One of these links was the shared Viking culture and history between these two countries. Though Ukraine is thousands of kilometers away from Scandinavia, the country has a deep and rich Viking past.

The Varangians

The fall of Rome has been traditionally dated from 395 CE. However, almost two centuries before, the Roman Emperor Diocletian divided his vast empire into Western and Eastern sections. The Western part would be ruled from Rome, while the Eastern part would be ruled from the bustling port city of Byzantium. Rome’s eventual fall in the 5th century was not the end of the Roman Empire; it survived in Byzantium (later to be named Constantinople) for another thousand years.

Following the fall of the Western Roman Empire, a power vacuum emerged throughout much of Western and Central Europe. The so-called "Migration Period" saw huge numbers of people flow from eastern parts of the Eurasian landmass into Central and Western Europe. Towards the end of this period, the Vikings bucked the trend and often headed westwards and southwards, from Scandinavia, vitalizing the many river systems in Central and Eastern Europe. They reached as far south as Constantinople, where they even laid siege (unsuccessfully) to the city in 860 CE.

The Eastern Roman labeled these Viking raiders, traders, and warriors as "The Varangians," and they soon began to take advantage of the numerous river systems (especially the Don and Dnieper rivers) for trade and pillage. The Byzantine Emperor was so impressed by their martial skill that he had a new "Praetorian Guard" established made up only of these Varangian warriors.

The Rus

Sometime during the "Migration Period," Norse settlers started to establish themselves between the Baltic and Black Seas. According to the 12th-century "Primary Chronicle," Rurik, a Vangarian chief of the Rus people, was invited to become the ruler of Ladoga in the year 862 CE. He would establish a dynasty, the Rurik Dynasty, which would first rule over Ladoga, then Novgorod, then establish the Kievan Rus, the Grand Duchy of Moscow, and later the Tsardom of Russia up until the 17th century CE.

What is most of interest is that Rurik established a state called the Kievan Rus, encompassing, at its height, huge swathes of modern-day Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia. All three modern countries claim the Kievan Rus as their cultural and historical ancestors.

This state was a multiethnic society, highly rigid, whereby Norsemen (or their descendants) were the ruling and warrior class governing over local Slavic, Baltic, and Finn tribes. 

The Vikings who set off to travel south and east to today's territory of Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine, and further on to the east and south, were called the Varangians. Photo: saramarses / Pixabay

Kievan Rus - foundation and economic success

Rurik led the Rus people until his death in 879 CE, bequeathing his fledgling kingdom to his son, Oleg. Leading a huge military force southwards from Novgorod, Oleg, utilizing the Dnipier River, captured Smolensk, finally arriving at the gates of Kiev. A huge battle ensued, and Oleg deposed the joint rulers, Askold and Dir, and declared that Kiev would be, from now on, "the mother of Rus cities."

Following Oleg’s capture of Kiev, the Kievan Rus soon prospered. It was at the crossroads of three important trade areas – the Baltic Sea, the Volga River, and the Caspian Sea. Furthermore, it was seen as the first "European" kingdom on the overland route from Asia to Europe.

Prince Vladimir and the Christianization of the Rus

Following Oleg's growth of the kingdom, Prince Vladimir expanded it greatly. His rule, from 980 – 1015 CE, also coincided with the introduction of Christianity to the region. The process began in 988 CE, and the Prince had decided to reject the paganism of the many Slavic people he ruled. Legend has it that he sent advisors to discuss the finer points of religion with Latin Christians, Muslims, and Jews. 

The advisors did not like the Muslim ban on the consumption of alcohol, the fact that Jewish people, who were chosen by God, had nonetheless been more or less kicked out of their spiritual homeland by Muslims whilst they found the Latin Christian services boring.

Some advisors, however, made it to Constantinople, which practiced Orthodox Christianity. Visiting the magnificent church of Hagia Sophia, surely one of the wonders of the medieval world, secured the Orthodox rite for the Kievan Rus. They convinced Prince Vladimir to accept this form of Christianity as his kingdom's religion. 

This decision would have a huge impact on the future of what is now Ukraine. Choosing to follow the Greek Orthodox Rite not only exposed many in the Kievan Rus to the Greek language, but they were also exposed to Greek history, philosophy, science, and culture away from the increasingly dogmatic control of Rome. The distance and difference between the Eastern and Western churches were further cemented following "The Great Schism" in 1054 CE.

Cultural blooming

One of the sons of Prince Vladimir was Yaroslav, who ruled over a golden age for the Kievan Rus. We have all watched news reports from foreign correspondents in Kyiv with the gorgeous golden domes of Saint Sophia Cathedral. This was built during his reign, along with the Golden Gate and the Kyiv Monastery of the Caves.  

In the space of a little more than a century, a bunch of Varangian settlers had established what would become to be seen the premier city of the Rus people.

So every time you see the golden domes of Saint Sophia Cathedral in Kyiv, the shiny glimmer should remind you of Ukraine's rich Viking heritage.

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