The Vikings, those fascinating sea raiders and explorers who spread around the globe like the flu during winter. They even reached as far as Russia and Ukraine, where they helped to create a state called Kievan Rus’. And both nations’ common origins, are one of the reasons they fight bitterly like cats and dogs. But what role did the Vikings play on it?

#1 How Kievan Rus’ was founded

According to the Russian Primary Chronicle, in 862, three Varangians brothers, were invited by a conglomeration of East Slavs, Finns and other Baltic people, from modern Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine, to rule over them. Varangians was the name given to Norse warriors and traders in Eastern Europe, famous for serving as mercenaries and bodyguards for the Emperor of Byzantium.

The armour-clad warriors recieve tribute (furs, horns and food) from a group of elders and children.
Legend says the Varangian brothers, Rurik, Sineus and Truvor, came from overseas, and received tribute from the local tribes. By Viktor Vasnetsov. Source

These Varangians brothers were called Rurik, Sineus and Trevor, and after the last two passed away, Rurik was left as the sole ruler of the eastern lands. Rurik initially settled in Staraya Ladoga, on the shores of Lake Ladoga. But later sailed down the river and founded, or established himself in Novgorod (new city).

Millennial monument in Novgorod. Rurik, holding the shield, features prominently among the most important rulers and characters of Russian history. Author: Дар Веtер. Source

In 879 Rurik died, and since his son Igor wasn’t of age, Rurik’s kinsman, Oleg, took control. Trade with Byzantium was in crescendo, and to protect the route’s eastern flank from the incursions of the aggressive Khazar neighbours, Oleg conquered Kiev from his brothers, Askold and Dir. Brothers are never good at sharing, especially if you’re Viking.

The conquest of Kiev marked the official start of the medieval state of Kievan Rus’, ruled by the Prince Oleg, and Rurik’s descendants.

At the peak of its power, Kievan Rus’ was the largest European kingdom of the Middle Ages. Source

 #2 Kievan Rus’ artifacts

The Russian Primary Chronicle was compiled in the 12th century, so Nestor, the monk who wrote it, could have accidentally (or not) sprinkled a bit too much of epic on it. More palpable evidence is the one found in Ladoga and Novgorod, where archaeologists have unearthed Norse amulets shaped like Thor’s hammer, blacksmith tools and other objects with runic inscriptions. Boat graves have been discovered around Ladoga, teeming with Norse characteristic objects, like combs, leather shoes, weights, and dirham silver coins, which the Varangians used to trade. Although the proportion of remains doesn’t indicate extensive colonisation, as it happened in the Scottish isles of Orkney and Shetland, or in Normandy.

The equivalent of the Old Norse alphabet
The alphabet of Norse runes is known as Futhark. The Northmen believed the runes to possess magical properties. Author: MuiDark. Source

#3 Rus’ interaction with the Franks

More contemporary of the Rus’, were the Frankish Chronicles, Annales Bertiniani, allegedly written by Louis the Pious (778-840). It describes how in 838, a group of warriors escorted by Byzantium emissaries, travelled to Frankia, where they met the king Louis the Pious. The Byzantine emissaries, carried a letter of Emperor Theophilus, who introduced the mysterious tourists as the Rus’, seeking safe passage through Frankia. When asked by Louis, the Rus’ said they were Sueones (Swedes), and their leader was known as Chacanus, which is theorized to mean either Khagan (a Mongolic title equal to Emperor), or the Scandinavian name Håkan.

Major Viking towns of Scandinavia. Sweden’s wealthiest towns were Birka and Sigtuna, while Uppsala was the religious centre. Author: Sven Rosborn. Source

A 10th century Persian explorer called Ahmad ibn Rustah Isfahani, described the Rus’ Khagan, living on an island in a lake. Interestingly, Novgorod early settlement was placed on the mouth of Lake Illmen, and could match such description. But further evidence is required.

Rurikovo Gorodische, on the left, is theorised to be the historical settlement that predates Novgorod. It lies immediately south of it. Author: Дар Веtер. Source

#4 Kievan Rus’ burial ceremony  

A contemporary of Ibn Rustah, Ahmad Ibn Fadlan, an emissary of the Abbasid Caliphate (modern-day Baghdad), travelled to the Volga, in 922. He came across the Rus’, describing them as tall as palm trees, with blond hair and covered in tattoos, a feature the Vikings were famous for.

As he happened to be there, one of the chieftains died. Ibn Fadlan was a unique witness of the burial ceremony, so far the only direct witness available from the Viking Age. According to him, the chieftain’s body was placed in a boat, as one of his female slaves was asked to join him in the afterlife. Then she toured the tents of the chieftain’s warriors, having sex with all of them, while they whispered to her ear: tell your master I did this out of love for him.

She then was lifted three times above a door frame, each time reciting a formula that described how she was watching her dead relatives in the paradise, calling for her.

This scene of the film The 13th Warrior attempted to recreate hmad Ibn Fadlan’s witness

Then a scary-as-hell woman called the Angel of Death, took the slave inside the ship’s chamber, where the dead chieftain. The Angel of Death stabbed the slave, while the warriors restrained and choked her. The chieftain and his material possessions, the slave, and the ship, were burned to ashes, and a mound built upon the pyre. Some features of the ceremony matches with what we know of Viking heathen burials, including the mound, the boat and the material possessions.

Other features like the paradise description, or the door frame, are totally unknown, and might had been particular only of the Rus’, a mistranslation of later sources, or a projection of the Muslim concepts of god and paradise of Ahmad Ibn Fadlan into the Rus’.

#5 Rus’ Viking names

When the Rus’ moved to Kiev, they did so in order to gain proximity with the Eastern Roman Empire, also known as Byzantium. Both shared a love/hate story, involving battles and raids against Byzantium territories, by Rus’. Three main peace treaties (907, 911 and 945) regulated their commercial interactions, maritime law, rights and limitations of the Rus’ traders in Constantinople, etc.

What’s revealing in those treaties, is the substantial amount of Norse names. Most are slightly different from pure Old Norse names, but can be easily etymologised. For example: Farlof (Farulfr), Karl (Karl/Karli), Stemid (Steinviðr), Velmund (Vermundr), Goudy (Gyði), Rurik (Hrœrekr), Inegeld (Ingjaldr). And the most representative one, Olga (Helga) the mother of Igor, Prince of Kiev.

Medieval manuscript of the 13th century depicting Oleg attacking Constantinople in 907. Paradoxically, Byzantine chronicles make no mention of it. Source

Furthermore, in Byzantium they referred to the land of the Rus’ as Pωσία (Rosía). The modern word for Russia in Russian is Россия (Rossiya). Coincidence?

#6 The Rus’ legacy

Evidence of Norse presence in the 9th and 10th century, in modern-day north-western Russia, and Ukraine (although archaeological evidence is more sparse here), both in remains, chronicles, and peace treaties, is undeniable. The Vikings benefited from a trade route stretching from Baghdad to the arctic Finno-Ugrians fur-collectors, including Scandinavian trade centres, as well as, the wealthy Constantinople.

However, no remains of Old Norse place names, or vocabulary traceable to the Old Norse language, survive in Russia or Ukraine. As opposite to England or Scotland, where place names and vocabulary from the Norse settlers are abundant.

It seems then that the Vikings presence was somehow limited to a small ruling/warrior/trader class, and swiftly assimilated by the overwhelmingly major Slav population. Still, is proof enough to show how Russia, Belarus and Ukraine are not as remote and disconnected to Europe as Western Europeans tend to believe.

Russia, Belarus and Ukraine are particular, unique, different, but cool. Like the Vikings.

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