A Brief History of Russia and Ukraine: Vikings and Rurikides

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Our creation myth begins on the Dnieper River. On the river, a boat, and in the boat, three brothers – Kyi, Shchek and Khoryv – and their sister Lybid. They chose a site along the river that struck them with its particular, hilly beauty and named it after the eldest brother, Kyi. And so Kievan Rus – the embryo of what would eventually grow into a preeminent world power – was born.

Though mythologized in art and monuments, the siblings likely never existed. So how did it really all begin?

Prior to the 9th century, the region was made up of a patchwork of tribes: East and West Slavs originating around the area that is now Western Ukraine, Avars, Khazans, Baltic and Finnic hunter-gatherers. These groups suffered regular incursions by steppe nomads from the southeast and Scandinavians from the northwest. The region was intersected by major waterways and, later, trade routes so it has been from the very beginning exposed to varied and various cultures.

The first East Slav state was, in fact, Kiev and its location was deliberately chosen. It lies between the steppes and a broad forested region, wooded but easily cleared, with good, fertile soil. Unfortunately, constant attacks by steppe nomads which continued on a regular basis all the way through to the collapse of the Golden Horde in the 14th century, made this fruitful region unsafe and forced many to migrate northeastward, where Moscow would eventually originate.

In the 7th century, the region was organized into the Khazar khaganate, a political entity roughly equivalent to a principality or a kingdom, usually ruled by a Khan, or in this case, by a seminomadic Turkic elite. The Khazars themselves were not a single ethnicity, but an amalgamation of nomadic steppe tribes under Turkic leadership. Two centuries later, the Varangians – Vikings – began to trickle down from Scandinavia, in pursuit of money flowing along the trade routes. This wasn’t the end of the Khazars, but it was the end of their rule, and the beginning of the Rus khaganate, a loose, short-lived cluster of city-states made up of the warrior elite. Like the Khazars before them, they exacted tribute from the Slavic, Baltic and Finnic people living in the area and grew steadily in power. Unlike their predecessors, they came to be accepted by their subjects and the distinction between Vikings and Slavs blurred and then disappeared, leaving behind a predominantly Slavic language and culture. Little remained of them but their name: the Rus. And so the lands they settled became Kievan Rus, and later simply Rus.

The entrance into Slavic society of the Rus is described in the Primary Chronicle, a medieval text which is one of the most important sources of early Eastern European history. According to the Chronicle, after having repelled a Varangian incursion in the mid-9th century, the local Slavic tribes discovered that they were unable neither to govern themselves nor to get along. So they appealed to their former enemies: “Our whole land is great and rich and there is no order in it. Come to rule and reign over us.” They selected Prince Rurik, a Varangian warrior chief, along with his two younger brothers, and the three men came with a retinue of their kin and “all the Rus.” Rurik established himself as the ruler of Novgorod, a northern city situated conveniently along a major trade route, and gave the surrounding provinces to his brothers.

This story might seem suspicious coming from a chronicle created to lend legitimacy to the seven-century long Rurikid Dynasty, especially considering how odd it might sound for people to willingly call upon a foreign power to rule over them, but it isn’t unheard of and much archeological evidence has been uncovered supporting many of the Chronicle’s claims.

By the 9th century, fortified posts along the Volga and Dnieper Rivers had already been established for the lucrative trade with Byzantium. Slaves, hides, furs, honey and wax went down, and corn, wine and silk came back. The flow of wealth continued to attract the attention of the Vikings to the north and Khazars to the south, and both tried to dominate the busy, prosperous trade routes, but the Vikings, under Rurik’s leadership, won.

So the pattern of Viking presence checks out: they came first as raiders (when, according to the Chronicle, they were repelled), then as mercenaries (at the invitation of the overwhelmed local tribes) and finally as conquerors and settlers, when they turned Novgorod into a Varangian city and secured trade routes all the way down to Kiev.

Rurik and the dynasty he established, the Rurikides, were unusual in their success, but also in their wisdom. Firstly, before they established a firm foothold as the beloved rulers of a brand new nation, they collaborated to form a network of alliances. More significantly, they involved both the aristocracy (the boyars) and the common people (at least the free, land-owning men) in their decision-making, in a system known as veche. This was not a parliamentary system, but rather an assembly in the form a tribal gathering. In theory, any member could ring the church bells and convene an assembly to discuss any matter, especially in the cases of resolving disputes and the election of new princes.

These gatherings were often unorganized, without definite procedure, and occasional fist fights would break out when a consensus could not be reached civilly. Nevertheless, this form of democracy helped to satisfy the masses and defuse potential opposition. Rurik and his brothers were accepted as native rulers and without much, if any, objection and transferred their ethnicity as Russes onto their subjects. With the wealth they acquired from the trade routes under their control, they expanded their political power down the Dnieper River, into the Russian Steppe. Their armies were bolstered by an influx of both native forces and Viking war bands, attracted by their success.

The true formation of the Kievan Rus came with Rurik’s brother-in-law and successor, Oleg of Novgorod, who like his predecessor quickly proved himself to be a visionary and powerful leader. He expanded south with great gusto, and by 882, had made his way down to Kiev. And all in quick succession he seized the city, made it the capital of the new Kievan Rus (in place of Novgorod), united the Slavic tribes living there, and freed them from the overlordship of the Khazars, who still had power in the southern regions,.

Then Oleg and his successor, Rurik’s son Igor, kept expanding south, increasing contact with the Byzantine Empire. Between them, they signed two commercial treaties with the Empire, making trade with them a large part of the Kievan economy while opening a path for the later Christianization of Russia. Kievan Rus was the first non-nomadic state solidly established on the steppes and it became the most powerful and prosperous European state after the Byzantine Empire. This was the beginning of its golden age.

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