Winding the clock back more than a millennium, peoples from Viking societies mixed with Slavic peoples to create a powerful political entity ruled by a Viking elite that laid the foundations for the modern nation-state of Belarus.
End of an era
Like so many other European nations, Belarus, to an extent, can trace its history back to that early medieval period that the Germans like to call the Völkerwanderung, referring to the migration of Germanic peoples.
Following the collapse of the Western Roman Empire by the late 4th and into the 5th century CE, Europe was inundated by centuries of population migrations.
Though Belarus was never part of the Roman Empire or sphere of influence, there was still indirect trade and contact with the Roman world.
Yet by the 6th century CE, the Eastern Roman Empire (the Byzantines) started to record a people slowly migrating through what is now Eastern Europe, labeling them Sclaveni.
Byzantine historians believed that these Sclaveni were one of two tribes that were the ancestors of what would become the Slavs. The Slavs, or so the modern theory goes, originated somewhere in Eastern Europe, but from the 6th century CE, migrated into what is now Belarus, towards the Baltic, in part occupying the land left by tribes and peoples fleeing the Huns, Avars, and Bulgars.
These Slavic peoples moved towards the Baltic and settled into a huge swathe of what is now Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus and soon began to assimilate and mix with the local Finn, Baltic and nomadic peoples.
Eastward bound and down
Following Slavic people's migration into the area that now encompasses modern-day Belarus, a period of assimilation, marrying and population mixing occurred.
Modern historians believe that the Belarussian "ethnicity" (these words are always problematic) comprised three Slavic tribes, the Kryvians, Radzimians, and Drehovians, along with several Baltic tribes.
By about the 8th century CE, generations of genetic mixing saw this area develop a distinct and separate identity, though with similarities to the larger Slavic peoples in Eastern Europe. However, new people were soon heading into this area from the west.
The tale of so-called Viking expansion, especially in the Western world, has traditionally focused heavily on the westward push of Viking peoples into the British Isles, northern France, and Western Europe more broadly.
However, the eastward expansion of Viking peoples across the Baltic Sea and into Eastern Europe and the Eurasian steppe is just as historically important.
There had been a Viking presence in the Baltic region since at least the early 8th century CE. One of the major reasons why people from Viking societies, especially in what is now Sweden, pushed eastward was to trade.
Eastern Europe, and especially the area encompassing Belarus, lay on strategic trade river routes that connected Scandinavia to the Byzantine Empire and the Islamic world further southward.
Timber, fur, amber, and local populations that were coerced into slavery were some of the resources that saw Viking traders flock to this area.
Whilst they may have first come to trade, soon, a steady flow of Viking peoples spread eastward to trade, raid and colonize what is now Belarus.
Burgeoning trade networks
By the 9th century CE, this area had undergone the cementation of extensive trade networks with the Viking homeland in Scandinavia.
Generations of people from Viking societies had headed eastward to find fame, fortune, or to settle. Utilizing the river systems of Eastern Europe, these Viking peoples headed southward to the Black Sea and then onto Constantinople to trade with the Byzantine Empire.
These Viking traders, and later mercenaries, were soon called Varangians by the Byzantines, whilst local Slavic peoples, further north in Eastern Europe, called them the Rus.
Regardless of what they were called, these peoples from Viking societies had established a series of trade networks, posts, and small colonies on the many river systems from the Baltic to the Black Sea.
As the trade of goods and people flowed between Scandinavia and larger empires southward, these Rus soon began to exert political and military dominance over local populations.
By the middle of the 9th century CE, the Rus military prowess and power saw them establish a dynasty that would rule over a multiethnic empire encompassing huge swathes of modern-day Belarus, Ukraine, and Russia.
By the end of the 9th century, the Kievan Rus encompassed huge swathes of Eastern Europe. Photo: Viktar Malyshchyts / Shutterstock
The Kievan Rus
Much of what is now Belarus was, by the mid-9th century CE, divided between peoples from Viking societies and local Slavic and Finnic tribes.
In 862 CE, local Slavic populations in the town of Novgorod (which had been established by peoples from Viking traders and raiders) rebelled against their Varangian overlords.
According to the Russian chronicles, these local populations, however, could not govern adequately, so they invited Varangians back. Legend has it that three brothers – Rurik, Truvor, and Sineus – were invited.
It was Rurik, however, that would rule over what became the Kievan Rus. Upon his death in 879 CE, Rurik left his kingdom to Oleg, who expanded the territory further along the Dnieper River.
Concurrently, Oleg increased the number of forts and trade networks near the Baltic, entrenching the Viking elite's position and power.
By the end of the 9th century, the Kievan Rus (as this polity is labeled by modern academics) encompassed huge swathes of Eastern Europe, ruling over a multiethnic population of Slavs, Finns, Baltic tribes, and peoples from Viking societies.
Not only was the Kievan Rus an ethnic melting pot, but there was also a wide variety of spiritual beliefs, including Old Norse, Christian, Jewish and Shamanistic practices.
The strategic position of the Kievan Rus between Central Europe, Scandinavia, the natural resources of Russia, and the Byzantine and Islamic world further south saw a steady flow of goods, resources, and people enrich the Rus ruling elite.
Southward expansion by the Rus also saw a series of wars with the Byzantine Empire that lasted from the 9th and into the 10th centuries CE.
What can we see today of the Viking presence in Belarus?
The Kievan Rus would last until the mid-13th century CE, outliving the so-called "Viking Age" (c. 793 – 1066 CE).
The fact that peoples, often warriors, from Viking societies were said to have founded and ruled this huge multiethnic early medieval state shows just how important this eastward expansion out of Scandinavia was to Eastern European history.
The modern nations of Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine all trace their ancestry back to this early medieval entity.
In Belarus itself, there has been a large archaeological excavation in the town of Polotsk. This lies on the river Dvina, an important route Viking traders used to access the Black Sea.
Excavations have found a wealth of Viking-era objects, including jewelry and household items engraved with runes.
For more on the history of the Viking settlement of Polotsk, visit the official Belarus Tourist website here.
This deep-dive article was written thanks to the support of subscribers to The Viking Herald's Facebook page. Do you enjoy our work? You can SUBSCRIBE here or via our Facebook page. You'll get access to exclusive content and behind-the-scenes access.
Feel free to reach out to discuss potential stories that may be in the public interest. You can reach us via email at firstname.lastname@example.org with the understanding that the information you provide might be used in our reporting and stories.