The term "Kievan Rus'" (or "Kyivan Rus'" going by Ukrainian ortography) was coined in the 19th century in Russian historiography to refer to its period of history when the centre was in Kyiv and ruling Rurik dynasty sat there. From translation of Rusian historiography the term entered the international historiography. During its actual existence in IX-XIII centuries the state was called by its people simply as "Rus'" or "land of Rus'", while in the rest of Europe it was known as "Russia" or "Ruthenia". Eventually, "Russia" stuck to indicate the north-eastern half (modern Russia), while "Ruthenia" stuck to indicate the south-western half (modern Ukraine and Belarus).
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.note note 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. note
Another Norse term for Kievan Rus is Svitjod the Great or Svitjod the Cold. Svitjod is an old Norse name for Sweden. note
A theory that's gaining traction nowadays is that the petty princes of many Slavic and Finnic tribes that populated the territory were dissatisfied with the constant squabbles between them. And then among the Novgorodians (already a somewhat prosperous trade hub) a wish arose for an impartial arbiter from a respected noble house not invested in their struggle, who would settle their difference and observe their court cases, which resulted in the invitation of a notable but currently landless Danish king.
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 ("Great") Novgorod despite being smaller than the other Novgorod; the Norse called it Holmgard). His sons, however, took it south to Kyiv.
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 is 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 Kyiv 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 the Mongol invasion by being too far north, and its princes and council being such effective rulers (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. Kyiv, 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, 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 Kyiv'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–Volhynia as the heir to original Rus, and claim that Kyiv 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 (according to genetic analyses, Russians, Ukrainians, and Poles are very close, and the Russian genetic pool shows no Turkish or Mongol impact - most likely for the reason that the Tatar-Mongols rarely had direct contact with Russians, and Russians saw them as invaders with inherently alien culture). 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).
If we can return to the debate about the origin of the Rus, the clear majority of western historians believe in the Normanist theory. And truthfully, primary sources such as the annals of St.Bertinnote and Ahmad ibn Rustahnote seems to support this theory. Since we at TV Tropes are not at liberty to discuss these things too vividly, the best thing you can do is go to the library, read up and decide for yourself. Omeljan Pritsak and Wadyszlaw Duczko have written at length about the theory, the former against it and the latter in favor of it.
Notable princes of the period include:
- Rurik. The presumably Swedish (though frequently identified with definitely historical Rorik of Dorestad, a Danish king from the house of Skjöldung) 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 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 Kyiv 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 an effective ruler 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.
- Anne, daughter of Yaroslav the Wise. As queen of France and wife of Henry I between 1051 and 1060 (Henry's death), she's the ancestor of the rest of the Capetian dynasty, up to the current monarchist pretenders in France, as well as the related families (notably, the current Spanish royal family).
- 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 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 Kyiv, 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
- Common in the various Viking sagas though their status as fiction is debatable 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 than 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 protagonists 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.
- The same debatable state of fiction can be applied to the medieval Swedish Chronicle of Duke Eric wherein the Novgorodians feature prominently as enemies to the Swedish knights, jarls and kings.
- Eaters of the Dead is partially based on Ibn Fadlans account of a Rus funeral, but is otherwise pure Speculative 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.
- The 2008 Russian film Aleksandr. Nevskaya bitva concerns the battle of the Neva.
- Three Bogatyrs, a series of Russian animated features based on the Russian Mythology and Tales (of the titular three bogatyrs in particular) with a bits of modern elements and Alexander Pushkin's narrative thrown in.
- Unsurprisingly, Casca: The Eternal Mercenary has been here many times, sometimes fighting against the Rus and sometimes with them.
- The Crusader Kings games include the rulers of Novgorod and Kyiv (among others) as playable characters. The DLC pack The Old Gods for the second game even pushes the timeline back to Rurik himself.
- Gurps Russia and to a lesser extent Vikings.
- 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 Novgorod and has a sidequest collecting tribute from rebellious peasants.
- The second part of The Long Ships is (mostly) set here.
- Kyiv is a "rebel" settlement instead of a proper faction in Medieval II: Total War with Novgorod (called anachronistically Russia) instead being the playable Rus' state, but the Stainless Steel Game Mod adds The Grand Duchy of Kyiv into the game (as well as renaming Russia into Novgorod). In both versions, the Rus' have some quality heavy cavalry and horse archers, but not much in the way of professional infantry, and true to history, the Mongols will be heading their way at some point...
- 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.
- The New Order Last Days Of Europe is set in an Alternate-History Nazi Victory world in which USSR collapsed into warlordism. One of Russia's potential unifiers is Major General Nikolai Ivanovich Krylov, who went mad and crowned himself Rurik II (reincarnation of Rurik).
- Northlanders: The Plague Widow, is set in a Swedish trading settlement in 11th century Rus. It's beset by freezing cold, racism and mistrust between the Vikings and the Slavs, rampant galloping corruption among the warrior caste tasked with defending the settlement, and a nice little plague to top it off.
- In The Northman the land of the Rus is briefly seen in the first act being raided by a group of berserkers that prince Amleth ended up with. His Love Interest Olga is a Slav who is captured by the group and sold as a slave to Fjolnir.
- A frequent location in The Oathsworn books.
- The Strongbow Saga part 4: The Long Hunt features an Irish warrior traveling with his Danish comrades to Birka in Sweden and meeting up with Rurik, who is unambiguously portrayed as being Swedish. Book 5 will presumably be set in Kievan Rus, but it has been stuck in Development Hell for 3 years now.
- 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.