Legend has it that three Slavic brothers and their sister founded Kyiv. The eldest, Ky, gave the city its name. The names of brothers Shchek, Khoriv and sister Lybid now appear in its topography. An iconic statue of the four siblings – the Foundation of Kyiv Monument – stands on the banks of the Dnipro River.
Four hundred years later the city really started to prosper, after Vikings from Novgorod took control. In 879 Scandinavian King Oleh had sent two emissaries, Askold and Dir, to Kyiv to strike a deal with the ruling Magyars. But, wanting greater control himself, Oleh journeyed to Kyiv in 882, dispatched his emissaries and declared himself ruler. This was the beginning of Kyivan Rus (‘Rus’ being the Slavic name for the red-haired Scandinavians). The city thrived on river trade, sending furs, honey and slaves to pay for luxury goods from Constantinople. Within 100 years its empire stretched from the Volga to the Danube and to Novgorod.
In 989 Kyivan ruler Volodymyr decided to forge a closer alliance with Constantinople, marrying the emperor’s daughter and adopting Orthodox Christianity. Kyiv’s pagan idols were destroyed and its people driven into the Dnipro for a mass baptism – an event still commemorated during Epiphany.
Under Volodymyr’s son, Yaroslav the Wise (1017–54), Kyiv became a cultural and political centre in the Byzantine mould. St Sophia’s Cathedral was built to proclaim the glory of both God and city. However, by the 12th century, Kyiv’s economic prowess had begun to wane, with power shifting successively to several breakaway principalities.
In 1240 Mongol raiders sacked Kyiv. Citizens fled or took refuge wherever they could, including the roof of the Desyatynna Church, which collapsed under the weight.
The city shrank to the riverside district of Podil, which remained its centre for centuries. Only when Ukraine formally passed into Russian hands at the end of the 18th century did Kyiv again grow in importance, as tsarist policies encouraged Russian immigration. The city went through an enormous boom at the turn of the 20th century because of an upsurge in nearby sugar milling. Many new mansions were erected at this time, including the remarkable House of Chimeras.
During the chaos following the Bolshevik Revolution, Kyiv was the site of frequent battles between Red and White Ukrainian forces. Acclaimed author Mikhail Bulgakov captured the era’s uncertainty in his first novel, The White Guard. The home in which he wrote this book is now a museum.
In August 1941, German troops captured Kyiv and more than half a million Soviet soldiers were caught or killed. The entire city suffered terribly. Germans massacred about 100, 000 at Babyn Yar and 80% of the city’s inhabitants were homeless by the time the Red Army retook Kyiv on 6 November 1943.
The post-war years saw rapid industrialisation and the construction of unsightly suburbs. During the late 1980s nationalistic and democratic movements from western Ukraine began to catch on in the capital. Throughout the presidency of Leonid Kuchma, Kyiv and its young population increasingly became a base of opposition politics. During the Orange Revolution of 2004, activists from around Ukraine poured into the capital to demonstrate on maydan Nezalezhnosti (Independence square) and outside the parliament building.