Ancient Russia

The Varangian seafarers who reached the heartland of Russia founded a series of Kingdoms that eventually were assimilated by the local Slavic tribes becoming the ancestral Russian people.

Russian Warriors via Costumes of All Nations (1882)
The Ancient Russian Steppe

“Baba” Sculpture, Stone; Middle Ages, Polovets, Samara Region

The early history of Russia, like those of many countries, is one of migrating peoples and ancient kingdoms. In fact, early Russia was not exactly “Russia,” but a collection of cities that gradually coalesced into an empire. I n the early part of the ninth century, as part of the same great movement that brought the Danes to England and the Norsemen to Western Europe, a Scandinavian people known as the Varangians crossed the Baltic Sea and landed in Eastern Europe. The leader of the Varangians was the semi legendary warrior Rurik, who led his people in 862 to the city of Novgorod on the Volkhov River. Whether Rurik took the city by force or was invited to rule there, he certainly invested the city. From Novgorod, Rurik’s successor Oleg extended the power of the city southward. In 882, he gained control of Kiev, a Slavic city that had arisen along the Dnepr River around the 5th century. Oleg’s attainment of rule over Kiev marked the first establishment of a unified, dynastic state in the region. Kiev became the center of a trade route between Scandinavia and Constantinople, and Kievan Rus’, as the empire came to be known, flourished for the next three hundred years.

The Varangians

The type of Ships used by the early Volga Vikings

The Varangians or Varyags sometimes referred to as Variagians, were Vikings or Norsemen, who went eastwards and southwards through what is now Russia, Belarus and Ukraine mainly in the 9th and 10th centuries. According to the Kievan Rus’ Primary Chronicle, compiled in about 1113, groups of Varangians included the Swedes, the Rus, the Normans, the Angles and the Gotlanders. However, due largely to geographic considerations, most of the Varangians who traveled and settled in the eastern Baltic, Russia and lands to the south came from the area of modern Sweden.

Engaging in trade, piracy and mercenary activities, they roamed the river systems and portages of Gardariki, reaching the Caspian Sea and Constantinople. Having settled Aldeigja (Ladoga) in the 750’s, Scandinavian colonists were probably an element in the early ethnogenesis of the Rus’ people, and likely played a role in the formation of the Rus’ Khaganate. The Varangians (Varyags, in Old East Slavic) are first mentioned by the Primary Chronicle as having exacted tribute from the Slavic and Finnic tribes in 859. It was the time of rapid expansion of the Vikings in Northern Europe; England began to pay Danegeld in 859, and the Curonians of Grobin faced an invasion by the Swedes at about the same date.

According to the Primary Chronicle, in 862, the Finnic and Slavic tribes rebelled against the Varangian Rus, driving them overseas back to Scandinavia, but soon started to conflict with each other. The disorder prompted the tribes to invite back the Varangian Rus “to come and rule them” and bring peace to the region. Led by Rurik and his brothers Truvor and Sineus, the invited Varangians (called Rus) settled around the town of Holmgård (Novgorod). In the 9th century, the Rus’ operated the Volga trade route, which connected Northern Russia (Gardariki) with the Middle East (Serkland). As the Volga route declined by the end of the century, the Trade route from the Varangians to the Greeks rapidly overtook it in popularity. Apart from Ladoga and Novgorod, Gnezdovo and Gotland were major centers for Varangian trade.

Varangians in the Chronicle of Skylitzes, 12th century

Varangians in the Chronicle of Skylitzes, 12th century

Western historians tend to agree with the Primary Chronicle that these Varangians organized the existing Slavic settlements into the political entity of Kievan Rus’in the 880s and gave their name to the land. Many Slavic scholars are opposed to this theory of Germanic influence on the Rus and have suggested alternative scenarios for this part of Eastern European history because the author of the Primary Chronicles, that is a monk named Nestor, worked in the court for the Varangians.

In contrast to the intense Scandinavian influence in Normandy and the British Isles, Varangian culture did not survive to a great extent in the East. Instead, the Varangian ruling classes of the two powerful city-states of Novgorod and Kiev were thoroughly Slavic by the end of the 10th century. Old Norse was spoken in one district of Novgorod, however, until the thirteenth century.

According to the earliest East Slavic record, the Primary Chronicle, the four tribes who had been forced to pay tribute to the Varangians — Chuds, Slavs, Merians, and Krivichs drove the Varangians back beyond the sea, refused to pay them further tribute, and set out to govern themselves. But there was no law among them, and tribe rose against tribe. Discord thus ensued among them, and they began to war one against the other. They said to themselves, “Let us seek a prince who may rule over us, and judge us according to custom. Thus they went overseas to the Varangians, to the Rus. These particular Varangians were known as Rus, just as some are called Swedes, and others Normans and Angles, and still others Gotlanders, for they were thus named. The Chuds, the Slavs, the Krivichs and the Veps then said to the Rus, “Our land is great and rich, but there is no order in it. Come reign as princes, rule over us”. Three brothers, with their kinfolk, were selected. They brought with them all the Rus and migrated.

The Funeral of Russian Noble

The Funeral of Russian Noble

Later, the Primary Chronicle tells us, they conquered Kiev and created the state of Kievan Rus’, which, as most historians agree, was preceded by the Rus’ Khaganate. The territory they conquered was named after them as were, eventually, the local people. Ibn Haukal and two other early Islamic sources such Muhammad al-Idrisi, who would follow them later) distinguish three groups of the Rus: Kuyavia, Slavia, and Arcania. In the mainstream Russian-Soviet historiography (as represented by Boris Rybakov), these were tentatively identified with the “tribal centers” at Kiev, Novgorod and Tmutarakan.

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Early Arab Accounts of the Ancestral Rus

The Samoyeds of northern Russia

The Muslim diplomat and traveler, Ahmad ibn Fadlan, who visited Volga Bulgaria in 922, described the Rus (Rusiyyah) in the terms strongly suggestive of the Norsemen:
I have seen the Rus as they came on their merchant journeys and encamped by the Itil. I have never seen more perfect physical specimens, tall as date palms, blond and ruddy; they wear neither tunics nor caftans, but the men wear a garment which covers one side of the body and leaves a hand free. Each man has an axe, a sword, and a knife, and keeps each by him at all times. The swords are broad and grooved, of Frankish sort. Each woman wears on either breast a box of iron, silver, copper, or gold; the value of the box indicates the wealth of the husband. Each box has a ring from which depends a knife. The women wear neck-rings of gold and silver. Their most prized ornaments are green glass beads. They string them as necklaces for their women.

Apart from Ibn Fadlan’s account, the Normanist theory draws heavily on the evidence of the Persian traveler Ibn Rustah who allegedly visited Novgorod and described how the Rus’ exploited the Slavs.

“As for the Rus, they live on an island … that takes three days to walk round and is covered with thick undergrowth and forests; it is most unhealthy…They harry the Slavs, using ships to reach them; they carry them off as slaves and…sell them. They have no fields but simply live on what they get from the Slav’s lands…. When a son is born, the father will go up to the newborn baby, sword in hand; throwing it down, he says, “I shall not leave you with any property: You have only what you can provide with this weapon.”

When the Varangians first appeared in Constantinople, the Byzantines seem to have perceived the “Rhos” as a different people from the Slavs. At least they are never said to be part of the Slavic race. Characteristically, pseudo-Symeon Magister refers to the Rhos as Rusta, a word related to the Greek word meaning “a run”, suggesting the mobility of their movement by waterways.

In his treatise “De Administrando Imperio”, Constantine VII describes the Rhos as the neighbors of Pechenegs who buy from the latter cows, horses, and sheep “because none of these animals may be found in Rhosia”. His description represents the Rus as a warlike northern tribe. Constantine also enumerates the names of the Dnieper cataracts in both Rhos and in Slavic languages.

The first Western European source to mention the Rus is the annals of Saint Bertan which relate that Emperor Louis the Pious’ court in Ingelheim, 839 (the same year as the first appearance of Varangians in Constantinople), was visited by a delegation from the Byzantine emperor. In this delegation there were two men who called themselves Rhos (Rhos vocari dicebant). Louis inquired about their origins and learns that they were Swedes. Fearing that they were spies for their brothers, the Danes, he incarcerated them. Subsequently, in the 10th and 11th centuries, Latin sources routinely confused the Rus with the extinct East Germanic tribe of Rugians. Olga of Kiev, for instance, was designated in one manuscript as a Rugian queen.

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The Kievian Rus

A map of the Kievian Rus, an Early Kingdom that unified the various Russian lands

By 989, Oleg’s great-grandson Vladimir I was ruler of a kingdom that extended to as far south as the Black Sea, the Caucasus Mountains, and the lower reaches of the Volga River. Having decided to establish a state religion, Vladimir carefully considered a number of available faiths and decided upon Greek Orthodoxy, thus allying himself with Constantinople and the West. It is said that Vladimir decided against Islam partly because of his belief that his people could not live under a religion that prohibits hard liquor. Vladimir was succeeded by Yaroslav the Wise, whose reign marked the apogee of Kievan Rus’. Yaroslav codified laws, made shrewd alliances with other states, encouraged the arts, and all the other sorts of things that wise kings do. Unfortunately, he decided in the end to act like Lear, dividing his kingdom among his children and bidding them to cooperate and flourish. Of course, they did nothing of the sort.

Kerchik natives of eastern Russia on an early 19th century illustration

Kerchik natives of eastern Russia on an early 19th century illustration

Within a few decades of Yaroslav’s death (in 1054), Kievan Rus’ was rife with internecine strife and had broken up into regional power centers. Internal divisions were made worse by the depredations of the invading Cumans (better known as the Kipchaks). It was during this time (in 1147 to be exact) that Yuri Dolgorukiy, one of the regional princes, held a feast at his hunting lodge atop a hill overlooking the confluence of the Moskva and Neglina Rivers. A chronicler recorded the party, thus providing us with the earliest mention of Moscow, the small settlement that would soon become the pre-eminent city in Russia.

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