Queen Anna’s story reveals how Kyiv has long shaped Europe, and should not be kept on the sidelines.
By Christian Oliver
Dec 26, 2022
It’s time to resurrect Anna of Kyiv, the highly accomplished and undeservedly forgotten 11th-century queen of the Franks. She would have stern words for her successor running France, President Emmanuel Macron.
Anna would surely be mortified that some stinky, turnip-munching Frank now has the temerity to suggest that the eminently more sophisticated civilization of Kyiv is “in all likelihood decades” away from being part of the pan-European political project, as represented by the EU.
In fact, there are few historical figures as perfectly placed as Anna to testify to Kyiv’s place at the center, not the periphery, of the European story. As it’s already clear that much of Western Europe is going to drag its feet on Ukraine’s EU candidacy; some perspective about Anna and her world is now vital.
By marrying King Henri I in Reims in 1051, Anna was taking a step down. The princess was forsaking her imposing, glittering hometown of more than 400 churches, with its legendary Golden Gate, to live in an intellectual milieu inferior to her own.
Fighting over Anna
Macron has already had a run-in with Anna.
At a joint press conference in Versailles in May 2017, Russian President Vladimir Putin saluted “Russian Anna” for establishing the roots of Franco-Russian relations. The French president by his side cheerily smiled and ogled the TV camera, probably unaware that blood vessels were popping in Kyiv.
Ukraine’s then-president, the chocolate baron Petro Poroshenko, seethed that Russia was stealing Anna for its own history “in front of Europe.” Ukrainians are often quick to note that Kyiv controlled lands from the Baltic to the Black Sea in Anna’s day, long before Moscow appeared on the scene.
For what it’s worth, Anna herself probably wouldn’t relish being co-opted by Putin, a thug from the Baltic coast, who is now lobbing cruise missiles and kamikaze drones into her beloved Kyiv. While she was by all accounts a God-fearing and compassionate queen, you’d still imagine she’d have her enemy quietly throttled and dumped in a midden.
Diplomatically, Macron sought to repair the damage from the Versailles press conference when Poroshenko visited France the next month (and knelt before Anna’s statue). Waxing lyrical,
Macron noted how Anne de Kiev showed that the Kyiv-Paris relationship was “anchored in the depths of the past millennium.”
Whew, good save, Emmanuel. But had Macron really learned the right lesson? If he just realized that Russia and Ukraine fight over to what extent their modern nations are really inheritors of Kievan Rus — with Kyiv crying foul over imperialist narratives from Moscow — then that’s not really the main point.
The far more important lesson from Anna is that of a vision of Europe.
An entertaining mythology surrounds Anna. Some stories suggest she brought the famed Slavonic gospel of Reims in her luggage when she arrived to marry Henri. It’s now a priceless French national treasure. Many biographies say that the classy princess from Kyiv was so horrified by the noisome Franks that she introduced bath houses. Other profiles quote a letter to her father, which is little more than a litany of ahistorical invective about French failings, from illiteracy to frog-eating.
Tragically, these are all later romantic fictions about Anna. There is, however, a solid logic to the tall tales. She was almost certainly a well-educated product of a sophisticated courtly culture steeped in Greek, science and literature. To educated men in the West who knew precious little about anything other than church Latin, tax and piggeries, the queen from the East must have appeared to crash land from another planet.
Her parentage is fundamental to understanding her. Her father was a big-hitter: Yaroslav the Wise, grand prince of Kyiv, a man famed for his love of books, who marshalled scribes to translate Greek texts. Under Yaroslav, the 13-domed cathedral of St. Sophia — still the defining sight of Kyiv — was completed, and you can find a fresco there believed to be of a young Anna. Yaroslav was a great codifier of the law and — in a sign that he was tackling the most heinous of crimes head on — his statutes are highly specific over the penalties for beard yanking.
It is Anna’s mother, though, who reveals that this story is about more than a meeting of Orthodox East and Latin West. Ingegerd, later canonized, was daughter of the first Christian king of the Swedes, which is a reminder of Kyiv’s Viking origins. Anna is very much part of the continent’s Scandinavian heritage, and her father appears in Norse sagas as Jarisleif the Lame, probably thanks to an arrow wound. Anna was multikulti Euro-royalty.
Vying with Byzantium, Yaroslav’s continental ambitions demanded a broader canvas.
Other daughters were married to Norwegian, Hungarian and (possibly) English royals. He originally tried unsuccessfully to marry Anna to the Holy Roman (German) monarch Henry III, and it was this marital maneuvering that probably attracted the interest of the Frankish Henri I. One of the more popular theories is that, after Henry III rejected Anna, some kind of Kyivan-Franco-Polish front against the Germans was taking shape in the mid-11th century. That’s certainly possible. The bigger picture is clear, though: Kyiv was helping shape Europe.
Europe cannot just look for its origin story in the world of Charlemagne. We need to take a wider view. Yaroslav’s world matters too.
Anna not only performed her royal duty in providing Henri with an heir — and introducing the Greek name Philip to Western royalty — but seems to have been active in steering the nation. The textual evidence shows she wasn’t a queen to be cooped up in a tower with her tapestries.
It’s revealing how many Frankish charters go out of their way to parade the fact they are signed in the presence of the queen, or with her consent. Much of their content is dull fare: Monks and royal officials squabbling over the beef business, or confirmations of ecclesiastical donations, but it’s evident that the queen’s involvement lent credibility to affairs of state. In a somewhat fawning letter to the “glorious queen,” the pope himself says he has heard “a virile strength of the virtues resides her womanly breast.”
Her statecraft proved crucial in 1060 when Henri entrusted his health to a quack called Jean the Deaf, probably so named for his ability to ignore his patients’ screams. Jean prescribed Henri an agonizing purgative that killed him. Jean tried to blame the death on the pints of water the king had downed against his advice, but he had clearly poisoned his monarch. Anna should probably have brought a physician from the East with her.
Henri’s death was a dangerous moment. The realm was precariously weak, and Anna’s eldest son Philip was only eight. Again, the paper trail suggests the Kyivan queen steadied the kingdom. Tellingly, Anna and Philip I were referred to jointly as “the kings.” From that duo, really only Anna could have been calling the shots. Still, Philip ultimately prospered and earned the sobriquet “the Amorous,” which would suggest he greatly enjoyed his long reign.
Despite her apparent success integrating among the Franks, there are tell-tale signs that she never turned fully native. Poignantly, she kept her signature in Cyrillic. While the pope never hints that he has any problem with her hailing from the Orthodox East, her dedication of a church, in which she hankers for the “beauty” of the eternal life, is redolent with the language of her original faith. Her words for the Virgin Mary and John the Baptist translate the Slavic terms: Bogoroditsa and Predtecha, the mother of God and the forerunner. As her mind turned to the heavenly, it returned to the domes of Kyiv.
It’s painfully obvious where EU politics goes from here. Despite Ukrainians showing (under EU flags!) in the Maidan Uprising and in a war against Putin that they are willing to lay down their lives for essential freedoms, Brussels is going to string them along when it comes to EU membership. A myopic Franco-German axis that sees the EU as essentially a farm and auto lobby, rather than a political ideal, will insist that Ukraine is too insecure, poor and corrupt for admittance.
Long, meandering EU membership talks based on box-ticking on rule of law have been seen to miss the mark, allowing in members who then thwart the rules. With Ukraine, the EU needs to
go all-chips-in politically now, rebuilding the nation in a full partnership, before others fill the void, or Ukrainians lose faith.
Naturally, reforms and reconstruction will be needed, but Macron’s insistence that Kyiv is “decades” away reveals the widespread prejudice that Ukraine simply isn’t European. Anna’s story suggests something rather different, and demands greater humility from the West. Kyiv is at the heart of the European saga. As its first female regent, a queen from the East likely held an enfeebled France together for her son, the boy-king Philip I. Generally, the sophisticated East is too often excised from the narrative of what makes Europe what it is. From Yaroslav to Maidan, Kyiv doesn’t yet occupy the place it should in the broader picture of what unites our continent.
Hopefully, EU accession won’t take decades. Ukrainians tend to confound us on timeframes. After all, back in February, Putin was meant to capture Kyiv in days.
Anna could have told him that wasn’t going to happen. Her father’s walls would hold.