According to the 12th-century chronicle Povest vremennykh let (“Tale of Bygone Years,” also known as the The Russian Primary Chronicle), Kiev was founded by three brothers, Kiy, Shchek, and Khoriv, leaders of the Polyane tribe of the East Slavs. Each established his own settlement on a hill, and these became the town of Kiev, named for the eldest brother, Kiy; a small stream nearby was named for their sister Lybed. Although the chronicle account is legendary, there are contemporary references to Kiev in the writings of Byzantine, German, and Arab historians and geographers. Archaeological evidence suggests that Kiev was founded in the 6th or 7th century AD.

The First Rus Capital

Less legendary is the chronicle account of the Varangians, who seized Kiev in the mid-9th century. As in Novgorod to the north, a Slavo-Varangian ruling elite developed. Kiev, with its good defensive site on the high river bluffs and as the centre of a rich agricultural area and a group of early Slavic towns, began to gain importance. About 882 Oleg (Oleh), the ruler of Novgorod, captured Kiev and made it his capital, the centre of the first East Slavic state, Kievan Rus. The town flourished, chiefly through trade along the Dnieper going south to Byzantium and north over portages to the rivers flowing to the Baltic, the so-called “road from the Varangians to the Greeks,” or “water road.” Trade also went to the Caspian Sea and Central Asia.

In 988 the introduction of Christianity to Kiev enhanced its significance as the spiritual centre of Rus. By the 12th century, according to the chronicles, the city's wealth and religious importance was attested to by its more than 400 churches. The Cathedral of St. Sophia, parts of the Kiev-Pechersk Lavra (Monastery of the Caves), and the ruins of the Golden Gate remain today as witnesses to Kiev at the height of its splendour. The town was famed for its art, the mosaics and frescoes of its churches, its craftsmanship in silver, and the quality of many of its manufactures. One of Europe's major cities, Kiev established diplomatic relations with Byzantium, England, France, Sweden, and other countries. Travelers wrote of its population as numbering tens of thousands.

Throughout the period of Kievan Rus, however, the city was engaged in a succession of wars against the nomadic warrior peoples who inhabited the steppes to the south, in turn the Khazars, Pechenegs, and Polovtsy (Kipchaks). These conflicts weakened the city, but even greater harm was done by the endless, complex internecine struggles of the princedoms into which Rus was divided. In 1169 Prince Andrew Bogolyubsky of Rostov-Suzdal captured and sacked Kiev. Thus by the late 12th century the power of the city had declined, and in the following century it was unable to resist the rising and formidable power of the Mongols. In 1238 a Mongol army under Batu, grandson of Genghis Khan, invaded Rus and, having sacked the towns of central Rus, in 1240 besieged and stormed Kiev. Much of the city was destroyed and most of its population killed. The Franciscan friar and traveler Giovanni da Pian del Carpini six years later reported only 200 houses surviving in Kiev.

Kiev under the tsars

In 1793 the Second Partition of Poland, under Catherine the Great, brought right-bank Ukraine into the Russian Empire, and Kiev, assisted by the abolition in 1754 of the tariff barriers between Russia and the Ukrainian lands, began to grow in commercial importance. Catherine's reign was marked by the abolition of the old administrative system and of the post of Cossack hetman and the division of Ukraine into new administrative provinces, for one of which Kiev became the centre. Subsequently it became the centre of a governor-generalship covering three provinces.

In the first half of the 19th century, Kiev developed as a major focus of Ukrainian nationalism, although severe persecution from the tsarist government forced the movement to shift the brunt of its activities to Lviv in the Austrian-ruled Ukrainian regions. In Kiev, as in Russian cities, there was clandestine revolutionary activity (beginning with the Decembrists in the early 19th century) that culminated in a series of strikes and demonstrations leading to the Russian Revolution of 1905. An important role in this revolutionary movement was taken by students of the University of Kiev (now Kiev T.H. Shevchenko State University), which had been established in 1834.

During the 19th century the expanding economic importance of Ukraine, and especially the growing export of grain, brought further commercial development to Kiev. Modern factory industry appeared; to the Arsenal, which had been set up as early as the 18th century, were added lumber milling and the building of rivercraft. The town developed significant industries processing agricultural products—leather, tobacco, distilling, brewing, and textiles. In the late 1860s Kiev was connected by rail to both Moscow and the Black Sea port of Odessa, further enhancing its role as a centre of industry, commerce, and administration. By the outbreak of World War I, the city had a population of some 350,000.

"Kiev." Encyclopædia Britannica. 2004.  Encyclopædia Britannica Premium Service.
21 July 2004  <>.

Copyright H. David Marshak, All Rights Reserved