Kyiv - Capital of Ukraine


John Sloan
Micha Jelisavcic

A view of ancient Kyiv as depicted in the diorama in the State Museum of Ukraine in Kyiv.

Diorama of Kiev in 1100

Ancient and medieval Kyiv - Summary

Archeological explorations reveal that the site of the future Kyiv was occupied for many centuries. The city became the capital of the Rus state from around 850. The town rapidly flourished from the trade between Constantinople and the Baltic. This was Vladimir's capital and the city to which he returned from his campaign to Chersonese in Crimea during which he was baptized a Christian. Then, in 988, he decreed that the city population would also be baptized. From the ninth century the threat from the steppe nomads greatly increased. Both the city and the frontier were extensively fortified. But victory over the nomads did not prevent civil war among the many descendants of the original Varangian conquerors. Yaroslav emerged the victor in the early rounds of civil war. He defeated the Pecheneg attack on Kyiv in 1036. He built magnificent stone cathedrals and stone fortifications. During this period the many towns of Kyivan Rus were generally surrounded by earthen walls and palisades. Each town had its kremlin as the seat of the prince's power and refuge of last resort in case of attack. In the 12th century new nomads (Polovtsy/Cumans/Kypchak) greatly increased the military threat. Civil war among the multitude of mostly related princes increased as well. The last strong Kyivan ruler was Vladimir Monomakh (1113-1125). The Kyivan state disintegrated after 1150. The city was sacked by Andrei Bogoliubskii of Vladimir in 1169, then destroyed by the Mongols in 1240 and by the Tatars in 1482. During the middle ages the city fell to the Lithuanians and Poles. It became firmly reunited to Russia during the reign of Peter the Great. There were many battles around the town and in the city streets during the Russian Civil War in 1918. During this period Ukraine became independent briefly. The city was the scene of fighting again during the Red Army campaign of May-June 1920 that drove the Polish occupation forces out of the region. The city suffered again severely during the German invasion in 1941 and again during the liberation in November 1943.

The origins of the earliest Slavic inhabitants of Kyiv are controversial. Some specialists claim they were indigenous to the region since at least the late Bronze Age while others claim they migrated from the lower Danube as late as 500 AD. It appears most likely that the Avar conquest of the Danube region, which drove many Slavic tribes into the Balkans and Central Europe also forced these East Slavs to the northeast and into the Dnieper River region. In any event it is clear that by the start of the 11th century there were about eleven identifiable Slavic tribal groups located from the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains and the valleys of the Vistula, Bug, and Prut Rivers across the forested regions as far east as the Volga River and north to Lake Ladoga. However, the Slavic tribes did not occupy the region alone, for there remained also the Baltic-language and Finnic-speaking peoples, giving Kyivan Rus its multi-national character.

The ancient chronicles and legends speak of three princes (Kii, Shchek, and Khoriv) of the Poliane tribe (one of the main Slavic groups) who founded the settlements on the hills overlooking the Dnieper that eventually coalesced into one town. Kii especially is mentioned in many legends. Legendary or real, his name lives on in the name of the town, Kyiv.

Kyiv in turn gave its name to the first Eastern Slavic city state, which developed along the Dnieper River around 850 AD. According to the chronicles this state took form when the Slavic and Finnic tribes invited the Varangians (Vikings or Normans) to come rule them. Whether or not the Vikings were invited or invited themselves in and whether or not there was a pre-existing city-state, it is clear that the Vikings under their legendary leader, Rurik, took control of Novgorod and then under Askold and Dir set up a government at Kyiv. Immediately prior to this time Kyiv and surrounding regions had been controled by the Magyars and Khazars. By 860 they appeared to history when they launched the first Rus attack on Constantinople. After Rurik's death about 879 his kinsman, Oleg, took command of the Viking forces in Novgorod and in 882 ousted Askold and Dir from Kyiv, thus unifying the political control of the river line. The Kyivan state began as a narrow strip along the rivers from Staraia Ladoga to the rapids on the Dnieper south of Kyiv. The city played the most prominent political role as the capital until the state disintegrated into a welter of competing principalities in the middle 12th century and the leading ruler shifted his seat to Vladimir-Suzdal. During the 11th century the Kyivan state expanded west to the Polish and Hungarian borders, east to the upper Volga River, south to the steppe frontier below the Vorskla River, and north to Beloozero and the Sukhona River. At its height of power Kyiv was a finer city that contemporary Paris. Kyiv remained important until it was destroyed by the Mongol army of Batu Khan in 1240. We now have prepared geneology charts and descriptions of the rulers of Kyiv. Please go to kyivprinc.

The historical political history of Kyivan Rus really begins with Oleg (ca. 882-912). His successors Igor (913-945), Ol'ga (945-964), and Sviatoslav (964-972) waged a bitter conflict based on terror and executions to subordinate the many Slavic tribes, who did not take kindly either to their Viking overlords or to centralization of power at Kyiv. These Vikings were similar to their cousins who roamed throughout Western Europe and the Mediterranean basin. Also like their western cousins the Rus Varangians naturally merged conquest with trade. Oleg led another assault on Constantinople in 907 from which emerged the first Rus-Byzantine commercial treaty. Igor launched his own attack about 941 and was also defeated militarily but gained a new treaty in 945. Finally, Sviatoslav attempted to take the Danubian Bulgar region from the Byzantines and was decisively defeated, bringing an increase in Byzantine influence over Kyivan society. Igor and Sviatoslav were more successful in their campaigns to the north and east and managed to bring Kyivan rule to the middle Volga region.

During the reigns of Vladimir (980-1015) and Yaroslav (1019-1054) the Kyivan state was solidified within its natural western and southern boundaries. In the north the Rus continued to seek control over the Finnish tribes as far as the White Sea. The chief danger to Kyivan Rus developed on the southern frontier where the Turkic nomad Pechenegs overthrew the Khazars and occupied the steppe region. Vladimir initiated the frontier fortification construction program that was to become characteristic of Russian policy through the 18th century. It was Vladimir who gave up his pagan ways along with some 800 concubines in exchange for Greek Orthodoxy and the Byzantine Emperor Basil's sister, Anna. He then conducted the mass baptism of his people in the Dnieper.

Vladimir's death brought on a typical civil war among the Varangian family members that was finally won by one of his sons, Yaroslav. He defeated the Pechenegs in battle near Kyiv in 1036. He patronized religion, the arts, and learning. Kyiv grew in splendor. Among Yaroslav's major projects were the construction of the Cathedral of Saint Sophia in Kyiv, a stone church of the same name in Novgorod and a new fortress citadel on one of Kyiv's hills. The city itself was located on a series of hills adjacent to the Dnieper and surrounded by a strong earthen wall with palisade. He was not above trying his hand at the favorite Viking (Norman) pastime of attacking Constantinople, but his army, led by a son, was defeated in 1043. From Yaroslav's death in 1054 to that of Sviatopolk II in 1113 the military situation deteriorated as the Torki and then the more powerful Polovtsi-Cumans replaced the Pechenegs in the steppe. After that the frequent Polovetsi incursions were made all the worse because of the increasing disunity of the Rus as the numerous offspring in each generation waged constant warfare on each other. Vladimir Monomakh (1113- 1125) managed for a time to reassert central control and defeat the Polovetsi, but after the death of his eldest son, Mstislav (1125-1132) the many brothers and cousins again put their personal and local interests ahead of those of Rus as a whole. The Rus lands disintegrated into a welter of city and village based princedoms ruled over by the murderous clan of Rurikivichi who based their power on the arms of their Viking war bands and mercenary Polovetsi troops.

During this period Kyiv lost its importance and Vladimir-Suzdal became the new economic and political center. Kyiv was exposed to the danger of Polovetsi raids as well as attack from the Rus princes in Galicia, Volynia and Chernigov, etc. But it was the trio of successors, Yuri Dolgoruki (d.1117), Andrei Bogoliubovski (1157-1174), and Vsevolod (1177-1212) who sacked Kyiv (especially in 1169), while increasing the power of their rising principality centered on Rostov, Suzdal, and Vladimir. They were much less successful in their battles with Novgorodian citizens. One reason these rulers felt it necessary to shift their capital to the northeast was the disruption of the ancient trade route along the Dnieper due to multiple causes in the Middle East. Thus Kyiv was already in decline when the Mongol conquerors arrived at the "Golden Gate".

From 1240 to the late 1600's Kyiv was controlled by the Mongols, Lithuanians (from 1362), or Poles. During the 1600's the developing Cossack society struggled against the Poles for control of the city. Gradually the Muscovite Russian state extended its power down and across the Dnieper until the Polish king, Jan Sobieski, was finally forced to cede Kyiv to the Muscovite regent Sophia. From the reign of Peter I on Kyiv became a provincial center and headquarters of a military department. Peter initiated new fortifications, which were renewed and strengthened periodically into the mid 1800's.

Kyiv during the Russian Civil War:

Revolutionary uprisings in 1917 and 1918

There were large scale uprisings organized by the Bolsheviks on November 11-13 1917 and January 29-February 8 1918. These were centered at the "Arsenal" workshop just north of the Pecherskii Monastery. The November uprising was initially successful against the forces of the Provisional Government, but was then suppressed by Ukrainian nationalists supporting their own Central Rada. In January 1918 the Bolsheviks launched an offensive against Kyiv supported by revolutionary troops from central Russia. The Bolshevik organization within Kyiv staged another uprising in support on 29 January. It was also centered at the "Arsenal". Fighting raged around the Arsenal and the Pecherskii Fortress. By February 4 the Rada forces of Petliura were successful in suppressing most of the uprising within the city. However, on the same day the Red forces from Kharkhov and central Russia crossed the Dnieper and entered the city. By 8 February they drove the Ukrainian Rada troops out and captured Kyiv for the Bolsheviks.

The Kyiv Operation of 1920:

This offensive operation was conducted between May 26 and June 16 by the Southwestern Front under command of A. I. Egorov with I. V. Stalin and R. I. Berzin as members of his Military Revolutionary Council. They were opposed by the Polish Ukrainian Front led by General A. Listowski. The Polish forces numbered 48,600 and the Red Army had 46,500. The Red Army plan was to encircle Kyiv (defended by the Polish Third and Sixth Armies) by launching the 12th Army across the Dnieper north of the city on 26 May and the First Cavalry Army of S. M. Budennyi on 27 May from the south to capture Berdichev and reach the rear of the Polish forces. The northern axis was composed of two rifle divisions and the cavalry brigade of G. I. Kotovskii, under command of I. E. Yakir. They were to advance to Belaia Tserkov and Fastov. The initial Red Army attacks in the south were not successful, but by 5 June the First Cavalry Army managed to break through to Samgorodok. It then was able to conduct raids to Zhitomir and Berdichev where Polish headquarters and logistics bases were located. On 9 June the First Cavalry Army advanced to Fastov and on 10 June contacted Kotovskii's cavalry brigade. The Red 12th Army succeeded in forcing the Dnieper and cut the Kyiv-Korosten railroad on 11 June. The Polish Third Army was then encircled in Kyiv. During the night of 11 June it withdrew toward Korosten. The weak forces of the 12th Army were unable to prevent the Polish breakthrough to Korosten.

Kyiv in World War II:

Kyivan defensive operation of 1941

During the opening phase of World War II Kyiv was defended by troops of the Southwestern Front commanded by M. P. Kirponos. The German offensive of the "South" army group was commanded by General-Fieldmarshal G. Rundstedt. The initial battles in the western part of Ukraine took place between June and the beginning of July, during which the Germans broke through the Russian defenses and captured Zhitomir and Berdichev. A huge gap was opened between the Soviet Fifth and Sixth Armies. By 10 July the German Third Motorized Corps reached within fifteen kilometers of Kyiv. The German sixth Army then initiated an offensive with up to fourteen divisions, of which two were tank and two were motorized.

The Kyiv garrison at the time was composed of the Kyiv Fortified Region, which contained five machine-gun battalions. This was quickly reenforced by three rifle divisions, two airborne brigades, cadets of the Kyiv artillery schools and other units and detachments. While the city inhabitants prepared defensive lines, during July 10 to 16 troops of the Fifth and Sixth Armies launched counterattacks that managed to divert at least eleven German divisions. The Fifth Army, operating from the Korosten Fortified Region, temporarily cut the highway west of Zhitomir. Meanwhile heavy fighting continued close to the city along the highway from Zhitomir to Kyiv. On July 11th the German 13th Panzer Division unsuccessfully attempted a crossing of the Irpen River to enter Kyiv. On the 13th the German main attack south of Kyiv was also stopped. The Germans were forced to turn their attention to eliminating the threat posed to their own flanks by the Soviet Fifth, Sixth and Twenty-sixth Armies. By 30-13 July they were successful in pushing the Fifth and Twenty-sixth Armies back.

The defense of Kyiv proper was supported by over 200,000 civilians who volunteered to join the Red Army. A local militia was created. Each day over 160,000 civilians worked on the defensive fortifications. Three defensive lines were developed, an anti-tank ditch 25 km long was prepared along with mine fields and barbed-wire entanglements and 700 field fortification blockhouses were constructed.

The next German attack, which started on 1 August, was aimed to the southwest of Kyiv. By 5 August the Germans were able to create a very narrow penetration to reach Chabany, and on 8 August they reached the southwestern suburbs of Kyiv. The Soviet command reorganized the defenders into a 37th Army to which they added two more rifle divisions and three airborne brigades. The new 37th Army then counterattacked and by 16 August forced the Germans back practically to their initial positions.

During August the main German attack by the "Center" army group north of the Pripet Marshes continued toward Moscow. Hitler then ordered part of this army group to turn south. The German Second Panzer Group and Second Army then attacked the Soviet defenders of Ukraine from the north toward Konotop, Gomel, and Chernigov, all well to the east of Kyiv. By September the Germans reached the Desna River. The command of the southwestern Front wanted to withdraw to avoid immanent encirclement, but Stalin refused. He replaced Budennii with Marshal Timoshenko on 13 September. On September 12 the Germans launched a new offensive from Kremenchug and by September 15th the advance units of this force linked up with troops coming from the north. This encircled the Soviet 21st, Fifth, 37th, and 26th Armies around Kyiv. Permission to withdraw was finally given on 17 September. The 37th Army left Kyiv on the 19th. But many Soviet troops were captured or killed in the encirclement, including M. P. Kirponos, M. A. Burmistenko and V. I. Tupikov.

Although they ultimately were unable to hold Kyiv, the troops of the Southwestern Front did delay the German advance for over two months, forced the diversion of many divisions to the south and contributed mightily to the ultimate German defeat before Moscow.

Kyivan Offensive Operation in 1943

The offensive was mounted on November 3 to 13, 1943 by the First Ukrainian Front (previously Voronezh Front) commanded by General of the Army N. F. Vatutin against the German Fourth Panzer Army plus units from the Eighth and Second Armies. The Soviets had 47 rifle and 3 cavalry divisions and the Germans had 22 infantry, 7 panzer and 2 motorized divisions. Soviet offensive operations during October from the bridgehead over the Dnieper at Bukrin, intended to be the main attack, were unsuccessful, but the 38th Army was able to enlarge its bridgehead at Liutezh. The Soviet command therefor decided to switch the axis of main attack. The Third Guards Tank and 40th Armies were secretly redeployed toward Liutezh. On November 1 the Soviet 40th and 27th Armies again attacked from Bukrin to draw off German reserves. Then on 3 November the 38th Army and Fifth Guards Tank Corps launched the main attack from Liutezh toward Sviatoshino-Vasil'kov. The Soviets achieved a breakthrough. German reserves failed to block the gap and the Soviets then launched the entire Third Guards Tank Army and First Guards Cavalry Corps into the penetration. By 6 November they had driven the Germans back from Kyiv. A German counterattack on 8 November was defeated. By 12 November Zhitomir was liberated. Between 13 and 25 November the Soviet left wing went on the defensive to repel heavy German counterattacks while their right wing (13th and 60th Armies) continued to advance. During the operation to liberate Kyiv 15 German divisions were defeated and hundreds of tanks and artillery pieces were captured or destroyed.


Illustrations of Kyiv city are located at photos. Here are photos of some of the military equipment at the museum next to the World War Two memorial. Return to Ukraine.

To return to the Xenophon main page please click here. To arrange for travel and accomodations as well as expert guides throughout Ukraine please email to Larissa Riazantseva.