VII. THE BIRTH OF RUSSIA: 509–1054

The Slavs were but the latest of many peoples who rejoiced in the rich soil, spacious steppes, and many navigable rivers of Russia, and mourned the miasmic marshes and forbidding forests, and the absence of natural barriers to hostile invasion, summer’s heat, or winter’s cold. On its least inhospitable coasts—the western and northern fringes of the Black Sea—the Greeks had founded a score of towns—Olbia, Tanais, Theodosia, Panticapeum (Kerch) …—as early as the seventh century B.C.; and had engaged in trade and war with the Scythians of the hinterland. These natives, probably of Iranian origin, imbibed some civilization from the Persians and the Greeks, and even produced a philosopher—Anacharsis (600 B.C.)—who came to Athens and argued with Solon.

During the second century B.C. another Iranian tribe, the Sarmatians, conquered and displaced the Scythians; and amid this turmoil the Greek colonies decayed. In the second century A.D. the Goths entered from the west, and established the Ostrogothic kingdom; about 375 this was overthrown by the Huns; and thereafter, for centuries, the southern plains of Russia saw hardly any civilization, but rather a succession of nomad hordes—Bulgars, Avars, Slavs, Khazars, Magyars, Patzinaks, Cumans, and Mongols. The Khazars were of Turkish origin; in the seventh century they expanded through the Caucasus into south Russia, established an orderly dominion from the Dnieper to the Caspian Sea, and built a capital, Itil, at a mouth of the Volga near the present Astrakhan. Their kings and upper classes accepted the Jewish religion; hemmed in between a Moslem and a Christian empire, they probably preferred to displease both equally rather than one dangerously; at the same time they gave full freedom to the varied creeds of the people. Seven courts administered justice—two for Moslems, two for Christians, two for Jews, one for heathens; an appeal was allowed from the last five to the Moslem courts, whose administration of justice was at that time considered best.37 Encouraged by this enlightened policy, merchants of various faiths gathered in the Khazar towns; a lively trade developed there between the Baltic and the Caspian Seas, and Itil, in the eighth century, was one of the great commercial cities of the world. In the ninth century Khazaria was overrun by Turkish nomads; the government could no longer protect its trade channels from brigandage and piracy; and in the tenth century the Khazar kingdom melted away into the ethnic chaos from which it had taken form.

Into that motley multitude of south and central Russia in the sixth century came a migration of Slavic tribes from the Carpathian Mountains. They settled the valleys of the Dnieper and the Don, and reached out more thinly to Lake Ilmen in the north. For centuries they multiplied, year by year clearing the forests, draining the swamps, eliminating wild beasts, creating the Ukraine. They spread over the plains in a movement of human fertility rivaled only by the Hindus and the Chinese. All through known history they have been on the march—into the Caucasus and Turkestan, into the Urals and Siberia; this process of colonization goes on today, and the Slav ocean every year enters new ethnic bays.

Early in the ninth century an apparently negligible attack came upon Slavdom from the northwest. The Scandinavian Vikings could spare men and energy from their assaults upon Scotland, Iceland, Ireland, England, Germany, France, and Spain to send into northern Russia bands of one or two hundred men to prey upon the communities of Balts, Finns, and Slavs, and then return with their booty. To protect their robberies with law and order, these Vaeringjar or Varangians (“followers”—of a chieftain) established fortified posts on their routes, and gradually they settled down as a ruling Scandinavian minority of armed merchants among a subject peasantry. Some towns hired them as guardians of social order and security; apparently the guardians converted their wages into tribute, and became the masters of their employers.38 By the middle of the ninth century they governed Novgorod (“new fort”) and had extended their rule as far south as Kiev. The routes and settlements they controlled were loosely bound into a commercial and political empire called Ros or Rus, a term of much disputed derivation. The great rivers that traversed the land connected—through canals and short overland hauls—the Baltic and Black Seas, and invited a southward expansion of Varangian trade and power; soon these fearless merchant-warriors were selling their goods or services in Constantinople itself. Conversely, as commerce grew more regular on the Dnieper, the Volkhov, and the Western Dvina, Moslem merchants came up from Baghdad and Byzantium and traded spices, wines, silks, and gems for furs, amber, honey, wax, and slaves; hence the great number of Islamic and Byzantine coins found along these rivers, and even in Scandinavia. As Moslem control of the eastern Mediterranean blocked the flow of European products through French and Italian outlets to Levantine ports, Marseille, Genoa, and Pisa declined in the ninth and tenth centuries, while in Russia towns like Novgorod, Smolensk, Chernigov, Kiev, and Rostov flourished through Scandinavian, Slavic, Moslem, and Byzantine trade.

The Ancient Chronicle of Russia (twelfth century) gave personality to this Scandinavian infiltration by its tale of “three princes”: the Finnish and Slavic population of Novgorod and its vicinity, having driven out their Varangian overlords, fell to so much quarreling among themselves that they invited the Varangians to send them a ruler or general (862). Three brothers came, says the story—Rurik, Sineus, and Truvor—and established the Russian state. The story may be true, despite latter-day skepticism; or it may be a patriotic gloss on a Scandinavian conquest of Novgorod. The Chronicle further relates that Rurik sent two of his aides, Askold and Dir, to take Constantinople; that these Vikings stopped en route to capture Kiev, and then declared themselves independent of both Rurik and the Khazars. In 860 Kiev was strong enough to send a fleet of 200 vessels to attack Constantinople; the expedition failed, but Kiev remained the commercial and political focus of Russia. It gathered under its power an extensive hinterland; and its earliest rulers—Askold, Oleg, and Igor—rather than Rurik at Novgorod, might justly be called the founders of the Russian state. Oleg, Igor and the able Princess Olga (Igor’s widow), and her warrior son Sviatoslav (962-72) widened the Kievan realm until it embraced nearly all the eastern Slavonic tribes, and the towns of Polotsk, Smolensk, Chernigov, and Rostov. Between 860 and 1043 the young principality made six attempts to take Constantinople; so old is the Russian drive to the Bosporus, the Russian hunger for secure access to the Mediterranean.

With Vladimir (972-1015), fifth “Grand Duke of Kiev,” Rus, as the new principality called itself, became Christian (989). Vladimir married the sister of the Emperor Basil II, and thereafter, till 1917, Russia, in religion, alphabet, coinage, and art, was a daughter of Byzantium. Greek priests explained to Vladimir the divine origin and right of kings, and the usefulness of this doctrine in promoting social order and monarchical stability.39 Under Vladimir’s son Yaroslav (1036-54) the Kievan state reached its zenith. Its authority was loosely acknowledged, and taxes were received by it, from Lake Ladoga and the Baltic to the Caspian, the Caucasus, and the Black Sea. The Scandinavian invaders were absorbed, and Slav blood and speech prevailed. Social organization was frankly aristocratic; the prince entrusted administration and defense to a higher nobility of boyars, and a lesser nobility of dietski or otroki— pages or retainers; below these came the merchants, the townspeople, the semiservile peasantry, and the slaves. A code of laws—Russkaya Pravda, or Russian Right—sanctioned private revenge, the judicial duel, and the compurgative oath, but established trial by a jury of twelve citizens.40 Vladimir founded a school for boys at Kiev, Yaroslav another at Novgorod. Kiev, the meeting point of boats from the Volkhov, the Dvina, and the lower Dnieper, took toll of all passing merchandise. Soon it was rich enough to build 400 churches and a great cathedral—another St. Sophia—in the Byzantine style. Greek artists were imported to decorate these buildings with mosaics, frescoes, and other Byzantine ornament; and Greek music entered to prepare for the triumphs of Russian choral song. Slowly Russia lifted itself out of its dirt and dust, built palaces for its princes, raised cupolas above huts of mud, and out of the patient strength of its people reared little isles of civilization in a still barbarous sea.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!