Leadership in Ancient Russia

Published 26 Oct 2017

Serge Zenkovsky’s (1963) Medieval Russia’s Epics, Chronicles, and Tales contains the writings of many Russian scholars during the Middle Ages. From the year 1040 until 1118, Russian scholars wrote “a very complicated work… in the course of some three-quarters of a century” (Zenkovsky, 1963, p.43). Starting with the birth of Russia, the ‘Chronicles’ begins in 852 that, in the Byzan and Russian calendars, land on 6360 (p.43), then it reveals significant people, events, rules, trends, and doctrines that reflect the nature of the land and its people. One of these contains how leadership was perceived and regarded.

Early Russian beliefs and culture, during the High Middle Ages, reflect that leadership contains the responsibilities that revolve around the following: first is the responsibility to rule his kinfolk; second is the responsibility to rule his land; third and final is the responsibility to rule and conquering other lands. Leadership carried with it the highest degree of honor, even from the ruling emperor: “He (Kii) was then the chief of his kin, and it is related what great honor he received from the emperor when he went to visit him” (Zenkovsky, 1963, p.48). Leaders were ‘pillars’ that stand on highest grounds.

In the ‘Primary Chronicles’, it is depicted how leaders of ancient Russia carried with them the responsibility of ruling over his kinfolk: “The Polinians lived apart and governed their families, for thus far they were brethren, and each one lived with his gens on his own lands, ruling over his kinfolk” (Zenkovsky, 1963, p.48). However, what is most distinctive is that this state of the privilege-to power and authority-can also be the source of war, death, and even crime. This is seen in certain events when the recent ruler dies, and he leaves behind a number of sons who are all capable of ruling the land, as in the case of Vladimir: “After the death of Vladimir, a fratricidal struggle broke out among his sons. The eldest, Sviatopolk, seized power and began plotting the elimination of his brothers, Boris, Gleb, and Yaroslav” (p.101). This happened despite Vladimir’s “moral and political instruction for his children… who are supposed to care for their own souls as well as for the welfare of their subjects and people around them” (p.93). With Christianity revolving around the land, good leaders were depicted as those who can be described as good Christians and noble citizens. A good leader was supposed to have a good and righteous soul. For this reason, Sts. Antonius and Theodosius were depicted as “remarkable religious leaders” (p.105).

In the ‘Igor Tale’, it is also depicted how leaders of ancient Russia carried with them the responsibility of ruling over their entire land:

Prince Igor (1151-1202), one of the leaders of Russian political and military activities of that region, began his campaign in 1185 to drive out these nomadic invaders who, every year, would raid Russian territories, burn the cities, and take the inhabitants as slaves. Relying only on his own military forces and those of his relatives… (p.167)

Vladimir, in the ‘Primary Chronicles’, was also said to have ruled the entire land: Vladimir Monomakh, grandson of Yaroslav the Wise, came to power and succeeded in assuming leadership among the princes. He maintained order and peace for several years, and during his reign of the Golden Age, which had been initiated by Yaroslav the Wise, reached its height. The feudal wars ceased and the united forces of the Russian princes were able to contain the Kumans… (p.93)

This gives the conclusion that early Russian leaders in the Middle Ages should have the urge, the strength, and the inclination to push further the limits of his land and his people. He should be capable of maintaining peace and order within the community, for if not, it will lead to the land’s destruction, as in the case of Riazan (p.198). If not dealt with accordingly, people will search for good leaders around the area, as with the Slavs in 862 (p.49).

Finally, in the ‘Primary Chronicles’, it is also depicted how leaders in ancient Russia were viewed as powerful chosen who carry the duty of ruling and conquering other lands:
Leaving Igor in Kiev, Prince Oleg attacked the Greeks … With this entire force, Oleg sallied forth by horse and by ship, and the number of his vessels was two thousand. He arrived before Constantinople, … disembarked upon the shore, and ordered his soldiery to beach the ships … When the Greeks beheld this, they were afraid, and, sending messengers to Oleg, they implored him not to destroy the city… (pp.51-52)

What is most distinctive, however, is that the primary reason on why Russian leaders of the High Middle Ages end up conquering other lands, is to acknowledge additional tributes, such as in the case like Prince Oleg’s attack to Greece: “So Oleg demanded that they pay tribute for his two thousand ships at the rate of twelve grivnas per man, with forty men reckoned to a ship” (p.52). There was also the proposition of additional tributes, such as the law to give visiting Russians “as much grain as they require” (p.52). Apart from being good Christians and noble citizens, and carrying the capability of maintaining peace and order within the land, leaders in ancient Russia were also depicted to be politically wise, clever, and aggressive. They should have the right arm and the mind of knowing how to feed his people.

The concept of leadership in the High Middle Ages of ancient Russia revolves around the power to rule his kinfolk, his land, and other lands. Leadership was a synonym to power and might, so that it could sometimes lead to war, death, and crime. Being the strong pillars of their cities, they should urge the people that they are, indeed, capable of governing the land-all worthy to be saluted with honor, respect, salute, fear, and praise. With the kinfolk having to choose the leader that, they believe, should rule them, early Russians were actually believers in freedom, democracy, and the privilege to select as they desire. Seizing power, richness, fame, wealth, and honor is acceptable. The power rests on the ability to facilitate.


  • Zenkovsky, S. (1963). Medieval Russia’s Epics, Chronicles, and Tales. New York, NY: Penguin.
Did it help you?