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Principality of Polotsk

Principality of Polotsk
Полацкае княства
Vassal of Kievan Rus' to 1021
Part of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania since 1307
987–1397 Grand Duchy of Lithuania


Capital Polotsk
Languages Old East Slavic
Religion Eastern Orthodox Church
Government Principality
Prince of Polotsk
 •  1044—1101 Vseslav
Legislature Veche
 •  Established 987
 •  Incorporation into the Grand Duchy of Lithuania 1397
Today part of

The Principality of Polotsk, also known as the Kingdom of Polotsk or the Duchy of Polotsk (Belarusian: По́лацкае кня́ства; Russian: По́лоцкое кня́жество) was a medieval principality of the Early East Slavs. The origin and date of state establishment is uncertain. In the Russian chronicles it is mentioned as one being conquered by Vladimir the Great and thereafter became associated with the Rurik dynasty and Kievan Rus'.

Supposedly it was established around the ancient town of Polotsk (modern Belarusian language: Polatsk) by the tribal union of Krivichs. In the second half of 10th century Polotsk was governed by its own dynasty the first ruler of which that is mentioned in the history was a semi-legendary Rogvolod (? - 978). Rogvolod is being better known as the father of Rogneda. The Principality was heavily involved in several succession crises of the 11-12th centuries and a war with the Land of Novgorod. By the 13th century it was integrated into the Grand Duchy of Lithuania.

At the time of its greatest extent the principality stretched over large parts of today's northern and central Belarus and a smaller part of today's southeastern Latvia, including (besides Polotsk itself) the following towns: Vitebsk, Drutsk, Minsk, Izjaslaw (now Zaslawye), Lahojsk, Barysaw, Brachyslaw (now Braslaw), Kukeinos (now Koknese) and others.


  • History 1
    • Origins 1.1
    • Striving for independence 1.2
    • Decline 1.3
  • Rulers of the Principality of Polotsk 2
  • See also 3



There is no exact date on record when the principality was formed, it was likely an evolutionary process. In 862 Polotsk was first mentioned in the Primary Chronicle as a town within the realm of the Novgorod Rus, alongside with Murom and Beloozero. Initially the Principality of Polotsk was governed by a local dynasty, and not by an appointed governor from Kiev. Local statehood was a result of local political evolution in the Early East Slavs' tribal union of Krivichi.

Principality of Polotsk within Kievan Rus in the 11th century

The second time Polotsk was mentioned was a full century later, in 980, when its ruler was a Varangian warlord, Ragnvald or Rogvolod. The chronicle reports that he arrived to Polotsk "from overseas", a routine phrase to designate Varangians. Rogvolod was an active player in the power struggle in Rus: in the late 10th century Polotsk's estimated population reached 6,000 which allowed significant manpower for an army.

In 972, after the prince of Kiev, Sviatoslav I died, there was a power struggle between his two sons: prince of Novgorod Vladimir and prince of Kiev Yaropolk. Both had hoped for political and military support from Polotsk. In order to achieve this, Vladimir proposed to Rogneda, Rogvolod's teenage daughter. She declined, and this made Polotsk an ally of Yaropolk. Vladimir waged war against Polotsk. According to colorful legends recorded in the Primary Chronicle, he took the city, raped Rogneda in front of her parents, then killed her entire family and burnt down the city. Rogneda was taken to Kiev to be Vladimir's wife. Thus the local dynasty was exterminated.

After Vladimir converted to Christianity in 988 and took Anna Porphyrogeneta as his wife, he had to divorce all his previous wives, including Rogneda. After that, she entered the convent and took the name Anastasia. Her son Izyaslau and herself were exiled back to the lands of Polotsk - first to Iziaslav, and later to Polotsk. Thus the principality was restored but with the most senior branch of the Rurik dynasty on the local throne. Since this time, however, the lands of the principality became Christian (Eastern Orthodox).

Striving for independence

Saint Sophia Cathedral in Polotsk (rebuilt in the mid-18th century)
In 1001 Izyaslav was succeeded by his son, Bryachislav of Polotsk. Under his rule, Polotsk attempted to distance itself from Kiev. Tensions were exacerbated by the fact that, under the East Slavic house law, since Izyaslav predeceased his father and never reigned in Kiev, his descendants from the House of Polotsk forfeited their dynastic rights to the Kievan throne. In 1020 Bryachislav sacked Novgorod but then lost it to his uncle, Yaroslav the Wise, and had to give up some of his other possessions.

For two following centuries, the Principality of Polotsk was controlled by descendants of Izyaslau. All other lands of Kievan Rus were under control of princes who were descendants of Yaroslav the Wise.

The golden age of medieval Polotsk is associated with the rule of Bryachislav's son, Vseslav (1044–1101). He profited from the civil wars in Kiev in order to assert his own independence and run its affairs separately. During this time the principality became a centre of trade serving as a transit location between other lands of Kievan Rus and of Scandinavia. It also asserted its independent status balancing between Kiev, Novgorod and Varangians. Contemporary Norse sagas described the town as the most heavily fortified in all of Rus. Izyaslav's descendants most of the time ruled Principality of Polatsk independently of the Grand Prince of the Rus', only formally recognizing the power of the Rurikides. Since late 10th century, Polotsk was also successful in colonizing the lands of its western neighbours, the ancestors of today’s Latvians and Lithuanians. In early 13th century, Teutonic knights seized the power over the former from the hands of Polotsk, but the historical ties with the latter proved much stronger and lasted for 700 more years, although the leading role in this “marriage” soon shifted to the other side. The last pagans of Europe, brave and skillful warriors, Lithuanians were initially serving Polotsk as auxiliary troops in its wars with the Teutonic knights and other Ruthenian principalities; but from 1183 they refused the obedience to the metropoly and established their own state.

Polotsk's Cathedral of Saint Sophia in Polotsk (built by Vseslav between 1044 and 1066) was a symbol of the independent-mindedness of Polotsk, rivaling churches of the same name in Novgorod and Kiev and referring to the original Hagia Sophia in Constantinople (and thus to claims of imperial prestige, authority and sovereignty).


The Orsha Gospel Book was created in Polotsk during the town's period of decline in the 13th century

After Vseslav's death following his temporary imprisonment after the defeat at the Battle on the river Nemiga the principality was divided between his surviving sons. The mighty principality of Polotsk was splintered between various smaller fiefs - Principality of Minsk, Principality of Vitebsk, Principality of Druck, Principality of Jersika and Principality of Koknese. Local princes waged wars against each other trying to assert control of Polotsk. At last the rulers of Vitebsk emerged as winners. For short periods of time, the neighbouring Principality of Smolensk also claimed control over some lands of the principality.

Starting from the mid-12th century there have been changes in the lands to the west of the principality. The fortress of Riga became the main military basis of the Livonian Brothers of the Sword. In 1209 the German crusaders conquered principalities of Jersika and Koknese in the southeast of today's Latvia, which previously was under control of Polotsk, forcing Polotsk to permit free travel to German merchants in 1212 and ending Livonian tributes. In 1227 Smolensk ceded Polotsk by treaty to the city of Riga.

Pagan Lithuanians began consolidating and attacking lands of the principality. The Principality of Polotsk escaped the Mongol invasion of Rus in 1237-1239. However, in 1240 Polotsk became a vassal of Lithuanian princes. It officially became part of the Great Duchy of Lithuania in 1307, though it retained some degree of local autonomy until the 1390s. Then the principality was abolished and became part of Polock Voivodship.

Rulers of the Principality of Polotsk

See also

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