Two princes

Volodymyr Monomakh and Andrei Bogoliubsky: grandfather and grandson as symbols of a not quite “common” heritage of Kyivan Rus’

We remember from our physics classes that in 1667 Isaac Newton proved that white light striking a prism divides into its constituent colors, creating a visible spectrum.

In a way the same is true of the process of history. To an untrained eye it looks like a single whole, whereas in actuality it is composed of many varying “colors” (causes and prerequisites). The historical progress of Kyivan Rus’ (which, according to ‘Russian-world-minded’ historians, left a common he­ritage for the three Eastern Slavic peoples [e.g., Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus. — Ed.]) is a graphic example. A closer look at this history shows that nothing could be further from the truth. Hard facts leave nothing of the “common” assumption. Here the most convincing proof is not abstract theses but comparisons (made using contrasts, if you will) between the lives of spectacular historic personalities.

Suppose we trace two such lives, according to those fundamental traits (both political and purely human ones) which determined the unique role of Grand Prince Volodymyr Monomakh of Kyiv (1053-1125) and his grandson, Grand Prince Andrei Bogoliubsky of Vladimir-Suzdal (1111-74), in the history of the Eastern Slavs.


He was doubtlessly one of the most authoritative political leaders of Kyivan Rus’. Symbolically, his death (May 19, 1125) marked the end of Rus’ political unity (however relative). He appears to have been the last of the celebrated cohort of princes capable of forging this unity. On a par with Prince Volodymyr Monomakh’s political achievements (the main one being his ability to join together separate Rus’ principalities and keep them under a single reign, though it did not last), those who knew him during his lifetime and after his passing were attracted by his sincere humanism and high moral standards. Volodymyr Monomakh was a genuinely enlightened political leader (think of all those Muscovite, later St. Petersburg, successors to the throne who would don the Monomakh’s Cap, as though paying homage to his rule, posing as “enlightened rulers,” and ending up as bloodthirsty despots). He was man of literature and culture, he appreciated others’ achievements in these spheres; he encouraged and supported education. He was an outstanding military leader (known to historians for his singularly effective military campaigns), feared by the Polovtsians, Tor­kils/Torks, and other nomadic tribes that were constantly raiding and devastating Rus’. As a grandson of Prince Yaroslav the Wise, Volodymyr was a rare example of a harmonious combination of rigid political will, striking political foresight, and humane approach.

Proof of this is found in his Poucheniie ditiam (Instruction for [my] Children). The Grand Prince of Kyiv wrote it in the twilight of his years, sometime in 1117. The thing is not only that the author demonstrated his profound Eastern Orthodox affiliation (“Verily, my children, you must understand how much our merciful Lord loves His children. We mortals are sinful, so we seek to destroy and devour all those who attempt to do us harm; we want to shed their blood as soon as we can. Meanwhile, our Lord Almighty, He who is master of our life and death, endures our sins for as long as we live…”).

As the ruler of his state, Volodymyr Monomakh remained keenly aware of the needs of the man in the street and sincerely tried to ease his burden: “First and foremost, you must not forget about all those in need; make every effort to feed the hungry, give some coins to the beggar, protect the widow; do not allow the stronger ones to destroy the weaker ones. Do not kill the right- or wrongdoers; do not order any of them killed. Even if a wrongdoer deserves to be killed, do not allow a single Christian soul to perish. Above all, do not indulge in pride, in mind and heart, and keep telling yourselves, ‘Oh Lord, we are humble mortals; we are alive today but we can die tomorrow… for this shall be as ordained by You and this is for us to abide unquestioningly… Do not forget what you are good at and master other skills you do not as yet possess, for this was true of my father who knew five languages [i.e., Prince Vsevolod Yaro­slavych, Yaroslav the Wise’s fifth and favorite son. — Ed.] and was held in esteem in other countries. Laziness is the source of many evils; those who have some skills forget them and those who can master such skills will never do so.” There are many other wise and inspiring ideas found in Volodymyr Monomakh’s Instruction.

This Grand Prince of Old Rus’ spent most of his life where Ukraine is today, so we have every reason to regard him as our fellow countryman. He became the sole master of the Rostov-Suzdal lands when he was 13 years old (his domain would become the political nucleus of the independent Vladimir-Suzdal Principality, subsequently to transform into Muscovy, yet at the time of Monomakh it was ruled by the old Ukrainian Pereiaslav Principality — interesting, isn’t it?). He then ruled the principalities of Volodymyr-Volynsky (1072-76), Chernihiv (1076-77; 1078-94), Pe­reia­slav (1094-1113), and finally Kyiv (1113-25). On more occasions than he must have cared to remember, he had to mount his stallion and lead his troops into battle against the Polovtsians, as well as against dissenting Rus’ princes. He did so even when he was around 70 years old, because he wanted Kyivan Rus’ to be united. Characteristically, his way to punish dissenters (according to chronicles) was to make them publicly acknowledge their guilt by kneeling before the Grand Prince of Kyiv, exposing their families and accomplices, surrendering their cities to his will; Volodymyr Monomakh would then often take his time in reading a list of the perpetrators’ wrongdoings against Kyivan Rus’, ending by a harsh statement that the guilty party must henceforth refrain from encouraging foreign mo­narchs to direct their troops to invade Kyivan Rus’, but live in peace with other princes and uphold peace and family accord in their respective realms. After that the guilty prince was released. Considering the savage times in which Volodymyr Monomakh lived (suffice it to recall the blinding of Prince Vasylko [by Davyd Ihorovych 1059-1112; son of Prince Ihor Yaroslavych of Volodymyr-Volynsky, grandson of Prince Yaroslav the Wise – Ed.], which pained him strongly: “Nothing as horrendous has ever occurred in the land of Rus’, not during our lifetime, not during the lifetime of our fathers and grandfathers!”), such methods of straightening-out disputes can be re­co­gnized as truly humane. At the time political contestants, when caught, were either thrown behind bars or killed.

Learning more about Volodymyr Monomakh as a man, rather than as a political leader, allows one to realize that his world outlook can be comprehended only in the general context of Kyivan Rus’ civilization. Much has been written on the subject by such noted experts as Serhii Krymsky and Academician Serhii Lykhachov. Both emphasized that people in Kyivan Rus’ remained keenly aware of what was happening in their daily life, art and literature; they were aware of the rest of the world as a vast single whole, and of their place in it. More often than not, they built their homes with the largest room facing east. (The funeral ceremony required that the deceased be buried facing east, so as to see the next morning’s sunrise.) The altars of all churches faced east, with the interior decorations illustrating events laid down in the Old and New Testaments — the Holy Warriors below, the martyrs above. The cupola usually portrayed the Ascension, with the vaults decorated with the images of the Evangelists. At the time, the Church was a microcosm inhabited by a corresponding type of people. Everything was interrelated; everything had a meaning; everything reminded man of the sense of his existence, of the greatness of the world and his part in it. That was the cultural environment within which Grand Duke Volodymyr Monomakh of Kyiv grew up in.


He was Volodymyr’s grandson, son of Yurii Dolgoruky, the traditionally acknowledged founder of Moscow (1147), and he was the Grand Prince of Vladimir-Suzdal (he adopted the surname of Bogoliubsky — Russian for the God-Loving — because he had a mansion in Bogoliubovo, a village he was especially fond of, a short ride from the principality’s capital, Vladimir). His mother was a Kipchak princess, khan Aepa’s daughter. Hence his Gerasimov-reconstructed Mongoloid features in the accompanying photo, with a petulant toss of the head, eyes challenging any intruder, implying ruthless, dogged arrogance. His great grandfather was Yaroslav the Wise, preceded by St. Volodymyr and Princes Sviatoslav and Ihor.

Vasily Klyuchevsky, Russia’s 19th-century number one historian, characteristically referred to Andrei Bogo­liubsky as a velikoros [lit., Great Rus­sian; strongly reminiscent of the Third Reich’s Ueber- and Untermensch quali­fications. — Ed.]. I assume that he did so without regard to Bogoliubsky’s ethnic origin (considering that the latter was markedly heterogeneous on his mother’s side); that he actually referred to his way of thinking, his mentality. In fact, Klyuchevsky wrote: “Andrei’s figure seems to emanate something new, although this novelty could have hardly boded [anything] good [for his subjects]. Prince Andrei was a demanding and obstinate ruler; he wanted everything done his way rather than by tradition. After driving his father’s boyars from his Rostov land, he formed his own court, with a retinue of toadies who, in return for his favors, would murder him and loot his palace… Contemporaries were prepared to regard Andrei as a champion of new state-building aspirations. However, his actions make one wonder. Did he abide by the rudiments of autocratic legislation or by despotic instincts?”

There are a number of reasons behind the blunt question. The established fact is that Prince Bogoliubsky treated his closest associates, even his relatives who were also princes, as though they were his subjects, servants, even serfs. In fact, this was the main typological feature of Vladimir-Moscow despotism, and Bogoliubsky’s arrogance would never prevent the Russian Orthodox Church from adding his name to list of saints in the late 18th century. It is on record that he died as a martyr, slain by his disgruntled retainers at his suburban palace, in June 1174. His boyars, men from noble fa­mi­lies, had been reduced to a plebeian status. They had been made servants meant to wait on their despotic master. This was a prototype for Muscovy under Ivan the Terrible — and this political system wouldn’t basically change for hundreds of years. Those who plotted Bogoliubsky’s assassination would cha­racteristically start by telling each other something like “You know that they’ll come and arrest you tomorrow, on the prince’s orders, so we must act now if we want to save our lives…”

Remarkably, those who did kill Prince Andrei Bogoliubsky weren’t battle-hardened top-rank boyars (among whom Bogoliubsky was just “first among the equals” — for such was Kyivan Rus’ tradition). The murder was committed by his retainers, people who depended on his money to earn a decent living, mostly by paying lip service to their boundless dedication to the prince.

All of them were servants of the prince and they served to uphold his despotic rule. The prince, allegedly elected to his post by the people, started by subjugating the people, enforcing a dictatorship. I might as well add that Bogoliubsky was the first ruler of Muscovy to publicly identify himself as “Tsar and Grand Prince.” In 1547, Ivan the Terrible made this formula official. 

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The key to the mysteries of history is found in analysis, synthesis, perception of differences in what appears to be similar. This is particularly true of the history of Kyivan Rus’. This key will open the door and show the way to the truth behind the myths about the “common” history of Ukraine, Russia, and Belarus. Something we badly need.