Kievan Rus, or Ruthenia, was a feudal state that was the precursor to Tsarist Russia
. Its early history is Shrouded in Myth
; the first reliable historical records are from the ninth century.
The theory best known by lay people (usually called "Normanist") says that Kievan Rus was founded by the Scandinavian prince note
Rurik and his Viking followers, who migrated south and conquered the backward, almost-tribal Eastern Slavs (ancestors of Russians, Ukrainians and Belarusians). The truth is really unknown, and is the grounds for very hot and politicized debate
. Scientific consensus is generally that the Vikings were at a similar level of development to the Slavs, and that their cultures were sufficiently similar for people and nobility to freely mix together. One of the Old Norse words for Ruthenia was "Gardariki" (Realm of [many] towns), which suggests pre-Kievan Rus was already an urbanizing culture.
An official myth dating back to the Imperial era says the Slavs themselves invited the Norse to rule them. Needless to say, it is subject to the same debate, which is generally more about politics than history. Some say that knowing the attitudes and customs of The Dung Ages
, this is highly unlikely. Others insist that it was actually pretty routine. Just don't try to bring it up
in non-scientific circles. The first capital of Rurik's principality was the ancient Northern city of Ladoga (now called Old
Ladoga), but soon moved to Novgorod (another Northern city, founded by the settlers from Ladoga; now called Veliky
despite being smaller than the other Novgorod
; the Norse called it Holmgard). His sons, however, took it south to Kiev.
The original Kievan Rus was pagan, with the Viking-descended nobility worshiping the Norse gods
and the common Slavs their own pantheon
, which was somewhat similar, but distinct. There was also a significant and influential Christian minority, as well as Jewish and Muslim ones. Christians, however, were much better placed, as they generally were Christianized Vikings who served at the Eastern Roman court as mercenaries, and were often relatives of Russian nobility. In 988, Prince Vladimir I, who was dissatisfied with paganism, and wished to establish a state religion, converted Rus into Orthodox Christianity
Allegedly, he organised a "casting": Catholics failed because of the fasting and general dourness, of the Muslims
Vladimir is said to have liked most of the doctrine but declared that "Drinking is the joy of the Russes. We cannot exist without that pleasure
", of the Jews Vladimir concluded their own God
must dislike them if they're dispersed like that, while the Orthodox Romans were careful to approach Vladimir with all kinds of bling and little of the rules. This was a myth, however. In fact, Vladimir was heavily influenced by Christianity from the start, and his grandmother, Princess Olga
, was a Christian, baptized at the Byzantine Roman court. Many pagan customs, though, persisted into the Tsarist era and even to this day, after being coopted into the Christian ritual.
Early Kievan Rus was a united monarchy, though with big family feuds, exacerbated by the Slavic succession laws, where the brother held precedence over the son. This quickly led to a bloody free-for-all, and in the 12th century a feudal patchwork kicked in. That made the blanket term "Kievan Rus" obsolete: There were also the Vladimir Rus, the Novgorod Rus, later the Moscow Rus and many smaller principalities, although initially the Kievan throne was notionally their suzerain, and the ruler of Kiev held the title of Grand Prince. This made Rus very vulnerable to outside threats, and in the mid-13th century it was overrun and ruled briefly by the Mongol Horde. For some reason, this period of history is referred to as 'the Tatar Yoke', probably because the western part of the Mongol Horde, the most represented in its new vassal lands, was mostly Tatar.
The Mongols left most of the political system intact, but now the Grand Prince had to be formally recognized as such by his Mongol lieges, who chose the most obedient ones. The Novgorod Rus was spared of the Mongol invasion by being too far north, and its princes and council being such Magnificent Bastards
(Novgorod was a republic, its prince being only the hired military leader, who could be deposed by the parliament and the city council), but had to deal with other enemies, such as Swedes
and The Teutonic Knights
Eventually, the Grand Duchy of Vladimir-Suzdal, later known as "of Moscow", ended up as the most important principality. The Muscovite princes cast off the Mongol-Tatar yoke, annexed the Novgorod Republic and united the northern principalities. The principalities under the Grand Duchy of Moscow later formed the Muscovite Tsardom
. Kiev, the original capital of Ruthenia, and the southern principalities were united by the Galician-Volhynian Principality (later renamed the Kingdom of Rus) for a time, until its lands were divided between the Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (which had little connection to the modern
Lithuania, and corresponded mostly to the modern Belorussianote
), another pretender to be the "true heir" of Ruthenia.
The question of who are now the "true heirs" of the Kievan Rus is often a matter of disagreement between Eastern Slavs, with Russians saying that Moscow's reunification of the northern principalities and Kiev's depopulation by the Tatars and later subjugation by Lithuania (and Novgorod, a distinctly Russian city, being the first capital of Rurik's princedom) make it clear which city inherited the title of the capital of the Rus, while Ukrainians see the Galicia-Lodomeria as the heir to original Rus, and claim that Kiev and the southern principalities stayed as the core of Ruthenian culture, unlike the colonial northern principalities, the people of which were intermingled with Ugro-Finns and Tatars. Belarusian principalities mostly stayed autonomous from Rus and, being united with Aukštaitija, formed the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, which would later unite most of the Ruthenian territories, except for Novgorod and North-Eastern colonies that would become a basis for the future Russia. But since Russians pack the greatest punch of the three most of the time, the Russian-Ruthenian connection is the most well known. This question is complicated even more by the fact that a people called Ruthenians (or Rusyns, or Ruthens) do exist now; they are relatives of Ukrainians living in Transcarpathia (and elsewhere; Andy Warhol
— birth name Andriy Varhola — was Ruthenian American).
Notable princes of the period include:
- Rurik. The (presumably Swedishnote ) founder of the Big Screwed-Up Family that was the Rurikid dynasty, and of the realm itself.
- Oleg (Helgi) the Seer. He was known for wars with the Khazar Khaghanate, and for the legend of his death. There was a prophecy that he would die by his horse. His horse died before him, and Oleg put his foot on the horse's skull and started to gloat; then a snake crawled from the skull and bit him fatally.
- Saint Olga (Helga). Mother of Sviatoslav and grandmother of Vladimir, she was a shrewd, efficient, often ruthless, but just ruler, who steered the land while her son was raiding the neighbors, and who first introduced Christianity to the land, for which she was later canonized. The best candidate for The High Queen among the whole dynasty.
- Svyatoslav. He was a Badass Warrior Prince who paid more attention to his campaigns than to running the realm. He died in battle, and the Pecheneg nomads made a cup out of his skull. He was the first prince to be named in Ruthenian, not in Old Norse. He also fought and defeated the Khazar Khaganate, something his ancestors couldn't do.
- Vladimir I (Vladimir the Saint, Vladimir the Bright Sun). The guy who made Rus Christian. He was an illegitimate child, and captured the throne by force. He had several wives, then he received the baptism and forced it on all Rus. A saint of the Orthodox Church. He's also a recurring character in Slavic epics, his court in Kiev often served as background for knights' tales, like Camelot in Arthurian mythos.
- Vseslav the Sorcerer. A prince of Polotsk (modern-day Belarus). The last pagan prince of the Rus. He was known as, well, a sorcerer. Several supernatural powers were attributed to him.
- Yaroslav the Wise, son of Vladimir. Initially known as The Lame, he was such a Magnificent Bastard that he remains remembered even now. In his time, feudal disintegration of the Rus began. He made the first Russian code of laws, the Russkaya Pravda.
- Vladimir II Monomakh. Basically the last prince of the unified Kievan Rus. He was a prolific writer.
- Yuri Dolgoruki (Yuri Long-Arms). Today he is mainly known as the founder of Moscow.
- Alexander Nevsky, a prince of the Novgorod Rus. Novgorod was a republic, and its prince was more a general than anything else. Alexander Nevsky is famous as a really good general who won two wars, with the Swedes and with the Teutonic Knights. Also a saint of the Orthodox Church.
- Danylo (Daniel) I of Galicia. The prince of Galicia-Volhynia, he created a wide alliance against the Mongol-Tatars in Eastern Europe, as well as reasoned with the Pope to start the Crusade against the Mongol-Tatars, but ultimately failed and had to stay as the vassal of the Khan. He is known as the founder of Lviv and the first ruler to be crowned as "the King of Rus". This title didn't stick for long, though.
- Ivan I Kalita (Ivan the Moneybag). One of the first princes of the Moscow Rus, he was a cunning politician, a Manipulative Bastard, and a panderer to the Golden Horde. By pandering, he ensured the Horde's protection over his small principality, and made Moscow into an important city. It also made him an unpopular character in Russian history.
- Dmitri Donskoi (Dmitri of the Don [River]). Another prince of Moscow. He is famous for the first military victory over the Golden Horde, the battle of Kulikovo. A contemporary and kinda friend of one of the most important saints of the Russian Orthodox Church, St.Sergius of Radonezh.
- Semyon Olelkovych. The last prince (not the grand prince) of Kiev, a vassal of the Grand Duke of Lithuania. He was one of the leaders in defence of the Grand Duchy's borders against Tatars and was thought by many to be the new Grand Duke of Lithuania, Ruthenia and Samogitia. After his death in 1470 the Kievan Principality lost its autonomy and was officially subjugated into the Grand Duchy as Kievan Voievodship.
- Ivan III. With him, the era ended. He threw off the Mongol yoke, united the northern Ruthenian (now distinctly Russian) principalities and created the Muscovite Tsardom, which eventually became Tsarist Russia. No wonder historians called him Ivan the Great. The popular memory was not that grateful, however. Unlike Dmitry or Alexander, Ivan was The Chessmaster, he usually reached his goals through diplomacy and manipulation, and seldom went to war. Centuries later, it made him not interesting to make films, paintings or novels about.
Depictions in fiction
- Alexander Nevsky depicts the attempted invasion of Novgorod in the 13th century by The Teutonic Knights of the Holy Roman Empire and their defeat by the Russian people, led by said Alexander.
- In Tomb Raider Chronicles, the demon Verdilet claims to have once served under Alexander Nevsky in his war against Sweden, back when he was a human.
- The teen book, The Last Viking by Henry Treece traces the life of Harald Hardrada including his journey down the Russian rivers to serve as a mercenary. In one part he attends a feast at the hall of the prince of Novgarad and has a sidequest collecting tribute from rebellious peasants.
- Some time is spent there in Mother of Kings by Poul Anderson; specifically Eric Bloodaxe going on an expedition through the rivers before meeting his wife, the title character.
- Common in the various viking sagas though their status as fiction is debateable as many of them were likely not consciously made up on the spot the way a modern fiction writer would(back then it mattered more whether a story was entertaining then whether or not it was true, and most storytellers would just give his own take on a story he liked without bothering to sort). The Rus lands were an exotic haunt that many adventurers went on and came back with stories. Many saga heroes and many protaganists of modern imitations of sagas spent some of their career trading down Russian rivers, or heading to the Eastern Roman Empire to serve as Private Military Contractors.
- Gurps Russia and to a lesser extent Vikings.
- The Crusader Kings games include the rulers of Novgorod and Kiev (among others) as playable characters. The DLC pack The Old Gods for the second game even pushes the timeline back to Rurik himself.