First, a few announcements. Housekeeping, if you will.
Now, on to my deep dive. Today, let's talk a bit about the kingdom of the Kievan Rus.
|11th century Kievan Rus territories, image from this website.|
Before I knew much about Russia, I kind of just always assumed it existed in one form or another. It's such a huge, sprawling country, of course it's always been there, governed and regal, holding court between the East and the West. I had no idea the Russia we know has roots, actually, in Ukraine. That it was the Kingdom of Kievan Rus where all of this spawned.
Vikings, long known for traveling the world, setting up trade routes and little principalities along the way, started moving into various points in Europe early on. The first real evidence of them settling in the area of modern day Ukraine and Belarus dates to around 750 AD. According to history.com, "This is when pre-Viking-Age Scandanavians likely settled the northwestern Russian town of Staraya Ladoga (or "Old Ladoga"), across Lake Ladoga from what is now Finland. One of the artifacts archaeologists have unearthed from the city is a talisman with the face of Odin, the Norse god of war."
At the time, Vikings were known as "Varangians" or "Rus" and they were well known for traveling around, looting, setting up little fiefdoms in various outposts. We have a lot of history talking about Vikings looting England, Ireland, France, anything, really, with a port on an ocean. However, Eastern Europe seems a bit far from England at first glance. It doesn't really look like a place a bunch of seafaring warriors would take much of an interest in.
What you need to know, is that this area is situated neatly between Constantinople and all points north. Furthermore, there's a big river, the Dnieper, flowing right through there that dumps people onto the Black Sea, the other side of which is modern day Turkey. At the time, it was a hub of activity, a thriving region for trade, for imports and exports. Anyone who wanted anything could find it there. So, managing to find a way from points north, to Constantinople, was kind of a big deal. Managing to find a path through there that involved a really neat river added bonus points to the entire endeavor.
Now, before I get too deep into this, I will say there are two camps about what, exactly, started out the Kievan Rus. As explained in World History Encyclopedia, "This version of events is supported in the present day by historians who are labeled 'Normanists' (those who accept a Norse origin for the Rurikid Dynasty) and is challenged by so-called 'Anti-Normanists' who argue for a Slavic origin of Russia and the other states. The Normanist claims are presently considered more valid and it is generally accepted that the Norse leader Rurik (r. 862-879) founded the dynasty which would endure, in an unbroken line, through the reign of Ivan IV, first Tsar of Russia (r. 1547-1584) also known as Ivan the Terrible."
And yes, there is some tension with this history between how a few different camps, in the modern day, view it, which I will touch on briefly later.
"The story of the arrival of the Rus in the east is first told in the Primary Chronicle (also known as the Tale of Bygone Years, c. 12th century) of Russia. This work relates to how the people of the land invited the Rus (identified as Scandinavian Vikings) to rule and maintain order in their country in the mid-9th century CE. Three brothers, including one named Rurik, accepted the invitation and found the Rurik Dynasty which would last for over 700 years." (World History Encyclopedia)
The chronicle that tells this story was believed to have been finished in the 1100s in Kyiv and has been attributed to a monk named Nestor, though some think that it was likely a group of earlier works that had been edited by Nestor rather than written by him. This chronicle, however, has become the backbone of the Kievan Rus story as we know it. The chronicle itself has been seen largely as a historical work, though it has become mythologized in some aspects. Many archeological findings support key events in the story itself.
The chronicle itself begins with the story of Noah's flood. It describes a world split between three sons of Noah. His son, Japeth, received the allotment known as Kiev. There was a lot of battle and bloodshed. People fought each other, though the details of why or what Japeth was doing wasn't recorded. The end result was the people in this region first being subjugated by the Khazars of Central Asia (Turkey) and the Vikings of Scandinavia.
It appears, for a long time, there was a bit of a war between the Khazars and the Varangians, both forcing the Slavic people in the region to pay tithes to them. Eventually the people managed to kick the Varangians out, but as soon as they did that, they realized they needed the protection of the Varangians. According to the chronicle, "They said to themselves, 'Let us seek a prince who may rule over us and judge us according to the law.' They accordingly went overseas to the Varangian Russes; these particular Varangians were known as Russes, just as some are called Swedes, and others Normans, English, Gotlanders, for they were thus named." (World History Encyclopedia)
Slavic ambassadors arrived at this unnamed, unknown location and pled their case. In response, the Varangians sent three brothers to rule over them as kings.
"The oldest, Rurik, located himself at Novgorod; the second, Sineus, at Beloozero; and the third, Trevor, in Izborsk. On account of these Varangians, the district of Novgorod became known as the land of Rus. The present inhabitants of Novgorod are descended from the Varangian race, but aforetime they were slavs." (World History Encyclopedia)
|Rus burial mounds at Staraja Ladoga, from this website.|
There has been corroboration of Scandinavian settlements found in this area via archeological digs. Settlements have been found dating back to 750 CE, specifically at Staraja Ladoga near the Volkhov River. Further evidence has suggested that the settlement found had a population fluctuation, which supports the evidence of people in the region kicking the Varangians out, and then inviting them back in. Furthermore, Norse artifacts have been found in Novgorod and most other locations mentioned in the Chronicle.
As the story goes, two years after the three brothers arrived and divided the lands between them, two of the brothers died, leaving only Rurik alive. Two of Rurik's men came to him shortly after his brothers died and asked him for permission to leave and seek their fortunes in Constantinople. On their way down, they found a city named Kiy (Kyiv) on a hill. It had a nice river flowing through it, looked like a prime spot to set themselves up, and so they did. They conquered the city, and used it as a base of operations to raid the surrounding lands.
I mean, they were Vikings. It's what they did.
Soon, Rurik died in Novgorod, and his kinsman Oleg was both entrusted with Rurik's son Igor (Put in pin in Igor for now, but remember him), and was also ascended to take Rurik's mantle. Oleg was known as both Oleg of Novgorod and Oleg the Prophet. He ruled from 879-912. Oleg's first goal was to consolidate his power, so he began a series of raids into neighboring lands. Soon, however, he started hearing rumors of all this stuff happening in Kyiv. These guys amassing all this wealth and power in the region, and isn't that interesting? He decided to go check it out.
Oleg goes to Kyiv and decides it's just as fantastic as he thought it would be. He tricked his father's former men into coming out of the city, and then killed them and took the city as his own, moving the capitol of his empire from Novgorod to Kyiv in about 882.
Oleg was a cunning guy, and through negotiation and the use of military strength, he convinced the people in the area to stop paying their tithes to the Khazars, and pay him instead. Many of the tribes and groups in the area pledged their fealty to him. Through this work, Oleg vastly expanded the empire his father started, and filled his treasury.
An interesting side note about Oleg, which I'll just quote directly from the World History Encyclopedia, "He was known as Oleg the Prophet (which actually translates as Oleg the priest) due to a prophecy concerning his death. It was foretold that Oleg would be killed by a beautiful horse he owned but which eh never dared to ride because of the prophecy. He ordered the horse sent away but provided that it would always be well fed and cared for. Once he had conquered the surrounding regions and made lucrative treaties (especially with Constantinople), he felt confident of his reign, scoffed at the prophecy and asked his advisers what had ever happened to the horse that was supposed to kill him. He was told it had died and Oleg asked to be brought to the horse's bones. Once there, he mocked the prophecy and sampled on the horse's skull — startling a serpent beneath which bit him on the foot and killed him."
Now, I kind of end up going down these wild rabbit holes when I research, but I really need to take a small detour here to tell you about Igor and his wife, Olga, specifically because Olga is kind of a delightful badass.
When Oleg died, the son he'd been raising for Rurik, Igor, ascended the throne, as it were. Igor married a woman named Olga. Igor had a bit of a wealth issue, meaning he also engaged in military campaigns to expand his empire, and he also collected a tithe from people. But, sometimes a little bit is never enough, so he imposed heavier tithes, and heavier after that. Eventually someone decided enough was enough and he was assassinated by the Drevlians, a group of people who were, quite frankly, done with him and his tithes.
When Igor died, his son Stanislav was too young to reign, so his wife, Olga took over as regent and Olga was, shall we say, a woman scorned.
Soon after the took control of things, the Drevlians sent word they wanted her to marry their Prince Mai and Olga informed them she was interested. She requested emissaries, who were likely going to arrive and start making arrangements, agreeing to terms and all that. Negotiations between parties, as it were. The emissaries arrive and Olga tricked them onto a boat. which was then dumped into a pit where the emissaries were then buried alive. "She then entreated the wisest men of the Drevlians to come to her, invited them to bathe upon their arrival, and set the bath-houses on fire, burning them to death. She then asked the Drevlians to prepare a funeral feast to honor Igor, allowed them to get drunk, and had her soldiers slaughter everyone there." (World History Encyclopedia)
|Princess Olga's avenge to the Drevlians, Radziwill Chronicle, image here|
(It should be noted that across the board, the stories of Olga's reactions are considered to be rather fanciful, but it is a magnificent fantasy, isn't it?)
Anyway, soon Stanislav, her son assumed power and she retired and retreated to live the rest of her days quietly. Stanislav, however, started a bunch of brutal military campaigns, determined to take control of trade routes in the area and more than tripled the size of his kingdom during his reign. Also, taking control of those trade routes was extremely lucrative, and boosted the wealth of his throne by quite a bit. Stanislav was assassinated, leaving his three sons to fight over the throne. One was assassinated, one took power, and one, Vladimir, fled to Norway in a desperate bid to get a group of Varangians to help him wrest power from his ruling brother.
The Golden Age of the Kievan Rus
|The Invasion of the Varangians by Viktor Vasnetsov, image from here.|
This is where things start to change a bit for the Kievan Rus. Things got a bit richer, a bit more global, and it changed the dynamics of power in the region. Vladimir (the great) had a bunch of military campaigns and was known for erecting pagan altars in the areas where he fought. However, the Byzantine Empire came under threat, and Basil II asked Vladimir for aid. Vladimir willingly went to help the guy out. In exchange, Vladimir was offered Basil's daughter (disclosure: I've also seen her referred to as Basil II's sister), Anne in marriage. There was a stipulation, however. In order to marry her, Vladimir had to convert to Christianity. So, here we have the entry point for Christianity in the region, and the establishment of the Varangian Guard in the Byzantine Empire, who became an elite bodyguard for Basil II, serving until the beginning of the 14th century.
I should note, there are also stories about how Vladimir sent out emissaries across Europe to visit with Roman Catholics and various Jewish individuals, sort of like shopping for religion, and then he eventually settled on Constantinople. I think, personally (note: I am not a historian) the proximity to Constantinople, and the Black Sea and Dnieper River access made Constantinople a no-brainer. It was right there, and a huge source of power. Why go further, when your answer is right across the pond, as it were?
"Vladimir's choice of Eastern Christianity may also have reflected his close personal ties with Constantinople, which dominated the Black Sea and hence trade on Kiev's most vital commercial route, the Dnieper River. Adherence to the Eastern Orthodox Church had long-range political, cultural, and religious consequences. The church had a liturgy written in Cyrillic and a corpus of translations from the Greed that had been produced for the Slavic people. The existence of this literature facilitated the conversion to Christianty of the Easter Slavs, introducing them to rudimentary Greek philosophy, science, and historyiography without the necessity of learning Greek. IN contrast, educated people in medieval Western and Central Europe learned Latin. Enjoying independence from the Roman authority and free from tenets of Latin learning, the East Slavs developed their own literature and fine arts, quite distinct from those of other Orthodox countries." (New World Encyclopedia)
So the story goes. The last great king of the Kievan Rus was Yaroslav I (the wise) who ruled from 1001-1050.
"Yaroslav, known as "The Wise," also struggled for power with his brothers. Although he first established his rule over Kiev in 1019, he did not have uncontested rule of all of Kievan Rus until 1036. Like Vladimir, Yaroslav was eager to improve relations with the rest of Europe, especially the Byzantine Empire. Yaroslav's granddaughter, Eupraxia, the daughter of his son Vsevolod I, Prince of Kiev, was married to . Yaroslav also arranged marriages for his sister and three daughters to the kings of , , , and . Yaroslav promulgated the first East Slavic law code, Russkaya Pravda (Justice of Rus′); built Saint Sophia Cathedral in Kiev and Saint Sophia Cathedral in Novgorod; patronized local clergy and monasticism; and is said to have founded a school system. Yaroslav's sons developed the great Kiev Pechersk Lavra (monastery), which functioned in Kievan Rus′ as an ecclesiastical academy." (New World Encyclopedia)
After he died, the kingdom fractured and split. His sons each took power and the larger cities in the kingdom broke off and fought for independence, control, trade rights, etc. The surviving rulers weren't strong enough to hold the kingdom together, and so it fractured into a bunch of different principalities. By the time of the Mongol Invasion of 1237-1242, Kievan Rus wasn't even a blip on the radar. They were fractured states and thus, easily taken.
Although after this point, the Kievan Rus never became a political entity again, culturally, it was. There was a shared language, shared cultural elements, understanding, and people. While the Golden Horde swept the land and the area became a vassal state, the culture established by the Kievan Rus still flourished, and while it changed over time (as everything does), it has remained the birth story for a region, and thus, a powerful historical narrative that deserves to be heard.
History as a Mirror
|Image from this article.|
I don't want to dwell long on this point, so I'm going to just briefly touch it, because I think it's worth showing how history sometimes echoes in the modern world.
Many modern day conflicts have roots twined in history. The Kievan Rus is one such example. To some Russians, this is a narrative of the people collectively, of where they came from, of the things that started it all. To some Ukrainians, the story of the Kievan Rus is their own. It's their story, that tells the birth of their nation, and their heritage and culture. To both, it's a story to be proud of. An origin, of sorts.
Similar to the conflict happening today, the roots of the societies and their evolutions in that region are entangled and entwined. This was the first real kingdom in the neighborhood, the place from which power spawned, and future kings and queens rose and fell. Throughout it's thousand-plus year evolution, the area has changed hands and spawned new sources of authority, as has everywhere. But the conflict of ownership, who has a right to the story, who has a right to the land, has lasted almost as long as the history itself.
As one article I read (in the "further reading" section) says, "Whereas Moscow interprets the medieval ruler as the unifier and founding father of an All Rus' state, Kyiv considers it the founding father of the Ukrainian state — a state that has its own history and future without Russia." Basically, the story, to some, shows a shared history, shared roots. While to others, it's a distinct narrative for a distinct group.
History, as a mirror.
Red Fortress: History and Illusion in the Kremlin by Catherine Meridale (not specifically about this but she touches on some great history that is tangental to this topic.)