Kievan Rus was a loose federation of Slavic lands that had coalesced from the 9th century. This collection of city-states was held together by the family bonds of the ruling princes, the Ruikovichi, who were descended from the Varangian chieftain, Rurik.
A Riverine Empire
Vikings from Sweden first established a settlement at Aldeigjuborg on Lake Ladoga in the late 8th century. The legendary ruler Rurik reputedly founded Novgorod in around 860. The location was a natural trading nexus bestriding the headwaters of the Dvina, Dneister and Volga Rivers flowing respectively to the Baltic, Black and Caspian Seas. Rurik continued south, capturing the hill town of Kiev. It is thought that the Rus are the cultural ancestors of the Russian, Ukrainian and Belarussian people. Vikings are reported visiting Constantinople in the 830s, and were powerful enough to lay siege to the city, first in around 860, again in 907. In general, however, the trading relationship was mutually beneficial: the Rus controlled commerce in furs, honey and slaves exchanged for a plethora of luxury goods the Byzantines produced or accessed.
Rurik’s successor Oleg extended his kingdom as far south as Kiev and to east of the Dnieper River valley, which he made his base, Through a series of campaigns he created a riverine empire, the Kievan Rus, defended by a network of forts stretching to the Baltic. Here, he met resistance from the Khazars, who were finally conquered by Sviatoslav I, Grand Prince of Kiev, in 965.
Sviatoslav I extended Kievan Rus into the Volga River valley and south to shores of the Black Sea. His son, Vladimir the Great (980–1015), fortified Kievan Rus’s frontiers. His twelve sons were the princes of the largest cities in Rus and it was Vladimir who ordered the mass conversion of Kievan Rus to Orthodox Christianity. The Orthodox patriarch in Constantinople appointed a metropolitan bishop with his episcopal see in Kiev, and a bishop in each of the principalities, which became dioceses. Vladimir the Great’s son, and successor, Yaroslav the Wise, (1019–54) was involved in a dynastic dispute, resulting in the Battle of Kiev in 1036. At its peak, under Vladimir the Great and Yaroslav the Wise, Kievan Rus and its dependencies was the largest power in Europe, with a capital, at one point, at Prislav, in present day Romania.
After the death of Yaroslav the Wise in 1054, a protracted battle for the succession embroiled and, ultimately, partitioned Kievan Rus. Vseslav the Sorcerer, the pagan prince of Polotsk, seized and burned Novgorod and, after Yaroslav’s three sons were defeated in battle by the Turkic Cumans in 1068, he seized Kiev itself, briefly claiming kingship of Rus. Kievan Rus would again achieve some semblance of unity under Vladimir II Monomakh (1113–25) and his son, Mstislav the Great (1125–32) but, by then, other factors were precipitating its decline.
The establishment of the crusader kingdom of Jerusalem had opened alternative trade routes to those afforded by Rus; this was accentuated by Constantinople’s decline following its sacking by crusaders in 1204. The growing Cuman Empire, based around the Black Sea, impeded the trade of Rus itself, while Volga Bulgaria controlled the route to the Caspian.
The Mongol Onslaught
The first onslaught of the nomadic Mongols, a collection of Turkic tribes who originated in present-day Mongolia, took them to the southern steppes of Russia. Some of the Kievan princes joined forces to defend their territory against the Mongols, but were crushed at the Battle of the Kalka River (1223). This defeat should have served as a warning of the existential threat posed by the Mongols, but instead the competing principalities remained divided.
In 1237, a much larger Mongol army, under the command of Batu Khan, returned to administer the coup de grâce. Batu first subdued the kingdom of Volga Bulgaria, and their tribal allies, the Cumans and Alans. He then invaded Vladimir-Suzdal, razing Ryazan and the capital, Suzdal, while Grand Prince Vladimir II fled before his advance. Vladimir II was finally cornered at the Battle of the Sit River (1238); he was killed, his forces annihilated, and concerted resistance to the Mongols ended. Batu then split his forces, roaming south as far as the Crimea, subduing the principalities in turn. Unexpectedly leaving Novgorod untouched, the Mongol armies then advanced into eastern Europe, before the death of the Great Khan suspended operations. The Mongol invaders of Russia and eastern Europe became known to the Europeans as the Tatars.
Batu had no interest in occupying Rus or directly ruling the Slavs; he allowed the ruling princes to govern in their territories, as long as they served his interests, for example by providing armies to fight on his behalf. The Russian provinces provided tax or tribute to their Mongol overlords, who ruled in Russia for the next 200 years.
Invading Mongols had initially sacked and pillaged churches and monasteries but they were tolerant in religious matters. Initially shamanistic pagans. They eventually converted to Islam, but were tolerant of Christianity. During the years of Mongol rule the Russian Orthodox Church asserted itself as a beacon of national and religious identity.