The Vikings in the East

Viking Age burial mounds at Staraya Ladoga in northwestern Russia. Image sourced from Wikimedia Commons.


Although we may regard it as being on the northern periphery of Europe, Scandinavia stood at a crossroads in medieval trade networks. The sea provided quick access by boat to the North Atlantic, the British Isles, Ireland and the northwestern coast of Frisia, Francia and Spain. To the east, the networks of the vast Dnieper and Volga rivers gave Scandinavians access to the heartlands of modern Russia and Ukraine. The shallow-draught boats that allowed the Norse to strike at the heart of Francia and Anglo-Saxon England were ideal for long-haul trips down these river systems. In areas where the rivers were impassable, the boats could be hoisted out of the water and carried over short distances: this is known as portaging. In this way, the Norse could travel all the way down the Dnieper from the Baltic to the Black Sea, from where they could sail on to Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire, which at that time was one of the most prosperous ports in the world. Constantinople offered both a lucrative market and employment for Norse warriors looking to make their fortune. These soldiers of fortune were known as Varangians and were particularly sought after for the bodyguard of the Byzantine Emperor. The Volga allowed the Norse to travel to Itil, the capital of Khazar Khaganate on the edge of the Caspian Sea, which in turn gave them overland access to Baghdad, the capital of the Abbasid Caliphate.

The Dneiper and Volga networks.

Norse interactions in the East differed somewhat from those in Western Europe, in part because the people they encountered there were so different. Rather than the Roman Christians that populated all of Western Europe, in the East the Norse encountered Orthodox Christians, pagan Slavs, Jewish Khazars and Muslims from the Abbasid Caliphate and the Samanid Empire. Furthermore, the geography of the area shaped the nature of the Norse experience in the East. The hit-and-run attacks that were carried out in the West were not possible. The journey from the Baltic to the Black Sea or the Caspian was dangerous as the rivers systems offered ample opportunities for ambushes and piracy. It was an expensive and risky journey even for military expeditions, let alone traders. Furthermore, unlike Western Europe there were few cities where wealth was concentrated and could be extracted easily. Permanent infrastructure was required to fully exploit the resources of these lands. This created pressure to establish unified communities from an early stage. The Scandinavians who settled along these eastern trade routes became known as the Rus’ (possibly from an early Finnish word for Sweden, ‘Ruotsi’), and it is from them that the name of Russia derives.


Staraya Ladoga

The trading site of Staraya Ladoga was founded by Norse traders as early as the 750s on the banks of the Volkhov river in western Russia, just south of Lake Ladoga. The town was ideally positioned as a waypoint along trade routes heading from the Baltic east to the Volga. The initial traders became involved in the lucrative trade of furs from northern areas; this initial settlement is unlikely to have had anything to do with ‘Viking’ activity, as there were not many opportunities for looting in this area. The fur trade with the Khazars opened up the flow of Islamic dirhams into Russia and Scandinavia: this Arabic silver would become the lifeblood of the Scandinavian economy in the ninth and early tenth century.

The Arrival of Rurik to Ladoga, a nineteenth-century painting by Viktor Vasnetsov. Image sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

At first, Staraya Ladoga was a seasonal trading site, meaning that it was only inhabited at certain times of the year. By the mid-ninth century, however, the town had become permanent and shows signs of craft-production. These permanent inhabitants are likely to have been a mix of Scandinavians, Finns and Slavs. Soon, smaller trading settlements began to spring up along the Volga, which were similarly mixed, with Scandinavians probably constituting a small (but wealthy) minority.


The Volga Vikings

The groups of traders, merchants and raiders who made their living by the Volga trade routes are popularly known as the Volga Vikings. Their lives revolved around the trade of furs from the north with goods and silver from the Khazar Khaganate and beyond. The Volga Vikings are described in numerous Arabic accounts from the Viking Age. Abu’l ibn Khordadbeh was the first Arab to describe the ar-Rus in an account written between 844–848. He describes their route to the east and the commodities they brought with them. He also states that these traders often transported the goods by camel to Baghdad, passing themselves off as Christian in order to gain entrance to the strictly regulated city (Christians were allowed to enter as they were also followers of the Book). The most well-known Arabic account of the Volga Vikings, however, was that of Ahmad ibn Fadlan, who travelled to the Volga Bulghars (Turkic inhabitants of the lands north of the Black Sea) in 921–922 to spread the Muslim faith to them. Along the way, ibn Fadlan encountered the ‘Rusiya’ (as he called the Rus’), famously describing their ritualistic burial of one of their chieftains. From this account, we get the impression that the Volga Vikings were maintaining traditions and beliefs from their Norse origins, although it is likely that they had become slightly different over time. However, some of the Volga Vikings may have converted to Islam. Ibn Fadlan refers to a group of people call ‘al-baringar’ (a rendering of Varangian?) who had converted. Centuries later, the writings of Amin Razi preserve accounts of Rus’ converts among the Volga Bulghars, noting that the converts continued to eat pork.

Rus' Byzantium

Relations with Byzantium were not always as harmonious as these events imply. Throughout the ninth century, bands of Scandinavians had attacked Constantinople (most notable in 860) and other Greek sites around the Black Sea. At some point between 907 and 912, Oleg Riurikid carried out an attack on the Byzantine capital that forced the Byzantines to agree to giving Rus’ traders preferential treatment in Constantinople. This seems to have opened diplomatic correspondence between the two powers, as Byzantine seals from the tenth century have been found at Kiev. By 950, there large flotillas of merchant ships were sailing from Kiev to Constantinople every year. Yet Rus’ attacks on Byzantine towns around the Black Sea continued (most notably between 941–945). This produced another treaty in which Byzantine officials attempted to strictly control the conduct of Rus’ trade within Constantinople (such as forbidding the carrying of weapons). Relations improved towards the end of the century. Olga, the wife of the Rus’ king Igor, visited Constantinople in 957 and converted to Christianity, although she was unable to persuade her son Sviatoslav (Vladimir’s father) to do the same. Nevertheless, Sviatoslav remained on good terms with the Byzantines, paving the way for Vladimir’s own positive interactions with empire.

The Varangians

By Vladimir’s time, it no longer makes sense to refer to the Rus’ as Scandinavians, as most of them had been living along the Dnieper and Volga for many generations. From the time of Sviatoslav, the rulers of Kievan Rus’ had begun to adopt the Slavic customs of their subjects (although this does not mean that their Norse origins were entirely forgotten). Nevertheless, there were still plenty of Scandinavians to be found in both Kiev and Constantinople. Whereas the first Norse visitors to the East had come as traders, those who travelled there now went primarily as mercenaries, known as Varangians. Varangians assisted Vladimir in his power grab in 980 and continued to be a valuable asset for the Kievan rulers. They also travelled south to Constantinople to seek employment in the bodyguard of the Byzantine emperor and other high-ranking imperial officials. Many Varangians seem to have been Scandinavian aristocrats who travelled to the East as political exiles or in search of wealth and fortune. Some of these aristocrats later were later able to return to Scandinavia to press their royal claims. Olaf Tryggvason and Olaf 

Runic graffiti by a bored Varangian in the Hagia Sofia in Istanbul (the city once known as Constantinople). Image sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Haraldsson both spent time at the court of Vladimir and assisted him in his struggles. The most famous Varangian king, however, was probably Harald Hard-Ruler, who sold his sword both to the Kievan ruler Yaroslav and the Byzantine emperor between 1029 and 1046, when he returned to Norway with boats laden with gold and was thus able to establish himself as co-ruler of Norway alongside Magnus the Good.


The Rise of the Kievan Rus' 

Staraya Ladoga was more than simply a trading post along the route to the Volga: it also stood at the entrance to a riverine trade route that headed south. By this route (and with some portaging), it was possible to gain access to the Dnieper river, which ultimately flowed into the Black Sea, granting access to the Mediterranean. From the mid-ninth century, sites showing signs of Scandinavian trade and settlement begin to pop up along this route. The most notable are Riurikovo Gorodishsche, on the shores of Lake Ilmen, and Gnezdovo on the Dnieper itself. At Gnezdovo extensive cemeteries were found, including at least ninety graves that contained Scandinavian artefacts. Gnezdovo was clearly an important trading site that dwarfed its equivalents in Scandinavia, such as Birka and Hedeby.

It is at around this time, according to the eleventh-century text known as the Russian Primary Chronicle that a Rus’ dynasty known as the Riurikids began to rise to prominence. In the slightly unbelievable narrative of the Chronicle, the Finns and Slavs of northwest Russia invited a Scandinavian called Hroerek to be their ruler in around 862. Hroerek, known in Russian as Riurik, died in 879 but was succeeded by Helgi (called Oleg in Russian), who conquered the Khazarian town of Kiev on the banks of the lower Dnieper. Thus, the Riurikid dynasty of the Kievan Rus’ was born. Archaeological evidence of a Scandinavian aristocratic presence in Kiev can be dated to the 880s, very broadly corroborating this account. At first, Kiev is likely to have been only one of several chieftaincies or petty kingdoms in the area. Byzantine sources make reference to princes in Chernigov, Polotsk, Rostov and Liubeck, among other towns. By the end of the tenth century, however, Kiev had become the centre of a Rus’ kingdom.

The earliest Riurikid rulers are most known for their aggression towards their neighbours. The first ruler to be depicted as a more of a statesman was Vladimir the Great, who ruled from 980 to 1015. Vladimir seized the throne from his brother Yaropolk and his early reign was much like that of his predecessors, attacking neighbours and exacting tribute from them. However, in the mid-980s Vladimir’s luck began to turn when an offensive against the Bulghars was unsuccessful. In 988, the staunchly pagan Vladimir made the decision to convert to Orthodox Christianity. According to the Russian Primary Chronicle, Vladimir sent emissaries to representatives of the three main religions in the region to gauge their relative superiority: Islam, the faith of his Bulghar enemies; Christianity and Judaism, which was practiced by the Khazar elite. When the emissaries returned, Vladimir was most persuaded by the power and opulence of the Greek Orthodox Church. In reality, political factors may have played a role. Kievan Rus’ had become far more oriented towards the Byzantine empire (whether with peaceful intentions or not) as ongoing conflicts had reduced its access to eastern trade by the mid-tenth century. In 988, the Byzantine emperor Basil II was beset by difficulties caused by the Bulghars and sedition within his own armies. He was somehow able to strike a deal with Vladimir, who demonstrated Rus’ power by sacking Cherson and sending an army of 6000 men to support Basil against the rebels. Vladimir then married Basil’s sister, Anna, and accepted baptism. He later carried out a mass baptism of his subjects in the Dnieper.

Nineteenth-century engraving of Vladimir the Great.  Image sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

The Viking Age

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