The Varangians in Central Russia

The Invitation of the Varangians: Rurik and his brothers arrive in Staraya Ladoga.

The Varangians, mostly of Danish and Swedish origin, were adventurers, traders, and freebooters. Highly skilled as seamen and warriors, they made dangerous foes. Just as Britain and other parts of Western Europe had learned to dread the Northmen’s sudden destructive raids, so the Slavs feared these eastern incursions waged on a far greater scale. The Varangians pressed south by way of the Neva, Volkhov, Lovat, Dnieper, Donets, and Don rivers to the Black Sea, and by the Northern Dvina and Volga to the Caspian Sea. Though they had come to plunder, the prosperous trade along these routes made them stay. The rivers that they controlled first were probably the Donets and Don, to the Sea of Azov, from which they hoped to open trade to Asia.

Often the local communities hired Varangian bands to defend their towns, for the Slavs recognized the superior leadership, organization, and great energy of these professional warriors. The Varangians themselves were soon taking over the commercial towns and raiding the surrounding countryside. They began to settle along the river highways, intermarrying with the Slavs, adopting their language and customs, and gradually merging completely with them.

The Varangians were to play an important part – historians dispute whether it was dominant or subsidiary – in the formation of Kievan Rus, the first Russian state. Moreover, they probably gave to Russia and its people the name by which they have been known for more than 1,000 years. Across the vast plain, the Varangians became known as Rus or Rhos, possibly from the Finnish word for “rowers,” and from this the name of Russia is derived.

By tradition, 862 A.D. marks the beginning of Russia’s history, for in this year, the Varangian prince Rurik, who established the first Russian ruling dynasty, arrived in Novgorod. The most important source of information on these early years is the Primary Chronicle, set down by monks in the eleventh century to record, according to oral tradition, the events of the past. Unfortunately, as with so many Russian historical documents, the original perished, and its text survives only in the fifteenth-century Book of Annals (Povest Vremennykh Let) in which it was copied. The monks who made the copies sometimes edited and embellished them, introducing errors. Often they confused fact and legend. Although unreliable and incomplete, the Chronicle nevertheless recorded the flow of history in these early centuries.

According to the Chronicle, the Slavic people of Novgorod had rebelled against the Varangians, who were demanding payment of heavy tribute, and had driven them from the city. But they soon found themselves divided by rivalries that threatened to reduce the city and its extensive trade to chaos. In desperation, they called on the Varangians to return so that Novgorod could once again have order and defense. Sometime around 862, Rurik, most probably a Danish feudal lord, answered the pleas and came with his warrior band to Novgorod. He was accompanied by two lieutenants, possibly his brothers, Askold and Dir, but they promptly moved on to Kiev, nearly 600 miles to the south, where they established the foundation of the Russian state.

This version of the beginnings of modern Russia has been strongly impugned as a romantic legend, and the very existence of Rurik and his brothers has been questioned. Certainly a Russian state arose in some form long before the record of the Chronicle begins. That the East Slavs were able to amass an army large enough to attempt the capture of Constantinople in 360 A.D. – as reported by a Greek chronicler – is evidence they had attained a degree of political organization.

Kiev’s location, below the convergence of three branches of the Dnieper and close to the northern edge of the steppelands, was vastly superior to that of Novgorod. Kiev became the advance depot, where goods from Novgorod, Smolensk, and the other northern towns were assembled and made ready for shipment to the Black Sea and to Constantinople. The tenth-century Byzantine Emperor Constantine VII, or Porphyrogenitus, left a detailed description of this annual ingathering of Kievan exports. Beginning in November, the prince and his retinue set out to visit all of the Slavic subjects who owed him tribute – everyone paying in the goods of his region. The tour ended around April, by which time boat builders had completed a new flotilla of cargo boats, each hollowed from a huge tree trunk in the manner of a log canoe, and had floated them downstream after the spring thaw. In Kiev, the boats were fitted out with oarlocks and then loaded. Sometime in June, accompanied by a Varangian military escort and numerous independent merchants bent on their own business, the prince’s fleet ventured upon the dangerous voyage south. In addition to natural dangers, including portage around the seven rapids of the lower Dnieper, ships and men were exposed to attack by the Pechenegs and other nomads. The defense of this trade route, in fact, had provided a strong incentive for the Slavs to unite; it was primarily for this reason that they had been ready to accept the Varangians.

From Kiev, Askold and Dir imposed their rule over the Pechenegs and the neighboring Slavs, making the city the base from which the trade route, and later the steppelands, were defended against nomadic invaders. In 879, Oleg, another Varangian and Rurik’s successor, came from Novgorod and murdered Askold and Dir. Oleg was evidently an energetic ruler, and he lives in legend as the “Wise One” (Veschi). During his reign, he established authority over both the northern and southern tribes, thus achieving for the first time a degree of unity along the main river roads to Byzantium.

The highpoint of Oleg’s thirty-three-year rule was his ambitious attack on Constantinople in 907. The Primary Chronicle relates the event: “With [his] entire force, Oleg sallied forth by horse and by ship, and the number of his vessels was 2,000. He arrived before Tsar’grad [Constantinople], but the Greeks fortified the strait and closed up the city. Oleg disembarked upon the shore, and ordered his soldiery to beach the ships. . . . The Russes inflicted many . . . woes upon the Greeks after the usual manner of soldiers. Oleg commanded his warriors to make wheels which they attached to the ships, and when the wind was favorable, they spread the sails and bore down upon the city from the open country. When the Greeks beheld this, they were afraid, and sending messengers to Oleg, they implored him not to destroy the city and offered to submit such tribute as he should desire. . . . Oleg demanded that they pay tribute for his 2,000 ships at the rate of twelve grivna

[silver coins]

per man, with forty men reckoned to a ship.”

These matters apparently settled to Oleg’s satisfaction, his deputies then imposed a trade agreement on the Byzantines. The Greeks were forced to offer generous terms. “Oleg gave orders that sails of brocade should be made for the Russes and silken ones for the Slavs, and his demand was satisfied. The Russes hung their shields upon the gates as a sign of victory, and Oleg then departed. . . . The Russes unfurled their sails of brocade and the Slavs their sails of silk, but the wind tore them. Then the Slavs said, ‘Let us keep our canvas ones; silken sails are not made for the Slavs.’ So Oleg came to Kiev, bearing palls, gold, fruit, and wine, along with every sort of adornment.”

In opening the fabled markets of Byzantium to his people, Oleg had established the basis for the growth of Kiev and its ascendancy during the next three centuries of Russian history. In 912, Oleg died, and Igor, presumably the son or grandson of Rurik, succeeded as grand prince. The chroniclers described Igor as ruthless and greedy, but, like Oleg, he was also an effective leader. He put down a rebellion among the Derevlian Slavs and then repelled another invasion by the Pechenegs. He made extensive preparations for campaigns in Anatolia (in present-day Turkey) and Transcaucasia (Georgia, Azerbaidzhan, and Armenia), which proved to be costly failures. He was not deterred, and eager for fame and the prizes of conquest, he hired Varangian and Pecheneg troops to strengthen his own army for another attack on Byzantium in 944. However, envoys from Constantinople met him and the representatives of numerous other Rus princes and merchants on the banks of the Danube, with presents and offers of generous trade concessions as the basis of a peace. As related in the Primary Chronicle, Igor agreed in the name of “all the people of the land of Rus, by whom is ordained the renewal of the former peace to the confusion of the devil, who hates peace and loves discord.” In 945, this second Russo-Byzantine treaty was signed. Igor did not live to enjoy its benefits. He went with a small retinue to exact a second tribute from the Derevlians, but this time, they were ready to resist. According to the Chronicle, the Derevlians said to their Prince Mal: “If a wolf comes among the sheep, he will take away the whole flock one by one, unless he be killed.” The Derevlians then set upon Igor and his retainers, slaughtering them to a man.

As Svyatoslav, Igor’s son, was only a boy, his mother, Princess Olga, acted as regent. A native of Pskov and a Slav, despite her Scandinavian name, she was “the wisest of women.” The chronicler relates that when Igor’s murderers came to Kiev to offer her in marriage to Prince Mal, she proved herself a crafty statesman, replying, “Your proposal is pleasing to me; indeed, my husband cannot rise again from the dead. But I desire to honor you tomorrow in the presence of my people. Return now to your boat, and remain there with an aspect of arrogance. I shall send for you on the morrow, and you shall say, ‘We will not ride on horses nor go on foot; carry us in our boat.’”

Olga then commanded some of her retainers to dig a large ditch within the castle and sent others to escort the Derevlians. According to her instructions, the unwary envoys demanded to be carried to the castle in their boats. The Kievans, apprised of Olga’s scheme, behaved in a convincingly servile manner and hoisted the vessels as if to honor the conquerors. “The [Derevlians] sat on the cross-benches in great robes, puffed up with pride. They thus were borne into the court before Olga, and when the men had brought the Derevlians in, they dropped them into the trench along with the boat. Olga bent over and inquired whether they found the honor to their taste. They answered that it was worse than the death of Igor. She then commanded that they should be buried alive.”

Following Olga’s revenge against her husband’s enemy, she abandoned her pagan beliefs to embrace Christianity, a decision that would account in part for the especially enthusiastic treatment she received from the monk-chroniclers. This happened either in 955 in Kiev or three years later, when she visited Constantinople. She was, however, an able woman. She introduced reforms in the general administration of the country, and by dividing the land into tax-paying districts, each with an agent responsible for collecting and paying taxes and tribute to Kiev, she eliminated the need for annual winter expeditions by the ruler to collect levies from subject princes.

The imperial city of Constantinople was the main goal of Kievan merchants, and the magnificence of the city was famed among the Slavs. Contact with Byzantium had, moreover, induced some Russians to become Christians, but they were not numerous. The conversion of Princess Olga was, therefore, a significant event. Her baptism was sponsored by the Emperor Constantine, and Olga took the name of Helen in honor of his empress. Her example did not inspire the Christianization of the whole nation, however, and her own son, Svyatoslav, rejected her attempts to convert him.

Svyatoslav I began his rule in 962 and at once showed himself to be a leader of tremendous vitality, able to direct the dynamic expansionism that was characteristic of the young state. His first objective was to extend the control of Kievan Rus eastward, over the Don River basin and the Azov region, and then over the Volga River trade route to the Caspian Sea. In effect, this meant linking Kievan Rus with Tmutorakan Rus, the small commercial state and Varangian outpost on the straits between the Sea of Azov and the Black Sea. He had first to conquer the neighboring steppelands. He attacked and defeated the great Khazar khanate and sacked Itil on the lower Volga. Next, since he was determined to control the whole course of the Volga, he conquered the Volga Bulgars, a Turkic people who dominated the upper Volga region from their capital at Bolgary. He extended his authority over the lower Don basin, and in the Kuban region, the Circassians swore allegiance to him.

Svyatoslav then turned westward against the powerful Bulgarian tsardom in the valley of the Danube. He was encouraged in this enterprise by the Byzantines and even helped with subsidies and troops, for the Bulgarians had become a dangerous threat to Byzantium. In 967, he conquered northern Bulgaria and made the city of Pereyaslavets his headquarters. In desperation, the Bulgarian tsar appealed to the Pechenegs to attack in the rear, and they promptly laid siege to Kiev. Svyatoslav hastened to his capital and repelled the Pechenegs, but he longed to return to the Danubian basin. In 969, he declared to his mother and his chief retainers: “I do not care to remain in Kiev, but should prefer to live in Pereyaslavets on the Danube since that is the center of my realm, where all riches are concentrated; gold, silks, wines, and various fruits from Greece, silver and horses from Hungary and Bohemia, and from Rus furs, wax, honey and slaves.” Returning to Bulgaria, he found that the Bulgarians had now settled their differences with the Greeks and formed an alliance. He suffered several defeats at the hands of their combined forces, and finally in July 971, he signed a treaty with the Byzantine Emperor John Zimisces, abandoning his claims to Bulgaria.

At this time, Svyatoslav had a meeting with Zimisces. Leo Diaconus, a Greek historian who witnessed the meeting, later wrote: “The Emperor arrived at the bank of the Danube on horseback, wearing golden armor, accompanied by a large retinue of horsemen in brilliant attire. Svyatoslav crossed the river in a kind of Scythian boat; he handled the oar in the same way as his men. His appearance was as follows: he was of medium height – neither too tall, nor too short; he had bushy brows, blue eyes, and was snub-nosed; he shaved his beard but wore a long and bushy mustache. His head was shaven except for a lock of hair on one side as a sign of the nobility of his clan; his neck was thick, his shoulders broad; and his whole stature pretty fine. He seemed gloomy and savage. On one of his ears hung a golden earring adorned with two pearls with a ruby set between them. His white garments were not distinguishable from those of his men except for cleanness.”

On his journey back to Kiev from this meeting, however, the Pechenegs attacked the Russian party. Svyatoslav, in the ninth year of his rule, was killed. The prince of the Pechenegs, following nomadic custom, had the Russian’s skull overlaid with gold, and used it as a drinking cup.

Then, for a time, Kievan Rus was divided between the three sons of Svyatoslav: Oleg ruled over the Derevlians; Yaropolk over Kiev; and Vladimir over Novgorod. It was an uneasy period of fratricidal strife and treachery, from which Vladimir, who showed himself to be ruthless, emerged as grand prince with Kiev as his city. He at once revived most of his father’s ambitious policies. He reasserted Kievan authority in the Azov region and took vigorous action to expand Russian trade in the west. He captured a number of important towns from the Poles in the western Ukraine. In the northwest, he defeated the Lithuanian tribes on the upper reaches of the Neman River. He was an active prince and a conqueror, but he is renowned in Russian history for his conversion to the faith of Christian Europe.

In the tenth century, many peoples abandoned their pagan gods and adopted one of the monotheistic beliefs. The Volga Bulgars adopted Islam in 922, the Danubian Bulgars having already become Christian; the Khazars had adopted Judaism around 865; Poland, Hungary, Denmark, and Norway converted to Roman Christianity in the second half of the tenth century. Kievan Rus was ready.

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