Yaroslav the Wise

Learning Objective

  • Outline the key elements of Yaroslav the Wise’s reign and cultural influence

Key Points

  • Yaroslav I came to power after a bloody civil war between brothers.
  • He captured the Kievan throne because of the devotion of the Novgorodian and Varangian troops to his cause.
  • Grand Prince Yaroslav was the first Kievan ruler to codify legal customs into the Pravda Yaroslava.
  • He bolstered borders and encouraged political alliances with other major European powers during his reign.



A policy that designates the oldest son as the heir to the throne upon the death of the father.

Novgorod Republic

The northern stronghold of Kievan Rus’ where Yaroslav gained early support for his cause.

Yaroslav the Wise

Yaroslav the Wise was the Grand Prince of Kiev from 1016 until his death in 1954. He was also vice-regent of Novgorod from 1010 to 1015 before his father, Vladimir the Great, died. During his reign he was known for spreading Christianity to the people of Rus’, founding the first monasteries in the country, encouraging foreign alliances, and translating Greek texts in Church Slavonic. He also created some of the first legal codes in Kievan Rus’. These accomplishments during his lengthy rule granted him the title of Yaroslav the Wise in early chronicles of his life, and his legacy endures in both political and religious Russian history.

Youth and Rise to Power

Yaroslav was the son of the Varangian Grand Prince Vladimir the Great and most likely his second son with Rogneda of Polotsk. His youth remains shrouded in mystery. Evidence from theĀ Primary Chronicle and examination of his skeleton suggests he is one of the youngest sons of Vladimir, and possibly a son from a different mother. He was most likely born around the year 978.


Facial reconstruction of Yaroslav I by Mikhail Gerasimov.

He was set as vice-regent of Novgorod in 1010, as befitted a senior heir to the throne. In this same time period Vladimir the Great granted the Kievan throne to his younger son, Boris. Relations were strained in this family. Yaroslav refused to pay Novgorodian tribute to Kiev in 1014, and only Vladimir’s death in 1015 prevented a severe war between these two regions. However, the next few years were spent in a bitter civil war between the brothers. Yarsolav was vying for the seat in Kiev against his brother Sviatopolk I, who was supported by Duke Boleslaw I of Chrobry. In the ensuing years of carnage, three of his brothers were murdered (Boris, Gleb, and Svyatoslav). Yaroslav won the first battle at Kiev against Sviatopolk in 1016 and Sviatopolk was forced to flee to Poland.

After this significant triumph Yaroslav’s ascent to greatness began, and he granted freedoms and privileges to the Novgorod Republic, who had helped him gain the Kievan throne. These first steps also most likely led to the first legal code in Kievan Rus’ under Yaroslav. He was chronicled as Yaroslav the Wise in retellings of these events because of his even-handed dealing with the wars, but it is highly possible he was involved in the murder of his brothers and other gruesome acts of war.

Wise Reign

The civil war did not completely end in 1016. Sviatopolk returned in 1018 and retook Kiev. However, Varangian and Novgorodian troops recaptured the capital and Sviatopolk fled to the West never to return. Another fraternal conflict arose in 1024 when another brother of Yaroslav’s, Mstislav of Chernigov, attempted to capture Kiev. After this conflict, the brothers split the Kievan Rus’ holdings, with Mstislav ruling over the region left of the Dnieper River.

Yaroslav the Wise was instrumental in defending borders and expanding the holdings of Kievan Rus’. He protected the southern borders from nomadic tribes, such as the Pechenegs, by constructing a line of military forts. He also successfully laid claim to Chersonesus in the Crimea and came to a peaceful agreement with the Byzantine Empire after many years of conflict and disagreements over land holdings.


Saint Sophia Cathedral in Kiev. This iconic cathedral fell into disrepair and was almost destroyed during the Soviet era, but it was saved and restored to its former glory.

Yaroslav the Wise garnered his thoughtful reputation due to his prolific years in power. He was a ruler that loved literature, religion, and the written language. His many accomplishments included:

  • Building the Saint Sophia Cathedral and the first monasteries in Russia, named Saint George and Saint Irene.
  • Founding a library and a school at the Saint Sophia Cathedral and encouraging the translation of Greek texts into Church Slavonic.
  • Developing a more established hierarchy within the Russian Orthodox Church, including a statute outlining the rights of the clergy and establishing the sobor of bishops.
  • Beautifying Kiev with elements of design taken from the Byzantine Empire, including the Golden Gate of Kiev.
  • Compiling the first book of laws in Kievan Rus’, called the Pravda Yaroslava. This first compilation set down clear laws that reflected the feudal landscape of the 11th century. This initial legal code would live on and be refined into the Russkaya Pravda in the 12th century.
  • Establishing primogeniture, which meant that his eldest son would succeed him as Grand Prince over Novgorod and Kiev, hoping that future conflict between his children would be avoided.

Golden Gate of Kiev in 2016. This important monument was one of the great architectural accomplishments created under Yaroslav the Wise, and now features a monument to the ruler, seen in the foreground.

Family and Death

Yaroslav married Ingegerd Olofsdotter, the daughter of the king of Sweden, in 1019. He had many sons and encouraged them to remain on good terms, after all the years of warfare and bloodshed with his own brothers. He also married three of his daughters to European royalty. Elizabeth, Anna, and Anastasia married Harald III of Norway, Henry I of France, and Andrew I of Hungary respectively. These marriages forged powerful alliances with European states.


Daughters of Yaroslav the Wise. This 11th-century fresco in Saint Sophia’s Cathedral shows four of Yaroslav’s daughter, probably Anne, Anastasia, Elizabeth, and Agatha.

The Grand Prince Yaroslav I died in 1054 and was buried in Saint Sophia’s Cathedral. His expansion of culture and military might, along with his unification of Kievan Rus’, left a powerful impression on Russian history. Many towns and monuments remain dedicated to this leader.