1,150 years… that count comes from the version found in the Primary Chronicle of St Nestor the Chronicler, as the monk-chronicler dated the invitation from the Rus to the Varangian prince Rurik to 862 AD. By St Nestor’s time, most people considered Rurik to be the founder of the dynasty of Russian princes and tsars. All the medieval chroniclers regarded it the foundation of the state, and of the ruling dynasty. Therefore, the monk-chronicler, wondering what the genesis of the Russian state was, responded to his question with the story of Rurik ruling near Lake Ladoga (or a settlement near Novgorod). The Rurikid Dynasty ruled Russia until the end of the 16th century.
The name of the ancient state of “Rus” is Scandinavian in origin. A few dispute this, thinking somehow that a non-Slavic foreign origin of the name of the state diminishes its prestige. Precisely, from a linguistic point of view, it comes from the Old Norse word “ro”… to “to row”. After all, the Scandinavians came to Russia in oar-propelled vessels, as they couldn’t proceed downriver under sail. At first, the Swedes used this name for the Finns. Today, the Swedes call the Finns “Ruotsi”, that is, “rowers”. Later, the name “Rus” was taken over by the Slavs. In the beginning, it only referred to the Scandinavian ruling class, then, it covered all of the people subject to the Grand Prince of Rus, and, lastly, it applied to the country itself. Similarly, the medieval Arab, New Roman, and German writers all wrote of those who lived in the Slavic lands as being subject to the “Russian” Grand Prince. Ergo, the ancient Russian monks-chroniclers did likewise.
What developments led to the emergence of Russia as a state? Professor Yelena Melnikova, doctor of historical sciences, told VOR, “In the ninth century, Slavic and Finno-Ugric tribes in the north-western region of Eastern Europe paid tribute to the Varangians, the Scandinavians. However, there came a time when the people rebelled, they stopped paying tribute and drove out their overlords. Then, shortly thereafter, they began to fight each other over money and power. As a result, the chroniclers write, they sent an embassy overseas, to find a prince. Because of this overture, the Varangians Rurik and his brothers Sineus and Truvor came to Rus and Rurik began to reign in the region of Lake Ladoga. The chroniclers wrote about Novgorod, but Novgorod, according to archaeological research, didn’t exist yet. Rus is definitely an old Scandinavian name modified when a Slavic language took it over as a loanword”.
According to Melnikova, we should regard this entry in the annals as legendary. It does accurately reflect the economic situation that prevailed in the north-west of Eastern Europe in the second half of the ninth century. Rus had control of an extremely important trade route, one that served all of Europe. It began in northern France, went through England, Germany, and Scandinavia, over the Baltic Sea, to Russia. It went across Russia to the Caspian region, i.e. to the countries of the East. Due to this trade, Eastern and Northern Europe received a huge amount of silver from the Arab Caliphate. In modern times, archaeologists found thousands of Arab silver coins in hoards in Russia and Scandinavia.
Melnikova told us, “The fact is that in the early Middle Ages, Europe had a ‘silver crisis’. At that time, silver was the main means of exchange in commodity trading. Because of this wealth, a new road to the East opened; this transcontinental route ‘from the Varangians to the Greeks’ had a solid economic basis. During the Middle Ages, the Vikings were marauders in Western Europe, but in the East, they were primarily traders. Their main impetus was the desire to get silver. In exchange for specie, the Arabs and New Romans received precious furs such as sable, marten, and squirrel. Besides this, they bought slaves… Europe, New Rome, and the Arab Caliphate were in need of labour. Therefore, the Scandinavians seized a large number of prisoners during their trips through the Slavic lands, mostly unarmed country folk, men, women, and children, whom they sold in other countries. For example, Arab historians write that Varangian traders sold Slavic slaves in Baghdad. They were sold in Constantinople, in France, and in England”.
In the late ninth century, according to the Primary Chronicle, Rurik’s kinsman Oleg and Rurik’s son Igor, led their host down the Dnepr and captured Kiev. During this campaign, as one would say today, their sphere of influence was a narrow strip of land from Lake Ladoga to the south along the Dnepr to Kiev. In the first half of the tenth century, Kiev gradually conquered the Slavic tribes living to the west and east of the Dnepr. This, together with the lands of Novgorod, gradually formed the basis of the united ancient state of Rus. By this time, the Scandinavian military élite had assimilated and integrated into the Slavic population. Already in the mid-tenth century, amongst the names of the rulers of Rus, we see such Slavic names as Svyatoslav and Vladimir. Probably, in the first half of the tenth century, the princes and their entourage, even though they were Scandinavians by heritage, began to use the Russian language. Scandinavians married Slavs; they “melted into” the Slavic culture.
The formation of the primeval state of Rus was a lengthy affair; it took nearly three centuries. During this time, the social structure and political organisation of Eastern European Slavic societies underwent radical change. The Scandinavian Varangians participated in this development, playing the role of a catalyst. Rising on a multiethnic foundation, including Finno-Ugric, Baltic, and Turkic peoples along with the predominant Slavic population, by the beginning of the eleventh century, the ancient state of Rus emerged as a mighty European power, firmly integrated into the medieval world.
11 June 2012
Voice of Russia World Service