify the loose confederation of pagan tribes he ruled over, to strengthen his trade links Constantinople and to form an alliance against the Muslims who penetrated the Volga region.

Prince Vladimir Converts to Orthodox Christianity

Prince Vladimir was baptized and converted to Orthodox Christianity. He was later canonized for converting Kievian Rus to Christianity. The choice of Orthodoxy created a distance between Russia and largely Catholic Europe but linked it the Byzantium Empire, based in Constantinople (Istanbul).

Vladimir's grandmother Princess Olga, the first Rus royal to be baptized, took the plunge on a visit to Constantinople in 957. Describing her Nestor wrote, "Olga was the precursor of the Christian land, even as the dayspring precedes the sun and as the dawn precedes the day. For she shone like the moon by night, and he was radiant among the infidels like a pearl in the mire."

Prince Vladimir gave the people of Russia and the Ukraine two choices: either they could be baptized too or loose their heads. He led his subjects en masse into the Dnieper in 988. They followed a route now occupied by Kreshchatic (Christening Street), Kiev's main thoroughfare. The baptized throw out their pagan idols and were baptized in the Orthodox faith.

Vladimir's choice of Eastern Orthodoxy reflected his close personal ties with Constantinople, which dominated the Black Sea and hence trade on Kiev's most vital commercial route, the Dnepr River. Adherence to the Eastern Orthodox Church had long-range political, cultural, and religious consequences. The church had a liturgy written in Cyrillic and a corpus of translations from the Greek that had been produced for the South Slavs. The existence of this literature facilitated the East Slavs' conversion to Christianity and introduced them to rudimentary Greek philosophy, science, and historiography without the necessity of learning Greek. In contrast, educated people in medieval Western and Central Europe learned Latin. Because the East Slavs learned neither Greek nor Latin, they were isolated from Byzantine culture as well as from the European cultures of their neighbors to the west. [Source: Glenn E. Curtis, Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

Orthodox Christianity Develops in Russia

Vladimir married the sister of one of the Byzantine co-emperors and initiated a program to transplant the culture, art, alphabet, and architecture of Constantinople to Kiev, which he described as "a city glistening with the light of holy icons, fragrant with incense, ringing with praise and holy, heavenly songs."

The Kiev empire provided be a fertile ground for Orthodox Christianity to take root. Unlike the Slavic kingdoms in The Balkans, it was far beyond the reached of the old Roman empire. "Christianity in the old Russian empire was the frontier faith of a colonizing people," wrote Russian historian James Billington in Smithsonian magazine. "The rugged new converts sought to beatify their churches and worship services rather than to discuss the fine points of dogma. So they developed a 'theology in pictures' in pictures rather in words—filling their churches with frescoes, icons and candle, embellishing them in the northern climate with new, snow-shedding onion domes and tent roofs that differed from the hemispheric domes of the Mediterranean world."

The adoption of the Orthodox Church by the Russians proved to be crucial in the geopolitical development of Europe. Russia developed into a strong, militant Christian state that believed it possessed a special historical mission. Vladimir successors spread the faith to the Arctic Ocean and the forests of Siberia.

Russian Independence from Byzantines

Earlier the Rus had attacked Constantinople several times. Several naval battles between the Rus and the Byzantines took place on the Black Sea. The Rus were easily repelled and were appeased with trade agreements favorable to the Rus. The Rus were prohibited from carry arms in Constantinople. Rus mercenaries fought under the Byzantine banner throughout the Mediterranean, particularly in Syria and Sicily. They served for generations as the emperor's personal Varangian Guard.

The Russians gave the Byzantine Greek Orthodox Church some Slavic modifications. Under Vladimir, Slavonic was adopted instead of Greek for liturgies, a move which helped preserve its independence from the Byzantines It also helped spread literacy among the upper classes. When a Kievian Princess married King Philip of France she was the only literate member of the royal family and signed all of France’s official documents.

Billington, author of “The Icon and the Axe”, told U.S. News and World News, Kievian Russia was "one of the last distinct national civilizations to accept Byzantine Christianity; the only one never clearly to accept political subordination to Constantinople," and by far the largest—stretching north to the Baltic and almost to the Arctic Ocean."

When Constantinople. “The Second Rome,” fell, Moscow in the eyes of Russian became the "Third Rome." The first Rome had been captured by Barbarians and was then in the hands of heretic Catholics. Thus Russians became the standard-bearer of the one true faith. Russia missed out on the Renaissance, Reformation and Enlightenment partly due to it religious smugness.

Yaroslav the Wise

Yaroslav the Wise (ruled 1019-1054) is regarded as great leader and an important lawmaker and manger. , Vladimir's son, he walked with a limp. When his tomb was opened years after his death, it was discovered he had a malformed leg.

Yaroslav forged Kievian Rus into a formidable power, brought order to an unruly state and, promulgated the first East Slavic law code, Rus'ka pravda (Justice of Rus'). He encouraged education and forged shrewd alliances. Commerce flourished with Constantinople and education and literature were encouraged.

Yaroslav made Kiev into beautiful city—with ducal palaces, churches and a Kremlin (fortress)—and lead the Kievian Rus to its zenith in the 11th century. Yaroslav married a Swedish princess. His three daughters married kings in Norway, France and Hungary. His daughter, Anna, married the French King Henri I and moved to France, complaining how uncivilized it was to leave Kiev.

Yaroslav built cathedrals named for St. Sophia in Kiev and Novgorod; patronized local clergy and monasticism; and is said to have founded a school system. Yaroslav's sons developed Kiev's great Peshcherskiy monastyr' (Monastery of the Caves), which functioned in Kievan Rus' as an ecclesiastical academy.

Golden Age of Kiev

Kiev was the center of the first Russian state. It was founded in the late 9th century by the Rus south of the Dnieper River in an area of steppes and forests in present-day Ukraine. Based on this Ukrainians argue that Kiev not Moscow is the heartland of the Russia. Kiev began as a southern Varangian outpost. At its height around A.D. 1000, the Kievian Rus controlled a huge area, stretching from the Black Sea and encompassing much what is now European Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Poland, Romania and the Baltic states.

The region of Kiev dominated the state of Kievan Rus' for two centuries. The grand prince of Kiev controlled the lands around the city, and his theoretically subordinate relatives ruled in other cities and paid him tribute. The zenith of the state's power came during the reigns of Prince Vladimir (r. 978-1015) and Prince Yaroslav (the Wise; r. 1019-54). Both rulers continued the steady expansion of Kievan Rus' that had begun under Oleg. To enhance their power, Vladimir married the sister of the Byzantine emperor, and Yaroslav arranged marriages for his sister and three daughters to the kings of Poland, France, Hungary, and Norway. [Source: Glenn E. Curtis, Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

In the centuries that followed the state's foundation, Rurik's purported descendants shared power over Kievan Rus'. Princely succession moved from elder to younger brother and from uncle to nephew, as well as from father to son. Junior members of the dynasty usually began their official careers as rulers of a minor district, progressed to more lucrative principalities, and then competed for the coveted throne of Kiev. *

In the eleventh and twelfth centuries, the princes and their retinues, which were a mixture of Varangian and Slavic elites and small Finno-Ugric and Turkic elements, dominated the society of Kievan Rus'. Leading soldiers and officials received income and land from the princes in return for their political and military services. Kievan society lacked the class institutions and autonomous towns that were typical of West European feudalism. Nevertheless, urban merchants, artisans, and laborers sometimes exercised political influence through a city assembly, the veche, which included all the adult males in the population. In some cases, the veche either made agreements with their rulers or expelled them and invited others to take their place. At the bottom of society was a small stratum of slaves. More important was a class of tribute-paying peasants, who owed labor duty to the princes; the widespread personal serfdom characteristic of Western Europe did not exist in Kievan Rus', however. *

Decline of Kiev

After Yaroslav's death Kiev began to decline and the Volga river started to replace the Dnieper as the main trade route through Russia. The Kievian state weaken with decline of Byzantine empire and rise of Catholic-Lithuanian state.

Kiev was attacked by a series of invaders: first by the Turkic Pechenegs and then the Olovsty, which sacked the city in 1093. The Crusades opened trade routes through the Middle East, making the routes to Russia less important and lessening the strategic value of Kiev.

Yaroslav was succeeded by his son Vladimir II Monomak (ruled 1113-25) and his grandson Yury Dolgoruky (ruled (1157-74) was overthrown in 1169 by Andrew Bogolubsku began a line known as the Grand Dukes of Vladimir. In the process of consolidating his power he nearly wiped out a powerful Turkic tribe known as the Tatars. Russians later used the name Tartar to describe the Mongols. Kiev fell to the Mongols in 1240.

Kievan Rus' was not able to maintain its position as a powerful and prosperous state, in part because of the amalgamation of disparate lands under the control of a ruling clan. As the members of that clan became more numerous, they identified themselves with regional interests rather than with the larger patrimony. Thus, the princes fought among themselves, frequently forming alliances with outside groups such as the Polovtsians, Poles, and Hungarians. The Crusades brought a shift in European trade routes that accelerated the decline of Kievan Rus'. In 1204 the forces of the Fourth Crusade sacked Constantinople, making the Dnepr trade route marginal. As it declined, Kievan Rus' splintered into many principalities and several large regional centers. The inhabitants of those regional centers then evolved into three nationalities: Ukrainians in the southeast and southwest, Belorussians in the northwest, and Russians in the north and northeast. [Source: Glenn E. Curtis, Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

In 1169 Prince Andrey Bogolyubskiy of Vladimir-Suzdal' dealt a severe blow to the waning power of Kievan Rus' when his armies sacked the city of Kiev. Prince Andrey then installed his younger brother to rule in Kiev and continued to rule his realm from Suzdal'. Thus, political power shifted to the northeast, away from Kiev, in the second half of the twelfth century. In 1299, in the wake of the Mongol invasion, the metropolitan of the Orthodox Church moved to the city of Vladimir, and Vladimir-Suzdal' replaced Kievan Rus' as the religious center.

Rise of Northern Principalities

The northern Rus principalities began displaying their independence from in the middle of the 11th century. As this happened the political center of the eastern Slavs moved from present-day Ukraine to what is now Russia. The merchants of Novgorod began trading with the Hanseatic League, based on the Baltic and North Sea. Around the same the principality of Vladimir, near Moscow, began gaining strength. Historians sometimes refer to the change as transformation from "Little" to "Great" Russia.

As Kievan Rus' declined, Novgorod became more independent. A local oligarchy ruled Novgorod; major government decisions were made by a town assembly, which also elected a prince as the city's military leader. In the twelfth century, Novgorod acquired its own archbishop, a sign of increased importance and political independence. In its political structure and mercantile activities, Novgorod resembled the north European towns of the Hanseatic League, the prosperous alliance that dominated the commercial activity of the Baltic region between the thirteenth and seventeenth centuries, more than the other principalities of Kievan Rus'. [Source: Glenn E. Curtis, Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

In the northeast, East Slavs colonized the territory that eventually became Muscovy by intermingling with the Finno-Ugric tribes already occupying the area. The city of Rostov was the oldest center of the northeast, but it was supplanted first by Suzdal' and then by the city of Vladimir. By the twelfth century, the combined principality of Vladimir-Suzdal' had become a major power in Kievan Rus'.

Andrew Bogolubsku (ruled 1157-63), a Vladimir prince, sacked Kiev in 1169 and moved the Russian court to Vladimir (the headquarters of the Russia church remained in Kiev until 1300). Bogolubsku began a line known as the Grand Dukes of Vladimir, which were followed by the Grand Dukes of Muscovy. These were all related to the Rurik line and Grand Dukes of Kiev.

Moscow was founded in 1147 by Prince Yuri of Suzdal, who conquered the towns of Vladimir and Suzdal, battled other Russian princes for the throne of Kiev and claimed the land around present-day Moscow from a nobleman who offended him and was ordered killed. Prince Yuri was nicknamed "Dolgoruky," which means "low-handed." The area around the Kremlin had been settled a couple hundred years before prince Yuri arrived and was site of the nobleman's estate when the city was founded. At the time Moscow was founded Kiev was the center of Russian culture. As time went on Moscow grew in importance and Kiev declined.

To the southwest, the principality of Galicia-Volhynia had highly developed trade relations with its Polish, Hungarian, and Lithuanian neighbors and emerged as another successor to Kievan Rus'. In the early thirteenth century, Prince Roman Mstislavich united the two previously separate principalities, conquered Kiev, and assumed the title of grand duke of Kievan Rus'. His son, Prince Daniil (Danylo; r. 1238-64) was the first ruler of Kievan Rus' to accept a crown from the Roman papacy, apparently doing so without breaking with Orthodoxy. Early in the fourteenth century, the patriarch of the Orthodox Church in Constantinople granted the rulers of Galicia-Volhynia a metropolitan to compensate for the move of the Kievan metropolitan to Vladimir. *

However, a long and unsuccessful struggle against the Mongols combined with internal opposition to the prince and foreign intervention to weaken Galicia-Volhynia. With the end of the Mstislavich Dynasty in the mid-fourteenth century, Galicia-Volhynia ceased to exist; Lithuania took Volhynia, and Poland annexed Galicia.

Ibn Battuta in Russia

The Muslim traveler and explorer Ibn Battuta traveled in Russia in 14th century. In the Crimea, Ibn Battuta was welcomed with hospitality by Christian "infidels." He was given a banquet by a Christian emir and put up in a mosque surrounded by churches. "We heard the sound of [bells] on every side, and never having heard them before I was alarmed at this an bade my companions climb the minaret and chant the Koran."

Later he traveled down the frozen Volga river in the wintertime. "I used to put on three fur coats and two pairs of trousers and on my feet I had woolen boots, with a pair of boots quilted with linen cloth on top of them and on top of these again was a pair of horsehide boots lined with bearskin." He says he was so weighted down he had to be lifted on his horse.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated May 2016

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