Since Vladimir Putin's illegal invasion of Ukraine started back in February 2022, Slavic history has seen an uptick in newspapers, X feeds, Facebook posts, and magazines the world over. 

In his chilling pre-invasion spiel, Putin gave a twisted diatribe, a broad overview of the past millennium of what he saw as the intertwined histories of Russia and Ukraine. 

Ukraine was, he argued, not a real state, and Ukrainians were simply lost sheep that needed to be brought back, with brutish force, back into the Russian fold. 

Despite the historical inaccuracies, conspiracy theories, and blatant lies that Putin spewed forth, he is correct on one thing: the history of Russia and Ukraine has been intertwined over the centuries and can be traced back to the foundation of the Kievan Rus in the late 9th century CE. 

One of the foundational figures of Slavic history was the Varangian chief, Rurik, who was said to have founded a state that encompassed much of modern Eastern Europe. 

Before we delve into his story, we need to understand who the Varangians were. 

As Vikings ventured down the Dnieper River, they encountered and integrated with Slavic, Finno-Ugric, and Germanic peoples, creating a diverse cultural mosaic that laid the groundwork for the Kievan Rus. Photo: JaySi / Shutterstock

Eastward bound and down 

The traditional history of the Viking Age (c. 750 – 1100) has been heavily focused, and some may even say Anglo-centric, on the Western push of people from Viking societies. 

Their interactions, often but not always bloody, with the inhabitants of the British Isles and the Frankish realms dominated research and thinking for centuries. 

However, in recent times, a whole new generation of thinkers, inspired by access to former Soviet archives and new scientific and technological advances, has challenged this Western focus of Viking history. 

One of these dynamic breeds of new thinkers is bioarcheologist, historian, and writer Dr. Cat Jarman. In her seminal work, River Kings (available to buy on Amazon here), she traces the history of people from Viking eastward expansion. 

From the late 8th century, people from Viking societies traveled first across the Baltic Sea and then down the various river systems of Eastern Europe. 

Coming as traders, conquerors, and settlers, these eastward adventurers would eventually flow into the Black Sea and enter the orbit of the Byzantine world. 

Here, they were known as Varangians and would dominate the trade routes on the Don and Dnieper rivers that snake through much of Eastern Europe. 

Soon, this area between the Don and Dnieper was a melting pot of different people and cultures, with Slavic, Finno-Ugric, and Germanic people mixing with Chuds, Ves, Novgorod Slavs, and Meryans, all living cheek by jowl with the new arrivals from the cold north. 

Here, the Primary Chronicle, sometimes called the Tale of Bygone Years, picks up the story. 

Said to be compiled by monk Nestor, it details the history of the Kievan Rus, written in its fading afterglow in the early 12th century. 

This cultural, ethnic, and religious mix soon became dominated by the Varangians, who set about governing this polyglot population with an iron fist. 

Rurik is credited with founding Novgorod in the 9th century, marking the beginning of the state that would evolve into the Kievan Rus, a precursor to modern Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine. Photo: Sergey Dzyuba / Shutterstock

Rebellion, invitation, and rule 

According to the Chronicle, the local population soon rose up and kicked out their Varangian overlords. 

However, as soon as they had liberated themselves from an iron grip, they were said to have fallen out and argued among themselves. 

Society became so violent, dangerous, and unruly that a steady hand was needed. 

Invitations were sent out for a meeting of local chieftains and bigwigs, with one such man, Rurik, attending. 

This Varangian ruler, reportedly born on the east coast of Sweden, was said to be from the Rus tribe – named after the Old Norse term for "men who row." 

His reputation preceding him, Rurik was invited to govern over this unruly mob along with his younger brothers, Sineus and Truvor, and a large Viking bodyguard. 

Rurik was said to have first settled around Ladoga – where archeological evidence of people from Viking societies' enterprise has been found – but eventually moved to a nearby fort, named Novgorod. 

His brothers went further afield, settling in what is now Belarus and northern Ukraine, but it was two of his followers, Askold and Dir, who were sent to capture the gleaming city of Constantinople

Sidetracked on their way, they would eventually lay siege to, and capture, the small town on top of a hill, which we now call Kiev. 

Having established himself and a Varangian yoke at the top of this new society, Rurik was said to have lived and ruled until the 870s. 

He passed power onto a fellow kinsman, Oleg, with whom he also entrusted his infant son, Igor. 

Following Rurik's death, Oleg moved the center of political power to Kiev and built the foundations of the Kievan Rus. 

The dynasty Rurik founded would rule over vast swathes of Eastern Europe until the Mongol Invasions of the mid-13th century and was the ruling dynasty of the Tsardom of Russia until the Romanovs gained control in 1598. 

In Veliky Novgorod, the "Millennium of Russia" monument, established in the 19th century, honors Rurik, among other historical figures, celebrating his legendary contribution to the origins of the Kievan Rus. Photo: Dar Veter (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Rurik of Russia or Hroerekr? 

Some academic speculation exists about whether the Rurik described in the Primary Chronicle is, in fact, the same Rurik who ruled in Denmark. 

According to Frankish chroniclers, a Viking chieftain named Rorik was said to have ruled the newly emerging Danish kingdom from his seat of power in Hedeby and might even have been a nephew of Harald Klak

He was said to have received lands in Friesland – the modern-day Low Countries – from the Frankish Emperor Louis I but went about doing what Vikings do best: raiding and sacking Dorestad, Hedeby, and Bremen. 

He was stripped of his titles and kicked out of the kingdom where, in 862, he wound up in the eastern Baltic and was responsible for the construction of a fort and trading post in Ladoga before moving to Novgorod. 

He was said to have passed away in 882, far from his homeland. 

We may never know the historical accuracy of which Rurik it was, but, like so much of early medieval history, there are historical echoes, commonalities, and overlaps. 

Following Rurik's death in the early 870s, his legacy was carried on by his kinsmen, who continued to rule over Novgorod before expanding their domain to include Kiev and vast swathes of Eastern Europe. 

This territory, known as the Kievan Rus, is what the modern nations of Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine all trace their foundation back to. 

The Rurikid dynasty would also provide some of the most famous rulers of the medieval period, from Yaroslav the Wise to Ivan the Terrible. 

His legacy of a strong centralized state ruling over a polyglot, ethnically and culturally diverse population heralded the beginning of a new era for the Slavic peoples of Eastern Europe. 

His name and legacy are still being debated today, over a millennium after his death, sadly with deadly consequences. 

For more information on the history of Russia and Ukraine, visit The Economist here

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