How did the Byzantine Empire influence the rise of Kiev?

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The establishment of the Kievan State—the precursor to the great Muscovite Empire—occurred when the Varangians were called upon by the lawless Slavic tribes in 862 CE to settle their internal disputes. The particular Varangian tribe in question were known as the Rus’—which is where the later name for the “Russians”...

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The establishment of the Kievan State—the precursor to the great Muscovite Empire—occurred when the Varangians were called upon by the lawless Slavic tribes in 862 CE to settle their internal disputes. The particular Varangian tribe in question were known as the Rus’—which is where the later name for the “Russians” came—and their settlement of Kiev by the semi-legendary figure of Rurik marked the beginning of the Kievan Russia. Kiev was a town that lay along the flow of the Dnieper River, which extended southward all the way down to the Black Sea. It was a major artery of trade that connected the Rus’ with Byzantine capital of Constantinople, and the position of Kiev led to the famous expression of Dnieper as being the road “from the Varangians to the Greeks.” The kingdom of Rus’ would maintain its contact with the Byzantine Empire for the entirety of its existence.

Early political and military contact between the two empires occurred during the reign of prince Oleg (882–913) and his son, Igor (913–945). Both of these princes engaged in successful warfare against the Byzantine Empire, extracting beneficial trade privileges from it. The Russian Primary Chronicle, for example, relays the campaign of Oleg in 907, when he supposedly nailed his shield to the gates of Constantinople. Igor’s subsequent campaign in 941 was not as successful as that of his father, but the resulting treaty still gave the princes of Rus’ significant privileges in the city. Russians, for example, were subject to their own courts, but could be drafted into Byzantine service. Because of the intermixing of Russian and Byzantine peoples, the connection between the two empires guaranteed a significant level of economic cooperation and cultural borrowing.

The most obvious example of the latter would be adoption by prince Vladimir, known by the Russians as Saint Vladimir, of Christianity, and the accompanying “baptism of Russia.” The theretofore tolerated polytheistic religious practices in the Russian countryside were made illegal by Vladimir’s conversion. Historians of the ancient period have commented on how Vladimir sent authorities into the countryside to confiscate all of the pagan idols they could find and throw them into the Dnieper River. Vladimir’s conversion was not merely a religious statement, however. By the beginning of the eleventh century, Russia lie at a cultural crossroads. The kingdom of Rus’ was flanked on its eastern side by the Muslim state of the Volga Bulgars as well as the Jewish Khazars to the southeast. Therefore, Vladimir’s decision represented a strategic geopolitical decision as well. Instead of becoming a further extension into Eastern Europe of non-Christian peoples, Rus’ became the eastern-most bulwark of Christendom, preventing the spread of Islam into Europe. In return, Rus’ acquired a unified religion, the creation of a religious language translated into a vernacularized Russian script, the makings of a national culture, and much of the material wealth that the resplendent Byzantine Empire had to offer. It was, in short, the zenith of the kingdom of Rus’.

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The Rus were well on the rise by the 9th Century. Throughout that century, they were even raiding Byzantine territories. Their relationships changed when Prince Vladimir the Great took an interest in the culture of the Byzantine Empire. After impressive reports from his envoys who went to Constantinople, Vladimir decided to make the Eastern Orthodox Church his official state religion in 988 and abandoned the old Slavic gods. He invited Byzantine artists and architects to Kiev to design his new capital in the Eastern Greek style. He had a number of grand buildings built to rival those of Constantinople and strived to make his kingdom the "Third Rome." Even after the Byzantine Empire began to decline, Kiev and the Rus acted as a transmitter of Byzantine culture.

The Byzantines were responsible for bringing literacy to Kiev. Prior to contact with the Byzantine Greeks, the Slavs had no written form of communication. However, Byzantine missionaries began teaching them to read and write in the 9th Century and eventually the Greek alphabet was adapted to Cyrillic which spread quickly throughout Slavic lands. Without a form of written communication, it seems unlikely that the Rus would have grown in power the way that they did.

Strong commercial ties to the Byzantine Empire initially helped foster the rise of Kiev. They established trading routes with the Byzantines throughout the Black Sea and Aegean regions which helped them grow rich off the commerce of the Eastern Mediterranean. However, this was short-lived and ultimately had a negative effect. Once the Byzantine Empire's commercial dominance weakened in the 12th Century, the Rus lost their economic prosperity as well. This led to a fracturing of Russian cohesion and Kiev lost its regional dominance.

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The Byzantine Empire influenced the rise of Kiev because Prince Vladimir I was impressed by the trappings of the Eastern Orthodox Church.  While Vladimir could hardly be called a pious man personally, he encouraged the growth of the Orthodox Church and its domed architectural style and Cyrillic language.  Vladimir also found the icons of the Church to be especially moving in a population that was not literate.  Vladimir found that trade with the Byzantine Empire was quite lucrative as it brought his kingdom Eastern goods that it would not otherwise possess.  Also, the czars mimicked the "emperor" style of autocratic leadership that the Byzantine Emperors used.  

Byzantine missionaries assisted with the formation of the Cyrillic language which would be adopted throughout the Russian empire. Kiev and eventually all of Russia would see Byzantium as the model empire and the Russian czars would refer to the empire as the Third Rome.  Even into the nineteenth century, Russia had designs on the old Byzantine territory of Turkey and Southern Europe.  

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Russian Kiev was heavily influenced by the Byzantine Empire.  This influence began when Prince Vladimir I decided to abandon the old Slavic gods.  He sent emissaries to both Rome and Constantinople in order to decide which form of Christianity he should follow.  After hearing of the beauty and splendor of Byzantine civilization, he chose to follow the Byzantine Church.  The acceptance of this religion brought Byzantine culture to Slavic areas.  When Vladimir married the sister of the Byzantine emperor, the ties between the two cultures grew.  Princes of the cities and towns of Kievan Russia began to imitate the Byzantine rulers. Christian clergy became an important class in Kiev and opened many schools.  The Cyrillic alphabet adapted the Greek alphabet to the Slavic language of Kievan Russia.  Slavic artists created religious art work that imitated Byzantine styles. The Church of St. Sophia built in Kiev reflected the Byzantine architectural style. The acceptance of the Eastern Orthodox religion gave the east Slavs a sense of belonging to the civilized world and helped the development of Russian society in many ways.

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