A brief outline on Chernihiv's history

Saint Mykhailo

Prince Mstyslav


The figure of Prince Mstyslav of Chernihiv has left a deep impression in the centuries-old history of the city. Mstyslav was the second of ten sons of Volodymyr, Grand Duke of Kyiv, who is credited with finishing the long process of forming territories in the Old Russian State, Kyiv Rus. For political consolidation of the country Volodymyr the Great, who is also known as the Baptizer, carried out an administrative reform. In essence, the reform turned the lands and principalities ruled by Volodymyr's dependant princes, over to his own sons, by his own appointment. Mstyslav received a remote region from the inner Rus principality of T'mutarakan', an area washed by both the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov, which occupied the present day peninsulas of Kerch and Taman'.

Mstyslav kills Rededya

The young and energetic prince, remembered as "Mstyslav the Brave", conducted an active policy of expansion on his territorial holdings. Thus in 1022 he took to the battlefield against the Kosogs. The chronicle has it that as the two armies stood facing each other, the Kosogs' Prince Rededya asked Mstyslav: "Why should we ruin our armies? Let us meet in man-to-man combat, and if you overpower me, you take my possessions, my wife, and my land. And if I overpower you, I take yours". "Let it be so!" answered Mstyslav. As they rode together, Rededya suggested: "Let's not fight with weapons, but wrestle instead!". They wrestled long and hard, and Mstyslav began to weaken because Rededya was big and strong. Afraid of losing, Mstyslav prayed for divine help, "Oh, Holy Virgin, help me! If I overpower him, I'll build a church in your honour". Having said this, he struck Rededya down onto the ground, snatched out a knife and plunged the blade into his rival's throat. With Rededya dead, Mstyslav seized his lands, took all his possessions, including his wife and children, and laid a tribute to the Kosogs. Upon returning to T'mutarakan', Mstyslav made good on his impassioned battlefield promise and erected the Church of Our Lady.

Strengthening his positions in the far region beyond the Sea of Azov, Mstyslav watched the rapid development of events in the inner Rus closely. After Volodymyr's death in 1015, Svyatopolk captured Kyiv. Because he was staying in Vyshgorod at the time, Svyatopolk received the news of his father's death earlier than the others. One by one, he assassinated his brothers, Boris, Gleb and Svyatoslav, his potential rivals for the throne. For this brutal action, he was nicknamed "the Damned", a label which still follows him today. However, cruelty didn't help Svyatopolk to ascend to Kyiv's great-princely throne. That honour went to the eldest son of Volodymyr, Prince Yaroslav the Wise of Novgorod.

Having enlisted the support of Novgorod's veche, Yaroslav, at the head of a 3-thousand strong army, set out to conquer Kyiv. In the battle of Lyubech in the autumn of 1015, Yaroslav utterly defeated Svyatopolk, who fled to the Pechenegs to escape certain execution. Though Yaroslav entered Kyiv triumphantly, his success was not a complete one. Leaning heavily on foreign support, Svyatopolk soon recaptured Kyiv. After more warring, Yaroslav finally took the throne at Kyiv as late as 1019 in a resounding victory over Svyatopolk on the Alta River. However he didn't make Kyiv his home and continued to rule the country from Novgorod, as that city had caught his fancy.

Up until that time, the majority of Volodymyrovychi either were killed in interim scuffles or occupied minor thrones and didn't participate actively in all-Rus affairs. So Mstyslav of Tmutarakan' became Yaroslav's only rival and competitor for the great-princely throne at Kyiv. In 1019 Mstyslav wrote a letter to his brother to request a portion of the brothers' holdings of which the latter had taken possession of. Yaroslav offered him Murom, but this didn't satisfy Mstyslav and he started to prepare forces against Yaroslav. Having gathered his own troops and adding them to the Khazar and the Kosog armies, he waited for a convenient time to strike.

Just such a fortuitous opportunity offered itself in 1024, when Yaroslav suppressed the uprising in the Suzdal' land. With an enormous army, Mstyslav marched on Kyiv, but the Kyivites refused to accept him as their prince. Mstyslav didn't have a formulated plan with which to besiege the well-fortified city, and so he continued northward towards Chernihiv. There, the nobility and clergy offered him the throne because there was no ruling prince in Chernihiv at that time. After receiving a message about the events in Rus, Yaroslav returned to Novgorod and sent for the Vikings, who in the Russian lands were called the Varyaggi. Aligned with Sweden, thanks to a dynastic marriage, he often called on their help. And at the described time, after a usual conflict with the Novgorodvites, Yaroslav could rely only upon foreign mercenaries. A detachment of Vikings soon arrived in Novgorod, under the command of Prince Yakun. Annalistic sources show no record of the number of Varyaggi involved, but it is estimated that there were scarcely more than a thousand of them. It is interesting that this historical chronicle, which usually accurately recorded the actions and composition of princely armies, made not a single mention of the demography of Novgorodvites or Kyivites in Yaroslav's army.

In the campaign, time worked against Yaroslav. His main goal was to drive Mstyslav away from the borders of his possessions, and to disallow him an opportunity to strengthen his positions in Chernihiv. From Novgorod to Rus, Yaroslav traveled the fastest way, via boats down the Dnieper, as he had done nine years earlier when he went against Svyatopolk. This way ran through the town of Lyubech - an important strategic point along the Dnieper, and the northern-most gate of inner Rus. From Lyubech Yaroslav had two options to mobilize his troops for the fray: either boat down the Dnieper, to the mouth of the Desna River and then up the Desna to Chernihiv (about 300 miles); or pick his way along small rivers and lakes straight to Chernihiv (about 40 miles), getting over 0.3 to 0.5 mile with portage. In the first case Mstyslav would get an additional two weeks of preparation for the battle, hence Yaroslav's choice of the more direct, second route.

Determined to leave the center of his possessions only under the assurance that it was amply protected, Mstyslav remained in Chernihiv until the last possible moment. He set out against his brother after receiving a message about his approach from the West. Mstyslav's recognizance was unerring; his army laid in wait for the forces of the opponent near the town of Listven, situated on the Belous River roughly half-way between Lyubech and Chernihiv. Listven was nestled in the narrowest place of the watershed of the Belous and the Strizhen' rivers and was surrounded by swampy lowlands and bogs. Being the key of the whole waterway, it allowed the possibility of complete control. Mstyslav chose exactly this place for the decisive battle with his brother for to pass around Listven was practically impossible.

The smart choice of battle place and his perfect sense of timing gave Mstyslav a huge advantage. He arranged his army in the evening, placing the Severyane in the center and filling the flanks with his druzhyna. Most likely, Mstyslav's army attacked the Vikings as soon as they landed, thereby giving them no time to arrange themselves in the customary battle formation. The Tale of the Bygone Years gives a detailed description of the battle:
A stormy night raged around the soldiers, complete with darkness, thunder, lightning, and rain. Mstyslav entreated his army: "Let us go against them!" And the Varyaggi struggled against the Siveryane forehead to forehead. The Varyaggi toiled, gaining ground against the Siveryane. Then, after a while, Mstyslav joined the battle with his druzhina and cut down the Varyaggi. And that battle was strong and terrifying. Lightning flashed and glittered on the blades of the fierce weapons. Realizing that they were loosing, Yaroslav and Yakun turned and withdrew from the fight. During the hasty retreat, Yakun lost his famous gold-embroidered cloak.

Despite the victory at Listven, Mstyslav acknowledged the primacy of his elder brother and sent an ambassador to Novgorod with a proposal for Yaroslav to take the Kyiv throne in exchange for the Russian lands on the left bank of the Dnieper. Yaroslav did not immediately accept Mstyslav's proposal. After two years, the brothers finally came to terms and divided the lands as Mstyslav had suggested. From that time onward, they occasionally undertook campaigns together against common enemies. Chernihiv became the capital of a great principality, the territory of which was as vast as that of modern-day France. The rein of Mstyslav and his successors was marked by rapid development in all spheres of spiritual, political and economic life in Chernihiv. Since that golden age Chernihiv became, and remains today, the main city of a state formation or the center of a large administrative territory. Chernihiv was the capital of a principality, and the main city of a regiment, (a specific administrative unit at the age of Hetmanat). It was the main city of a voyevodstvo, the main city of a namisnytstvo, the main city of a province and now it is the main city of a region.

Upon his death, Mstyslav left behind the majestic Cathedral of the Transfiguration of Our Savior, which he commissioned in 1030. Sadly, he never saw the completed structure; he died in 1036, after catching a cold while hunting. By that time, the walls were only as tall as the up-streched hand of a man standing on horseback. Mstyslav's wife was princess Anastasiya, who gave birth to his son Yevstafiy. The child died 3 years before Mstyslav's death in 1033. From 1054 the house of Svyatoslavychi, the descendants of Yaroslav the Wise, ascended to the Chernihiv throne.

Edited by Elaine Kornbau


druzhina - prince's armed force, men-at-arms
Hetmanat - from 1667 till 1764 limited autonomy the Left Dnieper Side Ukraine in the Russian state
Khazar(s) - normadic tribes, south-eastern neighbours of the Eastern Slavs
Kosogs - ancestors of today's Ossetes and Chircassians
namisnytstvo - territory ruled by governor general, or deputy
Rus - in the narrow meaning: the Slavonic territories in the middle flow of the Dnieper with the main cities of Kyiv, Chernihiv and Pereyaslavl'; in the broad meaning: all territories of the Eastern Slavs' (in what is present-day Ukraine) Russian - referring to Rus or to its people
Russian - referring to Rus or to its people
Siveryane (pl.) - one of the tribes of the Eastern Slavs, their main city was Chernihiv
veche - popular assembly in medieval Rus
voevode - commander of an army, governor of a province in medieval Rus
voevodstvo - territory ruled by voevode
-ych - ending to form a patronymic, thus Volodymyrovych and Svyatoslavych mean sons of Volodymyr and Svyatoslav, in its plural form - -ychi - it designates the house, the dynasty: Volodymyrovychi, Svyatoslavychi


© Sergie & Elena Kolesnyk, Alex Liubenko, Svetlana Kokorina
July, 2002