Home Country guide Regions & Cities Kyiv Short History of Kyiv

Origins and Foundation

Kyiv has a long, rich, and often stormy history. Its beginnings are lost in antiquity. Archaeological findings of stone and bone implements, the remains of primitive dwellings built of wood and skins, and large accumulations of mammoths' bones indicate that the first settlements in the vicinity date from the Upper Paleolithic Period (some 15,000 to 40,000 years ago). As early as 3000 BC in the Neolithic Period and subsequently at the time of the Cucuteni-Trypillya culture at the end of the Neolithic, tribes engaged in agriculture and animal husbandry lived on the site of modern Kyiv. Excavations continue to uncover many artifacts from settlements dating from the Copper, Bronze, and Iron ages. The tribes of the area traded with the nomadic peoples of the steppes to the south, Scythians, Sarmatians, and later Khazars, and also with the ancient Greek colonies that were located on the Black Sea coast.

According to the 12th-century chronicle Povest vremennykh let ("Tales of Bygone Years," also known as the Russian Primary Chronicle), Kyiv was founded by three brothers, Kiy, Shchek, and Khoriv, leaders of the Polyane tribe of the East Slavs. Each established his own settlement on a hill, and these became the town of Kyiv, named for the eldest brother, Kiy; a small stream nearby was named for their sister Lybid. Although the chronicle account is legendary, there are contemporary references to Kyiv in the writings of Byzantine, German, and Arab historians and geographers. Archaeological evidence suggests that Kyiv was founded in the 6th or 7th century AD.

The first Rus capital

Less legendary is the chronicle account of the Varangians, who seized Kyiv in the mid-9th century. As in Novgorod to the north, a Slavo-Varangian ruling elite developed. Kyiv, with its good defensive site on the high river bluffs and as the centre of a rich agricultural area and a group of early Slavic towns, began to gain importance. About 882 Oleg (Oleh), the ruler of Novgorod, captured Kyiv and made it his capital, the centre of the first East Slavic state, Kyivan Rus. The town flourished, chiefly through trade along the Dnipro going south to Byzantium and north over portages to the rivers flowing to the Baltic, the so-called "road from the Varangians to the Greeks," or "water road." Trade also went to the Caspian Sea and Central Asia.


In 988 the introduction of Christianity to Kyiv enhanced its significance as the spiritual centre of Rus. By the 12th century, according to the chronicles, the city's wealth and religious importance was attested to by its more than 400 churches. The Cathedral of St. Sophia, parts of the Kyiv-Pechery Lavra, and the ruins of the Golden Gate remain today as witnesses to Kyiv at the height of its splendour. The town was famed for its art, the mosaics and frescoes of its churches, its craftsmanship in silver, and the quality of many of its manufactures. One of Europe's major cities, Kyiv established diplomatic relations with Byzantium, England, France, Sweden, and other countries. Travelers wrote of its population as numbering tens of thousands.

Throughout the period of Kyivan Rus, however, the city was engaged in a succession of wars against the nomadic warrior peoples who inhabited the steppes to the south, in turn the Khazars, Pechenegs, and Polovtsy (Kipchaks). These conflicts weakened the city, but even greater harm was done by the endless, complex internecine struggles of the princedoms into which Rus was divided. In 1169 Prince Andrew Bogolyubsky of Rostov-Suzdal captured and sacked Kyiv. Thus by the late 12th century the power of the city had declined, and in the following century it was unable to resist the rising and formidable power of the Mongols. In 1238 a Mongol army under Batu, grandson of Genghis Khan, invaded Rus and, having sacked the towns of central Rus, in 1240 besieged and stormed Kyiv. Much of the city was destroyed and most of its population killed. The Franciscan friar and traveler Giovanni da Pian del Carpini six years later reported only 200 houses surviving in Kyiv.

Kyiv under Lithunia and Poland

n the 14th century what was left of Kyiv and its surrounding area came under the control of the powerful and expanding grand duchy of Lithuania, which captured it in 1362. For a long time thereafter Kyiv had little function except as a fortress and minor market on the vaguely defined frontier between Lithuania and the steppe Tatars, based in the Crimea. It frequently came under attack from the Tatars; in 1482 the Crimean khan, Mengli Giray, took and sacked the town. Almost the only survival of Kyiv's former greatness was its role as the seat of an Orthodox metropolitan. A step forward came in 1516, when the grand duke Sigismund I granted Kyiv a charter of autonomy, thereby much stimulating trade.

In 1569 the Union of Lublin between Lithuania and Poland gave Kyiv and the Ukrainian lands to Poland. Kyiv became one of the centres of Orthodox opposition to the expansion of Polish Roman Catholic influence, spearheaded by vigorous proselytization by the Jesuits. In the 17th century a religious Ukrainian brotherhood was established in Kyiv, as in other Ukrainian towns, to further this opposition and encourage Ukrainian nationalism. Peter Mogila (Petro Mohyla), a major theologian and metropolitan of Kyiv from 1633 to 1646, founded there the Collegium (later the Academy of Kyiv), which became a major focus of the struggle with Roman Catholicism.


In the 17th century there was also increasing unrest among the Zaporozhian Cossacks of the Dnipro downstream of Kyiv and an ever-growing struggle between them and the Polish crown. This eventually culminated in the revolt of Bohdan Khmelnytsky, who, assisted by the Crimean Tatars, entered Kyiv with his insurgent Cossacks in 1648. He came under heavy pressure from the Polish forces, and in 1654 Khmelnytsky and the Cossacks signed the Pereyaslav Agreement, in essence submitting Ukraine to Moscow; this was followed by a prolonged and confused period of strife and destruction leading in 1667 to the Treaty of Andrusovo, by which Kyiv and the Dnipro left-bank part of Ukraine became an autonomous Cossack state under the suzerainty and protection of Moscow. Thereafter further struggle ensued against the Turks, with the Cossacks constantly changing sides and engaging in internecine disputes. In 1686 Kyiv was finally yielded to Muscovy by Poland and stood as the sole Muscovite outpost on the right bank of the Dnipro.

Kyiv under the tsars

In 1793 the Second Partition of Poland, under Catherine the Great, brought right-bank Ukraine into the Russian Empire, and Kyiv, assisted by the abolition in 1754 of the tariff barriers between Russia and the Ukrainian lands, began to grow in commercial importance. Catherine's reign was marked by the abolition of the old administrative system and of the post of Cossack hetman and the division of Ukraine into new administrative provinces, for one of which Kyiv became the centre. Subsequently it became the centre of a governor-generalship covering three provinces.

In the first half of the 19th century, Kyiv developed as a major focus of Ukrainian nationalism, although severe persecution from the tsarist government forced the movement to shift the brunt of its activities to Lviv in the Austrian-ruled Ukrainian regions. In Kyiv, as in Russian cities, there was clandestine revolutionary activity (beginning with the Decembrists in the early 19th century) that culminated in a series of strikes and demonstrations leading to the Russian Revolution of 1905. An important role in this revolutionary movement was taken by students of the University of Kyiv (now Kyiv Taras Shevchenko State University), which had been established in 1834.
During the 19th century the expanding economic importance of Ukraine, and especially the growing export of grain, brought further commercial development to Kyiv. Modern factory industry appeared; to the Arsenal, which had been set up as early as the 18th century, were added lumber milling and the building of rivercraft. The town developed significant industries processing agricultural products--leather, tobacco, distilling, brewing, and textiles. In the late 1860s Kyiv was connected by rail to both Moscow and the Black Sea port of Odessa, further enhancing its role as a centre of industry, commerce, and administration. By the outbreak of World War I, the city had a population of some 350,000.

The revolutionary period

With the outbreak of the Russian Revolution of 1917, a revolutionary soviet, the Central Rada (rada, "council"), was elected by the city workers, consisting primarily of Menshevik and Socialist Revolutionary members, with strong support from Ukrainian nationalist groups. In January 1918 the Rada proclaimed an independent Ukrainian state with Kyiv as its capital. Minor uprisings by Bolshevik workers, who were mostly concentrated in the Arsenal works, were suppressed, but Red Army troops came to their aid and on Feb. 8, 1918, entered Kyiv.

By the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk (March 3) between the Bolshevik government and the Germans, however, the new Soviet government recognized the independence of Ukraine, which was promptly occupied by German troops. A puppet Ukrainian government was set up in Kyiv by the Germans, but it collapsed with the German surrender to the Allies in November 1918 and the subsequent withdrawal of German troops. Once more an independent Ukraine was declared in Kyiv, under the leadership of Simon Petlyura, but its brief and stormy history was a series of struggles between Ukrainian nationalist, White, and Red forces. In November 1919 Kyiv was briefly taken by the White armies under General A.I. Denikin before being finally occupied by the Red Army. Peace was still denied the city, with the outbreak of the Russo-Polish War. In May 1920 the Poles captured Kyiv but were driven out in a counterattack.

The Soviet period

Kyiv's role as the centre for Ukrainian nationalists caused the Soviet government to transfer the capital of the new Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic to Kharkiv, and it was not until 1934 that Kyiv resumed its capital status. Meanwhile, restoration of the city's shattered economy was undertaken. During the first five-year plans, between 1928 and 1940, new machine tool, electrical, and chemical industries were established. By 1939 the population had reached 846,724. The German invasion in 1941 again brought severe suffering and destruction to the city. After a fierce 80-day battle, German forces entered it on Sept. 19, 1941. More than 30,000 Jews, Soviet prisoners of war, and partisans who had remained in the city were massacred within days in a nearby ravine known as Baby Yar; tens of thousands more were killed there over the next two years. Many of Kyiv's other inhabitants were deported for forced labour and to concentration camps, including almost all the large prewar Jewish population. In 1943 the advancing Soviet troops forded the Dnieper and, after bitter fighting, liberated Kyiv on November 6. The city itself had suffered great destruction, including more than 40 percent of its buildings and some 800 of its industrial enterprises. For its role in the war, Kyiv was later honoured by the Soviet government with the Order of Lenin, the title of Hero-City, and the Gold Star medal. In the first postwar five-year plan, rapid reconstruction was undertaken.

Kyiv continued to grow and to strengthen its industrial base during the mid- and late 20th century. Whereas during the Soviet period Kyiv as an international political entity fell largely under the shadow of Moscow, the establishment of an independent Ukraine in the early 1990s returned Kyiv to the world political stage.

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