The historical people known as Vikings, who hailed from Scandinavia in Northern Europe, are well-known today for their exploits in the West. But the merchant warriors also made their way into Eastern Europe, where they helped found a medieval federation in the territory now known as Belarus, Ukraine and part of Russia. Their loose federation of principalities called Kievan Rus survived for nearly 400 years, finally collapsing during the 13th-century Mongol invasion.
Early Scandinavian settlements in the East
Vikings founded Kievan Rus in the mid-9th century, but Scandanavian settlements in Eastern Europe actually date back to at least A.D. 750. This is when pre-Viking-Age Scandanavians likely settled the northwestern Russian town of Staraya Ladoga (or “Old Ladoga”), across Lake Ladoga from what is now Finland. One of the artifacts archaeologists have unearthed from the city is a talisman with the face of Odin, the Norse god of war.
“The early Scandinavians were particularly attracted to Ladoga by the appearance of Islamic silver coins or dirhams there,” writes scholar Thomas S. Noonan. “The regular flow of Islamic dirhams from Russia to Scandinavia via Ladoga began in the early ninth century and is further evidence of a Viking presence in Ladoga long before 840.”
Prince Oleg expands territory, moves the capital to Kiev
It was after 840 that Scandanavian Vikings—who were known in Eastern Europe as “Varangians” or “Rus”—established Viking rule over Slavic tribes in what came to be called Kievan Rus. At first, the region was divided between three noble brothers.
“The oldest, Rurik, located himself at Novgorod; the second, Sineus, at Beloozero; and the third, Truvor, in Izborsk,” recounts the Russian Primary Chronicle, a history of the region completed in the 12th century by Kievan monks. “On account of these Varangians, the district of Novgorod became known as the land of Rus.” (“Rus,” which is where the name “Russia” comes from, purportedly derives from an old Nordic word for “men who row.”)
Rurik’s brothers died within two years, so he claimed their territory and established Novgorod as the capital of his domain. After Rurik died, his successor Prince Oleg of Novgorod (or Oleg the Prophet) captured the city of Kiev in 882 and moved the capital from Novgorod to Kiev. In addition to capturing new territories to increase the size of Kievan Rus, Oleg also increased its wealth by negotiating a favorable trade deal with Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire.
Royal pains after Oleg
Archaeological discoveries in the region support the Russian Primary Chronicle’s historical account of Vikings in the region—at least, in part. However, historians caution readers to approach the Chronicle narrative with a grain of salt, since some of its stories have an exaggerated, mythical quality.
One such story: how Oleg allegedly died. According to the Chronicle, a prophecy during his lifetime foretold that one of his horses would cause his death. To avoid his fate, Oleg never rode that horse. But after he successfully expanded Kievan Rus territory and trade, he got a little cocky and began to wonder if he could ride the horse after all. By then the animal had died, so Oleg found its bones and mockingly stomped on its skull; but, the story goes, a serpent slithered from underneath and bit Oleg, killing him.
After Oleg came a period of royal distress. His successor was Rurik’s son, Igor of Kiev, who married a woman named Olga. Like Oleg, Igor collected tribute from the people he had conquered; but unlike Oleg, his prices were so high that they prompted a tribe to assassinate him. When he died, his wife Olga assumed power.
What reportedly happened next with Olga is one of those stories that likely lives more on the mythical end of the spectrum. Olga was (understandably) furious with the early Slavic tribe of Drevlians that had killed her husband. So when Drevlian emissaries went to see Olga to discuss whether she would marry one of their princes, she supposedly tricked them into being buried alive. The chronicle also says she invited a bunch of Drevlian wise men to visit her and then burned them alive inside a bathhouse.
End of the Kievan Rus era
Kievan Rus was largely pagan until the late 10th century, when Vladimir the Great took power and introduced Christianity. The conversion actually resulted from a deal between Vladimir and the Byzantine Emperor. Vladimir agreed to convert to Christianity and send the emperor 6,000 soldiers to defend his throne; in exchange, Vladimir would marry the emperor’s sister.
The exchange of soldiers led to the establishment of the Varangian Guard, an elite unit of imperial bodyguards. In addition, the deal led to the spread of Byzantine culture within Kievan Rus. Vladimir built churches to spread Christianity and schools to spread literacy (and also probably Christianity). The economy flourished, and Kievan Rus continued to expand. This cultural and economic growth likely peaked under the rule of Vladimir’s son Yaroslav I (or Yaroslav the Wise), who began the construction of St. Sophia Cathedral in Novgorod.
After this, the Kievan Rus federation was beset by royal fights for power. The Crusades brought further instability, so that by the time the Mongols invaded in the 13th century, Kievan Rus was weak and divided, and easily fell.