When you consider events that happened and people who lived more than a thousand years ago, you’re faced with treating “the facts” with caution. In Yaroslav the Wise’s case, the main source of information we have today is The Tale of Bygone Years. Written by a courtier, it chronicles the life of the prince but rather than being objective, it presents an interpretation of events from a rose-tinted perspective beneficial to the monarch in what is a 1000-year-old case of greasing the boss.
Yaroslav’s date of birth is a source of contention among historians, with most pinpointing the year 983, while others cite 978. There is some information we can relate as fact: Yaroslav was the second son of prince Volodymyr the Great, who is credited with bringing Christianity to Kyiv Rus. Volodymyr the Great had a number of children – historians say 16, though no one knows exactly; Yaroslav was a prince in Novhorod, which today is part of Russia. Where there’s a will, there’s a family fighting over it and following Volodymyr’s death in 1015, the case was no different as his sons went head-to-head in a battle for the main throne in Kyiv. Despite tradition dictating the eldest son should ascend to the throne, it was Yaroslav who had eyes on the crown and it was that ambition that led him to defeating his brothers to become head of state.
Historians point out that someone had to have invested substantial sums of money in Yaroslav’s military campaign, as he won due to hired help in the form of Viking soldiers – yet his backer remains unknown. One by one, Yaroslav killed off all of his brothers, except one – Mstyslav, whom he could not overcome. However, Kyivans were hostile to Mstyslav, and he very soon offered Yaroslav an olive branch – to rule the country together. They divided the lands: Yaroslav got everything to the West of the Dnipro river, Mstyslav the East. Meanwhile, Yaroslav stayed in Novhorod. He moved to Kyiv only after Mstyslav died without heir in 1035. Yaroslav then seized power becoming the prince of Kyiv Rus, at that time one of the biggest states in Europe.
Portrait of a Prince
Historical legend has it that Yaroslav the Wise was a tall, strong, broad-shouldered man, brave and skilful on the battlefield. Others state Yaroslav had a congenital defect of the leg and therefore he was quite short and walked with a limp. The portrait of Yaroslav the Wise pictured on the Ukrainian two-hryvnia banknote or his portrayal in the bronze statue at Zoloti Vorota in Kyiv are both simply interpretations of how he may have looked.
Coinciding with Yaroslav’s ascent to the throne is another legend which claims Yaroslav bravely overcame an invasion of nomadic tribes and in honour of the victory commissioned the construction of Kyiv’s landmark St Sophia Cathedral. However, modern research into the history of the cathedral busts that myth. Researchers have concluded the foundations of the church were laid during Volodymyr’s reign, while Yaroslav only finished its construction.
Presumably at the same time, in the 1030s, the Golden Gate was being built in Kyiv, marking the main entrance to the city. Imitating by both name and purpose the main gates in Constantinople – the capital of the Byzantine Empire, they served as a defence system and made a statement as a grand entrance through which people entered the ancient city of Kyiv. The defensive wall the Golden Gate was part of was practically impenetrable to enemies, guaranteeing the city safety and peace.
The city itself flourished under Yaroslav becoming both prosperous and powerful. Development of trade and diplomatic relationships with other European states led to the city becoming one of the continent’s powerhouses. Strategic marriages further cemented Yaroslav’s power – through these he would become connected with royal houses across Europe.
Yaroslav married twice, his second wife was the daughter of Swedish King Olaf. With her, Yaroslav fathered 10 children – six sons and four daughters. Probably the most famous of his offspring children was Anna who married French King Henry I and became known as Anne of Kyiv. Another of Yaroslav’s daughters, Elisaveta, was married to Norwegian prince Harald, and after his death married a Danish king. While his third daughter Anastasia married a Hungarian king. Yaroslav’s sons were paired-off with women from the crème de la crème of noble European families.
One more legend says Yaroslav earned the moniker “the Wise” due to his wise management and generous patronage of education and culture at that time. It is true to some extent: Yaroslav founded the first printing house in Kyiv and was himself a great fan of reading, reputedly accumulating a huge library which archaeologists and treasure-hunters are still looking for in the premises of St Sophia Cathedral.
However, again many historians debunk the story Yaroslav was labelled “the Wise” only by their colleagues in 19th century. Yaroslav died in 1054, and the events that followed cast doubt on his skills as a manager of state affairs. The land that he united with bloodshed became again a bone of contention among his sons. Put simply, his plan for his legacy bombed. Yaroslav bequeathed and divided the lands between three sons, but his idea of “triarchy” (three princes ruling peacefully and wisely over the state) instead led to a three-way split and the once mighty state of Kyiv Rus would become consigned to history.