All countries have a story of their origin. Some invoke divine or classical mythologies, stories linking them to sacred acts of creation or ancient civilisations, but most, at least in Europe, have foundation myths generally invented in the eighteenth or early nineteenth centuries. This was a time when nationalist historians, philologists and archaeologists sought to trace their nations back to a primeval ethnos – homogeneous, immutable, containing all the seeds of the modern national character – which they saw reflected in whatever remnants they could find of the early peoples in their territories. The Celts, the Franks, the Gauls, the Goths, the Huns and the Serbs – all have served as the ur-people of a modern nationhood, although in truth they were complex social groups, formed over centuries of great migrations across the European continent.1
The origins of Russia are a case in point. No other country has been so divided over its own beginnings. None has changed its story so often. The subject is inseparable from myth. The only written account that we have, the Tale of Bygone Years, known as the Primary Chronicle, was compiled by the monk Nestor and other monks in Kiev during the 1110s. It tells us how, in 862, the warring Slavic tribes of north-west Russia agreed jointly to invite the Rus, a branch of the Vikings, to rule over them: ‘Our land is vast and abundant, but there is no order in it. Come and reign as princes and have authority over us!’2 Three princely brothers, the Rus, arrived in longboats with their kin. They were accepted by the Slavs. Two brothers died but the third, Riurik, continued ruling over Novgorod, the most important of the northern trading towns, until his death in 879, when his son Oleg succeeded him. Three years later, Oleg captured Kiev, according to this story, and Kievan Rus, the first ‘Russian’ state, was established.
The Primary Chronicle reads more like a fairy tale than a work of history. It is a typical foundation myth – composed to establish the political legitimacy of the Riurikids, the Kievan ruling dynasty, as God’s chosen agents for the Christianisation of the Rus lands. Much of it is fictional – stories patched together from orally transmitted epic songs and narrative poems (known in Russian as byliny), Norse sagas, Slav folklore, old Byzantine annals and religious texts. Nothing in it can be taken as a fact. We cannot say for sure whether Riurik even existed. He may have been Rörik, the nephew, son or possibly the brother of the Danish monarch Harald Klak, who was alive at the right time. But there is no evidence connecting him to Kiev, so the founder of the dynasty may have been a different Viking warrior, or an allegorical figure.3 The Kievan monks were less concerned with the accuracy of their chronicle than with its religious symbolism and meaning. The timescale of the chronicle is biblical. It charts the history of the Rus from Noah in the Book of Genesis, claiming them to be the descendants of his son Japheth, so that Kievan Rus is understood to have been created as part of the divine plan.4
The Primary Chronicle was at the heart of a debate on Russia’s origins that goes back to the first half of the eighteenth century, when history-writing in Russia was in its infancy. The new academic discipline was dominated by Germans. Among them was Gerhard Friedrich Müller (1705–83), who at the age of twenty had joined the teaching staff of the newly founded St Petersburg Academy of Sciences. Müller was the founding editor of the first series of documents and articles on Russian history, the Sammlung Russischer Geschichte (1732–65), published in German to inform a European readership, which knew almost nothing about Russia and its history. The peak of his career came in 1749, when he was tasked with giving an oration for the Empress Elizabeth on her name day. His lecture was entitled ‘On the Origins of the Russian People and their Name’.
In it Müller summarised the findings of other German scholars, who had concluded from their reading of the Primary Chronicle that Russia owed its origins to the Vikings. The Rus, he said, were Scandinavians, whose tribal name derived from Ruotsi, a term used by the Finns to describe the Swedes from Roslagen. But this was not the moment to suggest that Russia was created by the Swedes, or any other foreigners. Russia’s victory in the recent war against Sweden (1741–3) had bolstered patriotic sentiments, which extended to the country’s past. Müller’s lecture was roundly criticised at the Academy. A scrutiny committee was appointed to decide whether it could be delivered – if not on the empress’s name day on 5 September then on the seventh anniversary of her coronation on 25 November – without bringing Russia ‘into disrepute’. Mikhail Lomonosov, Russia’s first great polymath, led the attack on the German, accusing him of setting out to denigrate the Slavs by depicting them as savages, incapable of organising themselves as a state. The Rus, he insisted, were not Swedes but Baltic Slavs, descendants of the Iranian Roxolani tribe, whose history went back to the Trojan Wars. National pride coloured Lomonosov’s criticisms, along with a personal dislike of the German. He wrongly claimed that Müller was unable to read Russian documents, that he made gross errors as a consequence and that, like all foreigners, he could not really know the country’s history because he was not Russian.
Six months of academic arguments ensued. On 8 March 1750, the scrutiny committee banned Müller’s lecture and confiscated all the printed copies of it in both Russian and Latin. Lomonosov took part in the raid. The German was demoted to a junior post and barred from working in the state archive, supposedly to defend the Russian Empire from his attempts to ‘besmirch’ its history. Müller’s academic career never fully recovered, but he published many books, including Origines gentis et nominis Russorum (1761), which developed the ideas of his lecture. Published first in Germany, Origines did not appear in Russian until 1773, a decade after Lomonosov’s Ancient Russian History, a book written as a refutation of Müller’s argument.5
The debate on Russia’s origins has continued to this day. Known as the Normanist Controversy (because the Vikings were Normans), it is highly charged with politics and ideology. The question at its heart is whether Russia was created by the Russians or by foreigners.
In the final decades of the eighteenth century, Müller’s ‘Norman theory’ gained acceptance in the St Petersburg Academy, where German-born historians were dominant. They propagated the theory that Riurik had belonged to a Germanic tribe of Scandinavia and that Russia as a state and culture had thus been founded by Germans. Catherine the Great (herself German-born) supported their position, because it suggested that the Russians were of European stock, a viewpoint she promoted in her many works. In German hands the Normanist position entailed sometimes racist attitudes towards the Slavs. Typical is this passage from a study of the Primary Chronicle by August Ludwig von Schlözer in 1802:
Of course there were people there [in Russia], God knows for how long and from where they came, but they were people without any leadership, living like wild beasts and birds in their vast forests … No enlightened European had noticed them or had written about them. There was not a single real town in the whole of the North … Wild, boorish and isolated Slavs began to be socially acceptable only thanks to the Germans, whose mission, decreed by fate, was to sow the first seeds of civilization among them.6
The Norman theory appealed to defenders of autocracy, supposing as it did that the warring Slavic tribes were incapable of governing themselves. Foremost among them was Nikolai Karamzin, Russia’s first great writer and historian, who leaned heavily on Schlözer’s work in his History of the Russian State (published in twelve volumes between 1818 and 1829). Before the establishment of foreign princely rule, Karamzin declared, Russia had been nothing but an ‘empty space’ with ‘wild and warring tribes, living on a level with the beasts and birds’.7
These views were challenged in the nineteenth century by philologists and archaeologists. Often motivated by nationalist pride in Russia’s ancient Slav culture, they looked for evidence that underlined its advanced social life in the first millennium. The anti-Normanists, as they were called, argued that the Rus were not from Scandinavia (they were not mentioned in the Old Norse sources or sagas) but were Slavs, whose name, they argued, had appeared in Greek sources from the second century and in Arab from the fifth. The Rus homeland, they maintained, was in Ukraine and was marked by Slavic river names (Ros, Rosava, Rusna, Rostavtsya and so on). Excavations of their settlements revealed that they were built in a defensive circle, in stark contrast to the Vikings’ open settlements, and that they had attained a high level of material culture from their contacts with Hellenic, Byzantine and Asiatic civilisations long before the Vikings had arrived.
The fortunes of the anti-Normanists rose in line with the influence of nationalism on the Russian state. They peaked in Stalin’s time, particularly after 1945, when a Great Russian chauvinism, boosted by the victory over Nazi Germany, was placed at the heart of Soviet ideology. The ethno-archaeology of early Slavic settlements became heavily politicised. Massive state investments were made in excavations whose remit was to show a ‘Slavic homeland’ stretching from the Volga River in the east to the Elbe River in the west, from the Baltic in the north to the Aegean and Black Seas – in other words the area that Stalin claimed as a Soviet ‘sphere of influence’ during the Cold War. The idea that Russia owed its origins to any foreign power – least of all to the ‘Germanic’ Vikings – became inadmissible. Scholars who had dared to suggest so were forced by the Party to revise their work.8
The Soviet view of Russia’s origins was thus entangled in a concept of ethnicity, in which the ethnos was regarded as an ancient core of national identity, persisting throughout history, despite changes in society. At a time when Western scholars were coming to the view that ethnic groups were modern intellectual constructions, invented categories imposed on complex social groups, their Soviet counterparts were analysing them as primordial entities defined by biology. Through the study of ethnogenesis they traced modern Russia to a single people in the Iron Age, claiming that the Russians were descendants of the ancient Slavs.
This approach resurfaced with an even greater force after the collapse of the Soviet Union, when Russian, Ukrainian and Belarusian nationalists competed with each other for an ethnic claim of origin from the Kievan legacy. Here was Putin’s purpose in his speech on the unveiling of the Moscow monument to Prince Vladimir. Asserting Russia’s inheritance from Kiev, he invoked the old imperial myth that the Russians, the Ukrainians and the Belarusians were historically one people, three ethnic sub-groups of a single nation, thus establishing a ‘natural’ sphere of influence for today’s Russia in its original ‘ancestral lands’. History of course is more complex – even if it is a story too.
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Russia grew on the forest lands and steppes between Europe and Asia. There are no natural boundaries, neither seas nor mountain ranges, to define its territory, which throughout its history has been colonised by peoples from both continents. The Ural mountains, said to be the frontier dividing ‘European Russia’ from Siberia, offered no protection to the Russian settlers against the nomadic tribes from the Asiatic steppe. They are a series of high ranges broken up by broad passes. In many places they are more like hills. It is significant that the word in Russian for a ‘hill’ or ‘mountain’ is the same (gora). This is a country on one horizontal plain.
On either side of the Urals the terrain is the same: a vast steppe, eleven time zones long, stretching from the borderlands of Russia in the west to the Pacific Ocean in the east. This territorial continuum is made up of four bands or zones that run in parallel from one end to the other, more or less. The first of these zones, around one-fifth of Russia’s land mass, is above the Arctic circle, where the treeless tundra remains under snow and ice for eight months every year. Nomadic reindeer-herders, fur- and walrus-hunters were the only people to inhabit these regions until the twentieth century, when the discovery of coal, gold, platinum and diamonds in the permafrost led to the Gulag’s colonisation of the Arctic zone, where 2 million Russians live today. Most of them are descendants of the Gulag’s prisoners.
Moving south, we come next to the taiga forest zone, the largest coniferous forest in the world, stretching from the Baltic to the Pacific. It is made up of pine trees, spruce and larch, interspersed with marshes, lakes and gentle-running rivers, the fastest means of travel in this zone until the nineteenth century.
Pine forests give way to mixed woodlands and open wooded steppelands to the south of Moscow, where the rich black soil is in places up to several metres deep. This third band of Russia’s land, known as the central agricultural zone, is wide at the western end, where it merges into the Hungarian plain, but narrows in the east, towards Siberia, where the taiga takes over. The fertile zone was secured by the Russians from the sixteenth century.
Finally, in the far south, we come to the Pontic steppe, the semi-arid grasslands and savannas running from the Black Sea’s northern coastline in the west to the Caspian Sea and Kazakhstan in the east. The area was conquered by the Russians from the nomadic Turkic tribes only from the eighteenth century. It forms the religious fault line between Russia and the Muslim world.
The earliest recorded settlers in the lands that became known as Kievan Rus were the Slavs, although there were Finno-Ugric tribes, such as the Estonians, in the northern forest zones from the middle of the first millennium. According to the story told by most historians, the Slavs were forced to flee to the forests of the north by the Turkic tribes, whose military power gave them control of the grasslands further south. The Slavs spread out through the great primeval forests in small groups, clearing trees and burning their debris to sow crops in the ashen ground (a method known as slash and burn). Farming in the northern forest zone was arduous. A strong collectivism was essential to survive. Labour teams were needed to clear the trees, and to sow and harvest all the crops during the short growing season between the thaw and spring floods of April and the beginning of the winter freeze in October. The soil is poor, sandy, thin, on top of rock. Only rye, among the cereals, could be grown here, and the harvest yields were low. Yet the forests gave the peasants other means of livelihood: furs, honey, wax, fishing, carpentry.
The Slavs lived in settlements enclosed by wooden walls. Democratic in their character, they were governed by assemblies of the adult men (the Byzantines considered their democracy ‘disorder and anarchy’).9 Masters of the axe, the Slavs were skilled in turning trees into buildings, longboats and canoes, meaning they were able to add fishing and trade along the rivers to their means of livelihood. Their numbers grew, forcing the Finno-Ugric tribes to retreat deeper into the forest. By the end of the first millennium, the Slavs had developed a durable, adaptive peasant culture, based on collectivism and a spirit of endurance which have characterised the Russians for much of their history.
The Vikings came to Russia, not to loot, as they did in England (Russia was too poor for that), but to use its many waterways for long-distance trade between Europe and Asia. The name of the Rus was probably derived from the Old Norse word róa, which means ‘to row’, suggesting that the Rus were known as boatmen and most probably were quite diverse in ethnic terms. They were not a tribe united by a common ethnic origin but an army based on a common business enterprise. They sailed in their longboats from the eastern Swedish coast to the mouth of the Neva River, the location of St Petersburg today. From there they rowed up the Neva to Lake Ladoga, an important trading post, where they obtained slaves and precious furs from the Slavs and other peoples of the north (the words ‘Slav’ and ‘slave’ became synonymous in the Viking lexicon). The cargo was transported south along the Dnieper, Don and Volga rivers, across the Black Sea and the Caspian, to the markets of Byzantium and the Arab caliphate, where slaves and furs were highly prized. The Rus returned with silver coins, glass beads, metalwares and jewellery – artefacts retrieved by archaeologists from graves at Old Ladoga, thought to be the earliest Viking settlement, dating back to the eighth century. The graves also contained leather shoes, combs made of bone and antlers, runic amulets and wooden sticks of a kind found in Scandinavia too.10
The Rus quickly settled down and assimilated into the Slav populace. Settlements like Old Ladoga were polyethnic communities with a Viking warrior elite, Slav and Finnic farmers and craftsmen. The Rus adopted the Slavs’ language, names, customs and religious rituals, a process of assimilation accelerated by their shared conversion to Christianity during the tenth century. For this reason there are few Scandinavian traces in the Russian language or place names in Russia – a marked contrast with the heavy Viking influence on both language and place names in England and Germany.11
The Rus made a strong impression on the Arabs who encountered them. Ibn Fadlan met a group of merchants at Itil, on the Volga near the Caspian Sea, in 921:
I have seen the Rus as they came on their merchant journeys and encamped by Itil. I have never seen more perfect physical specimens, tall as date palms, blond and ruddy; they wear neither tunics nor kaftans, 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. 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.12
Itil was the capital of the Khazar state, or khaganate, a multi-confessional trading empire, headed by a Turkic warrior elite, which extended from the Aral Sea to the Carpathian Mountains, from the Caucasus to the upper Volga forest lands. It had an ordered government, efficient means of tax collecting and the military power to protect the river trading routes against the nomadic tribes, the most dangerous being the Polovtsians (also known as Kipchaks or Cumans). Founded as a series of scattered settlements in the middle of the first millennium, Kiev had developed as a Khazar stronghold controlling the Dnieper River on the trading route between the Baltic and Byzantium.
The Khazar influence on the development of Kievan Rus is a matter of controversy. Some scholars think that Khazars played a more important part than the Vikings or the Slavs.13 Byzantine and Arab writers described the Rus as vassals of the khaganate, linked to it through marriages. The first Rus rulers called themselves khagans, suggesting that they derived their authority from the Khazars. They certainly had better relations with the Khazars than allowed by the medieval chronicles, which paint a picture of unending raids and violence by the Turkic-speaking Khazar tribes against peaceful Russian settlers. Historians of Russia in the nineteenth century relied completely on these chronicles. They told a story of the nation’s beginnings as an epic struggle by the agriculturalists of the northern forest lands against the horsemen of the Asiatic steppe. This national myth became so fundamental to the Russians’ European self-identity that even to suggest that their ancestors had been influenced by the Asiatic cultures of the steppe was to invite accusations of treason. In fact raids by the steppeland tribes were infrequent, and there were long periods of peaceful coexistence, trade, cooperation, social intermingling and even intermarriage between the Slavs and their nomadic neighbours on the steppe. The influence of the steppeland tribes was manifested in the Rus elite’s adoption of their dress and status symbols, such as the wearing of belts studded with heavy metal mounts and bridles with elaborate sets of ornaments.14 We need to think of early Rus, not as a story of hostile confrontation between the forest settlers and steppe nomads, but as one of largely peaceful interaction between all the peoples of Eurasia. We should think of it, perhaps, not in terms of ethnic groups at all, but as a trading union of diverse groups – Slavs, Finns, Vikings and Khazars.15
Kievan Rus emerged as the Khazar state declined. The growing military power of the Rus enabled them to free themselves from paying taxes to the khaganate; it also allowed them to assume the latter’s role as the protector of the northern borders of Byzantium, a role which brought them rich rewards in the form of trade concessions in Constantinople, the Byzantine capital. As their power grew, the Rus warriors attacked the Khazar tribute-paying lands between the Volga and Dnieper. In 882 they captured Kiev, which became the capital of Kievan Rus.
Under the first Rus princes Kiev developed into an important trading centre between the Black and Baltic seas. In the Podol district of the city archaeologists have found large quantities of Byzantine coinage, amphoras and the weights of scales, as well as the remains of log houses built in a technique (without using nails) associated with the Russian north. To grow the population and tax base of the new state the grand prince Vladimir forcibly transported entire Slav communities from the northern forests to the regions around Kiev. It was the start of a long tradition of mass population movements enforced by the Russian state.16
Establishing their power-base in Kiev entailed two important changes for the Rus. First there was a shift in focus from long-distance trade to the business of collecting tribute, from which they had seen the Khazars thrive. Lands once controlled by the khaganate were now taxed by Kiev, which built forts and towns to protect its dominion of the western steppe. Secondly, the main flow of trade moved from the Volga and the Muslim world to the Dnieper and Byzantium. This turn to the south was consolidated by a series of commercial treaties between Kievan Rus and the Byzantine Empire. Each was preceded by a Rus attack on Constantinople whose aim was to force the Byzantines to open up their markets and improve the terms of trade. The first of these treaties, in 911, made generous concessions to the Rus traders.
Through trade and diplomacy pagan Rus was drawn into the Christian civilisation of the Byzantine Empire. Princess Olga, who reigned as a regent of Kievan Rus between 945 and 960, led the way. She had herself baptised in Constantinople, where she cemented a military alliance with the emperor by adopting for herself the same name as the reigning empress Helen (Elena in Russian). Her son Sviatoslav remained a pagan, but her grandson, the grand prince Vladimir, had not just himself but all his realm converted to the Eastern Orthodox Church in 988.
According to the Primary Chronicle, Vladimir’s conversion was the outcome of his search for the True Faith. The story goes that he was visited by representatives of the neighbouring states, each one seeking to convert him to their religion. First came the Islamic envoy of the Volga Bulgars, who enticed Vladimir with promises of carnal satisfaction in the afterlife (this was a man who, according to legend, had 800 wives), but put him off entirely with the Muslim ban on alcohol (‘Drinking is the joy of the Rus. We cannot live without it,’ the prince declared). Next came the German papal emissaries, followed by a Khazar delegation of rabbis (the Khazar leaders had embraced Judaism during the ninth century). Neither impressed Vladimir. Finally the Byzantines arrived. Their arguments persuaded him to send his envoys to observe the various faiths in their own environment. Among the Volga Bulgars they found only ‘sorrow and a dreadful stench’. In Germany they ‘beheld no glory’. But in the Hagia Sophia of Constantinople, ‘We knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth,’ they reported on the liturgy in the basilica, ‘for surely there is no such splendour or beauty anywhere on earth. We cannot describe it to you. We only know that God dwells there among men. For we cannot forget that beauty.’17
Like the rest of the Primary Chronicle, the story is apocryphal. Vladimir’s conversion had more to do with statecraft and diplomacy than with the aesthetics of religious rites. The acquisition of a single, unifying religion could help to legitimise the Kievan state and extend its authority throughout its multi-ethnic territory, where various beliefs and pagan cults militated against princely rule. The existence of a readily translated Church Slavonic literature – enabling the dissemination of its teachings over a large area – gave the Orthodox Christians a clear advantage over other religions whose scriptures were not yet in Slavonic. The key factor here was the work of the brothers Cyril and Methodius, the ninth-century missionaries sent by the Byzantine emperor to spread Christianity among the Slavs. They had translated the Greek Gospels into the Glagolitic script (an early version of Cyrillic, named after Cyril by his followers). This had made it possible to have a Christian service in the Slavic tongue rather than in Greek, which the population did not understand.18
At this point in the Primary Chronicle we are told that Vladimir converted in the Crimea, where he had gone with 6,000 of his warriors to crush a rebellion against the Byzantine emperor Basil II. The prize for his service was the hand of Anna, the emperor’s sister, upon his conversion to Christianity. After he had put down the revolt, the Chronicle informs us, he had to threaten an attack on Constantinople before Basil honoured his end of the bargain and the marriage was secured. All this may be nothing but legend, a story later told by the monks in Kiev to depict Vladimir and therefore Kievan Rus as an equal to Byzantium, instead of a vassal state. It is just as likely that Vladimir had put down the uprising as an agent of the Byzantines, and as such had been made to convert before his departure for the Crimea.19 Instead of the act of self-determination celebrated by the modern Russian and Ukrainian states, Vladimir’s conversion to the Eastern Church may have been a declaration of his kingdom’s subjugation to the Byzantine Empire.
Copyright © 2022 by Orlando Figes