In 2022, Russia launched a "special military operation" in the east of Ukraine – an illegal invasion.
Whatever your politics are, it is always sad to see two peoples who have so many shared historical, cultural, religious, and linguistic bonds be torn apart by the madness of war.
One might point Moscow to the fact that Ukraine and Russia (as well as Russia's ally in the current war, Belarus) share a common foundational beginning to their modern states – the Kievan Rus.
Between the late 9th to mid-13th centuries CE, the Kievan Rus was a state, and later a collection of principalities, that ruled over huge swathes of Northern and Eastern Europe.
A Norse elite, which had opportunistically come to this region of the world but ended up at the top of the political pyramid, ruled over a polyglot, multiethnic, and multireligious population comprised of a melting pot of Finnic, Turkic, Slavic, and Norse people.
The intertwining of Russian and Ukrainian history, as well as the very beginnings of the causes of the current war in Ukraine today, was established during this period.
It was the first time, but not the last, that a state encompassed many different peoples, cultures, and civilizations in Eastern Europe. And, according to tradition, that is all the Vikings' fault.
What began as mercenary and opportunistic raids by Vikings had, by the early 10th century CE, settled into something more permanent throughout many parts of Europe.
This Viking expansion has been, in the Anglosphere, heavily focused on peoples from Viking societies pushing westward to northern France and the British Isles.
Yet just as important – if not more important – and more consequential to European history, including right up to this very day, was the eastward expansion.
Crossing their "pond" (The Baltic Sea), the Vikings entered the many river systems that wind their way from the Baltic to the Black Sea. Along these river routes, after the initial Viking raiding, enslaving, and pillaging came Norse traders and settlers.
These "Eastern" Vikings – of whom many, but not all, came from the eastern coast of Sweden – were eventually called "Rus" by the local Slavs.
The exact origin of this term is not known, but it is believed to have been a Finnic term for "men who row," - highlighting the importance of the Viking longship to these new overlords.
The Kievan Rus was then an important terminus of a spider's web of trade connections and routes that dotted the Eurasian landmass. Photo: svitlini / Shutterstock
At the crossroads of empires, civilizations, and commerce
Some of these "Rus" would continue, over generations, to push further and further south, along the Volga and Dnieper Rivers, and wound up in what they called "The Great City" - Miklagård - or as we know it, "Constantinople."
Over the course of the Kievan Rus, the direct contact these "Rus" would have with Europe's preeminent Empire, the Byzantines, would see them settle and become a key part of the Byzantine military and economy.
These "Rus" would be called the "Varangians" by their new Byzantine business and military foes/partners.
The Byzantines were not the only sophisticated empire that these "Varangarians" would experience. From the Byzantine Empire, it was only a short journey (by either land or sea, and "short" is a relative term for the early medieval world) to the Islamic world.
The Volga trade route wound its way down, from the Nordic region, through what is now Russia, and flowed southward to Baghdad via the Sea of Azov.
Concurrently, there were also overland routes from Constantinople, across Anatolia to the heartland of the Umayyad and then the Abbasid Caliphate.
The Kievan Rus was then an important terminus of a spider's web of trade connections and routes that dotted the Eurasian landmass.
It connected the Viking world with the Islamic world and beyond whilst also seeing that resources flowed from Northern and Eastern Europe along the "Silk Road" and vice versa.
An offer fit for a prince
Like so much of early medieval history, the foundations of the Kievan Rus are shrouded in a veil of myth, legend, and historical propaganda. What little we know comes from later medieval sources, especially the Primary Chronicle.
This was an attempt by scholars in 12th century CE Kiev to try and prop up the regime of the current ruler, Sviatopolk II of Kiev, with an illustrious past.
The people of Kiev were fed up with Sviatopolk, who they were convinced had some sort of incestuous relationship with his cousin, Vladimir.
Familial relations aside, the Chronicle offers us a glimpse into some of the foundational myths that inhabitants of the Kievan Rus believed in.
The surrounding territory, between the Baltic and the Black Seas, was divided between the "Varangians" and a semi-nomadic Turkic people, the Khazars. Both ruled over the local Slavic population yet were constantly at war with each other and, when they weren't, crushing popular uprisings.
In 862 CE, the local Finnic and Slavic people had enough of the Norse elite in Novgorod, threw them out then tried their hand at ruling.
However, things did not quite work out that well, and they then went, cap in hand, back to one of these Norse elites, Prince Rurik, with an offer he couldn't refuse...
The southward expansion of the Kievan Rus would see military expeditions launched against the Byzantines. Photo: Alekcuo / Shutterstock
These locals who had tried their hand at self-rule and governance just couldn't hack it.
Or at least that is what the later medieval chroniclers, mostly Orthodox priests with a vested interest in maintaining the state apparatus and keeping in the ruler good books, would want us to believe.
This rabble of lawless outlaws came together and, as the Chronicle relates, "... 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 Rus'. … The Chuds, the Slavs, the Krivichs, and the Ves then said to the Rus', "Our land is great and rich, but there is no order in it. Come to rule and reign over us". They thus selected three brothers with their kinfolk, who took with them all the Rus' and migrated..."
These three brothers – Rurik, Sineus, and Truvor – are legendary figures heavily involved in the foundation of Novgorod and Kiev, in Russia and Ukraine, respectively, that be significant centers of power over the next few centuries.
Whether three Varangian brothers were invited to rule over this huge swathe of Eurasia is debatable, but these three brothers are featured heavily in the foundational myths of the nation-states of Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine.
Growth and spread
Rurik was said to have ruled until his death in about 879 CE, then bequeathing the kingdom to his son, Oleg.
It was Prince Oleg who was said to have united all the differing tribes, peoples, and cultures under this Norse elite and is credited as being the first ruler of this new entity.
In the first few years of his rule, he led a military force southward, from Novgorod, and following military victories, declared that he would find a city that was the "Mother of all Rus' cities" along the Dnieper River, which would become Kiev.
Kiev would become not only the epicenter of this new entity but would also become the cultural jewel of the Slavic world henceforth.
The southward expansion of the Kievan Rus would see military expeditions be launched against the Byzantines (though scholars are divided on whether military raiding and opportunism constitute what other scholars have termed a "Rus-Byzantine War" that spanned until the mid-11th century CE).
When they weren't trying to defeat the Byzantines, they were copying them. The long process of Christianization began with Greek Orthodox priests being sent to the Kyivan Rus to spread the Gospel of Jesus.
It was missionaries from the Byzantine Empire, and not the Catholic West, that would seal the fate of Christianity in Eastern Europe – by the late 10th century CE, the ruling elite of the Kievan Rus had converted to Orthodox Christianity.
That "Mother" of all of Rus cities, Kiev, would become one of the epicenters, from then on, of Eastern Orthodoxy.
One of the most prominent symbols of Kiev, not to mention Eastern Orthodoxy too, the Saint Sophia Cathedral was built by a later ruler of the Kievan Rus, Prince Yaroslav the Wise, in the early 11th century CE.
Yaroslav the Wise was adept at making allies in the nearby Nordic world. Pictured is a statue of Yaroslav at the Golden Gate, Kiev, Ukraine. Photo: Diego Grandi / Shutterstock
Kievan Rus: "Golden Age" and decline
The highpoint of the Rurik dynasty, and indeed of the Kievan Rus itself, was the rule of the man responsible for the beautiful Saint Sophia Cathedral, Prince Yaroslav the Wise.
Having been born a son of a Grand Prince of Kiev, Vladimir the Great, did not automatically guarantee Yaroslav an easy path to power. Family and palace intrigues saw him only eventually rule this huge empire uncontested in 1036 CE, when he was well into his late 30s.
Throughout his reign, he not only introduced many legal and political reforms (hence his moniker) but also attempted to wean the Byzantine influence on the Orthodox church in his realm by appointing locals (and not Greeks as had been the practice since the conversion of the Rus elite to Orthodoxy centuries generations before) as bishops.
What is also interesting is that Yaroslav was adept at making allies in the nearby Nordic world. He was married off, at a young age, to Ingegerd Olofsdotter, a daughter of then Swedish king Olof Skötkonung.
They would go on to have three daughters, Ellisiv, Anastasia, and Anne, who became the Queen consorts of Norway, Hungary, and France, respectively, showing again how the ruling elite was interconnected with broader European royalty.
Despite his familial connections with other thrones, in the end, Yaroslav didn't quite live up to his moniker as he did not set up an adequate succession plan for his throne.
His death, in 1035 CE, sparked the beginning of a series of civil wars that would, over the next century, see the second-largest polity in Europe fragment into hundreds of smaller principalities.
One of the most important of these successor states was the Principality of Novgorod – so important for the next phase of Eastern European history, as modern-day Russia lay claims to this principality as its spiritual ancestor.
The breakup and disintegration of the Kievan Rus happened about the same time as the ending of the Viking Age (c. 793 – 1066). It is somewhat fitting that a state that was founded by Viking raiders and traders should mimic its ancestral founders into the dustbin of historical obscurity.
The legacy of the Kievan Rus, specifically the foundation of Kiev, its role as a "Mother of all Rus cities" - a cultural, political, and religious epicenter for Eastern Europe and its hold on the mindset of many Eastern Europeans today, shows that this early medieval entity, dominating huge swathes of Eurasia, is still as relevant to the politics of Europe today as it was more than a millennium ago.
Foreign Policy has published an article on the shared histories dating back to the Kievan Rus of Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine, available to read here.
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