Principality of Polotsk

The Principality of Polotsk (obsolete spelling: Polock; Belarusian: По́лацкае кня́ства, romanizedPolackaje kniastva; Latin: Polocensis Ducatus), also known as the Duchy of Polotsk or Polotskian Rus',[1] was a medieval principality.[2] The origin and date of the establishment of the state are uncertain. Chronicles of Kievan Rus' mention Polotsk being conquered by Vladimir the Great,[3] and thereafter it became associated with Kievan Rus' and its ruling Rurik dynasty.

Principality of Polotsk
Flag of Polotsk
Banner of Polotesk under the Lithuanian domain.
Izyaslav's seal avers of Polotsk
Izyaslav's seal avers
The Principality of Polotsk on the map of Europe
The Principality of Polotsk on the map of Europe
  • Transformation into a voivodeship 1504
Common languagesOld East Slavic
Eastern Orthodoxy
Slavic paganism
Prince of Polotsk 
• 1044–1101
• Established
• Total incorporation into the Grand Duchy of Lithuania
Preceded by
Succeeded by
Kievan Rus Kievan Rus
Polotsk Voivodeship Polotsk Voivodeship
Today part ofBelarus

The principality was supposedly established around the town of Polotsk (now in Belarus) by the tribal union of Krivichs. In the second half of the 10th century, Polotsk was governed by its own dynasty; its first ruler mentioned in the chronicles was the semi-legendary Rogvolod (?–978), better known as the father of Rogneda. The principality was heavily involved in several succession crises of the 11th–12th centuries and a war with the Novgorod Land. 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 present-day 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), Lahoysk, Barysaw, Brachyslaw (now Braslaw), Kukeinos (now Koknese) and others.





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 Novgorod Rus', alongside 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 Krivichs.

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 at Polotsk "from overseas", a routine phrase to designate Varangians. Rogvolod was an active player in the power struggle in Rus'.

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. To achieve this, Vladimir proposed to Rogneda, Rogvolod's daughter. She declined, thus making Polotsk an ally of Yaropolk. Vladimir then waged war against Polotsk. According to colourful 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. She entered the convent and took the name, Anastasia, then she and her son Izyaslav were exiled back to the lands of Polotsk. Thus the principality was restored but with the most senior branch of the Rurik dynasty on the local throne. Since this time, the lands of the principality became Christian (Eastern Orthodox).

Striving for independence


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.

Saint Sophia Cathedral in Polotsk (rebuilt in the mid-18th century)

For two following centuries, the Principality of Polotsk was controlled by descendants of Izyaslav. All other lands of Kievan Rus' were under the 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 independence and run the affairs of the principality separately. During this time Polotsk became a centre of trade serving as a transit location between other lands of Kievan Rus' and Scandinavia. It also asserted its independent status balancing between Kiev, Novgorod, and the Varangians. Contemporary Norse sagas described the town as the most heavily fortified in all of Kievan Rus'. Most of the time, descendants of Izyaslav ruled the Principality of Polotsk independently of the Grand Prince of the Rus', only formally recognizing the power of the Rurikides. After the late 10th century, Polotsk was also successful in colonizing the lands of its western neighbours, the ancestors of today's Latvians and Lithuanians. In the early 13th century, Teutonic knights seized 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 skilful warriors, Lithuanians initially served Polotsk as auxiliary troops in its wars with the Teutonic knights and other East Slavic principalities; but from 1183 they refused obedience to the metropoly and established their state.

The Cathedral of Saint Sophia in Polotsk – built by Vseslav between 1044 and 1066 – was a symbol of the independent-mindedness of Polotsk, rivalling 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 his defeat at the Battle on the river Nemiga and temporary imprisonment, Vseslav died, and the principality was divided between his surviving sons. Polotsk was splintered between various smaller fiefs – the 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 over Polotsk. At last the rulers of Vitebsk emerged victorious. For short periods, the neighbouring Principality of Smolensk also claimed control over some lands of the principality.

Beginning in the mid-12th century there were 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 German crusaders conquered the principalities of Jersika and Koknese in the southeast of today's Latvia, which had previously been under the 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.

Annals affirming the alliance and united military campaigns policy of Polotsk and Lithuania. For example, The Chronicle of Novgorod informs about "Izyaslav had been set to be Knyaz in Luki and covered Novgorod from the Lithuanians" in 1198 while Luki is situated on the east of Polotsk. [4]

The Principality of Polotsk escaped the Mongol invasion of Rus' in 1237–1239. However, pagan Lithuanians began consolidating lands of the principality, and in 1240 Polotsk became a vassal of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. It officially became part of Lithuania in 1307, though it retained some degree of local autonomy until the 1390s. Then the principality was abolished and became part of the Połock Voivodeship.


See also



  1. ^ Linda Gordon (1983): Cossack Rebellions: Social Turmoil in the Sixteenth Century Ukraine (p. 241)
  2. ^ Fennell, J. (2014). The Crisis of Medieval Russia 1200–1304. Longman History of Russia. Taylor & Francis. p. 17. ISBN 978-1-317-87314-3. Retrieved 14 September 2018.
  3. ^ Feldbrugge, Ferdinand J. M. (20 October 2017). A History of Russian Law: From Ancient Times to the Council Code (Ulozhenie) of Tsar Aleksei Mikhailovich of 1649. BRILL. p. 27. ISBN 9789004352148.
  4. ^ Michell, Robert; Shakhmaton, A.A; Forbes, Nevill; Beazley, C. Raymond (Charles Raymond) (1914). The chronicle of Novgorod, 1016–1471. London, Offices of the society. pp. 41.

55°30′N 28°50′E / 55.500°N 28.833°E / 55.500; 28.833