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 eastern 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, most 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 these eastern lands. Rurik initially settled in Staraya Ladoga, on the shores of Lake Ladoga. But later sailed down the river and founded a new capital which would eventually become Novgorod (new city).

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

In 879 Rurik died, and since his son Igor wasn’t of age yet, Rurik’s kinsman, Oleg, took control. Trade with Byzantium was in crescendo, and to protect the trading routes from the incursions of the aggressive Khazar neighbours, Oleg took Kyiv from two other vikings, Askold and Dir, and moved his base of operations there. The conquest of Kiev marked the official start of Kievan Rus’, ruled by Oleg and Rurik’s descendants.

At the peak of its power, Kievan Rus’ was the largest kingdom in medieval Europe. Source

 #2 Evidence

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 solid evidence is the one found in Ladoga and Novgorod, where archaeologists unearthed Norse amulets shaped like Thor’s hammer, blacksmith tools, and other objects bearing runic inscriptions. Boat graves were discovered around Ladoga, full with characteristic objects of the Norse, like combs, leather shoes, weights, and dirham silver coins, which the Varangians obtained through trade. Although the proportion of remains doesn’t indicate extensive colonisation, as it happened in the Scottish isles of Orkney and Shetland, Normandy, or Iceland.

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 The Franks

More contemporary to 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 the Frankish Empire, where they met its king, Louis the Pious. The Byzantine emissaries carried a letter from Emperor Theophilus, who introduced the mysterious tourists as the Rus’, who petitioned for safe passage across 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’s earliest settlement allegedly founded by Rurik, was placed on the mouth of Lake Illmen, and the seasonal flooding could well mean it matches the description of Ahmad.

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

#4 The Viking burial  

A contemporary of Ibn Rustah, Ahmad Ibn Fadlan, an emissary of the Abbasid Caliphate (modern-day Baghdad), travelled to the Volga River, in 922. He came across a group of vikings there, describing them as tall as palm trees, with blond hair and covered in tattoos, a feature the vikings were famous for. But whether they were Rus’ or just some other viking explorers, it’s not known.

As he happened to be there, one of the chieftains died, and Ibn Fadlan was a unique witness of the burial ceremony, so far our only direct source for such rituals. According to him, the chieftain’s body was placed in a boat, and one of his female slaves was requested to join him in the afterlife. One of them agreed and 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 Ahmad Ibn Fadlan’s witness

Then, an eerie woman called the Angel of Death, took the slave inside the ship’s burial chamber where the dead chieftain had been laid. The Angel of Death stabbed the slave while the warriors restrained and choked her. The chieftain, his material possessions, the slave, and the ship, were all set aflame and a mound built upon the pyre. Some features of the ceremony matches with what we know of Viking heathen burials through archaeology, including the mound, the boat or the material possessions.

Other features like the paradise description or the door frame remain a mistery, and might or might not have been particular of the Rus’. Or more likely a mistranslation of later sources, or a projection of the narrator’s familiar concepts such as god and paradise, into the heathen Rus’.

#5 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 history, involving battles and Rus’ incursions to Byzantium territory. Three main peace treaties in 907, 911, and 945, finally regulated their interactions, including trade, maritime law, rights, or limitations of Rus’ traders while in Constantinople; amongst others.

What’s most revealing in those treaties, is the substantial amount of Norse names signing them. 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 famous one, Olga (Helga) the wife of Igor, Rurik’s son.

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 Legacy

Evidence of Norse presence in the 9th and 10th century, in modern-day Russia and Ukraine, both in the form of archaelogical remains, chronicles, or other contemporary documents, is significant. The Vikings benefited from a trade route stretching from Baghdad to the fur-collectors living in modern Finland, passing through major cities like Constantinople or more modest Scandinavian trade centres.

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

It seems then that the Vikings presence was somehow limited to a small ruling, warrior/trader class, and was swiftly assimilated by the major Slavic population. Still, it shows how Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine aren’t as remote or disconnected to Western Europe as it’s often assumed.

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