THE people who lived in the central part of Russia in the ninth century did not all belong to any one nation. Many tribes had come from Asia and passed through the land, and some members of the tribes went no farther. These people were tall and strong. They could climb cliffs which one would think only goats could scale; and they could swim across the swiftest rivers. They taught their children that every injury must be avenged, and that it was a disgrace to forgive a wrong.
They had no idea of what it meant to be afraid, and when they went to battle, it was the same to them whether they were fighting with some tribe as wild as themselves or with the well-trained Roman soldiers, and they had but one fashion of attack; when the enemy drew near, the whole body flung themselves furiously upon their foes. If they had once taken any plunder, they would die rather than give it up, no matter how useless it might be to them.
There are two good things to say about these people. The first is that they were kind to one another. The second is that they were most hospitable. They had a custom of putting some food in sight when they left their huts, so that no chance wayfarer need go away hungry. Indeed, their hospitality went so far that if a stranger came to them and they had no food for him, it was regarded as entirely proper to steal whatever was needed.
They believed in a great god, whom they called the Thunder-maker, and in a vast number of less powerful gods. They never thought of their deities as kind and gentle, but always as fierce and savage, and they carved most hideous images, into which they believed the spirits of the gods would enter that they might be worshipped.
After a while the wisest and bravest among them became chiefs. Still, they were a rude, savage folk, and some tribes were more like beasts than human beings.
SCENE IN NORTH RUSSIA
(SHOWING THE MARSHES)
In northern Russia, around the Baltic Sea, lived people who were more fierce than these in Central Russia. They were always ready to leap into their boats and go as fast as wind and oars would carry them wherever they thought they could find plunder. These were the people whom the English called Danes. They were also called Northmen or Norsemen, because they came from the north, and Vikings, which meant pirates. Some of them entered the service of the emperors at Constantinople. They were most loyal bodyguards and they could be trusted freely with the keys of both palace and treasury. In battle they were valuable friends, but sometimes the officers must have been a little puzzled to know how to manage them. Once the odds were so much against them that the Greek commander, whose allies they were, sent a herald to them to ask, "Will you fight, or will you retreat?" "We will fight," the Northmen shouted; and one of them was so enraged at the suggestion of retreat that he gave the herald's horse such a blow with his fist as to strike it dead.
The Northmen usually went to Constantinople by launching their boats in the headwaters of the Dnieper River and floating down to the Black Sea. They had seen a good deal of the world, and they were bright and keen. They succeeded in making the people of Central Russia pay them tribute. According to the old story, there came a time when the people determined not to pay it any longer. They united and drove the Northmen away. But they did not stay united. They quarrelled among themselves, for each man did whatever he chose and no one cared for the rights of his neighbor. It is said that one among them, who was wiser than the rest saw that they needed some ruler to govern them. He knew how much more civilized the Northmen were, and he persuaded several of the tribes about him to send envoys to the Russ, a tribe of Northmen, to say, "Our country is large and rich, but we have no order. Do you come and rule over us." A Northman named Rurik and his two brothers said, "We will come"; and the three set out with their followers, all well armed, as were those who had come as envoys. Rurik built his stronghold at Novgorod; one brother went farther south, and the other farther north-east. After a year or two, the younger brothers died and Rurik was left to rule alone. He chose men whom he could trust, and gave them land. In return, they built fortresses and helped him to keep peace in the land, to govern the unruly tribes, and to teach them to obey. As soon as he had them well in hand, he conquered neighboring tribes; and so his little kingdom grew rapidly, until it became a large kingdom, which took the name of Russia from the Russ tribe. Rurik himself was now called grand-prince or veliki knias.
After Rurik had reigned for seventeen years, he died, leaving his throne to his little son. So it was that the first ruler of Russia was a bold and daring warrior, and the second a boy only four years old.