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Soviet Union

The Golden Age of Kiev

Kiev dominated Kievan Rus' for the next two centuries (see fig. 2). The grand prince controlled the lands around Kiev, while his theoretically subordinate relatives ruled in other cities and sent him tribute. The zenith of Kievan Rus' came during the reigns of Prince Vladimir (978-1015) and Prince Iaroslav the Wise (1019-54). Both rulers continued the steady expansion of Kievan Rus', begun under Prince Oleg. To enhance his power, Vladimir married the sister of the Byzantine emperor. Iaroslav arranged marriages for his sister and three daughters to the kings of Poland, France, Hungary, and Norway. Vladimir's greatest achievement was the Christianization of Kievan Rus', starting in 988, and he built the first great edifice of Kievan Rus', the Tithe Church in Kiev. Iaroslav promulgated the first East Slavic law code, Ruska Pravda (Rus' Justice); built the St. Sofia cathedrals in Kiev and Novgorod; patronized native clergy and monasticism; and is said to have founded a school system. Kiev's great Monastery of the Caves, which functioned in Kievan Rus' as an ecclesiastical academy, was developed under Iaroslav's sons.

Vladimir's choice of Eastern Orthodoxy reflected his close political ties with Constantinople, which dominated the Black Sea and hence the Dnepr River trade. His decision had long-range political, cultural, and religious consequences. The Eastern Orthodox Church had a liturgy written in Cyrillic (see Glossary) and a corpus of translations, which had been produced earlier for the South Slavs. This literature facilitated the conversion to Christianity and introduced East Slavs to rudimentary Greek philosophy, science, and historiography without their having to learn Greek. In contrast, educated people in medieval western and central Europe learned Latin. East Slavs learned neither Greek nor Latin and thus were isolated from Byzantine culture as well as from the culture of their European neighbors to the west.

Rurik's purported descendants organized Kievan Rus' as their shared possession. Princely succession devolved 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 princely careers by ruling a minor district, then sought to obtain a more lucrative principality, and finally competed for the coveted golden throne of Kiev.

In the eleventh and twelfth centuries, the princes and their retinues--a mixture of Varangian and native Slavic elites plus small Finno-Ugric and Turkic elements--dominated the society of Kievan Rus'. Leading warriors and officials, who sometimes constituted an advisory council, or duma (see Glossary), received income or land from the princes in return for their services. The society of Kievan Rus' did not develop class institutions, the concept of legal reciprocity, or autonomous towns, all of which characterized Western feudalism. Nevertheless, urban merchants, artisans, and laborers sometimes exercised political influence through a popular assembly, or veche. In some cases, the veche either made agreements with princes or expelled them and invited others to take their places. At the bottom of society was a small stratum of slaves. More important were tribute-paying peasants, who gradually came under the influence of the Orthodox Church and landlords. As in the rest of eastern Europe, the peasants owed labor duty to the princes, but the widespread personal serfdom characteristic of western Europe did not exist in Kievan Rus'.

Data as of May 1989