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The actual history of Kievan Rus′ commenced in 862 with the accession to power of Rurik and his brothers. From this time we can trace a consistent history of the realm. Although during the rest of the ninth century there is much that is still obscure, we are on safer ground when we come to his son Oleh. Yet we would be very wrong to think that this was the real beginning of history for even the Chronicles that emphasize the role of Rurik make it abundantly clear that Kiev was already in existence and was a place of prominence both militarily and commercially.
It is tempting to go back and endeavor to trace the earlier inhabitants of Ukraine. It is extremely dangerous, for we lack all written sources and are forced to depend upon the results of archaeological investigation and we can scarcely be sure that the differences in culture did not cloak differences in languages and perhaps considerable changes of population.
We know that there were human inhabitants of Ukraine from the Paleolithic or Old Stone Age on. We can be sure too that the site of Kiev was inhabited during the ages for there has been found a Paleolithic settlement in Kiev itself. But only an enthusiast would hold that this settlement was Ukrainian in the sense in which it is used to‑day. Scholar after scholar has commented upon the fact that some of the early dwellings of the Neolithic Period bear striking resemblances to the poorer types of Ukrainian peasant homes. They have noted that the figures on the vase of p32 Chertomlyk and on other remains from the Scythian period, approximately the fourth century B.C., show physical types which are still met with in Ukraine. At the same time the accounts of the Greek authors and the names of Scythian rulers which they have preserved have nothing Slavonic about them.
This is not surprising. It is often forgotten that the ancient conquerors usually formed a relatively small and compact group who extended their control over the native populations. In part they killed or enslaved the people. In part they fell under the influence of the women of the conquered tribe. But there were rarely concerted and consistent attempts to wipe out completely the original population. Undoubtedly through the ages there remained in Ukraine descendants of the earliest inhabitants, but they were completely submerged in the changing culture that developed through the centuries.
Perhaps we are on firmer ground when we come to the periods after the sixth century, when the Slavonic tribes began to appear in the area. The Byzantine historians speak of the Antae and the Veneti and make it clear that they did speak Slavonic. Yet even these names are replaced by many others and we can hardly decide which of these finally attained the mastery. The Chronicles give us many names and allude to various differences in culture and traditions but we know too little about any of them to determine exactly what these differences really meant.
It was apparently the Rus′ of Kiev who finally were able to extend their control over the other Slavonic tribes and to organize the new state. The moving spirit in this seems to have been a group of Scandinavians but they could not have been numerous enough to displace the Slavonic character of the people. It was not long before the rulers came to have Slavonic names, like Svyatoslav. In the tenth century he sought to extend his control over the northern p33 Balkans and may have dreamed of moving his capital south of the Black Earth region. Yet he was finally killed by the Pechenegs, perhaps at the instigation of the Byzantine emperor, John Tsimiskes. After that, though there might be outbreaks between Constantinople and Kiev, relations were on the whole peaceful.
At almost the same time Christianity made its appearance. It was only natural that the most aggressive missionaries came from Constantinople, for the commercial ambitions of Kiev led it to the Black Sea in which the Byzantine Empire was supreme. Queen Olha, the mother of Svyatoslav, had become an Orthodox Christian in the middle of the tenth century but paganism was still too strong for her to convert the druzhina, the leading warriors and counselors of the king, and a half century was to pass before the country was definitely converted under Volodymyr, or Vladimir.
In the beginning Volodymyr, as a younger son of Svyatoslav by one of his numerous concubines, had become the ruler of Novgorod. He was thus able to secure new levies of Scandinavian troops from the North and to win the throne of Kiev. In his early life he led a pagan revival but he was apparently much interested in matters of religion and was dissatisfied with the pagan cult. According to the legend of the chroniclers, he sent embassies to investigate the Jewish religion of the Khozars, Mohammedanism, and the Christianity of the Germans and of the Greeks of Constantinople. The envoys were most impressed by the splendor of the services in the great Church of St. Sophia and on their return Volodymyr decided to seek baptism from the Patriarch of Constantinople.
It required some time to bring this about, but in 989 all difficulties were finally removed and the Grand Prince and his druzhina were definitely baptized. Volodymyr at once cast the idols of Perun and the other pagan gods into the p34 Dnyeper and from that time on, he became a zealous Christian. Without delay he built the first of the great Churches of Kiev, the Church of the Tithe (Desyatinaya) and for this he employed the services of Greek architects.
Kiev became speedily a small scale replica of Constantinople. The Greek monks introduced into the country Byzantine culture, architecture, and methods of thinking. The Metropolitan of Kiev was a Greek. Yet there was no attempt to force the Greek language upon the people. The Church services were held not in Greek but in the Church Slavonic language, which had been developed by Saints Cyril and Methodius a century earlier. His piety and zeal for the spreading of Christianity won Volodymyr the title of saint and hence it came about that his name appears in the religious services and in the Chronicles as Vladimir, the Church Slavonic form of Volodymyr.
From the moment of Volodymyr's conversion to Christianity and the appearance of the Church Slavonic language, the deep darkness that covers the history of Kiev and Rus′ begins to disappear. The monks engaged in the task of preparing the conventional Chronicles have given us confused views of the earlier history in which truth and romance are strangely mixed, but from this moment we can begin more clearly to trace the history of the country.
At this time Constantinople was the civilized centre of the Christian world and Kiev soon became one of its choicest spiritual and intellectual children. The rulers of Kiev and the upper classes of the population were on a far higher cultural level than were most of the rulers of western Europe. Education flourished. This does not mean that there was anything similar to our modern methods of widespread education and literacy, but larger classes of the population were affected than in the still barbaric countries of the West.
p35 The traditional idea that Kiev and Rus′ were backward for the time can hardly be maintained. Kiev and its rulers held an honored place throughout Europe. The members of the royal family married into the family of the Emperors of Constantinople. Other members made matrimonial alliances with the Saxon royal family of England, with the Kings of France, with Poland and Hungary. In the eleventh century, the schism between the Eastern and Western Churches had not yet taken place, although there were strong signs of its approach and nothing but distance existed to keep Kiev and Rus′ from being swept into the general development of European Christian civilization.
The Grand Princes of Kiev were incomparably richer than many of the rulers of the West. They had direct connection with Constantinople, the greatest of the Christian markets, and they also could trade with the Eastern lands. Wealth flowed in. The Byliny, the folk epics, which preserved traditions of the greatness of Volodymyr and his court, his associates like Ilya of Murom, Dobrynya Nikitich, and the remainder of the heroes, never weary of speaking of golden Kiev and of the wealth and generosity of Kiev's ruler. There may be exaggeration but there is enough other available material to show that the rulers and the upper classes imitated as best they could the luxury and splendor of Constantinople and the Byzantine Emperors.
The son and successor of Volodymyr, Yaroslav the Wise, (d. 1054) raised the prestige of Kiev and Rus′ still higher. His lawcode, the Rus′ska Pravda, was excellent for his day. It incorporated what was best of the Slavonic and the Scandinavian traditions. It pictures for us a great state with its urban and rural classes, with trade and commerce, with life good for the nobles but far less so for the lower classes and the indebted peasants, who were burdened p36 with many obligations which they could scarcely meet.
Yet the difficulties which were ultimately to overwhelm the state were already visible upon the horizon. The eleventh century was a period of nation building in Europe. Poland, Hungary, Bohemia were already coming into existence and aiming for expansion. The Holy Roman Empire, revived under Charlemagne, was encouraging them to turn to the east for their further growth. From the east there came a seemingly endless succession of invading nomad tribes, continuing those movements which had been sweeping over the black earth region for centuries and .
The new state had no natural boundaries for defence. Only where the country touched the Carpathian mountains was there any well defined border. In all other directions, south, east and northwest, the land lay open to the invaders. That situation which in times of peace had made Kiev the centre of commerce and had brought it wealth, in time of war was its greatest menace. It was only in the northeast, where the great woods sheltered the primitive Finnic peoples still untouched by culture and Christianity, that there lurked no danger. In all other areas the princes had continually to be on their guard. The danger was greatest to the east, for they were confronted with the highly mobile nomad troops who could attack with startling suddenness, ravage the country, and if necessary disappear with the same speed.
The heart of the state was the line of the Dnyeper and so long as that was not cut, it was possible for Kiev to exist in relative security. Outside of that, there were scattered throughout the land various lesser cities, such as Chernihiv and others, which served as rallying points for the princes p37 and their forces. If it were possible to coordinate these into an effective system, all would be well.
Yet it was not a time for coordination. Only a leader of superior personality and ability could hold in check the disruptive tendencies which made their appearance in every land. There was the bad tradition of the early feudalism, whereby the various princes and their forces felt themselves practically independent and able to defy the will of the central ruler. There was the equally unfortunate custom whereby that ruler, to satisfy the members of his immediate family, apportioned out the land into various fiefs. Both Volodymyr and Yaroslav obeyed this tradition. Each of them had been compelled to fight against his own brothers and relatives to secure absolute control of the whole of Rus′ and yet each of them had in turn divided his dominions among his own children in such a way that the task of unification had to be recommenced with each succeeding generation. The reason for their actions was clear. It was necessary to have in each strong post a strong ruler. It was impossible for a leader to be everywhere at once and, in the spirit of the day, a strong subordinate felt no scruples about asserting his own independence and seeking to seize the supreme power. The Church was the only force that definitely stood for a national unity. The Metropolitan of Kiev had some influence and authority, but he was usually a Greek from Constantinople and he was not always aware of the questions at issue.
When we consider the turbulence of the times and the external menace, we can only wonder at the success achieved by some of the more able rulers. Men like Volodymyr Monomakh, in the twelfth century, could definitely take their stand on relatively high moral principles, and use their influence against internal dissensions and the oppression p38 of their people. Yaroslav could build in Kiev the great Church of St. Sophia, modelled on the New Church of Constantinople. The arts flourished.
It is absolutely clear also that the princes were not absolute sovereigns. They were compelled to pay attention to the wishes of their higher officers and counselors, the druzhina. They were compelled also to give heed to the will of the people of the various cities expressed through their public assemblies or Veches. In fact in some cities, as in Novgorod, which really became an aristocratic republic, the Veche became the controlling body and was able to oust the prince whenever he displeased it. All of this points to the fact that Rus′ was really a form of aristocratic democracy, a state in which the power of the Grand Prince or of any of the subordinate princes was more or less closely restricted by his ability to hold or alienate the devotion of his people.
The prize for which all the princes contended was Kiev. Every ambitious ruler sought to secure the coveted capital. Their efforts exhausted the country and seriously weakened it against outside aggression. There were too many cases where dissatisfied and struggling princes were only too willing to seek foreign aid and make alliances with one of the western powers or, still worse, with the nomads of the steppes, who always proved themselves unreliable allies and often inflicted upon their friends as much damage as they did upon the enemies against whom their efforts were directed. This was bad in the eleventh century, but in the twelfth there was an almost continuous civil war and within a century more than thirty princes had sat upon the throne at Kiev.
Under such conditions it was only natural that there should be a division of the state. Certain rulers, wearied of the dangerous lures of ambition, set themselves to secure p39 their own territory safely, even if they were forced to act as completely independent rulers and to flout the orders of the central authority. Galicia, the westernmost portion of the state of Rus′, was the first to assume practical independence. After the time of Yaroslav the Wise, the princes of this area set themselves up as provincial rulers and devoted all their energies to strengthening their own positions at home and abroad. They tried to keep out of the tangled intrigue for the possession of Kiev and they worked equally to keep the other princes from interfering with their own area, so that the province enjoyed relative peace for some centuries. It was not until the destruction of Kiev by the Tatars in the thirteenth century that they sought to make their authority paramount over the entire country. The example of Galicia was followed by the princes of Chernihiv and by many others, so that the original unity of Rus′ vanished amid the flames of civil war or in aristocratic anarchy.
The ruin was accelerated by the appearance of the Polovtsy, another Turkic tribe, which was far more military and far more ably led than had been the Pechenegs. During the whole of the twelfth century, they ravaged the country almost at will and they were sure to find as allies some of the warring princes who were willing to enlist their aid for shortsighted personal advantage against other members of their own people. The damage which the Polovtsy did was well pictured in the Song of the Armament of Ihor. This is a unique work of the twelfth century and represents the only surviving specimen of the court poetry of the day. The unknown poet, in picturing the evils that disorder has brought upon the state, looks back to the whole history of Kiev and of Rus′, glorifies the princes of old and mourns the destruction of that splendid state which had been erected by Volodymyr and Yaroslav.
The worst menace came however from the forest lands p40 of the northeast which had formerly been the one safe spot on the boundaries. Various princes, deprived of their lands in Rus′, had gone up to the area around the headwaters of the Don and the Volga. There, amid the Finnic population, they had carved out domains for themselves, but they were not going to be hampered by the constitutional and democratic traditions that had prevailed at Kiev. In their new homes, they were able to create a thoroughly autocratic state and to destroy those rights and privileges which the old druzhinas had been able to maintain against the prince. They were not content with this alone. They also were able to keep from starting in their capital of Vladimir, of Suzdal and later of Moscow, the various citizens' councils which had acquired so much power in Novgorod.
With increasing speed the culture of Moscow separated itself from that of Kiev. Connections between Kiev and Moscow were difficult, between Moscow and Constantinople almost impossible. On the other hand the Volga River easily became a route of commerce and of travel to the Caspian Sea and this brought Moscow far closer to Armenia and Georgia, then at their political height, than to Constantinople and the weakening Byzantine Empire. Architecture and art speedily felt the new influences. The types of churches that had been developed at Kiev and Novgorod under Byzantine influence gave way to new patterns borrowed from the east, with low relief for decorations and with simpler architectural forms.
Kiev still remained the dominant factor in Rus′. It was a name to be conjured with, but it did not hold for these northern principalities the sympathetic appeal that it did for all the princes in the older part of the country. For a while they continued to yield to the spell of the older capital and they sought to play their role in the complicated game of politics. Yet only for a while.
p41 In 1169 Prince Andrey Bogolyubsky sacked the city of Kiev. It was the most destructive of any of the attacks that had been made against the southern capital, for this time it was an attempt at ruin and not at control. When Prince Andrey ordered his soldiers to ravage the city, he did it because he had no intention of remaining there and making it his capital. The earlier princes had fought for Kiev; Prince Andrey fought against it. There was no point in plundering ruthlessly a capital which the conquerors desired for themselves. There was no reason for sparing a city which the conquerors desired to ruin. Everything that was of value, whether of ecclesiastical or civil character, was taken and the plunder-laden hosts resumed the march to their northern citadel of Suzdal. Even the Metropolitan of Kiev, the head of the Church, was taken along with them and Prince Andrey Bogolyubsky could look with satisfaction at his conquests. He could be sure that it would be decades, if not longer, before Kiev would rise again from the ruins and dare to threaten his hegemony.
This sack of Kiev was the most important date in the history of the country after the introduction of Christianity, for it marked the separation of Kiev and the northern cities, the line of demarcation between Ukraine‑Rus′ and Moscow. It is idle to speculate what was in the minds of conquerors and conquered at the very moment of the battle. There can be no doubt that their armies were largely composed of men who had never seen and felt the charm of Kiev, who had no appreciation for the ancient culture of the old metropolis.
Ukrainian thought has been insistent for centuries that this was a foreign conquest. The princes of Galicia with the downfall of Kiev took in a few years the title of Grand p42 Princes of Rus′. They proudly ignored the new principalities and strove to continue the old traditions.
To Moscow and the northern princes, this conquest meant the transfer to them of all the primacy that had clustered around the fallen city. They proudly called themselves and their metropolitans the rulers of Rus′, but even so they much preferred to call themselves the Grand Princes of Moscow. They sneered at their victims and it was many centuries before they sought to value the city from which they secured their power.
Henceforth the two states went on their independent ways and whatever unity still survived was to perish in the new historical developments.
While Kiev was still struggling to repair the damage of the terrible plundering, there appeared a new invader. In 1224 there came the first onslaught of the forces of Genghis Khan, the dread lord of the Mongolian Empire. He defeated the combined princes at a battle on the Kalka River and killed Mstislav of Kiev, but his forces soon withdrew.
They returned in 1240 under the Khan Batu and this time the Mongols and Tatars came to stay. They sacked and burned Chernihiv and on December 6, 1240 they captured Kiev and ended the old mediaeval state. It was a terrible and thorough sacking of Kiev and Rus′. When it was over, the cities were mere shells, the princes annihilated, the land desolate. Apparently in their misery the ordinary people rose against the princes at the same time and sought to take vengeance upon their former lords.
At the same time the princes of Suzdal and Moscow led the procession of nobles who were willing to accept the Mongol Tatar overlordship to maintain their thrones. They willingly submitted and for two centuries Moscow, for good or ill, formed part of the Mongolian Empire and later of its westernmost section, the Golden Horde, with its capital p43 at Saray near Kazan on the Volga River. Moscow rapidly became Asianized, its princes married Mongol girls, and whatever had remained of the old traditions was swallowed up in the new order.
The hope of an independent Rus′ remained only in the West where the princes of Halich endeavored to increase their power. It was a truncated state that they dominated. Without the rich hinterland of the Dnyeper basin and the regions to the east, they were isolated among the western states which had already come into existence and which formed part of the Western Roman Catholic world. The Orthodox state of Rus′ was closely surrounded by Poland and Hungary which had already succeeded in acquiring control of that section of Rus′ which was in the Carpathian Mountains. Separately or together, Poland and Hungary intrigued against or fought with the Princes of Halich and by the middle of the fourteenth century Poland succeeded in acquiring the control of Galicia.
In the meanwhile there had come the rise of Lithuania in the north. A series of able princes pushed their way south through White Ruthenian territory and later acquired control of Volynia and Podolia. The rulers of Lithuania were either pagan or Orthodox. The White Ruthenian Church Slavonic became their court language and the language of official business. All this won for them a sympathetic hearing from the dismembered principalities of Rus′, especially as the rule of the Lithuanians was little harsher than had been the rule of their own princes in the later days.
By the end of the fourteenth century, the old state of Rus′ had lost all its independence. It was formally divided between Poland, Lithuania and Hungary, and the rulers of these countries fought over its possessions. Only in Lithuania was there a semblance of the old rule, for it was only p44 there that any of the princes were able to maintain their prestige and some shreds of their power. Everywhere else, a new order had been introduced and the princes had been compelled to submit or vanish into obscurity.
It was a sad time for the people. The glories of the past were gone and they scarcely lived on, even in the memories of the people. No one could have recognized in the wretched, depopulated country the once proud state of Kievan Rus′, which had been acknowledged two centuries before as an equal of all the countries of Europe.
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