We continue on our Viking journey - this time to the east!
The Vikings are probably much most notorious for their activities in the west: their discovery and settlements of Iceland, Greenland and the other Insular island communities; their raids on and eventual assimilation into the English people; the disastrous attacks on the Carolingian Empire; their journey to North America. Yet their activities in the east are no less substantial and have had a real impact on Russia's historiography. In fact, more Viking artifacts have been found in the east than in Western Europe and even in Denmark! Their most famous achievement in the east is their involvement in the Varangian Guard. Serving the Emperor of Byzantium's personal guard was a crowning achievement of wealth and glory for many east-faring Scandinavians. Byzantium, however, was not the initial attraction. Though it came to play an important part in later Viking activity, the Byzantine Empire had to be discovered nearly by chance. The Vikings, or Rus as they were known, left their marks throughout the Baltic and Eastern European world as they found their way to Constantinople, including what would eventually be one of the greatest controversies in Russia's history!
The way east, or austrveg, was traveled mostly be Swedish Vikings, though there is much evidence that their neighbors in Gotland had been active in the Baltic since the second half of the 8th century. Staranga Lodoga is thought to have been a trading center that resembled, and predated, the likes of Hedeby and Birka. Those from the island of Gotland seemed to have closer ties with their Baltic neighbors than the Scandinavian Swedes to the west. Both appeared to have taken part in the trading hub on Lake Ladoga. The Swedes, however, pushed onwards.
The Vikings took two main roads to the east: the most direct route was through the Gulf of Finland while the second was getting onto the Daugava River and passing through what is today Latvia. Constantine VII Porphyorgenitus thought this journey highly impressive and recorded just how the Rus traveled through the Eastern European landscape--braving the rivers, (their slaves) carrying the ships overland to the next waterway. Surprisingly, no permanent Viking settlements have been found along the routes. Scandinavian culture appears to have influential in Latvia while minimal in Estonia, despite the many silver hoards found through its lands. In Latvia, especially at the Salapils Laukskola cemetery, Scandinavian coins and brooches, as well as imitation brooches are found in ample supply. The Swedes, it would seem, were more interested in the destination than the journey, and didn't stop to fraternize much with the local Estonians. They had no choice but to go through the Baltics to get the grand prize: Byzantium!
But wait! I said earlier that Byzantium wasn't the original goal! What lured the Vikings east was that lucrative seductress known as silver. They watched from afar as the Khazars got rich from the Arabic silver that flowed into the high steppes. Being the great opportunists, the Vikings took the wares from home (furs, slaves, furry slaves) and mimicked the Khazars in their commerce, even in their leadership hierarchy. Exactly when the Rus showed up in Eastern Europe is hotly contested--most likely in the 9th century. Arab writer Ibn Khurradadhbeh claimed that the Rus were at the Byzantine court as early as 838. Regardless, they showed up and began shaking things up immediately. The story of how the Rus came to power in the east as told by the Primary Russian Chronicle has led to two different factions that have argued for decades about whether or not the Rus helped form the early Russian state.
The story goes like this: The Slavic tribes were unruly and fighting amongst themselves. They had had some contact with the Rus and thought them impressive and powerful folk. So they invited a great warrior named Rurik to come rule over them. This would have happened around 862. Rurik made his seat at Novgorod and gave a handful of followers rule over other important cities, like Kiev. Around 866, the newly settled Rus led a great attack against Constantinople only to be washed away by a great storm. Rurik died in 879 and left the rule to his kinsman Oleg, who moved the capital to Kiev. Oleg attacked Byzantium again in the early 10th century, which proved to be much more successful. He and his successor, the great Vladamir, put together a wonderful treaty in 911 and 912 that spells out how things are going to work between the Rus and the Greeks.
This legend suggests, and plenty of scholars agree, that the beginning of a Russian state owes its thanks to the Scandinavian Rus. The founding or at least bolstering of Novgorod and Kiev as leading centers are attributed to the Rus. Many scholars, known as antinormanists, disagree with this account and not without good reason. The tale has certain motifs that tips the scales toward folklore. Many of its claims cannot be verified. The archaeological evidence is also inconclusive. Both sides attempt to use the artifacts, silver hoards, and grave sites to prove their point. The antinormanists have probably been much more feverish in their attempts to disprove the legend ever since Hitler let slip that, had it not been for the Vikings, the Russians would still be living underground like rabbits. What is most remarkable about the argument is that the greatest pieces of archaeological evidence are the brooches from the Viking Age. Women wore these brooches on their chests and usually strung a chain between them, on which swung keys the farm and other charms. The brooches are so distinctly Scandinavian that they can be used as a standard. But both normanists and antinormanists are attempting to prove the points of what men did by the findings of jewelery that sat on women's breasts. Titties forever!
What is clear is that the Rus showed up on the hills of the eastern steppes in the late 9th century. The land there was not particularly arable, which meant that the Rus probably had their eye on the powerful Byzantine Empire. Sure enough, they wasted little time in assaulting Constantinople. Whether or not Rurik was blasted by a storm on his way or out of the city is unknown. The treaty of 911/912, however, is an extremely telling piece of history. It was written in response to the besieging of Constantinople by the Rus, yet both sides appear well represented. The document presents two very different cultures attempting to come to terms with the other. It covers a variety of circumstances, such as how to respond to a Christian killing a Varangian, or how to return a deceased Varangian's property should he die within the city walls. The reason for all these cultural adjustments is totally economic. The Rus wanted sole trading rights with the empire in the area but lacked the manpower to upend the Khazars or to do more than pester Byzantium. The empire on the hand saw an opportunity to turn enemy to ally. The Byzantine cities were much too fortified for the Rus win more than a handful of significant victories, but their presence was worrisome for the emperor all the same. So a treaty was drawn up and looked like a win-win for both sides. The haughty Byzantine could go on fighting the Bulgars without worrying about their Varangian neighbors, while the latter developed brand new trade routes and began milking their new relationship for all it was worth.
The peace lasted until 941 when Igor, who had taken over the rule of the Rus, attacked Byzantium again but whose campaign was blown to smithereens by Greek Fire. A treaty was reworked in 944 with some stricter stipulations on how the Rus were to handle themselves if they wanted to go on trading with Byzantium, thank you very much! The treaty also tended to favor and give special attention to any Rus who had converted to Christianity. Igor's son Sviatoslav took over after his father's death, and one would think he would see the signs written in the smoke and quickly convert to gain the emperor's trust. Instead, Sviatoslav made a shaky peace with the empire and went after his true enemy: THE KHAZARS. They thought they were so cool but not for long! Sviatoslav eliminated his rivals on the steppes. Byzantium took notice and paid Sviatoslav a bunch of money to take care of THEIR biggest rivals, the Bulgarians, which he did in 968. Pretending everything was cool, Emperor John I Tziniskis made a surprise attack on Sviatoslav, sending his cavalry toward Preslav, while a fleet fully equipped with Greek Fire headed up the Danube. The Rus were roughed up pretty good by the Greeks but managed to escape to the Dnieper estuary. That winter, weakened by their scuffle with the Byzantine army, Sviatoslav and his men were annihilated by the Pechenegs, who didn't just kill the Rus leader but took his skull home with them to use as a drinking cup!
Sviatoslav's death left a vacuum in Kiev. With the silver shortages of 970, and the Arabic trading routes dried up, the seat became even more important and drew the eyes of many of the Rus's Nordic neighbors. Yet it was Sviatoslav's son, Vladamir, who returned to seize Novgorod and Kiev in 978. Prince Vladamir is famous for his "faith investigations" and eventual conversion of the Rus. This is highly misleading. Vladamir began his rule by instituting a sort of "counter-cult" of idols and sacrifices. Then, suddenly having a change of heart, I guess, he decided to send out some of his men to investigate which religion seemed like the best one. Everybody hated Islam, Judaism wasn't even considered and western Christianity was BORING. Eastern Orthodox it was! Of course, this story is mostly bogus. Vladamir had struck a deal with the then emperor, Basil II and came to his rescue when Constantinople was besieged by some other foe. Vladamir was rewarded with a marriage to Basil's sister Anna, but, of course, before they got married Old Vlady would have to be baptized. Following his baptism, many of the inhabitants of Kiev were baptized, but it appears that many religions co-existed within and without the city walls.
The separation of cultures between the eastern Rus and the western Vikings was growing ever greater. Yet Vladamir's successor, Iaroslav, kept the Nordic ties going. Even if they were culturally growing apart, the splendor of Byzantium was enough to send the Vikings of the west down the Austrveg. In fact Iaroslav is famous for his assistance of the last Viking king, Harald Hardradi, the poor English king via Denmark who lost his life at Stamford Bridge in the chaos of 1066. Harald had married Iaroslav's daughter at some point in his illustrious career. The prototypical Norsemen serving in the Varangian Guard, Harald arrived in Constantinople in the early to mid 11th century, served as the captain of the Varangians within the Byzantine Empire. According to Snorri Sturluson, he offended Queen Zoe and was thrown into prison only to be rescued by the ghost of his half-brother, Saint Olaf! What a story to tell the grand kids!
The cities of Kiev and Novgorod continued their connection with the Nordic world for years after, but as the Viking Age came to a close, so did the distinct Scandinavian culture. The Viking Age was finally wiped out by that dastardly villain known as the German merchant who supplanted the Vikings as the main movers and shakers of Baltic commerce. It is interesting to note the similarities and differences between the Vikings in the east and their contemporaries in the west. Very little settlement occurred on the west and, aside from the main cities, almost no actual supremacy was established. Their opportunistic nature held true, fighting the monster that was Byzantium when it was weak, attacking when the emperor was elsewhere fighting different enemies. The Christian sources are likewise similar in their doomsday rhetoric. Only the Arabic sources seem to keep a clear head. Obviously annoyed by the Vikings, the Arabs seemed to cut their losses after a Viking raid, regroup and set after them. Maybe the Arab world was more organized or better trained. The writers were surely less panicked, almost indifferent.
The Vikings in the east were truly just as big of players as those in the west, but not indefinitely. There was never quite the assimilation as in England or the complete control obtained in Normandy. The Rus left their mark, however. Sicily, Latvia, Estonia, and Russia all have some sort of Nordic impression left on them. And while we may never get to the bottom of who really started the Russian state, we can be sure that the eastern Rus played SOME part in its rise to prominence. And who knows! Maybe the brooches will one day reveal a clue that will end the settlement once and for all and smother the fire that rages in the the opposing scholars' breasts.