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Rus' (people)

The Rus' (Slavic: Русь; Greek: Ῥῶς) were a group of Varangians (according to the so-called Normanist theory, these were Vikings, predominantly from the present-day Sweden).[1][2][3][4] According to the Primary Chronicle of Rus', compiled in about 1113 AD, the Rus' had relocated from the Baltic region ("from over the sea"), first to northeastern Europe, creating an early polity which finally came under the leadership of Rurik. Later, Rurik's relative Oleg captured Kiev, founding Kievan Rus'.[5][6] The descendants of Rurik were the ruling dynasty of Rus' (after 862), and of principalities created in the area formerly occupied by Kievan Rus, Galicia-Volhynia (after 1199), Chernigov, Vladimir-Suzdal, Grand Duchy of Moscow, and the founders of the Tsardom of Russia.[7]

Their name survives in the designation Rospigg, a person from the coastal area of Uppland, Sweden, called Roslagen, literally "the land of rowing", and the cognates Russians, Rusyns and Ruthenians, giving their name to the land of Rus', as well as the ethnonym of its majority East Slavic population. Today, the Swedes are still designated in Finnish and Estonian as ruotsalaiset and rootslased, respectively.[1]


Main article: Rus (name)

According to the most prominent theory, the name Rus', like the Finnish name for Sweden (Ruotsi), is derived from an Old Norse term for "the men who row" (rods-) as rowing was the main method of navigating the rivers of Eastern Europe, and that it could be linked to the Swedish coastal area of Roslagen (Rus-law) or Roden, as it was known in earlier times.[1][8][9] The name Rus' would then have the same origin as the Finnish and Estonian names for Sweden: Ruotsi and Rootsi.[1]

Another theory is that the name comes from Rüstringen in Frisia (today in Lower Saxony, Germany),[10] a land ruled by the Danish Viking Rorik of Dorestad, who was suggested to be the same as Rurik of Novgorod.

Key sources

Slavic sources

According to the earliest East Slavic record, the Primary Chronicle, the Rus' were a group of Varangians among others like Swedes and Gutes who lived on the other side of the Baltic Sea, in Scandinavia and as far as the land of the English and the French.[9] The Varangians were first expelled, then invited to rule the warring Slavic and Finnic tribes of Novgorod:

The four tribes who had been forced to pay tribute to the Varangians — Chuds, Slavs, Merians, and Krivichs drove the Varangians back beyond the sea, refused to pay them further tribute, and set out to govern themselves. But there was no law among them, and tribe rose against tribe. Discord thus ensued among them, and they began to war one against the other. They said to themselves, "Let us seek a prince who may rule over us, and judge us according to custom". Thus they went overseas to the Varangians, to the Rus. These particular Varangians were known as Rus, just as some are called Swedes, and others Normans and Angles, and still others Gutes, for they were thus named. The Chuds, the Slavs, the Krivichs and the Veps then said to the Rus, "Our land is great and rich, but there is no order in it. Come reign as princes, rule over us". Three brothers, with their kinfolk, were selected. They brought with them all the Rus and migrated.
—The Primary Chronicle[11]

Later, the Primary Chronicle tells us, they conquered Kiev and created the state of Kievan Rus' (which, as most historians agree, was preceded by the Rus' Khaganate). The territory they conquered was named after them as were, eventually, the local people (see Etymology of Rus and derivatives for further details).

Islamic sources

Further information: Caspian expeditions of the Rus'

Ibn Haukal and two other early Islamic sources such as Muhammad al-Idrisi, who would follow them later, distinguish three groups of the Rus: Kuyavia, Slavia, and Arcania. In the mainstream Russian-Soviet historiography (as represented by Boris Rybakov), these were tentatively identified with the "tribal centres" at Kiev, Novgorod and Tmutarakan.

The Muslim diplomat and traveller, Ahmad ibn Fadlan, who visited Volga Bulgaria in 922, described the Rus' (Rusiyyah) in the terms strongly suggestive of the Norsemen:

I have seen the Rus as they came on their merchant journeys and encamped by the Itil. I have never seen more perfect physical specimens, tall as date palms, blond and ruddy; they wear neither tunics nor caftans, but the men wear a garment which covers one side of the body and leaves a hand free. Each man has an axe, a sword, and a knife, and keeps each by him at all times. The swords are broad and grooved, of Frankish sort. Each woman wears on either breast a box of iron, silver, copper, or gold; the value of the box indicates the wealth of the husband. Each box has a ring from which depends a knife. The women wear neck-rings of gold and silver. Their most prized ornaments are green glass beads. They string them as necklaces for their women.
—Gwyn Jones, A History of the Vikings[12]

Apart from Ibn Fadlan's account, the Normanist theory draws heavily on the evidence of the Persian traveler Ibn Rustah who allegedly visited Novgorod (or Tmutarakan, according to George Vernadsky) and described how the Rus' exploited the Slavs.

As for the Rus, they live on an island ... that takes three days to walk round and is covered with thick undergrowth and forests; it is most unhealthy.... They harry the Slavs, using ships to reach them; they carry them off as slaves and…sell them. They have no fields but simply live on what they get from the Slav's lands.... When a son is born, the father will go up to the newborn baby, sword in hand; throwing it down, he says, "I shall not leave you with any property: You have only what you can provide with this weapon."
—Ibn Rustah, National Geographic[13]

Byzantine sources

Further information: Rus'–Byzantine War and Rus'–Byzantine Treaty

When the Varangians first appeared in Constantinople (the Paphlagonian expedition of the Rus' in the 820's and the Siege of Constantinople in 860), the Byzantines seem to have perceived the Rhos (Greek: Ῥώς) as a different people from the Slavs. At least they are never said to be part of the Slavic race. Characteristically, pseudo-Symeon Magister refers to the Rhos as Δρομῖται, a word related to the Greek word meaning "a run", suggesting the mobility of their movement by waterways.

In his treatise De Administrando Imperio, Constantine VII describes the Rhos as the neighbours of Pechenegs who buy from the latter cows, horses, and sheep "because none of these animals may be found in Rhosia". His description represents the Rus' as a warlike northern tribe. Constantine also enumerates the names of the Dnieper cataracts in both Rhos and in Slavic languages. The Rhos names have distinct Germanic etymology:[14]

  • Essoupi (Old Norse vesuppi, "do not sleep")
  • Oulvorsi (Old Norse holmfors, "island rapid")
  • Gelandri (Old Norse gjallandi, "yelling, loudly ringing")
  • Aeifor (Old Norse eiforr, "ever fierce")
  • Varouforos (Old Norse varufors, "cliff rapid" or barufors, "wave rapid")
  • Leanti (Old Norse leandi, "seething", or hlæjandi, "laughing")
  • Stroukoun (Old Norse strukum, "rapid current").

Western European sources

The first Western European source to mention the Rus' are the Annals of St. Bertin. These relate that Emperor Louis the Pious' court at Ingelheim, in 839, was visited by a delegation from the Byzantine emperor. In this delegation there were two men who called themselves Rhos (Rhos vocari dicebant). Louis enquired about their origins and learnt that they were Swedes. Fearing that they were spies for their brothers, the Danes, he incarcerated them. Subsequently, in the 10th and 11th centuries, Latin sources routinely confused the Rus' with the extinct East Germanic tribe of Rugians. Olga of Kiev, for instance, was designated in one manuscript as a Rugian queen.

Another source comes from Liutprand of Cremona, a 10th-century Lombard bishop who in a report from Constantinople to Holy Roman Emperor Otto I wrote that he had met "the Russians whom we know by the other name of Norsemen.[15][16]


Further information: Norsemen, Vikings and Varangians

Having settled Aldeigja (Ladoga) in the 750s, Scandinavian colonists played an important role in the early ethnogenesis of the Rus' people and in the formation of the Rus' Khaganate. The Varangians (Varyags, in Old East Slavic) are first mentioned by the Primary Chronicle as having exacted tribute from the Slavic and Finnic tribes in 859. It was the time of rapid expansion of the Vikings in Northern Europe; England began to pay Danegeld in 859, and the Curonians of Grobin faced an invasion by the Swedes at about the same date.

Due largely to geographic considerations, it is often argued that most of the Varangians who traveled and settled in the eastern Baltic, Russia and lands to the south came from the area of modern Sweden .[17]

The Varangians left a number of rune stones in their native Sweden that tell of their journeys to what is today Russia, Ukraine, Greece, and Belarus. Most of these rune stones can be seen today, and are a telling piece of historical evidence. The Varangian runestones tell of many notable Varangian expeditions, and even account for the fates of individual warriors and travelers.

The Vikings allegedly had some enduring influence in Rus, as testified by loan words (these ones persist from Glagolitic script at Adriatic prior and out of any Vikings), such as yabeda “complaining person” (from æmbætti, embætti “office”), skot [18] “cattle” (? from skattr "tax") and knout (from knútr, “a knotty wood”). Moreover three Nordic names of the first Varangian rulers also became popular among the later Rurikids and then among the East Slavic people in general: Oleg (Helgi), Olga (Helga) and Igor (Ingvar).

Academic history

The Western account of the Norsemen was introduced to Russians by the German historian Gerhardt Friedrich Müller (1705–1783), who was invited to work in the Russian Academy of Sciences in 1748. At the beginning of an important speech in 1749, Müller declared that the "glorious Scandinavians conquered all the Russian lands with their victorious arms". This statement caused much anger in the hearts of his Russian audience, and earned him much animosity during his professional career in Russia. The remainder of the speech represented a lengthy list of Russian defeats by the Germans and Swedes, Müller was forced to curtail his lecture by shouts of anger from the audience. The scathing criticism from Lomonosov, Krasheninnikov, and other Russian historians led to Müller being forced to suspend his work on the issue until Lomonosov's death. Although the printed text of the original lecture was destroyed, Müller managed to rework it and had it reprinted as Origines Rossicae in 1768.

There were however some Russian historians that accepted this historical account — including Nikolai Karamzin (1766–1826) and his disciple Mikhail Pogodin (1800–75) — gave credit to the claims of the Primary Chronicle that the Varangians were invited by East Slavs to rule over them and bring order. The theory was not without political implications. In Karamzin's writing the Norse migration formed the basis and justification for Russian autocracy (as opposed to anarchy of the pre-Rurikid period), and Pogodin used the theory to advance his view that Russia was immune to social upheavals and revolutions, because the Russian state originated from a voluntary treaty between the people of Novgorod and Varangian rulers.

Genetic studies in the "Family Tree DNA Rurikid Dynasty Project" support the Norse theory, pinpointing the origin of the Monomakhovich (the descendants of Vladimir II Monomakh) branch of Rurikid descendants' DNA consistent with the North Germanic inhabitants of Uppland, North of Stockholm in Sweden.[19][20]

Russian views of the Rus'

Starting with Lomonosov (1711–1765), scholars from Eastern Europe have criticised the idea of Norse invaders. In the early 20th century, the traditional anti-Normanist doctrine (as articulated by Dmitry Ilovaisky) seemed to have lost currency, but in Stalinist Russia, the anti-Normanist arguments were revived and adopted in official Soviet historiography. Mikhail Artamonov ranks among those who attempted to reconcile both theories by hypothesizing that the Kievan state united the southern Rus' (of Slavic stock) and the northern Rus' (of Germanic stock) into a single nation.

The staunchest advocate of the anti-Normanist views in the post-WWII period was Boris Rybakov, who argued that the cultural level of the Varangians could not have warranted an invitation from the culturally advanced Slavs. This conclusion leads Slavicists to deny the Primary Chronicle, which writes that the Varangian Rus' were invited by the native Slavs. Rybakov assumed, that Nestor, putative author of the Chronicle, was biased against the pro-Greek party of Vladimir Monomakh and supported the pro-Scandinavian party of the ruling prince Svyatopolk. He cites Nestor as a pro-Scandinavian manipulator and compares his account of Rurik's invitation with numerous similar stories found in folklore around the world.

There have been quite a few alternative, non-Normanist origins for the word Rus, although none was endorsed in the Western academic mainstream:

  • Three early emperors of the Urartian Empire at Caucasus from 8th to 6th century B.C. had their names Russa I, Russa II and Russa III, documented in cuneiform monuments.
  • The medieval Ukrainian and Polish legend of three brothers, one named Rus, had also its predecessor in very similar legend from ancient Armenians with almost the same classical name (studies by D.J. Marr). Furthermore, Kiev was founded centuries before the Rus' rule.
  • The ancient Sarmatian tribe of the Roxolani (from the Ossetic, ruhs ‘light’; R русые волосы /rusyje volosy/ "light-brown hair"; cf. Dahl's dictionary definition of Русь /rus/: Русь ж. в знач. мир, белсвет. Rus, fig. world, universe [белсвет: lit. "white world", "white light"]).
  • From the Old Slavic name that meant "river-people" (tribes of fishermen and ploughmen who settled near the rivers Dnieper, Don, Dniester and Western Dvina and were known to navigate them). The rus root is preserved in the modern Slavic and Russian words "ruslo" (river-bed), "rusalka" (water sprite), etc.
  • From one of two rivers in Ukraine (near Kiev and Pereyaslav), Ros' and Rusna, whose names are derived from a postulated Slavic term for water, akin to rosa (dew) (related to the above theory).
  • A Slavic word rusy (refers only to hair color — from dark ash-blond to light-brown), cognate with ryzhy (red-haired) and English red.
  • A postulated proto-Slavic word for bear, cognate with Greek arctos and Latin ursus.
  • The modern Finnish word "Ruotsi" means Sweden and refers to the Swedish people ("Ruotsalainen") which in turn is very similar to the Slavic word "Rus" and could be historically connected.[21]

According to F. Donald Logan (The Vikings in History, cit. Montgomery, p. 24), "in 839, the Rus' were Swedes. In 1043, the Rus' were Slavs." The Scandinavians were assimilated and, unlike their brethren in England and in Normandy, they left little cultural heritage in Eastern Europe. This near absence of cultural traces (besides several names, as discussed above, and arguably the veche-system of Novgorod, comparable to thing in Scandinavia), is remarkable, and the Slavicists therefore call the Vikings "cultural chameleons", who came, ruled and then disappeared, leaving little cultural trace in Eastern Europe.



  • The Annals of Saint-Bertin, transl. Janet L. Nelson, Ninth-Century Histories 1 (Manchester and New York, 1991).
  • Davies, Norman. Europe: A History New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.
  • Christian, David. A History of Russia, Mongolia, and Central Asia. Blackwell, 1999.
  • Danylenko, Andrii. "The name Rus': In search of a new dimension." Jahrbueher fuer Geschichte Osteuropas 52 (2004), 1-32.
  • Davidson, H.R. Ellis, The Viking Road to Byzantium. Allen & Unwin, 1976.
  • Dolukhanov, Pavel M. The Early Slavs: Eastern Europe from the Initial Settlement to the Kievan Rus. New York: Longman, 1996.
  • Duczko, Wladyslaw. ISBN 90-04-13874-9).
  • Goehrke, C. Frühzeit des Ostslaven. Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1992.
  • Magocsi, Paul R. A History of Ukraine. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1996.
  • Pritsak, Omeljan. The Origin of Rus'. Cambridge Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1991.
  • Stang, Hakon. The Naming of Russia. Oslo: Middelelser, 1996.
  • Brockhaus and Efron)

External links

  • KiB)
  • An overview of the controversy
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