In one of the north-western corners of Rus lay the town of Polatsk, on the western river Dzvina. In those days, rivers made nations. They set trade and population flows; heavily forested hinterlands were much harder to penetrate. The Dzvina is the main river in the east Slavic north. On a modern map, it starts in Russia north of Smolensk, then flows through Belarus past Vitsebsk and Polatsk, then on to Daugavpils in modern Latvia, where the river is called the Daugava, and into the Baltic Sea at Riga. But at the end of the first millennium the other towns downriver weren’t there: Polatsk stood alone. Riga, for example, was not founded until 1201, while Polatsk was first mentioned by chroniclers in 862. Those seeking deeper historical roots have cited the scribe Saxo Grammaticus in his Gesta Danorum (‘Deeds of the Danes’), who suggests that Polatsk fought off the two legendary Viking princes Ragnar Lodbrok and Frode a decade or so earlier. Some local archaeologists claim settlement goes back to the fifth century at least. Whatever the case, Polatsk was undoubtedly the most powerful city in the region for almost two centuries, and Belarusian historians like to claim that, periodically at least, it was ‘dependent neither on Kiev nor on Novgorod’, the two main centres of power in Rus. Many Belarusian historians also use the anachronism ‘Polatska-Rus’ to denote the idea that Polatsk was only loosely part of broader Rus, and somehow simultaneously independent.
Polatsk’s rise is well documented in the last third of the tenth century, though the Belarusian historian Usevalad Ihnatowski dated both the city’s importance and its conflict with Kiev back to the ninth century, claiming that ‘already in these ancient times there were some misunderstandings between the [rival] centres of Polatsk and Kiev’. Early links with Kiev seem to have been broken in 945. However, most historians consider that Polatsk’s rise to prominence was due to the arrival ‘from across the sea’ of a Scandinavian overlord, Rahvalod (in Russian Rogvolod, in old Scandinavian Ragnvald), who was ruler of Polatsk to a probable 980. Some argue that Polatsk’s Viking links go back as far as 820, though their impact seems to have been intermittent and they failed to establish a clear dynasty. Rahvalod’s exact origins are therefore obscure, though there are several theories as to the nature of his Viking links. According to the thirteenth-century Gutasaga, adventurers and refugees from the Baltic island of Gotland had been sailing up the river Dzvina for centuries past. Polatsk may have been founded by them, or may have been seized by them. Another version links Rahvalod to the Yngling dynasty of what is now Norway.
However it was established, Polatsk gradually increased in importance because of its strategic position at a local crossroads. It controlled the main route to the Baltic Sea, but also the upper reaches of the river Dnieper down towards Kiev in the south, and the river Lovat towards Novgorod in the north. Polatsk therefore controlled one of the key trading routes from northern Europe to Byzantium and the riches of the Near East. Rahvalod built up Polatsk as a rival to Kiev and Novgorod to such an extent that Volodymyr the Great (ruled 980–1015), the first real ruler of a united Rus, felt compelled to attack the city in 980 (some historians say 970 or 975–6). In fact, it was the key event in Volodymyr’s rise to power. He was then based in Novgorod, and feuding with his rival Yaropolk I in Kiev (ruled 972–80), so he initially wanted Polatsk as an ally. Volodymyr’s proposal to Rahvalod’s daughter Rahneda (Rogneda, Ragnhild, Ragnheithr) was rebuffed, however. According to the Primary Chronicle compiled by Kiev monks in the 1110s, she declared: ‘I will not draw off the boots of a slave son, but I want Yaropolk instead.’ This hauteur reflected the rumour that Volodymyr was born out of (then pagan) wedlock, and perhaps also the perceived superiority of Scandinavia if not of Polatsk.
Volodymyr was certainly a bit of a bastard. According to the later chronicles, he raped Rahneda in front of her parents, before killing them both and their two sons for good measure, and carrying off Rahneda as booty. This was before Volodymyr’s conversion to Christianity in 988. Rahneda became one of Volodymyr’s five non-Christian wives, and ultimately bore him four sons and two daughters: but the number of children was no indication of a happy marriage. Legend has it Rahneda was caught trying to kill Volodymyr in his sleep. He only spared her because of the entreaties of her elder son, Iziaslaw. In the operatic version of her life by the Russian composer Aleksandr Serov (1863–5), Rahneda is depicted as scheming against Volodymyr to protect the old pagan gods. In the Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko’s anti-imperial epic The Tsars (1848), Rahneda stands out less, but only because the whole court is depicted as a cesspit of debauchery, violence and incest.
But the key fact exploited by latter-day Belarusian mythmakers is Rahneda’s loyalty to her native land. According to the Kiev chronicles, Rahneda took Iziaslaw back to Polatsk after Volodymyr’s baptism led to his dynastic marriage in 989 to Anna Porphyrogeneta, daughter of the Byzantine emperor Romanos II. According to Belarusian historiography, the city was ‘restored’ to Iziaslaw by Volodymyr, though others call him an ‘assignee’. One interpretation is that Volodymyr assigned the key principalities to his sons to encourage the spread of the new Christian faith. Historian Simon Franklin’s judgement is that Kiev was happy to cut Polatsk so much slack because Volodymyr ‘calculated that so strongly rooted a regime would block any future bids for [Polatsk] by outsiders’. Nevertheless, it is significant that after Iziaslaw died in 1001, he was succeeded by the elder of his two sons, Brachyslaw Iziaslavich (ruled 1001–44), who once again broke away from Kiev. Rus was not quite divided by rival dynasties, but there were now two rival branches of the Rus dynasty. One was the ‘Rahvalodavichi’ or ‘Iziaslavichi’ in Polatsk; the other was the ‘Yaroslavichi’ in Kiev. Polatsk had its own cathedral, which housed a powerful local bishop.
Family relations between the two branches were often tense. According to the chronicles, ‘since that time [i.e. of Volodymyr] the grandchildren of Rahvalod have raised the sword against the grandchildren of Yaroslav’. Iziaslaw died while his father was still alive and ruling in Kiev, so it appears that Brachyslaw owed the city fealty; but fealty also had to be established militarily. After the civil wars of 1015–19 that followed Volodymyr’s death, his nephew’s uncle Yaroslav the Wise took power in Kiev and, after his nephew’s campaign against Novgorod to win back Vitsebsk in 1021, raised armies which defeated Brachyslaw at the Battle of the River Sudoma in 1021. But Brachyslaw still enjoyed relative autonomy: after 1021, he was able to expand against the Baltic tribes, founding the town of Braslaw, first mentioned in 1065.
From Belarus by Andrew Wilson. Published by Yale University Press in 2021. Reproduced with permission.
Andrew Wilson is professor in Ukrainian studies at University College London and a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. He is the author of The Ukrainians: Unexpected Nation and Ukraine Crisis: What It Means for the West.