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European Kingdoms

Eastern Europe

 

Rus Khaganate (Rus)
c.AD 830 - c.899

It was Swedish Viking exploration into Slavic lands which resulted in the founding of various Rus settlements and trade routes. Led by Rurik, these Rus Vikings soon ruled the Slavs from their main base at Novgorod in the north and they quickly began exploring southwards to expand their trading routes. In the mid-ninth century the Eastern Polans settlement of Kyiv was captured by a couple of Rus boyars and then by a Rus prince by the name of Oleg, a kinsman of Rurik who moved the capital there from Novgorod, declaring Kyiv to be the mother of the cities of the Rus. Other Rus centres soon emerged within this unified Old Russian state.

However, immediately prior to the arrival of Rurik and his kin, there is the possibility that another, proto-state existed for a short time. Its existence is uncertain and is largely postulated from minimal evidence, but the presence of the title 'khagan' in several early sources does provide some basis for accepting it. Most of those sources date to the ninth century - precisely the correct time period to be contemporary, even though they were written well away from the region in which the khaganate seems to have been based. Three other sources - all East Slavic - date to the eleventh and twelfth centuries.

The Rus khaganate, otherwise known as 'Russkiy Khaganate', and sometimes referred to as Volkhov Rus, Ilmen Rus, or Novgorod Rus, appears to have been formed around AD 830. It was not a centrally-controlled state as such, but a polity formed by several groups of East Slavs and possibly some numbers of neighbouring Finno-Ugric groups, headed by a small number of Rus Vikings. The first Scandinavian settlers of the region arrived in the lower basin of the River Volkhov River in the mid-eighth century. The territory which comprises today's Leningrad, Novgorod, Tver, Yaroslavl, and Smolensk oblasts became known in Old Norse sources as 'Gardarike', or 'land of forts'. These traders soon came to dominate the region's Finno-Ugric and Eastern Slav peoples. They probably banded together their settlements in the early ninth century, with their chosen leader - in effect a high king - selecting the title khagan due to its weight with the natives, and the fact that he would be the stated equal of the mighty Khazar khagan.

No borders are known for the khaganate, and even its general territory seems to be rather vaguely defined, although it is likely that the key Volga trade route played a major part. Some modern opinions place it in highly unlikely locations such as Scandinavia, Walcheren in the modern Netherlands, or in the Crimea. None of these theories have found general acceptance. Far more likely is that it occupied the northern areas of East Slavic territory between the Vespians to the north, the Khazars to the south, and perhaps abutting the Volga Bulgars to the east, a general location which would tie in with lbn Rustah's highly important near-contemporary record.

Its major settlements may have included the original forms of the later towns of Alaborg, Aldeigja (Ladoga, possibly the chief centre of the khaganate), Holmgard (an early medieval precursor to Novgorod with a name which can be translated as 'river-island castle'), Lyubsha, Sarskoe Gorodishche, and Timerevo. Most likely they started out as way stations and trading posts which gradually gained permanent settlement status. The Rus khaganate period seems to have been one in which a distinctive Rus' ethnos appeared, with its successor states including Kievan Rus and its various offshoot principalities from which modern Russia and Ukraine evolved.

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information by Keith Matthews, from Gesta Danorum, Saxo Grammaticus, from Viking-Rus Mercenaries in the Byzantine-Arab Wars of the 950s-960s: the Numismatic Evidence, Roman K Kovalev, from The Russian Primary Chronicle (Laurentian Text), Samuel Hazzard Cross & Olgerd P Sherbowitz-Wetzor (Eds and translators, Mediaeval Academy of America), and from External Links: Rurik of Novgorod and the Varangian DNA, and The Fragmentation & Decline of Kievan Rus, and New World Encyclopaedia, and The Annals of St Bertin, Janet L Nelson (Translator, Manchester University Press, 1991), and Nicholas Roerich Blogspot.)

c.800 - 862

It has generally been conceded that the original source material which is later used by Arabic writers such as lbn Rustah, AI Bakri, and Gur is composed during the second quarter of the ninth century - between about 825-850. This represents the situation at the headwaters of the Volga just before the Rus begin their thrust southwards along the Dnieper, but it also represents the situation before the traditional arrival of Rurik and his brethren.

Rurik and his kin arrive in Rus lands
Nicholas Roerich's 1901 painting, Overseas Guests is dedicated to the arrival of Rurik and his kin in the lands of the Rus

Are these the 'Varangians', perhaps, who are masters of the Ilmen Slavs (in 859, according to the RPC) and who overplay their hand, thereby stirring the Slavs to revolt? More intriguingly, it seems that Novgorod, or the earlier trading centre of Aldeigja-Ladoga, could be the focus of a poorly-defined, minimally-recorded, and brief in terms of its existence Rus khaganate which covers this general early ninth century period.

838

The earliest European reference to the khaganate comes from the Frankish Annals of St Bertin. A group of Vikings, who call themselves 'Rhos' (Rus) have visited Constantinople around this year. Fearful of returning home via the steppe which would leave them vulnerable to attacks by the Magyars, they are returning via East Francia.

When questioned by the Emperor Louis the Pious at Ingelheim, they inform him that their leader is known as chacanus (Latin for 'khagan'), and that they live in the north of what is now Russia (which probably means Aldeigja-Ladoga or early Novgorod). Their ancestral homeland, though, is amongst the Swedes.

Gotland standing stone
This standing stone was found on the island of Götaland, immediately to the east of modern Sweden, and depicts Vikings with their boats and armaments, which were a development of those of the early Germanic settlers around the Scandinavian coastal regions

860s

Whatever the nature of its format, as the Rus khaganate or some other form of tribal union with a ruling elite, the system seems not to survive for long. One modern analysis of a potential khaganate (by the highly-rated scholar, Peter B Golden) suggests that it collapses. The Magyars have certainly been a threat during the ninth century, while the Khazars to the south are at the height of their power too.

Soon after Patriarch Photius has informed other Orthodox bishops about the Christianisation of the Rus, all of the khaganate's main centres are destroyed by fire. Archaeologists have discovered convincing evidence to show that Holmgard, Aldeigja, Alaborg, Izborsk, and other local centres are burned to the ground in the 860s or 870s.

Some of these settlements are permanently abandoned after the conflagration. The RPC describes an uprising of the pagan Slavs and Finno-Ugric peoples against their self-imposed Varangian masters, who have to withdraw overseas in 862. Archaeology and contemporary records back this up by showing the collapse of the Volga trade route.

862

The traditional story is that the victorious, liberated Slavs are unable to find a method of self-governance which all of them will accept. The result is the 'calling of the princes' and the arrival of Rurik.

Map of Eastern Europe AD 862-882
Tradition states that in AD 862 Rurik was invited to rule at Novgorod, with other Rus princes at Izborsk and Beloozero, and in 882 Oleg seized Kyiv at the heartland of Eastern Slavic tribal lands (click or tap on map to view full sized)

862

Viking interest and exploration into the Slavic lands to the east of the Baltic states has been building up for some time. According to tradition, in this year a Kven Viking named Rurik founds the 'Rus' state with his headquarters at Novgorod and with a population which is made up of Eastern Slavic, Finno-Ugric, and Baltic people.

His brothers, Sineus (Signiutr) and Truvor (Thorwardr), govern the Slav centres at Beloozero (modern Belozersk) and Izborsk (bordering the Eesti) respectively. They both die within a couple of years so that, by about 864, Rurik governs the entire region by himself. Rurik is credited with establishing the Rus in the north which soon leads to the rise of the Old Russians (Eastern Slavs ruled by a Scandinavian nobility) as the dominant regional force. Initially Novgorod commands, but Kyiv is swiftly made the mother city of all of the Rus.