Monday, November 10, 2014

The Rus’: An analysis of the Impact of the Varangians on Eastern Europe

           Church legend has it that St. Andrew the Apostle of John the Baptist and of Jesus Christ, during his evangelical missions traveled all the way up the Dnieper river in the then Scythian region of Sarmatia north of the Black sea, erected a cross, and prophesied that the site upon which he planted his cross was to become a great and powerful Christian city of many churches.[1] Through the ages, St. Andrew’s prophecy gradually came to life with the rise of a great and powerful city of Kiev under the rule of the Varangians: a city that eventually was inaugurated as the Christian capital of Kievan Rus’. However, the development of Kievan Rus’ was the later-stage product of a process of nation-building that was taken over from the Khazars (a political entity of Southeastern Europe and Eurasia) and put into motion by the Vikings, whom before that time, settled in the Northern steppes of modern day Russia in two proximal locations known as Staraya Ladoga and the city of Novgorod.
The Varangians traversed through the Baltic Sea on their various expeditions, and made temporary settlements at Staraya Ladoga for trading and crafting purposes.[2] They were initially not welcomed by the indigenous population of that region (such as the Balts and the Slavs) due to in-fighting amongst all the ethnic peoples there. But eventually the climate was right for their welcomed (and desired) re-arrival in the 9th century under the leadership of Rurik. It was at this pivotal moment, with the introduction of Rurik and the Rurikid (his followers/descendants) at Staraya Ladoga and Novgorod that Eastern Europe would permanently change. With all the annals of history that describe the acts, innovations, and feats of the political entities stemming from Novgorod and Kievan Rus’; the Varangians, Rurik and his dynasty (which ruled Russia up until the 16th century) influenced Eastern Europe throughout the span of their existence. They not only established an elite legacy of rulers, but also brought forth a rich Scandinavian culture; founded an economy; expanded their boarders as to rival even their Byzantine neighbors, and much more. In due time, the Rus' would grow to become a political entity of purpose, prosperity and power.
With the arrival of the Varangians in Northeastern Europe: one has to ask what was the significance of such an expedition? What were the unyielding implications of their arrival and upbringing, from Scandinavia to Northeastern Europe, and what were the inescapable consequences of their forth-bearing impact? Simply put, it was through the Rurikid dynasty and their successive assumption of authority in Eastern and Northeastern Europe, the Varangians changed the way Eastern Europe was shaped in all avenues of life through culture, economics, and most importantly politics.
The Varangians loved to trade, and because of this everlasting thirst for goods and wares, their expansion into modern day Russia was of economic perpetuity. What drove all merchants and tradesmen mad with desire were exotic goods from far-off lands. In this respect, the Varangians were no exception. They likewise were spellbound by trade. The most intriguing of all markets during the Viking Age were the ones located in the Orient. As is a well-known fact about the Orient, it was a fabulously wealthy land, and for the Scandinavians, there was need for, and a good profit to be earned from the discovery of new routes to the source of Oriental goods.”[3] They eventually did find these necessary routes to reach the Orient that stretched from the Donets and the Don leading them to the Sea of Azov.
Once they reached the Black Sea, it was easy for them to find the necessary water passages that led through the Caucuses to the Near East.[4] And thus the Vikings from Scandinavia, as a precursor to the arrival of Rurik, had established a sort of trading polity that is now known as the Rus’ Kaganate. This Kaganate was a kind of loose trade federation comprised of Scandinavians and Slavs that would serve as a quasi-organized predecessor to Kievan Rus’. The eventual result of having this pseudo-trade federation was that Scandinavians who ventured through Eastern Europe to the Orient were becoming progressively wealthier. This was seen as a much more successful alternative for gaining riches and resources in the Viking world, as opposed to the more traditional method of raiding. Raiding, along with trading, was a particular specialty of the Vikings. However beneficial raiding may have been in the western part of Europe, it proved to be an obstacle in the East in places like modern Russia due to the thinly running rivers which were much too shallow to support a Viking ship’s quick get-away. But as we will see later on, raiding would be made possible through a network of river routes, and the mobilization of massive fleets and auxiliaries.
The Byzantine Empire was one of the most prominent, radiant, and prosperous medieval states throughout all the middle ages. So naturally, this powerful political entity had attracted many merchants, voyagers and traders towards its boarders in order to conduct trade. As previously mentioned, the Varangians were no exceptions to this paradigm. When they were not fighting, Kievan Rus’ and the Byzantine Empire were busy trading with each other. They would make trade deals and agreements with each other, ones that were mutually beneficial in services and wares.
            With Vikings moving into Eastern Europe and northern Russia, cultural exchanges among the Varangians and the other ethnic cultures in the area is bound to be a persistent topic of interest. Surely historians will point out that eventually after the arrival of the Varangians in Staraya Ladoga, Novgorod, and Kiev; the Vikings, as a unique group of peoples in this region, become deeply integrated with the native cultures of the regions (such as the Slavs, Balts, Khazars, etc). This process of cultural integration is known to historians as acculturation, where one original culture merges with other homogenous cultures due to a prolonged period of exposure with one another. Despite this reality, it would be intellectually dishonest to say that the Varangians did not introduce any material culture into realm of Eastern Europe, nor put into practice any of their traditions. As Leo S. Klejn, a prominent historian put it, “Anyone who would dare to state that Scandinavians did not play a significant role in the history of these countries would surely soon find themselves on the fringe of European scholarship.”[5] Archaeological evidence as well as literary works point to the undeniable truth that the Varangians had a major cultural impact wherever they went.
            “The formation of the Kievan Rus’ signified the beginning of a completely new stage in Slavic-Scandinavian relations.”[6] With this new found relation, true exchanges in culture began to mold and take shape. To give one such example of where the Varangians’ cultural presence could be felt amongst their other ethnic comrades can be observed in the archaeological site at Cernihiv (situated in northern Ukraine); an important archaeological site of early Kievan Rus’. Within this boundary of this archaeological site was found the remnants of a medieval town. Within this town, archaeologists found a hill-fort, several residential complexes, and a workshop (an elite quarter of any settlement reserved for skilled craftsmen in Scandinavian tradition). In particular, the workshop and the industrial areas are known to contain both Slavic houses (which were semi-sunken houses with clay ovens found inside), as well as Scandinavian houses (ground leveled houses with loom-weights and imitating stones found inside). Within these houses they found a silver pendant with four ‘Odin’s spears’ (perhaps symbols of the Scandinavians’ supreme God), and two copper alloy applications on a comb ornamented with decorative pattern.[7] This discovery is proof that the direct implications of having a Scandinavian population living among other ethnic groups native to that region were positive. This is due to the acceptance (or neutrality) of Scandinavian culture being prevalent among the multi-ethnic inhabitants. Several other artifacts were found as well within the workshop areas which include: northern type arrow-heads, stone spindle whorl with runic signs and a needle-case with ornament pictures of bearded men. “At the same time, the majority of the domestic implements and all ceramics are practically the same in the whole investigated area, which not only indicated peaceful cohabitation of dwellers of different origin within the workshop area, but also a gradual assimilation of the newcomers by Slavs.”[8] This proves that at the initial stage of the Varangians making contact with the Slavs and other ethnic peoples was a sign of fellowship. By the time of the established kingdom of Kievan Rus’, the Varangian culture became an integral and influential part of life in Eastern Europe.
            In addition to what was previously mentioned, elements of Scandinavian influence on the Rus’ material culture can even be found on their modes of transportation. Log-boats were a very effective way of traversing the shallow river systems in and around Scandinavia. Such log-boats were even found amongst the grave goods of an important Scandinavian burial mound in Norway known as Gokstad Ship[9]. These smaller log-boats also happen to make an appearance in places like Novgorod, where the presence of Viking culture was strongly embraced among the other cultures encompassing it. On a side note however, it is important to understand that rushing to conclusions when dealing with archaeology is a potentially inaccurate and unscholarly thing to do. Assuming that just because a certain artifact has been unearthed in a particular site means that said artifact was integrated and part of every-day life of the region in which it was found, is a stepping stone to ruinous inquiry and false classification. However, given that we are dealing with seafaring people such as the Vikings (in the region of modern Russia and Ukraine), it is safe to cross-reference evidence and make the conclusion that Scandinavian inspired log-boats were used well into the age of Kievan Rus’, where the process of acculturation had already taken a hold of the Varangians. Various fragments of the stem and side of an expanded log-boat have been found in Novgorod by archaeologists at a part of an eastern river route dating to around 1044 A.D.[10] Judging from the abundance of these log-boat fragments, it is evident that certain elements of Scandinavian material culture was not just introduced in northern Russia, but also anchored itself as a cultural basin for the Varangians and the Rus’ population.
            Of course, one of the more prominent and infamous of traditions that the Varangians brought forth and implemented (once the integral timing was ripe) within the Rus’ Kaganate and then later Kievan Rus’ (through the efforts of Igor I of Kiev or Oleg for example) was the age old tradition of raiding. Raiding had been an important part of Viking society (mostly in Western Europe) for political and economic reasons. In Eastern Europe however, raiding was scarcely practiced due to there being not enough centers of wealth; as well as because of the uncharted lands and shallower, narrower waters which made the probability of a successful and efficient raid very low. Nevertheless, that did not stop the ever strategic minds of the Varangians. Once they had founded Kievan Rus’ and secured all the territories that were etched on their borderlands, they quickly gained a command of the water systems of their land. In 941 A.D., the prospect of raiding had been realized when prince Igor I of Kiev pooled in his naval resources along with the Rus’ Kaganate, and set out on a raid against Byzantium.[11] For reasons long forgotten, there had been strained relations between Kievan Rus’ and the Byzantines at that time; therefore, the perfect opportunity arose for the Varangians and all the Rus’ and their kinsmen to make a run at the Byzantines by raiding and attacking Constantinople. For better or for worse, the raids were unsuccessful due to the superior tactics and technology that aided the Byzantines in a victory against the raids. In 944, the Varangian prince of Kiev along with his contingent of Scandinavian auxiliaries looked again to attack the Byzantines at Constantinople in an attempt to renew the trade relations they had years before. When Igor's host reached the Danube, it was met by envoys from the Byzantine emperor bearing generous gifts for Igor and his druzhina and even for the Pecheneg chieftains. They offered the Russians a renewal of the peace treaties of 907 and 911, and Igor agreed to the terms. After that, the trade tie with the eastern capital was restored.[12] This episode of raids and instances of upping the ante towards Constantinople was one of the key examples of how the Varangians not only held onto their culturally entrenched ways of raiding and expanded their trade economy, but as a muscle flexing display against neighbors that made the Varangian presence known.
It is often the case while studying the chronicles of history that much of what we know about a state, a kingdom or a league of people is automatically derived from and becomes recognizable through socio-politics. For example, few laymen knew the theology and composition of the religious order of Christianity; but many of them know who Jesus Christ is, where he was from and how he died. Similarly, in the case of the Varangians, this principle of power-politics applies and could not be further from the reality. Names are remembered in history by those bearing them and the deeds that accompany them.
            It all unofficially began with the arrival of Rurik and his band of Varangian followers in Staraya Ladoga, unto the foundation of the town of Novgorod in the mid-9th century. Despite the numerous claims that categorize Rurik as a mythical figure, his succeeding generations of princely rulers were however not. “The Vikings stayed, reigned, and intermarried with the Slavs…These ‘Russian Vikings’ strengthened the lands of Rus militarily and commercially, moving their capital from Novgorod down to Kiev, at the fulcrum of the trade route from the Viking north to the Greek Byzantine Empire in the south.”[13] With the transfer of the capital from Novgorod to Kiev (by Oleg), this aided the Varangians immensely in establishing the kingdom of Kievan Rus’ (de jure), a huge and powerful state that shaped eastern Europe for much of the middle ages.
            Navigating down the family tree of the Rurikid, one can see that the Varangian blood did not falter, and thus with each new son born from Rurik’s folk, greatness and the destiny of rule came with them. First was Oleg of Novgorod, who was the ruler of Novgorod before the emergence of the state of Kievan Rus’. During his reign, as previously mentioned, he moved the capital of Rus’ from Novgorod to Kiev. After him came Igor of Kiev who was the ruler of Kievan Rus’ for a hefty period of time. Succeeding Igor was Sviatoslav of Kiev whose glory comes from his successive contribution in the toppling of the Khazars. Then after Sviatoslav came Yaropolk, a man who killed Oleg (his younger brother) and whose reign was short and purpose not as certain as his predecessors’. And finally, the one reigning ruler of Kievan Rus’ (whose purpose, as we shall see, was anything but uncertain), was Vladimir the Great.[14]
            Vladimir the Great was remembered as being great not just as a man of big appetites, but for many other reasons too such as having defeated his brother Yaropolk to reconquer Novgorod.[15] But without a doubt, one of the main reasons that Vladimir the Great went down in history as being so great was his conversion to Christianity, his baptism, and for christening all the Rus’ in 988 A.D. He did not convert to Christianity as rashly as some cynics will say: he did so after a rigorous and pretentious process of having emissaries go down to surrounding kingdoms and have them witness what sort of religion was right for the Rus’. Once the German ambassadors (under the command of the Roman Catholic Church) came to Vladimir’s court to testify the universality of their church. Vladimir was unimpressed. But once a Greek Philosopher came to Vladimir and went at length to proclaim the truths and spendors of the Orthodox Catholic Church, Vladimir saw great wisdom in the philosopher’s speech, and chose to convert himself and his people to Christian Orthodoxy.[16] This choice in religion not only bolstered Vladimir’s outlook on spirituality, but also made him content to know that there was political leverage to be had with a Byzantine alliance. When it came time to become Christian, Vladimir took part in the baptizing of Kiev. He prayed from the cannon “remove from them their former delusion and fill them with the faith, hope and love which are in Thee, that they may know that Thou art the only true God, with thine only begotten Son, our Lord Jesus Christ and thy Holy spirit.”[17] With that prayer, he made certain that everyone answered Amen. “For the first time, thousands of Russian tongues and throats formed the Hebrew word which means ‘so be it’.”[18] This speaks volumes as to the importance of such an event being held in a formally pagan society and kingdom. With this new found religious zeal and vigor came several positive consequences as a result of this conversion such as strengthened ties with the Byzantine Empire, and a sense of patriotism (that all the peoples of the Rus’ were united in one religion). One thing is for certain, the significance of this event is prevalent even to this day, with Russian being predominantly Orthodox Christian.
            As this essay comes to an end, it is important to note exactly what it was that made the Varangians such an impactful and formidable influence on eastern and northeastern Europe. For starters, they were at the center of trade expeditions with the Orient and to the Byzantine Empire, making them (and their ethnic comrades) succeed in accumulating wealth and expanding their trade horizons. They made their presence known through force and material culture. Whether it was the raids that they undertook on Byzantium, or whether it was the several curious items unearthed at key locations within the realm of Kievan Rus’, or even the acquired boat-building techniques; the Varangians had enough control on Eastern Europe to make a lasting impact on its culture. And lastly, the socio-political legacy that the Varangians established and left behind (unto the capitulation of Kievan Rus’ by the Golden Horde) was the stuff of legend. The Rurikid (stretching down their lineage through generations), being the powerful and glorified rulers of Novgorod and Kiev, were great examples of the Varangian influence and consistent assumption of power in Eastern Europe. The baptism of Vladimir the Great and the settlers of Kievan Rus’ helped usher in a new found organization of kinship, one which has never been seen before in those regions where the diverse groups of people resided. Collectively, all these factors coinciding with the arrival and influence of the Varangians, helped shape the fabric of Eastern Europe in such as dynamic way, as to be remembered and revered throughout millennia in the pages of history as the Vikings of the East.

Bjerg, Line, John Lind, and Soren Sindbaek. From Goths to Varangians: Communication and      Cultural Exchange Between the Baltic and the Black Sea. Lancaster: Aarhus University            Press, 2013.
Cross, S.H. “The Scandinavian Infiltration Into Early Russia” Speculum 21, no. 4 (1946): 505-     514.
Franklin, Simon, and Jonathan Shepard. The Emergence of Rus’ 750-120. Harlow, Essex:             Longman Group Limited, 1996.
Kaplan, Frederick. “The Decline of the Khazars and the Rise of the Varangians.” American          Slavic and East European Review 13, no. 1 (1954): 1-10.
Thomsen, Vilhelm. The Relations Between Ancient Russia and Scandinavia and The Origin of       the Russian State. New York: Burt Franklin, 1967.
Volkoff, Vladimir. Vladimir: The Russian Viking. New York: The Overlook Press, 2011.
Wren, Melvin. Ancient Russia. New York: The John Day Company, 1965.
Zenkovsky, Serge. The Nikonian Chronicle: From the Beginning to the Year 1132. Princeton:       The Kingston Press, 1984.

[1]Simon Franklin and Jonathan Shepard. The Emergence of Rus’ 750-120. (Harlow, Essex:             Longman Group Limited, 1996), pp3.
[2] Ibid, pp 8,15.
[3] Melvin Wren. Ancient Russia. (New York: The John Day Company, 1965), pp 67.
[4] Ibid, pp 68.
[5] Line Bjerg, John Lind, and Soren Sindbaek. From Goths to Varangians: Communication and     Cultural Exchange Between the Baltic and the Black Sea. (Lancaster: Aarhus University           Press, 2013), pp 27.
[6] Ibid, pp 258.
[7] Ibid, pp 269.
[8] Ibid, pp 266.
[9] Ibid, pp 297.
[10]Ibid, pp 299.
[11] Melvin Wren. Ancient Russia. (New York: The John Day Company, 1965), pp 79.
[12] Ibid, pp 80.
[13] Vladimir Volkoff. Vladimir: The Russian Viking. (New York: The Overlook Press, 2011), viii.
[14] Simon Franklin, and Jonathan Shepard. The Emergence of Rus’ 750-120. (Harlow, Essex:          Longman Group Limited, 1996), pp 416-417.
[15]Ibid, pp 270.
[16]Serge Zenkovsky. The Nikonian Chronicle: From the Beginning to the Year 1132. (Princeton:     The Kingston Press, 1984), pp. 97.
[17]Vladimir Volkoff. Vladimir: The Russian Viking. (New York: The Overlook Press, 2011), pp 235.
[18] Ibid, pp 235.

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