Land of the Rus - Viking expeditions to the east

Kiev today. Photo: Vasenka Photography.
Rune stone found near the mouth of the Dnieper at the Black Sea. On it is written that Grane placed this in memory of his companion Karl. Photo: the Swedish National Heritage Board, Paal Nils Nilsson.
Viking women's shell-shaped brooches.

The Vikings who travelled eastwards exerted a great influence over the areas they came to. The Russian, Byzantine and Arabic written sources of the 800s refer to the Vikings as Rus. Rus meant both “Swedes” and “the men who row”. From this the name of Russia – Land of the Rus – developed in the 900s. Rus became the name of the Russian geographical area and its inhabitants.

In early Russian written sources people from Scandinavia are also referred to as Varangians. In addition, the Baltic Sea is called “the Varangian Sea”. The city of Novgorod – which the Vikings called Holmgård – had a church of the Varangians and a Varangian Street. There was also a Varangian Street in Staraya Ladoga. Furthermore, Vikings in the service of the Russian princes were called Varangians and in 11th century Byzantium “the Varangoi” were the Byzantine Emperor’s guard of Vikings.

Archaeological finds also provide evidence of the presence of the Vikings. Along the Russian rivers many Viking Age objects have been found in burials and treasure hoards, in particular the oval brooches worn by Viking women. Early on, the distribution of these was limited to the trading town of Staraya Ladoga, but by around the year 900 they had reached as far as central Russia.

Runes stones also tell us about travellers who never returned home. 96 of these name people who travelled east to Kievan Rus, and further still to Byzantium and the Arabic Caliphate. The runic inscriptions describe such journeys as heroic achievements. An expedition undertaken by Ingvar Vildfarne to the Caliphate around 1040 is commemorated by 25 runes stones. One inscription states that They died to the south in the Silk land.

The Vikings as state founders

In the 800s the Vikings controlled large parts of the Volkhov and Dnieper rivers, from Staraya Ladoga to Novgorod and Kiev. They were therefore able to play a decisive role in the creation of the first Russian state, which had Novgorod as its capital, and later on Kiev.

The argument for the Viking role in the formation of the state is supported by the Scandinavian names of the earliest Russian rulers and by the Russian Primary Chronicle. According to this chronicle, it was the Scandinavian chieftain, Rurik, who in 862 was asked to come to Novgorod to restore law and order.

However, by the middle of the 900s the rulers in Kiev and Novgorod had Slavic names. This suggests that the Scandinavians had by then become integrated into Slavic society. The existence of  Scandinavian rulers in Kiev and Novgorod is also confirmed by Byzantine and Arabic accounts.

Bookmark and Share