The Decentralization and Gradual Decline of Kievan Rus’

The once powerful principality known as Kievan Rus’ experienced a gradual but steady decline in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. It is difficult to pinpoint the exact factors that led to the collapse, but it can partially be attributed to political decentralization and foreign invasions. Prior to the fall, Kievan society was characterized by uniform religion, a common language, and a common culture which kept the diverse state somewhat unified. The declining period, known as “appanage Russia”, was typified by a spreading out of political power and territories. This decentralization was caused by the custom of a ruler to divide his holdings up between his various family members following his death. As each generation brought a plethora of new, smaller principalities each micro locality became weaker and more isolated from the rest of Russia, making them easy targets for foreign invaders. The mongols took advantage of this situation and held at least some form of power over Russia from 1240 until 1480 when the Muscovite “gathering of Russia” broke away from Mongol rule. The summation of appanage Russia is a period of isolation and regression. The weakened principalities within Russia were isolated from one another and the nation as a whole was isolated from Western European nations; causing Russia to miss out on innovations and progressions and to regress culturally.

The overall decentralization of power and weakening of princely status throughout Kievan Rus was not consistent among all the principalities. The fate of princes in separate regions differed greatly. In the southwest and northwest, princes lost significant amounts of power as local elites took control over society by hand picking their own princes. This deviates from the tendencies in the prominent principality of Novgorod, a “merchant republic”, where the public imposed restrictions on the prince’s power to protect the interests of the populace and avoid tyrannical rule. The northwestern region deviated from the other portions of the nation as their princes retained unrestricted power. One of the more famous princes from this region was Dmitrii Donskoi, whose will divided  his assets up between his sons and his wife. Donskoi’s will is a clear example of the divvying up of holdings characteristic of Appanage Russia.


Was Donskoi’s leaving of land to his wife an anomaly or an indication of a more widespread tendency of giving widowed women assets?

Why did the regions differ so greatly in regard to the decline, or lack thereof, of princely power?

Works Cited

Kaiser, Daniel H. and Gary Marker. Reinterpreting Russian History: Readings, 860-1860s. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.

Riasanovsky, Nicholas V. and Mark D. Steinberg. A History of Russia to 1855. 7th ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

The Diminishing Unity of “Russian Land”

The Kievan Empire can be characterized by its strong sense of unity in religion, language, and culture.  The State is very much governed by the Church which contributes to this concept of “Russian Land.”  This very concept provides Russians with the unity and strength that will be tested for the next hundred years because of decentralization and conquest.

Prior to the Mongol attack on the Kievan State, Russian Appanage weakened the great strength of Russian state and cultural capitals.  Appanage is the passing down of land from one ruler to many.  Usually this was done in the form of a ruler handing down his land to his many sons, known as princes.  We see evidence of this in the Second Testament of Moscow Gran Prince Dmitrii Donskoi in 1389.  In this testament that starts off with a prayer, Donskoi appropriates which of his sons will get parts of his estate.  It is important to note that Donskoi promises land and power to his daughter.  In fact Donskoi writes that if one of his sons is to pass away, “then my princess shall divide his patrimonial principality among my sons” (Kaiser and Marker, 89).  This type of appanage is common in Russia and results in smaller and smaller political entities, which decentralizes power in many Russian states, allowing for easier conquest of those smaller entities.

Contrary to the family appanages of land, the readings reveal that different regions of Russia experienced decentralization of power in more republican approaches.  For example, in Novgorod, during the rule of Grand Prince Iaroslav Iaroslavich, the people of Novgorod wrote a treaty to the prince.  In this treaty, the people of Novgorod define what the prince’s role is in their government.  Common themes include the prince being religious but also following previous actions of the father, or predecessor.  Prior to this treaty, in 1136, the people of Novgorod actually revolted and dethroned their ruler.  What resulted was this treaty in 1264 that reflects a very civic approach to the state in Novgorod.  Even though this document seems very democratic in nature, we must be aware of the very possible and strong elite influence of this revolution.  We see a boyar takeover in Southwest Rus’ in 1240 with the overthrow of the ruler only to replace with Danilo, a boyar.  This takeover was strictly one fueled by the elite attempting to take power away from the throne, resulting in separate boyar power, stronger than the state’s power.

This internal weakening of the Russian state contributed to its defeat by many other empires, including the Mongols.  The decentralization and conquest also contributed to what many scholars call the parochialism of the previous rich state of Kiev.  It won’t be until the successful Muscovite “gathering of Russia” that marked the end of appanage.

With all this in mind:

Why would the larger population of Novgorod be willing to participate in a revolt against the throne as opposed to other regions of Russia?

Why is there more of a focus on European Russia?

How is the Church influencing continued unity during this time?  Is there any evidence of this in the documents we have read?

Works Cited

Kaiser, Daniel H. and Gary Marker. Reinterpreting Russian History: Readings, 860-1860s. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.