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Kievan Rus, or Ruthenia, was a feudal state that was the precursor to Tsarist Russia. Its early history is Shrouded in Myth; the first reliable historical records are from the ninth century.
The most common, or, better to say, best known by the lay people, theory (usually called "Normanist") says that Kievan Rus was founded by the Scandinavian prince Rurik and his Viking followers, who migrated south and conquered the backward, almost-tribal Eastern Slavs (ancestors of Russians, Ukrainians and Belarusians). The fact is really unknown, and is actually the ground for the very hot and politicized debate. Scientific consensus is generally that the Vikings were basically just as tribal (or developed, take whatever you wish) as Slavs, and that their cultures were sufficiently similar for people and nobility to freely mix together. Also, one of the Old Norse words for Ruthenia was "Gardariki" (Realm of [many] towns), which means pre-Kievan Rus was already an urbanizing culture.
An official myth dating back to the Imperial era says the Slavs themselves invited the Norse to rule them. Needless to say, it is subject to the very same debate, which is generally more about politics than history. Some say that knowing the attitudes and customs of The Dung Ages, this is highly unlikely, other insist that it was actually pretty routine. Just don't try to bring it up in a non-scientific circles. The first capital of Rurik's principality was the ancient Northern city of Ladoga (now called Old Ladoga), but soon moved to Novgorod (another Northern city, founded by the settlers from Ladoga; now called Veliky ("Great") Novgorod despite it's smaller than the other Novgorod; the Norse called it Holmgard). His sons, however, took it over south, to Kiev.
The original Kievan Rus was pagan, with the Viking-descended nobility worshiping the Norse gods and the common Slavs their own pantheon, which was somewhat similar, but distinct. There were also significant and influential Christian minority, as well as Jewish and Muslim ones. Christians, however, were much better placed, as they generally were Christianized Vikings who served at Byzantine court as mercenaries, and were often relatives of Russian nobility. In 988, Prince Vladimir I, who was dissatisfied with paganism, and wished to establish a state religion, converted Rus into Orthodox Christianity.
Allegedly, he organised a "casting": Catholics failed because of the fasting and general dourness, of the Muslims Vladimir declared that "Drinking is the joy of the Russes. We cannot exist without that pleasure", of the Jews Vladimir concluded their own God must dislike them if they're dispersed like that, while the Orthodox Byzantines were careful to approach Vladimir with all kinds of bling and little of the rules. This was a myth, however. In fact, Vladimir was heavily influenced by Christianity from the start, and his grandmother, Princess Olga, was a Christian, baptized at the Byzantine court. Many pagan customs, though, persisted into the Tsarist era and even to this day, after being coopted into the Christian ritual.
Early Kievan Rus was a united monarchy, though with big family feuds, exacerbated by the Slavic succession laws, where the brother held precedence over the son. This had quickly led to the bloody free-for-all, and in the 12th century the feudal patchwork kicked in. That made the blanket term "Kievan Rus" obsolete: There were also the Vladimir Rus, the Novgorod Rus, later the Moscow Rus and many smaller principalities, although initially the Kievan throne was notionally their suzerain, and the ruler of Kiev held the title of Grand Prince. This made Rus very vulnerable to outside threats, and in the mid-13th century it was overrun by the Mongol Horde.
The Mongols left most of the political system intact, but now the Grand Prince had to be formally recognized as such by his Mongol lieges, who chose the most obedient ones. The Novgorod Rus was spared of the Mongol invasion by being too far north, and its princes and council being too much of Magnificent Bastards (Novgorod was a republic, its prince being only the hired military leader, who could be deposed by the parliament and the city council), but had to deal with other enemies, such as Swedes and The Teutonic Knights.
Eventually, Grand Duchy of Vladimir-Suzdal, later known as "of Moscow", ended up as the most important principality. The Muscovite princes cast off the Mongol-Tatar yoke, annexed the Novgorod Republic and united the northern principalities. The principalities under the Grand Duchy of Moscow later formed the Muscovite Tsardom. Kiev, the original capital of Ruthenia, and the southern principalities were united by the Galician-Volhynian Principality (later renamed the Kingdom of Rus) for a time, until its lands were divided between Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (which had little connection to the modern Lithuania, and corresponding mostly to the modern Belorussia), another pretender to be the "true heir" of Ruthenia.
The question of who are the "true heirs" of the Kievan Rus is often a matter of disagreement between Eastern Slavs, with Russians saying that Moscow's reunification of the northern principalities and Kiev's depopulation by the Tatars and later subjugation by Lithuania (and Novgorod, a distinctly Russian city, being the first capital of Rurik's princedom) make it clear which city inherited the title of the capital of the Rus, while Ukrainians see the Galicia-Lodomeria as the heir to original Rus, and are saying that Kiev and the southern principalities stayed as the core of Ruthenian culture, unlike the colonial northern principalities, the people of which were intermingled with Ugro-Finns and Tatars. Belarusian principalities mostly stayed autonomously of Rus and, being united with Aukštaitija, formed the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, which will later unite most of Ruthenian territories, except for Novgorod and North-Eastern colonies that will become a basis for future Russia. But since Russians pack the greatest punch of the three most of the time, the Russian-Ruthenian connection is the most well known. This question is even more complicated by the fact that a people called Ruthenians (or Rusyns, or Ruthens) do exist now; they are relatives of Ukrainians living in Transcarpathia.
Notable princes of the period include:
- Rurik. The founder of the Big Screwed-Up Family that was the Rurikid dynasty, and of the realm itself.
- Oleg (Helgi) the Seer. He was known for wars with the Khazar Khaghanate, and for the legend of his death. There was a prophecy that he would die by his horse. His horse died before him, and Oleg put his foot on the horse's skull and started to gloat; then a snake crawled from the skull and bit him fatally.
- Saint Olga (Helga). Mother of Sviatoslav and grandmother of Vladimir, she was a shrewd, efficient, often ruthless, but just ruler, who steered the land while her son was raiding the neighbors, and who first introduced Christianity to the land, for which she was later canonized. The best candidate for The High Queen among the whole dynasty.
- Svyatoslav. He was a Badass Warrior Prince who paid more attention to his campaigns than to running the realm. He died in battle, and the Pecheneg nomads made a cup out of his skull. He was the first prince to be named in Ruthenian, not in Old Norse.
- Vladimir I (Vladimir the Saint, Vladimir the Red Sun). The guy who made Rus Christian. He was an illegitimate child, and captured the throne by force. He had several wives, then he received the baptism and forced it on all Rus. A saint of the Orthodox Church.
- Vseslav the Sorcerer. A prince of Polotsk (modern-day Belarus). The last pagan prince of the Rus. He was known as, well, a sorcerer. Several supernatural powers were attributed to him.
- Yaroslav the Wise, son of Vladimir. Initially known as The Lame, he was such a Magnificent Bastard that he remains remembered even now. In his time, feudal disintegration of the Rus began. He made the first Russian code of laws, the Russkaya Pravda.
- Vladimir II Monomakh. Basically the last prince of the unified Kievan Rus. He was a prolific writer.
- Yuri Dolgoruki (Yuri Long-Arms). Today he is mainly known as the founder of Moscow.
- Alexander Nevsky, a prince of the Novgorod Rus. Novgorod was a republic, and its prince was more a general than anything else. Alexander Nevsky is famous as a really good general who won two wars, with the Swedes and with the Teutonic Knights. Also a saint of the Orthodox Church.
- Danylo (Daniel) I of Galicia. The prince of Galicia-Volhynia, he created a wide alliance against the Mongol-Tatars in Eastern Europe, as well as reasoned with the Pope to start the Crusade against the Mongol-Tatars, but ultimately failed and had to stay as the vassal of the Khan. He is known as the founder of Lviv and the first ruler to be crowned as "the King of Rus". This title didn't stick for long, though.
- Ivan I Kalita (Ivan the Moneybag). One of the first princes of the Moscow Rus, he was a cunning politician, a Manipulative Bastard, and a panderer to the Golden Horde. By pandering, he ensured the Horde's protection over his small principality, and made Moscow into an important city. It also made him an unpopular character in Russian history.
- Dmitri Donskoi (Dmitri of the Don [River]). Another prince of Moscow. He is famous for the first military victory over the Golden Horde, the battle of Kulikovo. A contemporary and kinda friend of one of the most important saints of the Russian Orthodox Church, St.Sergius of Radonezh.
- Semyon Olelkovych. The last prince (not the grand prince) of Kiev, a vassal of the Grand Duke of Lithuania. He was one of the leaders in defence of the Grand Duchy's borders against Tatars and was thought by many to be the new Grand Duke of Lithuania, Ruthenia and Samogitia. After his death in 1470 the Kievan Principality lost its autonomy and was officially subjugated into the Grand Duchy as Kievan Voievodship.
- Ivan III. With him, the era ended. He threw off the Mongol yoke, united the northern Ruthenian (now distinctly Russian) principalities and created the Muscovite Tsardom, which eventually became Tsarist Russia.
=== Depictions in fiction