Traders from Viking societies exploited the river systems between the Baltic and Black Seas. 

These Scandinavian colonists would lay not only the foundations of the modern Russian state but also help bridge cross-cultural exchanges between Europe and Asia.

Eastbound and down

During the late 8th century, at the same time that Vikings sailed across the North Sea to begin their raids on the British Isles, some peoples from what would become Viking societies went in the opposite direction: eastward. 

Colonists and traders from the Scandinavian Peninsula crossed the Baltic Sea and soon began to exploit the various river systems of Eastern Europe and into Russia. During the 9th century CE, some historians have credited these colonists and traders with establishing the Rus' Khaganate – a polity containing several small city-states in Eastern Europe and Russia, inhabited by local Slavic, Finnic, Baltic and Norse peoples.

Despite some archaeological evidence showing that these Viking traders had exploited the river Volga for trade during the 8th century, by the 9th century CE, there was an established settlement at what they called Aldeighuborg (near the modern Lake Ladoga, Russia).

These settlers would soon mix with the local Slavic, Turkic, Baltic and Finnic populations to form a new ethnic group.

The Rus

From the 8th to 11th centuries CE, a new ethnic group emerged on the borders between modern-day Eastern Europe and European Russia: the Rus. These were originally Norse peoples, many from modern-day Sweden, who first settled and then ruled many of the river routes between the Black, Baltic, and Caspian Seas. Further south, they established the Kievan Rus (the predecessor to both modern-day Russia and Ukraine).

The Norse elite would soon mix and assimilate with East Slavic, Baltic, and Finnic tribes and peoples to form a new cultural identity. Though Old East Slavic would emerge as their new language, this would only occur by the end of the 11th century CE. Before then, both Old Norse and local languages were spoken widely.

The intermarriage of elites – between peoples from Viking societies and local populations would further cement links between these peripheral cultures of Europe. However, it was the Rus stranglehold of two strategic trade routes that would help them forge new principalities. They would center around places like Novgorod, Smolensk, and Kiev. 

Among other things, the Rus likely traded furs, pelts, and swords in exchange for gold. Photo: Joanna Kosinska / Unsplash

Trade routes

The Rus – and their Viking brethren – would soon exploit the vast river systems that intersect much of Eastern Europe and European Russia. Perhaps the two most important, however, were the Volga Trade Route and the Dnieper Trade Route.

The Volga Trade Route connected North-western Europe (the Scandinavian homeland and Russia) to the Caspian Sea via the river Volga. At the bottom terminus of this river, the Rus could trade and do commerce with the Sasanian Empire and other Muslim polities.  

A 9th century CE Persian diplomat, Ibn Khordadbeh, wrote that the Rus transported furs, pelts, and swords in exchange for gold. A horde of coins found near Saint Petersburg attests to these transactions showing golden coins minted in the Sasanian Empire containing Arabic, Greek, and Old Norse runic scripts.

The Dnieper Trade Route is perhaps more well-known and documented by contemporary sources. This trade route, using the river Dnipier, connected Scandinavia to the Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantium). It crossed through the modern countries of Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine, down to the Black Sea to end in Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul). 

From the contact of the Rus with the Byzantines, they received a new name: the Varangians. Though this originally meant just the Rus traders, Byzantine sources soon applied this to all the peoples from Viking societies dotted throughout Northern Europe. Wine, jewelry, expensive textiles, and icons flowed northward from Byzantium in exchange for timber, furs, and honey.

The Varangians would go on to play an important part in Byzantine culture as they would form the nucleus of the personal bodyguards of the Byzantine Emperor up until the 14th century. Perhaps the most famous of this Varangian guard was Harald Hardrada. Before he was King of Norway, Hardrada served in the guard for more than a decade. His death, at the Battle of Stamford Bridge, in 1066 CE, traditionally marks the end of the "Viking Age."

Rurik and the start of a Russian dynasty

In 862 CE, a Rus chieftain named Rurik was sent an invitation to reign over some of the Rus and peoples in western Russia. Though his first residence was at Ladoga, Rurik moved his seat of power to the heavily fortified Novgorod. Reigning for over 17 years, he bequeathed his throne to a regent, Oleg, to rule for his young son, Igor. 

Oleg then decided to move the capital to the far away town of Kiev and would found the state of the Kievan Rus. Following Oleg's death, Igor and his descendants would rule over the Kievan Rus until its destruction during the Mongol invasions of the mid-13th century.

The Rurikid dynasty (as it became known) would not only rule over the Kievan Rus but various other small principalities, of which the most important became the Grand Duchy of Moscow in 1263 CE. This established the basis of the modern Russian state, and it was Rurik's ancestor, Ivan IV, who would declare himself "Tsar of all the Rus." The dynasty would rule until 1598 CE, when it was succeeded by the Romanov Dynasty following 15 years of political chaos and civil war.

The modern nation-states of Ukraine, Belarus, Russia, and many other Baltic and Eastern European countries can thus trace their historical lineage back to these Viking settlers, traders, and raiders.

For an in-depth look at the Viking origins of Russia, visit the History.com website here.

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