Varangians

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Map showing the major Varangian trade routes: the Volga trade route (in red) and the trade route from the Varangians to the Greeks (in purple). Other trade routes of the 8th–11th centuries shown in orange.

The Varangians or Varyags  was the name given by Greeks and East Slavs to Vikings, who between the 9th and 11th centuries ruled the medievalstate of Rus’ and formed the Byzantine Varangian Guard. According to the 12th century Kievan Primary Chronicle, a group of Varangians known as the Rus’ settled in Novgorod in 862 under the leadership of Rurik. Before Rurik, the Rus’ might have ruled an earlier hypothetical polity. Rurik’s relative Oleg conquered Kiev in 882 and established the state of Kievan Rus’, which was later ruled by Rurik’s descendants.

Map showing the major Varangian trade routes: the Volga trade route (in red) and the trade route from the Varangians to the Greeks (in purple). Other trade routes of the 8th–11th centuries shown in orange.

Engaging in trade, piracy, and mercenary activities, Varangians roamed the river systems and portages of Gardariki, as the areas north of the Black Seawere known in the Norse sagas. They controlled the Volga trade route (Route from the Varangians to the Arabs), connecting the Baltic to the Caspian Sea, and the Dnieper trade route (Route from the Varangians to the Greeks) leading to the Black Sea and Constantinople. Those were the critically important trade links at that time, connecting Dark Age Europe with wealthy and developed Arab Caliphates and the Byzantine Empire; Most of the silver coinage in the West came from the East via those routes. Attracted by the riches of Constantinople, the Varangian Rus’ initiated a number of Rus’-Byzantine Wars, some of which resulted in advantageous trade treaties. At least from the early 10th century many Varangians served as mercenaries in the Byzantine Army, comprising the elite Varangian Guard (the personal bodyguards of Byzantine Emperors). Eventually most of them, both in Byzantium and in Eastern Europe, were converted from paganism to Orthodox Christianity, culminating in the Christianization of Kievan Rus’ in 988. Coinciding with the general decline of the Viking Age, the influx of Scandinavians to Rus’ stopped, and Varangians were gradually assimilated by East Slavs by the late 11th century.

Kievan Rus’

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Viktor Vasnetsov, The Invitation of the Varangians: Rurik and his brothers arrive in Staraya Ladoga.

According to the Primary Chronicle, in 862, the Finnic and Slavic tribes in the area of Novgorod rebelled against their Varangian rulers, driving them overseas back to Scandinavia, but they soon started to conflict with each other. The disorder prompted the tribes to invite the Varangians back “to come and rule them” and bring peace to the region. Led by Rurik and his brothers Truvor and Sineus, the invited Varangians (called Rus’) settled around the town of Holmgård (Novgorod). The Primary Chronicle twice names Rus’ among the other Varangian peoples, including Swedes, Normans, Angles, and Gutes (Normans was an Old Russian term for Norwegians, while Angles may be interpreted as Danes). In some places the chronicle mentions Slavs and Rus’ as different groups, while in other instances it mixes them.

Under the leadership of Rurik’s relative Oleg, the Varangian Rus’ expanded southwards by capturing Kiev from the Khazars, founding the medieval state of Rus’. Attracted by the riches of Constantinople and the Arab world, Varangians initiated a number of Rus’-Byzantine Wars, some of which resulted in advantageous trade treaties. Meanwhile, descendants of Rurik expanded the Russian state and unified the local tribes. Contact with the Byzantine Empire increased, culminating in the Christianization of Kievan Rus’ in 988, during the reign of Vladimir the Great.

As with the Norse influence in Normandy and the British Isles, Varangian culture did not survive in the East. Instead, the Varangian ruling classes of the two powerful city-states of Novgorod and Kiev were gradually slavicised by the end of the 11th century.However, the successor descendants of Rurik were the ruling dynasty of medieval Kievan Rus’, the successor principalities ofGalicia-Volhynia (after 1199), Chernigov, Vladimir-Suzdal, the Grand Duchy of Moscow, and the founders of the Tsardom of Russia. The name of the Varangian Rus’ became that of the land of Ruthenia and later modern Russia, and the ethnonym of its two populations: Rusyny (Ukrainians) and Ruskiy (Russians).

Most historians tend to agree with the Primary Chronicle that the Varangians organized the native settlements into the political entity of Kievan Rus’ in the 880s and gave their name to the land. However, many Russian scholars are opposed to this theory of Germanic influence and have suggested alternative scenarios for this part of Eastern European history.Russian historiography includes a number of Anti-Normanist theories, antagonistic to the Normanist theory of a Scandinavian origin of Varangians. For example, according to Yu. Shilov, Varangians ( Vargi) were supposed to be a tribe of Baltic Slavs without roots to Norse Vikings. While this dispute continues, the event of Rurik’s arrival in 862 to Northern Russia on the request of its peoples, known as the Invitation of the Varangians, continues to be regarded as the traditional starting point of Russian history.

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