Who were the Kievan Rus and what do they have to do with the Vikings?

When the Vikings burst forth from Scandinavia, they didn't only head west to Brtain. Heading east, they travelled deep along the Volga and Dnieper Rivers, seizing control of ancient trade routes that reached all the way to the Byzantine empire

Monument to Prince Vladimir the Great in Moscow

There were rumours that Viking expeditions across the Mediterranean Basin had reached the capital of the Byzantine empire, Constantinople. Whether true or not, the Vikings would get to the city by other means, lured by its riches and trade opportunities.

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Heading east from the ninth century onwards, these Vikings became known as the Rus, a moniker that lives on in the names of two countries, Russia and Belarus.

They charted a course across the Baltic Sea and deep into mainland eastern Europe, via the Volga and Dnieper Rivers, taking command of local trade routes from the native population of Slavic tribes, which, in turn, fed into markets where they could deal with prosperous caliphates in the Middle East.

Who were the Rus Vikings?

The Rus became both very powerful and very rich. They established a ruling dynasty under their ruler Rurik and, from AD 879, formed the Kievan Rus state, based in Kiev. This dynasty controlled a huge trade network and would go on to last seven centuries. Rurik would be succeeded by Prince Oleg the Prophet – who makes an appearance as an antagonist in the History Channel’s drama Vikings.

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Vladimir the Great, a descendent of Rurik, consolidated Kievan Rus from modern-day Ukraine to the Baltic Sea after being overthrown by his own brother. He was then baptised and converted the entire region to Christianity.

Constantinople, though, remained a great prize in their eyes. The Rus launched a series of assaults, but failed to take control of this strategically vital and wealthy city. Some Rus were actually co-opted to defend Constantinople when, in AD 988, Vladimir the Great gave Byzantine emperor Basil II some 6,000 of his men to form a mercenary brigade, the Varangian Guard.

The assimilation of the Rus throughout eastern Europe led to widespread marriages with women from various Slavic tribes. This interbreeding led to the rise of a significant new ethnic delineation. The Russians were born.

Nige Tassell is a freelance journalist specialising in history

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This content was first published in the November 2020 issue of BBC History Revealed