The creation of Russia began with Viking adventurer-traders who opened up trade routes beginning around A.D. 800 on the great Russian rivers like the Dnieper and the Volga between the Baltic, Black and Caspian Seas. They dominated the land and ruled the cities in the 9th and 10th centuries. At its height the territory under their control stretched from Lake Onega in the north, near the Black Sea in the south , the Volga in the east and the Carpathian Mountains in the west. They remained in the region until the 11th century when they were assimilated by indigenous tribes. [Source: Robert Paul Jordan, National Geographic, March 1985]

Soviet scholars traditionally maintained that a confederation of Slav tribes existed three centuries before the Vikings arrived. But many Western historians have maintained the first rulers of what is now Russia, the Ukraine and Belarus were Scandinavians. Viking chiefs became rulers of Slavic cities like Novgorod and Kiev. The Slavs were often their subjects.

The Viking in Russia came as traders not conquerors. They first appeared in the region in the 6th century and has some run ins with the Khazar. The Norwegians and Danish Vikings were centered primarily in western Europe, but the Swedes looked eastward to the Baltic and what is now Russia. Many of the Vikings that traded in present-day Russia hailed from Birka and Gotland in present-day Sweden.

Rus and Varangians

Early Scandinavians in Russia were known as Rus to the Slavs (Rhos to the Byzantines). Rus is an Arabic word and the source of the word Russia. It may have been used to describe the dominant Kievan Viking clan and later became affixed to the Eastern Slavs in the north, while those in the south became known as Ukrainians and Belarussians. The Rus were also called Varangians and Varyagi. The Baltic was known as the Varangian Sea and their trade routes were called the Varangian Way.

The Rus mingled with the local people and helped set up a series of small principalities centered around single families and clans. They became concentrated in places like Novgorod, Smolensk and Kiev. Viking princes became rulers in Novgorod and Kiev in 862 and 882.

By the ninth century, these Scandinavian warriors and merchants, had penetrated the East Slavic regions. According to the Primary Chronicle , the earliest chronicle of Kievan Rus', a Varangian named Rurik first established himself in Novgorod, just south of modern-day St. Petersburg, in about 860 before moving south and extending his authority to Kiev. The chronicle cites Rurik as the progenitor of a dynasty that ruled in Eastern Europe until 1598. Another Varangian, Oleg, moved south from Novgorod to expel the Khazars from Kiev and founded Kievan Rus' about A.D. 880. During the next thirty-five years, Oleg subdued the various East Slavic tribes. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

In A.D. 907, Oleg led a campaign against Constantinople, and in 911 he signed a commercial treaty with the Byzantine Empire as an equal partner. The new Kievan state prospered because it controlled the trade route from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea and because it had an abundant supply of furs, wax, honey, and slaves for export. Historians have debated the role of the Varangians in the establishment of Kievan Rus'. Most Russian historians — especially in the Soviet era — have stressed the Slavic influence in the development of the state. Although Slavic tribes had formed their own regional jurisdictions by 860, the Varangians accelerated the crystallization of Kievan Rus'. *

Who Were the Vikings

The Vikings were a seafaring people who hailed from settlements along the fjords of Norway, the sandy shores of Denmark and the coastal and river areas of Sweden. They lived off of animals they hunted, fish they caught in the sea and whatever they could take from their raids. Norse, or Northmen or Norseman, was the term used by medieval Europeans to describe Scandinavians. All Vikings were Norse but all Norse were not Vikings. [Source: Pritt Vesilind, National Geographic, May 2000]

It is kind of surprising that the calm, peace-loving Norwegians, Danes and Swedes descended from the Viking, a people renowned for their brutality. Norwegians, Danes and Swedes each descended from separate Viking groups. The Finns did not descend from Vikings.

The Vikings were mostly pagan Norsemen from Norway and Danes from Denmark. "To go Viking" meant to go on voyage of pillage and piracy. The word “viking” comes from the Norse word “víking” ("pirate," which in turn is comes from a verb (roughly equivalent to "go viking") which meant to embark on an expedition of piracy and plunder. The norse word “viking” in turn is believed to have been derived from the Old Norse word, “vík”, which means creek, inlet, or bay (where Vikings hid before launching a raid). It also may be related to the Old English word “wic” ("camp or temporary settlement" or the old Norse word “víkja” ("to move speedily").

The Danes were known primarily for raiding and pillaging the Britain, Ireland, France and coastal Europe. Their ancestors, the Normans, set up settlements in France and raided coastal settlements in the Mediterranean and set up colonies in Sicily. The Swedes were known primarily as traders, who open up river routes into Russia from the 8th to 11th and helped set up the state of Kiev in the late 9th century, and traveled as far as Istanbul, Baghdad and the Caspian Sea. The Rus from Sweden gave the Russians their name.

Early History of the Vikings

What we know about the Vikings is based on description by other Europeans and even Arab traders, archeological excavations, and Viking chronicles such as the Icelandic sagas. There were few written records. Reports for Christian sources tended to exaggerate Viking violence.

The Vikings evolved from northern European Germanic tribes that invaded Rome and gave birth to the Anglo and Saxon tribes that invaded Britain. The Germanic tribes that became Vikings began settling in Scandinavia in the 5th and 6th century and developed a Germanic language called Norse. By the time they had begun pillaging Europe in the 9th century, there were distinctive Swedish, Danish and Norwegian tribes.

In Scandinavian before the Viking Age, Scandinavian tribes in Norway and Denmark fought among themselves for dominance and Swedish raiders vied for control of the Baltic Sea against groups like the Kurs, the Saarlased or Oeselians (from the Estonian island of Saaremmaa), who have been called the original Vikings of the Baltic.

The Vikings that entered Russia were primarily Swedes who lived on rivers and bays that were situated across the Baltic from Russia. These Swedes made there way overland to great Russian rivers—the Volga, the Dnieper, and the Dvina—where they set up trading post and traded walrus tusks (the major source of ivory in Europe), furs and slaves captured in Russian forests with Muslim traders for silks, spices and gems from the Orient and Africa.

In the 11th century the lights dimmed on the Viking empire. This was brought about the fact that the place they used to raid had built up strong defenses and their conversion to Christianity mellowed them. The Viking that lived outside of Scandinavia were absorbed by the cultures around them; they spoke slavic languages and medieval French not the precursors of Swedish and Norwegian. The Vikings became more settled down after accepting Christianity in 11th and 12th century. Even before that instead of returning home to Scandinavia in the winter after a summer of raiding, they began establishing settlements, which were more convenient for launching their activities. Later these Vikings intermixed with local people and engaged in trading rather than raiding.

Vikings: Raiders or Traders?

The Danes were known primarily for raiding and pillaging the Britain, Ireland, France and coastal Europe. Their ancestors, the Normans, set up settlements in France and raided coastal settlements in the Mediterranean and set up colonies in Sicily. The Swedes were known primarily as traders, who open up river routes into Russia from the 8th to 11th and helped set up the state of Kiev in the late 9th century, and traveled as far as Istanbul, Baghdad and the Caspian Sea. The Rus from Sweden gave the Russians their name.

The Viking are remembered mostly as raiders and pillagers who showed little mercy for people they conquered. They were one of history's most wantonly destructive and nihilistic races ever, according to the war historian John Keegan. The plundered convents and monasteries, something that even the Mongol hordes and Tamerlane didn't do. Most Vikings raiders were only part time raiders. "They robbed, looted and killed and then went home and settled.”

Most Viking were not raiders. Instead they were farmers, herders, fishermen, traders, craftsmen, shoemakers, poets and storytellers as well as devoted family men. In York, England, Vikings were even urbanites. An archeologist there told National Geographic, "Despite the Vikings' savage reputation there's not a single sword. The artifacts reveal people making a living, weaving, gathered around fires telling stories.: Many scholar say the Vikings were forced to raid because of a shortage of arable land in their homeland.

In Russian, the Vikings were known as traders. The Russian historian Nadia Milutenko told National Geographic, “The Viking didn't have a fatherland to die for, just one king or another. They came as traders not conquerors. And very soon they became part of the people who lived there.” Ultimately the Vikings were extremely practical and adaptable. If they arrived a poorly defended port they pillaged. If the fort was well fortified and defended they traded.

Life of Vikings in Russia

The Rus lived in wattle-and daub houses and hand-worked iron and bronze and made glass and amber beads. They also used grinding stones and weights and balances. The main cities had earth ramparts, ship repair and food storage facilities, and graves with both cremated and nonburned remains. Among the craftsman were blacksmiths, jewel makers, silversmith and carvers of bone combs.

Life revolved around the seasons. Beginning in November, the Rus settled in small settlements made from logs along rivers and lakes and went into the countryside seeking tributes, raiding those who refused to pay up. When the ice began breaking up in April, they Rus took to the rivers in fleets of river boats filled with cargo.

Viking kept slaves. They took Celtic and Russian slaves. Many Scandinavians are descendants of Scandinavian Viking who intermarried with Celtic and Russian slaves. Many slaves were freed or married to free men. For those who remained slaves, their offspring were freed.

Scandinavians developed the notion of a popular assembly. Community assemblies, called things, acted as legislatures and courts. They introduced assemblies it in the year A.D. 1000 to present-day Russia, but they didn't really catch on.

Large caches of artifacts from Viking settlements have been found on Lake Ladoga in Russia and Gotland in Sweden in the Baltic. Large amounts of coins have been found. Many are believed to have been buried to keep them away from pirates. Artifact recovered Rus graves at Gnezdovo, a 10th century settlement in the forest near Smolensk, include silver Scandinavian-style pendants, Slavic style jewelry, and Arab-style bronze ornaments with scabbard clips and circular cloak fasteners.

Descriptions of the Rus

Some Vikings in Russia lived up their stereotype of big time partiers. Describing the Swedes who colonized Russia an Arab trader wrote, "They stupefy themselves by drinking this nabid [possibly beer] night and day; sometimes on of them dies cup in hand."

Describing 10th century Novgorod, the Arab geographer Ibn Rustah wrote: "As for the Rus, they live on an island...that takes three days to walk around and is covered with thick undergrowth and forests; it is most unhealthy...They harry the Slavs, using ships to reach them; they carry them off as slaves and...sell them. They have no field but simply live on what they get from the Slavs' lands...When a son is born, the father will go up to the newborn baby, sword in hand; throwing it down, he says, 'I shall not leave you with any property: You have only what you can provide with this weapon.'"

The Arab diplomat Ibn Fadlan wrote: "Never had I seen people of more prefect physique; they are tall as date palms, blonde and ruddy. They wear neither coat nor mantle, but each carries a cape which covers one half of his body leaving one hand free. Their swords are Frankish in pattern, broad, flat, and fluted."

Viking Trade in Russia

Byzantium based in Constantinople (present-day Istanbul) was the richest empire in the Viking era and the easiest way for the Vikings to reach it was via the rivers of Russia. There were two main trade routes used by the Rus that began in the Baltic Sea. One went down the Dnieper River to the Black Sea and Constantinople. The other followed the Volga to the Caspian Sea.

The Vikings traded furs, amber, honey, beeswax, weapons and slaves from the north for silks and silver. Most of the goods that made their way between Europe, Russia and the Middle East followed Viking trade routes. Of the 120,000 coins found in Gotland Sweden, 50,000 were of Arabic origin (the rest were mostly English or German).

The Rus traveled in convoys and flotillas, often with more than more than hundred boats, and built fortified trading posts. They traveled on the inland waterways in shallow-draft boats carved by local residents from tree trunks. They were about 20 feet long and 7 to 10 feet wide.

Volga Trade Route

The Volga route was the most traveled route. It began on Gulf of Finland (an eastern arm of the Baltic Sea east of present-day Helsinki), where traders ventured on the Neva River to Lake Ladoga. From Lake Ladoga travelers they moved southward on of three small rivers and portaged stretches to two upper arms of the Volga. Along the way, the Rus were forces to pay tribute to Jewish Khazars and Muslim Bulgars, whose territory they passed through.

Until it was blocked by hostile tribes in the 970s, the Volga was the main trade route for Arab silver to Europe. The city of Bulgar and the Khazar port of Itil were the main trade centers.

After reaching the Caspian Sea, the Rus sailed to its southern shores, where they met up with Silk Road camel caravans with goods from China, Baghdad and Persia. Ancient coins from China and Samarkand found in Sweden most likely came on this route.

The Muslim traveler and explorer Ibn Battuta traveled in Russia in 14th century. On traveling down the frozen Volga river in the wintertime, he wrote: "I put on three fur coats and two pairs of trousers and on my feet I had woolen boots, with a pair of boots quilted with linen cloth on top of them and on top of these again was a pair of horsehide boots lined with bearskin." He says he was so weighted down he had to be lifted on his horse.

Dnieper Trade Route

The Dnieper route began in what is now Riga on the Baltic and followed the Western Dvina River to Vitebsk for portage to Smolensk on the Dnieper. An alternative route began in Gulf of Finland. Traders ventured on the Neva River to Lake Ladoga and then headed south on the Lovat Volkhov River to Velikiye Luki to Smolensk.

Large ocean-going vessels traveled down the Neva River to Lake Ladoga, where cargo was unloaded and switched to smaller vessels better equipped for traveling the narrower inland waterways.

The journey from Kiev to the Black Sea took about six weeks. When the Rus traders reached the Black Sea they attached sails to their boats. A Viking rune stone was discovered in 1905 on the island of Berzany in the mouth of Dnieper at the Black Sea. A couple rune stones also lie in Haghia Sofia in Istanbul.

Portages on the Dnieper

The most dangerous part of the journey on the Dnieper was a series rock-strewn rapids about 200 miles upriver from the Black Sea that could only be navigated during a few weeks of high water each year. Some of the rapids could be navigated by skilled oarsmen. Other had to be portaged.

During the portages, Rus traders were often attacked by local tribes. The most feared of these was the Turkic Petchenegs. In 972, they killed Prince Svyatoslav of the Rus and made a drinking cup of his skull. Those that made it through the section if rapids often stopped at St. Gregory's island to offer sacrifices of birds, bread and meat.

In 950, the Byzantine emperor Constantine Porphyrogenitus, wrote: "At the forth great rapid, which in Rus is called Airfor [Ever fierce]...everyone brings their ship to land and those who are in it stand watch after they disembark. These sentinels are necessary because of the Petchenegs who lie constantly in ambush. The rest take their belongings out of the dugouts and lead the slaves, fettered in chains, across the land for six miles, until they are past the rapids. After that they transport their vessels, sometimes by hauling them, sometimes by carrying them on their shoulders, past the rapids.”

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated May 2016

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