Vikings are known for their seafaring adventures, bloody battles, raiding, and even their complicated trade routes. Films, tv-series, games, and books have all been made trying to capture the essence of what they think the Vikings were all about. These contemporary sources usually have one thing in common: the Vikings went west, primarily to England. But what about the rich history and culture that the Norsemen left behind in the east? For hundreds of years, they shaped a country that we can see remnants of even today. They fought battles against a massive empire, incited rebellions, and in the end, they managed to get on the good side of their enemy. In this post, we visit the Vikings to the east.
The creation of Kievan Rus
The main accomplishment linked to the Scandinavians in the east (mainly today’s Russia) is the founding of the kingdom, Kievan Rus.
Originally some Norse colonists arrived in Aldeigja (just south of the Lake Ladoga) and settled the land there at around 750 AD. Worth noting is that this was by far not the SScandinavian's first encounter with the eastern tribes, as they were avid traders. This colony, however, played a big role in the founding of the Kievan Rus, which would come to be the main kingdom of operations for the eastern Scandinavians. This is also when the first primary source used for this post can be cited, and the one source that will remain consistently referenced to: the Russian Primary Chronicle.
According to the chronicle, the Norse people that now lived in Aldeigja started collecting tribute from less fortunate neighbors. They were the stronger tribe there at the time, so why would they not? The oppressed tribes grew more and more irritated at this, and so three years into paying the tribute, they band together and revolted. The Slavic tribes initially managed to push the Northerners back past their original borders, but the joy of victory did not last for long. After they had defeated their mutual enemy, they had no common cause left to stay allied. And so, they started fighting with themselves, most likely over land disputes after their protectorates had been pushed away, or who would take their place as a leading tribe. The tribes would then come to an agreement that times were indeed better under a common rule, and so they invited the Northerners back to rule them, which brought peace to the region. The Swedish-born man Rurik would come to be the first "king" over the tribes, which would come to be called the Rus Khaganate and later on be changed to Kievan Rus. From here, the Rus could further expand their power and wealth with a series of trade routes, which especially flourished with the Islamic world, where they could send caravans and delegations as far as Baghdad, which was a sprawling metropolitan city of the Middle Ages.
Did the Rus raid?
As with humanity during all time periods, there is only one thing that is more alluring than all others: gold. It is no secret that the Scandinavians especially coveted this metal and wanted to become prosperous and did not mind inflicting agony on others to get it. In the east, it was primarily Swedes that arrived in order to find the source for the highly coveted Arabic silver which was minted in the Muslim states. Since the Rus trade routes were widely successful, it was only a matter of time until this precious metal made it into the hands of the Swedes (now called Rus in the east).
As opposed to their western counterparts, the Rus did not raid nearly as much. The reason for this is simple: the physical wealth along the Volga River was simply not there for it to be profitable enough. But this does not mean there was no raiding at all, as many expeditions were sent out on the Volga River in order to find this beautiful Arabic silver they had seen. As they raided the settlements on the banks of the river, they also expanded their kingdom and brought back slaves and tributes to the homelands.
The Rus’ first recorded raid was on Gorgan, which is located in today’s Iran. Their style was similar to the Vikings in the west. They arrived in ships, looted, pillaged, and took slaves before returning home. Even if they arrived in a staggering amount of 500 ships, they still got defeated by the Khazars during this raid and many of the Rus were killed. The Rus would, however, get their revenge a few decades later as they launched an attack on the Khazars, which essentially destroyed the entire nation. The Rus now had full control over the region and sent out more raids southwards in attempts to continue their dominance.
Skirmishes against the Byzantine Empire
As the Rus managed to make a name for themselves and establish a strong economic nation, they would obviously attract the attention of stronger empires. Interestingly enough, it was the Rus that dared to make the first hostile action by raiding lands belonging to the Byzantine Empire. This further escalated in the year 860 AD when they sieged Constantinople itself. The Byzantines were caught completely off-guard as they were occupied with the war against the Abbasids that were closing in on Byzantine lands and could not launch an efficient counterattack on two fronts. The Rus ransacked their churches, pillaged the countryside, and captured slaves. The attack was especially brutal, and many lost their homes and lives in the “siege” of Constantinople. For two months, this invasion continued with no successful counterattacks from the Byzantines, as they simply did not have the men to do it. But then, the Rus suddenly left. Patriarch Photious, who was the patriarch of Constantinople of the time, thanked the heavens for this miraculous event that occurred. This does leave scholars puzzled as to why the Rus suddenly left. Did the Emperor return with the army, prompting the Rus to retreat? Did they simply want to get back home in time for winter as it was already in the middle of August? Still, an impressive feat for the Rus to accomplish with only 5000 men, which was around 10% of the main Byzantine army at the time.
In the year 941 AD, the Rus launched an especially big attack on the Byzantines. This time, the Byzantine fleet was once again engaged against the Arabs, as they were at war. The Rus now saw their chance to launch a large-scale raid. Initially, the leader of the Rus, Igor of Kiev, wanted to capture the remaining ships that were left in Constantinople, so he chose a passive stance at the beginning of the attack. Not knowing that the ships were outfitted with Greek fire, the Rus’ first wave of attack was utterly demolished. The attack was dispelled, but this did not prevent the Rus from pillaging the surroundings of the city, which they did in the most brutal fashion. In the Primary Chronicle, it is recorded that the Rus used their captured hostages for target practice, drove nails in their heads, crucified them, and left them out to rot on stakes.
As the Rus were returning to their homeland, they came upon the main Byzantine fleet that was rushing back from the Mediterranean to help defend the capital. Caught by surprise and outnumbered, the Rus fleet was according to some sources, completely destroyed. Not such a successful campaign, you say? Well, only three years later Igor returned with an even bigger fleet (from where he got it, I got no idea). As the Byzantines were still occupied with other wars, they decided to opt for peace, offering tributes. This resulted in the Rus’-Byzantine Treaty of 945. This is an interesting treaty in itself, as in its contents we can see that the majority of the names are still of Scandinavian origin.
Forming the Varangian Guard
As the Byzantine Empire saw success in its growth, it also saw a decline. One such crisis was during the reign of Basil II. Even if he had hugely successful military campaigns, he had one notable defeat which almost wiped out his entire army against Bulgaria at the notorious Trajan’s Gate. The misfortune of some usually means a chance for others, as this incited rebellions in the empire. Basil had fortunately secured the military assistance of Vladimir I of Kiev, who had obligations towards the emperor because of earlier peace treaties. Vladimir then sent 6,000 Rus Vikings (who most likely were quite the unruly or rebellious bunch themselves) to assist the distressed Basil II and retake the lands from the rebellion. But, to the emperor, this proved a most valuable asset indeed as he was able to quench the fires in his empire. These men would serve as the core of a new, elite force, called the Varangian Guard, and later even serve as the emperor's personal bodyguard. As gratitude for Vladimir’s assistance, Basil offered his sister’s hand in marriage, which was a fortuitous offer for the Rus as it would further legitimize their claim and authority. This also marked the beginning of a conversion of faith in Rus, as they embraced Christianity.
The brutality and battle prowess of the “Varangians”, as they are now referenced to, truly astonished the young emperor and he found himself using them in many battles to come. They fought against the Lombards in Italy, and the Arabs to the south and even participated in the crusades, gaining much renown after each battle. One noticeable figure who was once part of the Varangians, was Harald Hardrada, who many know later became the king of Norway and some call “the last Viking.”
The Varangians themselves have such a long and interesting history that will definitely require an entire post by themselves, as such I will be going in more depth about them at a later date. At this point in time, much of the influence and culture of the “Vikings” had already started dissipating from the east. The Rus became more and more assimilated into the Slavic culture, as they had expanded significantly from where they started. The legacy of the Vikings, or Varangians, do live on in the form of runestones, which can be found scattered across Italy, Greece, Turkey, and Sweden, where they documented their legacy much to the joy of historians.