The Fragmentation & Decline of Kievan Rus

Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught middle and high school history, and has a master's degree in Islamic law.

The Kievan Rus were once a large federation of some of the fiercest and richest Europeans around. So how did it collapse so quickly? It turns out that the key to its wealth, especially its relationship with Constantinople, would be its undoing.

Yaroslav the Wise

The Kievan Rus were at their greatest power under the leadership of Yaroslav the Wise. In many ways, he was the kind of leader that any empire would love to have. He wrote laws, ordered the translation of books from Greek and Latin into Slavic, the language of the Kievan Rus, and managed to keep the trade routes open and alive. In a time when religious authority was often as important as political authority, he even managed to convince the Patriarch of Constantinople that the church of the Rus should have its own governing structure, placing this new religious authority in Kiev. Combined with the fact that Yaroslav ruled an area that was much larger than any Western European king, and you may be wondering why you're reading this in English and not Slavic!

Seal of Yaroslav the Wise
Yaroslav the Wise

Dividing the Land

While Yaroslav may have had real strengths when alive, he failed to pass down his vision when he died. Rather than pass a single strong nation on to a trusted heir, Yaroslav divided the Kievan Rus among his sons. Begging them to get along, he installed them as leaders of various parts of the country. However, by putting his eldest son as ruler of the second most important city in the region, Novgorod, he created a power struggle that pit Kiev against Novgorod. As you can imagine, this was not a recipe for peace.

Breakup of Kievan Rus
Breakup of Kievan Rus

Dividing the Faith

As if the internal pressures of dividing the territory were not enough, Christianity was starting to change in ways that Yaroslav could not have hoped to salvage. For a number of reasons, Christianity was splitting between the Roman Catholic Church in the West and the Orthodox Church in the East. This division became very clear in 1054, the year Yaroslav died. As the Rus had been traditional allies of the Orthodox Byzantines, they sided with them during this split. However, that meant that they were not welcome as trading partners in the West, due to being thought of as not real Christians.

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