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Viking - 40: Rurik and the Rus - Russia, a Norseman Founds a Dynasty and a Super-State

"False friendship with bad friends burns out faster than fire. It is not long before the flame goes out, the friendship with it".


The coming of the Varangians (Rhos or Rus)

A painting by Viktor Vasnetsov of the Varangians or Rus being greeted by the native Slavs in what is now northern Russia - the ship's prow looks a bit dodgy, with the sail still up and full but apart from that the picture shows costume and kit

A painting by Viktor Vasnetsov of the Varangians or Rus being greeted by the native Slavs in what is now northern Russia - the ship's prow looks a bit dodgy, with the sail still up and full but apart from that the picture shows costume and kit

Findings from Norse merchant graves at the trading centres of Grobin and Elblag show the beginnings of Scandinavian expansion east of their Eastern Sea (Baltic) began in the late 7th Century AD. This was over a hundred years before raiding began around Britain and the Frankish Empire...

Chiefly the function of these eastern colonies was for the collection and trade in furs for the western markets. By the end of the next century Arab merchants started to navigate their way up the Volga from the Caspian Sea. With them came the flow of fine quality silver Dirhems. The Norsemen were drawn inland over the widespread, snaking river systems to capitalise on this new source of revenue. Due to their position on the eastern side of Scandinavia the Svear, or Swedes, led in the venture. By around 830 AD the Rus or Rhos, as the Northmen were known in the east, traded directly with the Arabs who had spread along the Volga northward and westward. They also traded with the Byzantine Empire at Constantinople ('Miklagard' or 'the Great City').

Going by some Scandinavian women's graves in Russia a few Rus traders went around as families. Large quantities of Arab silver coins taken by trade for slaves and luxury goods went west back to sweden. These trade routes did well until the Arabs' silver sources became depleted from around 965-1015 AD. These trading centres were gradually abandoned.

Over the 9th Century the Rus colonised existing Slav settlements such as Novgorod and Kiev to use them as centres of expansion. The Russian Primary Chronicle tells of the semi-legendary Rurik who had made Holmgard (Novgorod) his capital by around 860 AD. Around 880 Rurik's kinsman Oleg succeeded him and took Konungagard (Kiev), making it his new capital. By Igor's reign (around 913-945 AD) the state extended from the Gulf of Finland to the lower reaches of the Dniepr.

The Norse presence in Russia is strongly borne out by archaeological finds, for example almost two hundred oval brooches were found, many more than seen in western Europe. What is obvious from the finds in Scandinavian burial grounds is that the Rus were significantly a minority amongst their Slavic neighbours.. There is little to show of any settlement beyond the towns.

Memorial carvings on runestones in Sweden point to Svear migration eastward into the 11th Century. migrants were fairly quickly assimilated into Slav society through marriages and alliances. Slavonic or 'Slavicised' names were adopted by the rulers. The first ruler to have a truly Slavic name was Igor's son Svyatoslav I who ruled between 945-78 AD. His successors followed suit, his son Vladimir I who ruled after him until 1015 AD,worshipped the Slav thunder-god Perun before he was converted to Christianity in 988 AD. Most of the ruling class by this time would have spoken a Slav tongue, as Slavonic became the language of the Orthodox Church. By the time of Kiev's supremacy as capital of the Rus state at the time of Jaroslav 'the Wise' (who ruled 1019-54 AD) the Rus had made the shift altogether to its Slavonic character, although they did not altogether abandon their Norse links.

Prior to Norse expansion in the east many fortified Slav settlements had begun the shift to urbanisation although doubtless the western merchants propelled the change, with small settlements such as Novgorod (Newtown) burgeoning into cities in less than a hundred years. Other than this the Norse part in Russian civilisation was minimal. Slavonic society were at a similar stage in their development as were their Norse neighbours. There are only a token number of Norse loan words in the Russian language. The most significant foreign impression on Russian cultural development was Byzantine, due to Vladimir's decision to convert to the Eastern Orthodox sooner than the western, Roman Christianity.

Kiev's alphabet, building style, art, law, music and political thought were Byzantine in outlook..

. .

The princes

From the Palace of Facets in the Kremlin, Moscow, a mural that shows Rurik, Igor and Svyatoslav

From the Palace of Facets in the Kremlin, Moscow, a mural that shows Rurik, Igor and Svyatoslav

The Ryurik Dynasty

.were rulers of Russia from the 10th to the 16th Century (1598), contemporary with Queen Elizabeth I of England. The dynasty took its name from the semi-legendary Rurik, a Norseman who was claimed from the 12th be the dynasty's founder. Before that Russian rulers were agreed that their founder was Igor, prince of Kiev who ruled from 913-45 AD, the first historically verifiable founder of the dynasty.

Ryurikovo Gorodisce was a 9th Century stronghold on an island in the River Volkhov, 2 km upstream from the heart of modern Novgorod.

Many artefacts found in archaeological digs at the site are of Scandinavian origin. Ryurikovo Gorodisce is very likely to have been the Novgorod indicated in the Russian Primary Chronicle as Rurik's early capital. It is also probable that the Norse name Holmgard or Island stronghold was originally given to this site.

Kiev (Kyiv), the extent of the realm

The Kievan (Kyiv) Rus, 980-1054

The Kievan (Kyiv) Rus, 980-1054

A spread from the Russian Primary Chronicle manuscropt

A spread from the Russian Primary Chronicle manuscropt

See description below

See description below

See Russia's early history through the eyes of their chroniclers, the highs and lows of the fledgling state, Ryurik, Vladimir, Ivan 'the Terrible'; Vladimir's pursuit of a form of Christianity he thought suitable for his people led to him sending legates around Europe... he opted finally for the Greek model. Thus were Church and Monarchy wedded until revolution did them part. English translation by Cross and Sherbowitz-Wetzor

The lineage

Succession of the princes of kiev (Kyiv) from igor

Succession of the princes of kiev (Kyiv) from igor

'Povest Vremennykh Let' means literally ',Chronicle of Past Years', the most significant native source relating the early history of Russia. This chronicle was compiled in Kiev in the early 12th Century, using lost previous records as well as Khazar oral traditions and sources. Some were legends and described the arrival of the Norsemen in the region, as well as the founding of the Norse kingdom of Kiev and later development.

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The Chronicle was put together to show the succession, the setting down of political boundaries and blood ties for the Ryurik dynasty. Its story of the founding of Kiev's state these days is considered largely, if not altogether mythical. What is no longer accepted is that it was the work of a Kievan monk named Nestor.

Footnote: Perseverance

Distances were vast, measured in river crossings and fortified settlements. A civilisation already existed that embraced new influences in the hope of beating back frequent slaving raids by Tartars from Central Asia. The new influences provided a 'stiffener', resolve to withstand invaders in whatever manner befitted.

Tartar invaders were the first to suffer setbacks after earlier successes... as were subsequently Napoleon Bonaparte and Adolf Hitler at the expense of their own divisions.

...The distances served to sap the invaders' resolve. The brief, wet autumns - the Rasputitsa' or flooding - turned roads into quagmires and long, freezing winters (up to 50 degrees below zero) acted as 'weapons', although that initial 'stiffener' of new blood from eastern Scandinavia served them well. Ignorance of these factors led to the invaders facing disaster - especially the Nazis' ideolologically fuelled ignorance.

Dogged determination had its own part to play. Regardless of losses, the reservoir of humankind from beyond the Urals should not be ignored. Never let it be said 'Slav' means slave.

© 2015 Alan R Lancaster


Ann Carr from SW England on January 19, 2015:

Thanks for all that info. Very kind of you. I'll be having a look!

Alan R Lancaster (author) from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire) on January 19, 2015:

The West Norse (Norwegians) we associate with Vikings used the seaways around Britain, and the Danes who established themselves predominantly in the eastern shires and Yorkshire. The ones who went east were predominantly - although not exclusively - the Svear (or Swedes in modern terms). There were Swedes who came west with Knut and were given land in the north or paid off after 1016 when Knut became king in his own right (see the DANELAW series Hubpage on 'Knut/Cnut).

There are people in Russia who commemorate the early Svear fur traders - see the Neil Oliver series about the Vikings, where he joins a group of Russians in heaving a ship overland to avoid thick ice in a river. It might be repeated on the Yesterday channel (19) during the day and evening. It might even be available from Amazon. Look into the history of Kiev, Vladimir, Byzantium and the Varangian Guard (there's a Hub-page in the VIKING series on that, as well as a few episodes of HUNDING'S SAGA)

Ann Carr from SW England on January 18, 2015:

Since I visited Norway early in 2013, I've been interested in Scandinavian history and anything connected with them. This is a fascinating account. I suppose it's logical but I never thought of them trading with Russia and further afield. We Brits always think of the Vikings as one of our invaders and don't really stop to think any further.

You've inspired me to look into the history. I agree with Bill that it takes some perseverance to research all this!

Great stuff, Alan!


Alan R Lancaster (author) from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire) on January 18, 2015:

Aethelthryth, it depends on what you can lay your hands on. It's all there when you look for it. I've got a library here at home (seems like it sometimes), and it's all available from one bookshop or another. I've been to Waterstone's University Bookshop (used to be Dillons) in the area of the University of London. There's also Amazon and the other online shops (look in on one of the other VIKING or DANELAW YEARS pages here, there are book buys you might be interested in.

Bill, thought I'd see you some time soon.

You're right there's a lot of Viking AND general Norse history around. And it was little Leif whose band of followers trod on North American soil - Canada to be exact - but not before the Asiatic migrants. The east and north-west of England saw an influx of Danish and West Norse blood between the River Wear (look for Sunderland on the map) and the Thames (Southend on the Essex side, Gravesend on the Kent coast).

Yorkshire, East Midlands and Cambridgeshire are the biggest concentration in the east, North Lancashire and Cumbria in the north-west aside from Man and southern Ireland (cf. in the early VIKING series.

Russia is something else altogether. The Norsemen were able to adapt and assimilate, as they did here, so in the end the only way you could tell them apart was in their speech for the first two generations. In English its easier, in Russian you'd need a sharp ear for nuances.

aethelthryth from American Southwest on January 17, 2015:

More great history, thank you! Our family was just this morning discussing the various waves of Viking, well, Norse, influence on the British Isles and America.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on January 17, 2015:

I could not do what you do, Alan. I don't have the patience for this kind of research, and I don't have your ability to take cold, hard facts, distill them, and make them readable and interesting. A job well done, Sir!

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