Fall of the Kievan Rus’, and its Aftermath

The Kievan Rus’ were once a formidable power, but that strength shifted away from Kiev in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The reasons for this shift were numerous, and the power structures which came in Kiev’s place were also varied.

Indeed, according to A History of Russia to 1855, “there is considerable controversy about the precise nature of these factors [related to the decline and fall of Kiev] and no consensus concerning their relative weight” (Riasanovsky and Steinberg 36). Instead of determining the precise nature of Kiev’s decline and fall, the authors mentioned a number of issues that could’ve led to this event: social conflicts, a collapse of previously important trade routes, political problems, and other foreign pressures, among other things (36-37). All of these factors seem plausible, but there is room for further research on the issue of Kiev’s decline and fall.

Hierarchies in the post-Kievan Rus’ world were also varied. In Novgrood, its prince had restrictions on when he could travel, what land he could give out, and when/where he could hunt (Kaiser and Marker 84). The princes in the Southwest Rus’ were also weak, as various boyars (which were described in the Kaiser-Marker book as “local elites”) were jockeying for power (85). In fact, only the Northeast Rus’ seemed to have a grand prince (Dimitrii Donskoi) who held power significant enough to control land and decide for himself which people got what lands (87-90).

While people might be tempted to come up with a singular explanation for the fall of the Kievan Rus’, as well as a singular explanation for what happened after the fall of Kiev, those who study Russian history should resist that temptation. By doing this, people can understand everything from the weakness of Iaroslav Iaroslavich to the strength of Dimitrii Donskoi.


1. How scant (or extensive) is the evidence for the mentioned causes (example: trade problems) of the fall of the Kievan Rus’?

2. Did any of these regional differences in power structure exist before the fall of the Kievan Rus’? If so, what evidence is there for these power structure differences?

3. What factors led the Muscovite princes (particularly Dimitrii Donskoi) to become more powerful than their Northwest and Southwest Rus’ counterparts?

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 Rise of the Individual States in Rus’

As Kievan Rus’ became less and less centralized, individual principalities rose in its place as the chief governing bodies in the land.  These were much more independent of one another, and largely stayed more personal.  While this movement was occurring on the own accord of the princes, the pace was changed drastically as the hordes of Mongols began to go West.  While making it difficult for princes to stay sovereign, a large proportion of inhabitant of Rus’ felt the inclusion of Rus’ into the Mongol Yoke certainly had some benefits.

One of the greater success stories of the decentralization was Novgorod.  Novgorod, even after the Mongols had entered the region, became even more prosperous and powerful.  This is in large part due to the creation of a number of political institutions that was controlled by a “merchant republic”.  One of the larger treaties between the city of Novgorod and the local princes was the First Treaty of Novgorod with Tver’ Grand Prince Iaroslav Iaroslavich.  This document provided the ground work for the city and prince’s relationship.  Many of the statutes within the document inhibit Iaroslav from a number of powers a prince would typically have.  The ability of Novgorod to create such a document, in which Iaroslav agreed too exemplifies how beneficial the decentralization of the Kievan Rus’ region was larger cities and the merchants in them.

Similarly, in Southwest Rus’ the princes were also losing power, as power was at an even smaller level.  Boyars held the most power within their lands, thus the state was losing even more control.  In the Extracts from the Galician-Volhyniam Chronicle, in 1231, a boyar set out against a prince with only 18 men.  However, as he marched, more and more individuals joined his cause.  This shows that boyars had a large proportion of the popular support of the lower class individuals in the region.

Moscow was yet another region that was becoming decentralized.  Within The Second Testament of Moscow Grand Prince Dmitrii Domskoi, he separates Moscow between his four sons.  Dmitrii Domskoi goes into incredible detail on what each prince should recieve, such as Prince Vasilli receiving “the beekeepers in the city districts, and the horse and the falconers and the huntsmen” (88).  This separation of a single city/ region into four separate areas adds to the decentralization of the Kievan Rus’ state.

Kievan Rus’ & Pravda Russkaia

The Pravda Russkaia, or the law code of Kievan Rus’, has a very interesting and unique mixture of possible offenses and punishments, some of which are logical, while others are not.  For example, Point 9 states that “If someone unsheathes a sword, but does not strike anyone,then he pays 1 grivna.”  This offense is somewhat similar to laws about carrying a weapon with out a permit.  Another example is point 12, which states that “if someone rides on someone else’s horse, not having asked him for permission, then he is to provide three grivnas.”  This law is similar to that of auto theft.  These laws shows that the Kievan Ru’s “state” had some idea of what was right and wrong, even showing similarities to modern statutes.

Additionally to these logical laws, the laws also show signs of a modern judicial system. Some of the crimes explicitly state that a witness must be found if there was one present.  This third party individual would aid in solving the dispute, as well as helping determine if someone is guilty or innocent.

However, some of these laws have penalties that do not fit the crime.  For example, article 7 says that one must pay 3 grivnas for cutting of a man’s finger, but must pay four times that amount for cutting a man’s mustache, which is stated in article 8.  While it is understandable that cutting a man’s beard be an offense in a culture where a beard and/or mustache is sacred, cutting a finger off could potentially kill a man due to infection, as well as severely hinder him and his ability to do labor.  Another odd punishment is that of article one, which states that one must pay 40 grivnas, which is the same exact amount for cutting a man’s arm off, even if it does not kill him.

Overall, Kievan Rus’ code of law is much more  advanced than I originally had thought it would be, despite some odd penalties and punishments for crimes.


It seems like the Kievan Rus’ empire just dissolved under unfavorable circumstances. The general population became dissatisfied with their Grand Prince in Novgorod, and the Mongols’ invasion of the region further extinguished the flame of Rus’ society. Kievan Rus’ again proved to be highly religious in its political endeavors, and although a split between Prince Ivan and his people occurred – it arguably proved to be a step in the right direction for Rus’ society. Even Kaiser and Marker argue that the kingdom of Rus’ deserved the pummeling it received by the Mongols as punishment for the careless and selfish princes who ignored the wise words of Iaroslav (100).

In line with the ‘princes’ punishment,’ one thing that I questioned throughout the reading was – why was that the reason – the sole heavy hitting reason for the Mongol invasion? Even if Rus’ society was incredibly religious, were they in denial of the Mongols’ strength? Were they in denial of their situation? Was the Mongol invasion a ‘wake up call’ of sorts? The list of questions like this can go on and on, but that’s because the number of lacking answers to questions about this transitional period in Kievan Rus’ society goes on and on. Most of the explanatory language used by the authors is highly religious and ‘mythological’ to an extent, which leads me to assume they don’t know too much about these occurrences (they being the authors and members of Rus’ society).

Economy in Kievan Rus’

From the tenth to thirteenth centuries Kievan Rus’ economy was largely believed to be based on agriculture. There is very little written evidence to support this, however due to the physical evidence of tools such as iron blades and plows, archeologists and historians have determined that agriculture, trade and farming held major importance in society.  However, there is still little evidence to support the theories of whether or not Kievan Rus’ was a commercial society located mainly in towns or if they were an agricultural society that used towns for marketplaces. Archeologists’ findings of the various tools and wares create a broader understanding of how this culture thrived and survived.

Due to the vast differences in climates in Kievan Rus, the use of agriculture and trade as the central part of their economy made sense. People who had settled in southern Rus’ had a greater ability to grow and plant more food, while those in the northern regions had much more difficulty as the dense forests and poor soil quality greatly inhibited agriculture production. This made it imperative for those living in these various regions to adapt and learn to use the land to ensure their success.

The use of livestock as a part of trade and survival is reflected in an earlier reading where early Kievan Rus’ laws seemed to punish and heavily fine those who had stolen or killed a person’s livestock. This clearly shows why such a high emphasis was placed on farming, agriculture, personal property and trade, as they were incredibly important to the survival of the people and the culture. For example, “And if someone plows across the border, or beyond, a border marker carved on a tree then, he is to pay the owner 12 grivnas for the offense. (Reinterpreting Russian History, pg 29)”. Laws such as these reflected the ‘self-help’ idea that ensured personal survival over the overall survival of the community. How can a community truly thrive if the laws protecting the people stem from a self-help ideology that promotes the success of one as opposed to the whole?


The Economy of Kievan Rus’

Much of early Russian history has been contested and debated by historians for years. Unfortunately, the information historians can glean about this civilization is confined to the sources and artifacts available. Learning about the Kievan economy is no exception to these limitations. However, a lot of information about this group can be derived from both primary sources and archeological information.

At the base of the Kievan economy was the idea of tribute. This was the driving force behind the exchanging of goods from all over the area.  A narrative written by Constantine Porphyrogenitus, a Byzantine emperor and scholar, describes how Kievan princes and their retainers would go on a tour throughout the land, collecting tribute. This process arguably formed the primitive basis for trading, as it enabled the entire population of Kievan Russia to be linked together through the goods that they exchanged. From this, the development of a North-South trade route that stretched “from the Varangians to the Greeks” (41) was established and became crucial to the survival of the Kievan state. How historians have learned this information is through the use of primary sources as well as artifacts. For example, historians know that trade was essential to the Kievan economy because many treaties that were created during this time, specifically the Russo-Byzantine treaties, had provisions dealing specifically with trade. By observing the meticulous, highly developed manner of these treaties, we can learn what was deemed important to these peoples. In addition, through studying the presence of amber in Novgorod, historians have learned that amber was brought to the city and used to create a wide array of items. There were references to the amber trade as well. For instance, in a book titled Natural History of Minerals, the author specifically mentions a testament made by one Philemon, who describes where amber was gathered in Scythia.

However, trade was not the only driving force behind the Kievan economy. Agriculture was also extremely prevalent in Kievan Russia. Similar to learning about trade, understanding the role of agriculture in this society can be done through the lens of archeology primarily, as well as through observing images, and other primary sources. For instance, historians know that agriculture was commonplace through archeology. In numerous digs, archeologists have discovered primitive plows that were used to till the land. Through the discovery of these tools, we know that agriculture was fairly sophisticated. The variety of tools discovered reveals the ability of these peoples to adapt to the various challenges they encountered, for instance with the evolvement of the Slash-and-Burn technique to light plowing. In addition, through an account depicted in a juridical document, we learn of raiders who stole plows, axes, etc. from peasants. The fact that this was mentioned specifically demonstrates the importance and commonality of these tools, and subsequently agriculture, to the Kievan economy and society.


The Economy of Kievan Rus’ from the 10th to the 13th century

The period between the 10th and the 13th century was a period of economic prosperity for the Rus’. This can be proven by the study of the remains of both agricultural tools and proofs of an extensive trade of Amber. The location of Rus’ was, of course, propitious to the development of the economy: the Dniepr for example offered the Rus’ a perfect trade route.

The remains of agricultural tools prove that the Rus’ had a capacity to adapt to their environment but also that they also were able to optimize their work, as seen in the North by the evolution of the technique from Slash-and-Burn to a technique based on light plowing. This uniformity could be an indication that some communication between the North and the South subsisted since it is believed that the light plow originated in the North. The augmentation of livestock-raising in the North is also believed to have played a role in the evolution of the North’s agricultural techniques. This made me wonder: Can the increase of livestock-raising be explained by farmers from the North learning this technique from the South, or is it somehow linked to the trade of Fur which we know the North practiced?

The trade of amber was also extensive in Rus’, the fact that all the amber was being processed in Novgorod could show that Novgorod was in fact the most important city in Rus’. The North, and therefore Novgorod, was naturally more protected of nomadic invasions than Kiev, which we know has been sacked numerous times. We also know that the light plow has originated in the North, which might demonstrate that the North was superior to the South in agricultural ingenuity and craftsmanship: Since finished and unfinished amber were found in Novgorod, we can assume that the amber was processed there. Finally the drop in production of amber in the 13th century might show the end of the golden age of the Kievan Rus’ since we know that this century was marked by the invasion of the Teutonic Order and more importantly the Mongols.

I remember reading in the last few years that the reason Russia was so far behind Western Europe in subsequent century was due to the Mongol invasions which had not allowed Russia to develop as freely as Western Europe did. Upon reading about the Rus’ economy I am beginning to wonder if this is not the case. Prior to the Mongol invasion, the Rus’ had everything to become a strong power in Europe, a sound economy revolving around trade, which was greatly helped by its location, military victories – which proves that the Rus’ could fight and win – and one of the biggest territories of Europe. Feel free to share your thoughts on the matter.