Nomads, Northmen and Slavs. Eastern Europe in the ninth century

Imre Boba




A. Nomadic state formations in Europe (sixth to ninth century)  40

B. The Avars and the Slavs  43

C. Origins of Kiev  47



Of crucial importance for the history of Eastern Europe and for the emergence of the Kievan state was the period of peace, the Pax chazarica, [1] which prevailed in the Pontic Steppes between the seventh and early ninth centuries. As the phrase “Pax chazarica” carries with it the dangers of simplification, we shall trace in detail the substance and justification for its applicability.


The Pontic Steppes and the deserts north of the Caspian Sea formed, until the late Middle Ages, the frontier land separating Europe from Asia. The steppe zone between the lower Danube and the Volga River was the place where the civilizations of the two continents met, more often under warlike conditions than in the form of a friendly encounter. The steppes north of the Black Sea, on both banks of the Dnieper, were the assembly ground for nomadic tribal federations readying themselves for the invasion of Central and Western Europe, as well as the place of refuge for defeated hordes escaping from Asia or returning from the West.


The southern part of Eastern Europe was exposed to the dangers of nomadic marauders until modern times. Permanent habitation was possible only in the more remote forested regions of the North, in the mountains of the Caucasus, and on the more easily defensible Crimean peninsula. But whenever there was a period of peace, the population of Eastern Europe made attempts to settle along the rivers leading to the Black Sea. Such efforts are attested to today by excavated remnants of rural and urban settlements dating from early prehistoric times. [2]



1. The term “pax chazarica” was used by Ananiasz Zajączkowski in his Ze studiów nad zagadnieniern cliazarskim (Kraków, 1947), p. 77, with reference to the term “khazarskii mir” used by Iu. V. Gote (Gauthier). The Khazars as defenders of Europe against the Arabs were presented by M. Kmosko in “Araber und Chasaren”, Kőrösi Csoma Archivum, I (1925), p. 280. Also Mikhailo Hrushevsky expressed the opinion that the strong Khazar state on the Volga prevented the nomadic hordes from moving into Europe and, thus, the Khazars facilitated the colonization of Eastern Europe by the Slavs; cf. his Istoriia Ukrainy-Rusy, 3rd ed. (Kiev, 1913), pp. 183 ff., 226-27.


2. Akademia Nauk UkrainSkoi R.S.R., Narysy starodavnoï istorïi Ukraïnśkoï R.S.R. (Kiev, 1957), passim; I. G. Shovkoplias, Arkheolohichni doslidzhenia na Ukraïni (1917-1957) (Kiev, 1957).








In the sixth century, with the arrival of the Avars in the Carpathian Basin, with the consolidation of the Khazar Empire between the Ural Mountains and the Caspian Sea, and with the final settlement of the Bulgars along the lower Danube, the big waves of migrations traversing Eastern Europe came to a temporary standstill. The Avars, arriving from Asia, crossed the River Yaik (Ural) around the middle of the sixth century and, already in 558, became mercenary allies of the Byzantine Empire. At that time, the steppes adjoining the Greek colonies along the shores of the Black Sea were the roaming place of various splinter groups of the defeated Hunnic Federation.


A similarly dangerous neighbor for the Greeks was the so-called Antic Federation, composed of Goth-Alanic elements and probably of Slavs. [3] Both the nomads and the Antes were in a position to plunder the Greek cities on the Black Sea, in Moesia and in Thrace. The Avars, in their capacity of allies of Byzantium, had the task of relieving those Greek regions from the danger posed by unfriendly neighbors. The Avars were successful, but in true nomadic fashion, all the defeated groups were absorbed into the military organization of the victors. Not only was the power of the Avars strengthened, but their control extended now over territories approaching the core of the Byzantine Empire in Europe. The Balkan Peninsula and Central Europe were now open to Avar invasions, and already in 562 the reinforced Avar army operated in Western Europe. [4] The Greeks were able to secure peace only by paying large sums of peace money annually. By the end of the sixth century the Avars were settled in Pannonia, where they stayed until the ninth century.


The other large nomadic tribal federation which remained in Europe and was finally absorbed by the Slavs was the federation of the Danubian  Bulgars. These Bulgars were originally also members of the Hunnic Federation. After the defeats of the Huns in Western and Central Europe, they moved to the regions between the Sea of Azov and the Caucasian Mountains, along the River Kuban. The Bulgarian federation on the Kuban was defeated by the Khazars, and most of the tribes again moved westward. Some of the Bulgars stayed with the Avars, some were brought under Khazar control, but a large contingent of them moved to the Danube around the year 680. This last group remained permanently in Europe and formed a state which became the nucleus of the medieval kingdom of Bulgaria.



3. B. A. Rybakov, “Anty i kievskaia Rus”, Vestnik drevnei istorii, I (1939), pp. 337ff.;

P. N. Tretiakov, “Anty i Rus”, Sovetskaia etnografiia, XVII, No. 4 (1947), pp. 71-83;

George Vernadsky, The Origins of Russia (Oxford, 1959), pp. 48-85 (hereafter cited as: Vernadsky, The Origins).


4. Amulf Kollautz, “Die Awaren”, Saeculum, V (1954), p. 133.





The third Altaic group in Europe, the Khazars, originally formed the westernmost part of the Asiatic Turk (Türkut) Empire. Known in the sources also as Western Turks, the Khazars emancipated themselves at the beginning of the seventh century and, already in the year 626, allied themselves with Emperor Heraklios against the Persians. [5] After that date, the role of the Khazars was to defend Eastern Europe against invasions coming from the steppes of Central Asia or across the Caucasian Mountains. The Khazars, in alliance with Byzantium, were strong enough to hold their positions in spite of constant pressure from the east and south.


While the Khazars fought the Asiatic nomads, the Persians, and later the militant Arabs, the prosperous regions of Southern and Western Europe attracted the Avars and Bulgars. This geopolitical situation helps to explain why Eastern Europe, the region between the Danube and the Volga, enjoyed a long period of peace.


The movement of the Bulgars from the Kuban to the lower Danube in 680 is the last direct information which we have on the developments in Eastern Europe in the seventh century. [6] The next datable reference of importance for the history of the steppe is the description by Emperor Constantinus Porphyrogenitus of the construction of the fortress Sarkel on the Don River sometime after the year 830. [7] This conspicuous lack of information on the region north of the Black Sea has to be explained by the fact that for two centuries nothing of historical importance happened in this area. During this time, the Pontic Steppes became literally a noman’s land, a large, empty frontier zone between nomadic states.


The nomadic state is manifestly different from a modern territorial state or even from a medieval state of Western Europe. The coherence of a nomadic state depends on the effectiveness of military control. This control radiates from the center of the empire, where the main hordes dwell, and weakens with the distance from that center. The territory of the state is actually formed by spheres of diminishing influences. This character of the state results in the formation of no-man’s frontier zones.


In sources describing nomadic states we encounter many references to this type of frontier. Gardīzī wrote that “You travel three days from the land of the Sarir ... and come to the Alans” and that “Burtas is between Khazar and Bulgar [on the Kama] and between Burtas and Khazar is a fifteen-days’ journey.” [8] Constantinus Porphyrogenitus, speaking of the



5. For a short history of the Khazars and a bibliography see: Gyula Moravcsik, Byzantinoturcica, Vol. I, 2nd ed. (Berlin, 1958), pp. 81-86 (hereafter cited as: Byzantinoturcica).


6. For a short history of the Bulgars and a bibliography see: Byzantinoturcica, Vol. I, pp. 108-31.


7. De administrando imperio, pp. 182-85. The fortress was constructed for the Khazars by the Byzantine Emperor Theophilus, who ruled 829-842.


8. Quoted by C. A. Macartney, The Magyars in the Ninth Century (Cambridge, 1930), pp. 191, 194.





Pechenegs, says that “Patzinacia is distant a five-days’ journey from Uzia and Khazaria, a six-days’ journey from Alania, a four-days’ journey from Turkia (i.e. Hungary), half a day’s journey from Bulgaria...". [9] The distances in these examples refer in most cases to uninhabited regions. Because of the peculiar character of divisions between nomadic states, it is most difficult to draw a linear border between two nomadic federations, and all attempts to fix a precise line between the Avars, Khazars, and Bulgars must fail. It has been suggested that the Avars, by the end of the sixth century, had extended their rule from the River Elbe to the Don. [10] Of course, this is an unrealistic view, based only on the fact that the Avars had been seen first in the Don region and soon after in Thuringia.


We know only that in the early eighth century the Khazar and Bulgar spheres of influence approached each other somewhere in the East European steppe zone. Emperor Justinian II (705-11), returning from the Khazars to Constantinople, traveled across Bulgarian territory (“a partibus Chazariae per loca Bulgariae”). [11] These spheres of influence were maintained until the early ninth century. [12]


There are no sources which would indicate that the nomads extended their control at this time also to the forests of Eastern Europe. But we may assume that the maintenance of such control would have been a difficult task. First of all, the forest poses obstacles to nomadic penetration. A nomad on horseback can venture into woods only in the dry season, if there are cleared roads, and then with difficulty. The population of the clearings could move to the woods without difficulty for temporary protection. Unfriendly units of nomads were easily exposed to ambushes, since their routes of retreat had to be the same as those on which they had advanced.


The population of the forests was harassed only during the times of big migrations, when small units of the nomads were exploring the regions in all directions. As soon as they had occupied suitable grazing lands for their horses and cattle, their relations with the forest dwellers had to be based on some reciprocally acceptable compromise. The settled population had to provide at least some of the staples for the nomads. To assure



9. De administrando imperio, pp. 168-69.


10. Gy. Moravcsik suggested an area between the rivers Elbe and Dnieper and between the Baltic and the Adriatic; cf. Byzantinoturcica, Vol. I, p. 70. N. Ia. Terpert assumes that the area under Avar control extended from the Elbe to Transcaucasia and from the Don to the Adriatic; cf. “Avary”, Sovetskaia istoricheskaia entsiklopediia, Vol. I (Moscow, 1961), s.v.


11. “Vita Papae Johannis III”, Liber Pontificalis, quoted by T. Lewicki in Arabskie Źródła, p. 293.


12. Cf. Géza Feher, “Zur Geschichte der Steppenvolker von Südrussland im 9-10. Jahrhundert”, Studia Slavica, V (1959), p. 306. In Feher's opinion, the frontier between the Khazars and the Danubian Bulgars was on the river Dniester and this frontier was never disturbed between the seventh and ninth centuries.





continued services, the plundering had to cease. The nomads never raided territories under their direct control, although abuses were frequent. The autochthon-nomadic relation was regulated by an ever-changing balance of power. The distance from the main hordes to the settlement of the autochthon population was a decisive factor in reaching a compromise.





The presence of the Avars was indisputably a burden for many Slavs in Central Europe in regions surrounding the nomadic habitats. Less affected were the Slavs north and east of the Carpathians. Among the Eastern Slavs, only the southern tribes maintained contacts with those Avars and Bulgars who traveled along the roads used for trade contacts with the East. From the point of view of the Slavs, the arrival of the Avars also had some long-range advantages. The Avars destroyed such strong Germanic tribes as the Gepids and the Longobards, [13] who had lived for centuries in Central and Eastern Europe. The Swabians had to withdraw from the region between the rivers Oder and Elbe. [14] All the areas conquered by the Avars thus became open for Slavic colonization.


In Eastern Europe the new situation allowed the Slavs to colonize fully the mixed forest-steppe zone as far as the Upper Don region and to push their settlements gradually southward along the rivers. [15] From the point of view of the Eastern Slavs, a negative result of the appearance of the Avars was the destruction of the federation of the Antes, which, it is assumed, could have become a possible nucleus for a Slavic state along the Dnieper. On the other hand, the presence of the Avars in Central Europe strongly influenced the formation of the first historically attested although ephemeral, Slavic state, that of Samo, followed later by the Avaro-Slavic states of Moravia and of Croatia. [16]


The Altaic ethnic element on the territories controlled by the Avars was only a fraction of the Slavic population. Consequently, the nomads were to face not only the losses suffered in wars, but also the slow process of ethnic and linguistic assimilation into the Slavic majority.


A frequently used source for the evaluation of Eastern Slav-Avar relations is the following report of the Primary Chronicle:


While the people of the Slav tongue, as we said, dwelt on the Danube, from



13. I. Bona, “Awaren und Langobarden”, Acta Archaeologica, VII (1956). pp. 239-42.


14. Amulf Kollautz, op. cit., p. 133.


15. M. Hrushevsky, op. cit., pp. 183, 226-27.


16. Gerard Labuda, Pierwsze państwo słowiańskie. Państwo Samona (Poznań, 1949);

J. Poulik, Jižni Morava-zeme davnych Slovanu (Brno, 1948);

H. Preidel, “Awaren und Slawen”, Südostforschungen, XI (1952), pp. 33-45.





the Scythians, who are named Khazars, came a people called Bulgars. and they settled on the Danube, and they became oppressors of the Slavs. Afterward came the white Ugrians, and they inherited the Slavic country. These Ugrians appeared first (pochasa byti) under the Emperor Heraclius, who was attacking Chosroes, the Emperor of Persia. The Avars lived at the same time. They carried on war against Emperor Heraclius (khodisha na Irakliia tsaria), and they nearly captured him. These Avars fought against the Slavs and they harassed the Dulebians, who were Slavs. And they did violence to the Dulebiau wives. When an Avar had to make a journey, he did not allow a horse or a steer to be harnessed, but he ordered three or four or five wives to be harnessed to the cart and to pull the Avar. And this was the way they harassed the Dulebians. The Avars were large of body and proud of mind. And God destroyed them and they all have perished and not one Avar is left. And there is a proverb in the land of Rus to this day “They perished like the Avars” (pogibosha ako obre). There is no such race or successor to them. [17]


Parts of this report are direct borrowings from Byzantine chronicles, as, for instance, the information about the wars of Heraclius against the Persian emperor Chosroes, [18] and the story of the incident which almost made Heraclius a prisoner of the Avars. [19] But in the Byzantine sources there is no reference to Avar abuses which the Rus chronicler could have used as a prototype. The reference to the Dulebians, a tribe known to have existed in Volhynia, might suggest that the chronicler preserved here some East Slavic tradition. This might, in turn, suggest that the Avars lived for a considerable time not only in the Carpathian Basin, but also among the Eastern Slavs. As this fragment of the Chronicle is used as the only piece of evidence for a long-lasting oppression of the Eastern Slavs by the Avars, the source must be scrutinized more carefully. First of all, it is noteworthy that the fragment describes facts at the time “while the people of the Slav tongue ... dwelt on the Danube”. This sounds like an anachronism, but the statement can be justified if it is assumed that the story originated with Southern or Moravian Slavs, both of which groups dwelt along the Danube. At any rate, the anachronism arises only if we insist that the story originated among the Eastern Slavs.


Furthermore, the reference to the Dulebians does not necessarily connect the events with Volhynia. There were Dulebians in Bohemia and Pannonia close to the Danube, the river mentioned by the Chronicler. These people dwelt close to the core of some anti-Avar uprisings of the Slavs during the seventh century. The uprisings were provoked by the Avar abuses, and were described by Fredegarius Scholasticus, the Frankish historian during the same century.



17. Likhachev, Povest vremennykh let, p. 14.


18. Theophanis Chronographia, ed. C. de Boor, Vol. I (Leipzig, 1883), pp. 315-17.


19. There were contemporary church-Slavonic translations of the story: cf. V. M. Istrin, Khronika Georgiia Amartola v drevnem slavianorusskom perevodie, HD (Petrograd, 1920; Leningrad, 1930).





The whole description in the Primary Chronicle, indeed, resembles very closely the situation prevailing among the Slavs of Pannonia, Moravia, and Bohemia. In the Fourth Book of Fredegar’s Chronicle we read that


in the fortieth year of Chlotar's reign (623), a certain Frank named Samo, from the district of Soignies, joined with other merchants in order to go and do business with those Slavs who are known as Wends. The Slavs had already started to rise against the Avars called Huns and against their ruler, the Khagan. The Wends had long since been subjected to the Huns, who used them as befulci. [20] Whenever the Huns took the field against another people, they stayed encamped in battle array while the Wends did the fighting. If the Wends won, the Huns advanced to pillage, but if they lost, the Huns backed them up, and they resumed the fight. . . Every year the Huns wintered with the Slavs, sleeping with their wives and daughters, and, in addition, the Slavs paid tribute and endured many other burdens. The sons born to the Huns by the Slav’s wives and daughters eventually found this shameful oppression intolerable; and so, as I said, they refused to obey their lords, and started to rise in rebellion. ... An astonishing number of Huns were put to the sword by the Wends. [21]


The resemblance between the descriptions of Fredergarius and of the Russian Primary Chronicle might suggest that the Russian Chronicler knew the text of Fredegarius, but direct borrowing is rather unlikely. Although in essence the descriptions are similar, there are no verbal parallelisms between the two texts. A satisfactory conclusion may be offered, namely, that both descriptions were based, independently, on a common source: on a popular tradition preserved by the Slavs along the Danube.


Only the Rus proverb “They perished like the Avars” can be of East Slavic origin. The authenticity of this proverb is attested to by the reference to the national tradition: “There is to this day a proverb in Rus.” This proverb may refer to the fact of the disappearance of the Avars, but does not necessarily reflect the memory of Avar abuses against Eastern Slavs.


Any presentation of Avaro-Slavic relations would be incomplete without due attention to the relevant opinion of A. A. Shakhmatov. He is by far the most prominent, if not the only, authority suggesting a strong positive Avaric influence upon the Eastern Slavs.


After mastering all sources pertinent to the early history of the Eastern Slavs and after long years devoted to solving controversial issues of Russian historiography, Shakhmatov formulated his views on this problem in



20. The term befulci is still obscure.


21. Fredegarius Scholasticus, The Fourth Book of the Chronicle of Fredegar. Translated and notes by J. M. Wallace-Hadril (London, 1960), p. 39. For the Avar-Duleby relations see also

Lubor Niederle, Rukovet slovanských starožitnosti (Prague, 1953), pp. 161-62;

E. Simek, “Dúdlebi, Volyňané, Lučané, čeští Chorvate a Čechové”, Slavia Antiqua, I (1948), pp. 349-66;

Koroliuk, V. D. “Avary (Obry) i duleby russkoi letopisi”, Arkheograficheskii Ezhegodnik 1962 (Moskva, 1963), pp. 24-31.





one of his last works. [22] According to his concept, the Eastern Slavs lived during the seventh and eighth centuries between the Middle Dnieper and the Dniester under the overall political control exercised by the Avars. Consequently, the various Slavic tribes were forced to live in peace among themselves. In Shakhmatov’s opinion, this control, exercised through a Tudun, a deputy of the Khagan, was very mild and of the same nature as the rule of the Khazars over the same Slavs in the ninth century. [23]


A disturbing Avaric impact upon the Eastern Slavs, according to Shakhmatov, was felt only in the early years of the ninth century, when the more militant, but defeated, elements of the Avars moved from Pannonia across the Carpathians toward the east and northeast. [24] Shakhmatov goes so far as to ascribe to that Avaric exodus the final resettlement of the Western and Eastern Slavs. In the course of that resettlement, the ‘Radimichi’ and the ‘Viatichi’, the two tribes which according to the Russian Chronicle, were “from the Lakhs” - that is, from among the Western Slavs - were forced to move to Eastern Europe. Shakhmatov relates the disappearance of the tribe of the ‘Duleby’ also to the same events. [25] Finally, in his opinion, it was only after the defeat of the Avars that the Khazars moved across the Dnieper and, for the first time, imposed tribute upon the Slavic tribe of the Polanians. [26]


Although many of his assumptions are built on sound logic, Shakhmatov could not provide documentary evidence to support his conjectures. First of all, the existence of a Tudun among the Eastern Slavs is improbable. The presence of Avaric functionaries is attested to only on the territories of the Western and Southern Slavs. Only in their languages do the terms pan, ban and župan, Avaric in origin, denote certain titles or ranks. Furthermore, the movements of the Viatichi and of the Radimichi are still the subject of speculation. Although recent research places their migration in the ninth century, it is connected rather with he Magyars or Pechenegs than with the Avars. [27]


Acceptable from Shakhmatov’s theory is the suggestion that compact Avaric settlements among Western Slavs should be connected, in fact,



22. A. A. Shakhmatov, Drevneishia sud’by russkogo plemeni (Petrograd, 1919).


23. Ibid., p. 22.        24. Ibid., pp. 23-24.


25. Ibid., pp. 25, 37. This opinion was also accepted by N. S. Derzhavin, Slaviane v drevnosti (n.p., n.d.), pp. 27-28.


26. A. A. Shakhmatov, op. cit., p. 53.


27. On the loan words from the Avaric see A. Bruckner, Słownik etymologiczny języka polskiego (Krakow, 1927), pp. 378, 393, 667.

On the migration of the West Slavic tribes cf. Henryk Paszkiewicz, The Origin of Russia (London, 1954), pp. 365-80. Paszkiewicz cites various opinions on the subject of the migration of the Radimichi and of the Viatichi. He is inclined to believe that the two tribes moved toward the Northeast only during the ninth century. The reason for the migration was, in the opinion of Paszkiewicz, the appearance of the ‘Magyars’ and Pechenegs or the expansion of the Great Moravian state during that century.





with some retreating splinter groups. [28] Shakhmatov’s observation that the Khazars did not expand across the Dnieper before the defeat of the Avars is important, but it seems unlikely that the imposition of a tribute upon the Polanians has any connection with the defeat.


Except for Shakhmatov’s definite opinion, the influence of the Avars on the life of the Eastern Slavs was never regarded as great. The role of the Avars in Eastern Europe was usually assessed only on the basis of the fragment from the Primary Chronicle describing the sufferings of the Dulebians. But, as already discussed, [29] there are grounds for contesting the applicability even of that fragment to the history of the Eastern Slavs.





As a result of the analysis of the sources illustrative of the Avaro-Slavic relations, it is now possible to retain our original assertion that the Eastern Slavs were not subjected to a lasting or burdensome Avaric occupation. If there were contacts between Eastern Slavs and Avars, they must have been peaceful, resulting from the interplay of various factors already discussed: distance from the main Avar hordes, respect for the Khazar sphere of influence, and the necessity for friendly cooperation to assure safety along the trade routes leading across East Slavic territories.


The main overland trade route connecting Central Europe with the Volga region and leading farther to the east had necessarily to cross the Dnieper at some convenient point. No doubt, Kiev gained its early economic importance because of its advantageous location at a place where the Dnieper could be crossed easily. According to the legend preserved in the Primary Chronicle, the origins of that city are connected with a man named Kii, who was a ferryman on the Dnieper. [30]


Kiev’s prominence is usually connected with its importance in international trade, but before Kiev developed into a trade emporium in the tenth and eleventh centuries, it was, for a long time, merely a convenient stopover for merchants traveling between the markets of Western and Central Europe and the markets of the East. In addition, Kiev was not only a good place for fording the Dnieper, but also a strategic point for controlling traffic as it entered or left the Khazar or Avar spheres of interests. The economic importance of the site made it inevitable that either the Avars or the Khazars should maintain, in the vicinity of the ferry, a garrison to provide protection against marauders and to collect custom duties from merchants. There is no need to stress the importance



28. J. Kostrzewski, Kultura prapolska, 2nd ed. (Poznan, 1949), pp. 328-29, 496-97;

A. Bruckner, op. cit., p. 378.


29. See above, pp. 44-45.


30. Likhachev, Povest vremennykh let, Vol. I, pp. 12-13.





of custom duties for nomadic states. This source of income was the economic mainstay of the Khazar Empire, and of the Volga Bulgars, [31] as well as of all other medieval states ruled by nomads.


On the basis of these general observations, we may reanalyze the passages in the Primary Chronicle which describe the origin and early history of Kiev. The purpose of the analysis is to discern some historical reality behind the seemingly inconsistent fragments enveloped in a legendary form. The narrative of the Chronicle is based, no doubt, on some local Kievan tradition. The first relevant fragment reads as follows:


Living in the field apart and governing their families, there were Polanians before those three brothers, and they lived each with his family, on their own places, each governing over his family. And there were three brothers, one of the name Kii, the second of Shchek, and the third of Khoriv, and their sister Lybed. Kii dwelt on the hill which today is the Borichev trail, and Shchek dwelt on the hill which today is named Shchekovitsa, and Khoriv on the third hill, named after him Khorivitsa. And they built a grad (burgh) under the name of the oldest brother among them, and gave to it the name of Kiev. There was around the grad (burgh) a wood and a great pine forest, where they hunted wild beasts, and there were men wise and prudent named Polanians; from among them there are in Kiev Polanians to this day. But others, without knowing, say that Kii was a ferryman, because in Kiev there was at that time a ferry from the other side of the Dnieper, and thus they used to say: “To the ferry, of Kii” (na perevoz na Kiev). If Kii had been a ferryman, then he would not have gone to Constantinople. But he was ruling over his family, and, as it is said, when he came to the Emperor, he was received with great honor.... When he was coming back, he came to the Danube and he took a liking to the place. And he built a small gradok (small burgh) and he wanted to settle there with his family, but those who lived in the vicinity would not allow it. When Kii returned to his grad, Kiev, here he ended his life. And here have ended their lives his brothers, Shchek and Khoriv, and their sister Lybed. And after those brothers, their kinsmen (rod ikh) assumed the rule among the Polanians. Among the Derevlians [there was the rule] of their own (v derevliakh svoe.), and the Dregovichians of their own and the Slovenes of their own in Novgorod... . [32]


This text is obviously far from clear. As usual, it is extremely difficult to provide the original manuscripts with appropriate punctuation. The printed editions of the various Rus Chronicles offer a variety of solutions: long sentences, or very short sentences. The punctuation is usually more or less guesswork, by means of which the editor tries to interpret the text according to his best judgment. But whatever the difficulties of



31. Among others, Ibn Khurdādhbeh and Ibn auqal have noted that the Khazars levied a tax of 10%. Al Gardīzī noted the same about the Ruses and Ibn Rūsta about the Bulgars on the Volga. Similar taxes were levied by the Byzantine Greeks. For details on the custom duties see Lewicki, Źródła arabskie, pp. 131-32.


32. Likhachev, Povest vremennykh let, Vol. I, pp. 12-13.





understanding the texts, an interpretation of them should not lead to internal contradictions, which are then often blamed on the chronicler.


The first sentence of the passage quoted above will illustrate the problems of interpreting the text. The sentence when analyzed may inform us that the Polanians lived in the fields and governed themselves before and after the brothers appeared on the scene. It may also be interpreted as saying that first the Polanians governed themselves and later the brothers appeared and also governed their families independently. The first interpretation, if accepted, has to be based on the assumption that the Chronicler made a mistake and repeated twice the fact that the Polanians governed their families. The second interpretation seems to be more plausible, because each reference to self-government is applied to a different group: the first to the Polanians, the second to the families of the three brothers.


Another conclusion drawn from this sentence is that the brothers appear as a distinct group and not as part of the Polanians. There is no reference to any prominent position of Kii’s clan among the Polanians. Kii even contemplated moving his family away from Kiev to the Danube. Kii was, according to the Chronicler, only head of his clan and not a prince or a ruler of the Polanians.


The sentence “And after those brothers, their kinsmen (rod) assumed the rule among the Polanians” would be confusing only if one were to insist that the brothers were Polanians. The sentence clearly sets the kinsmen of the brothers in opposition to the Polanians; consequently, the brothers could not have been members of the tribe.


A solution to this entangled situation is provided by the chronicler himself. The same source states that when the first Northmen in Kiev inquired to whom the city belonged, the inhabitants replied:


“There were three brothers . . . they built this town and perished. We are sitting [here] and pay tribute to their kinsmen the Khazars” (“I my sedim platiache dan rodom ikh kozarom”). [33]


From this fragment the direct ethnic relation between the clan of Kii and the Khazars becomes obvious. Any earlier suspicion of inconsistency appears now to be unfounded. Kii, Shchek, Khoriv, and their sister Lybed were definitely not Polanians and not even Slavs, but of Altaic extraction.


Before proceeding with the investigation of the history of early Kiev, another controversy concerning the proper reading of the text of the Primary Chronicle itself has to be resolved. The text “We are sitting [here] and pay tribute to their kinsmen the Khazars” is contained in the majority of extant manuscripts of the Primary Chronicle. Indeed, this is the correct reading of the oldest manuscript, known as the Laurentian version. But A. A. Shakhmatov assumed that the text was distorted and corrected it to read: “Three brothers ... had once built this city, but since



33. M. D. Priselkov, Troitskaia letopis (Moscow-Leningrad, 1950), p. 58.





their deaths, their descendants have been living here as tributaries of the khazars." [34] In our opinion, this correction must be regarded as an arbitrary change of the text based on the preconceived idea that Kii and his clan must have been Polanians.


There is only one manuscript which has the text suggested by Shakhmatov to be the only correct one. This is the so-called Hypatian version, which appears to be much younger than the Laurentian. [35] In addition to the original text of the Laurentian version, even the chronicles belonging to the Novgorodian group, for instance, the so-called First Sophian Chronicle, have linked Kii with the khazars. The Novgorodian group is based on sources in some instances more authentic than those used in the Primary Chronicle. The Novgorodian group preserved the so-called Authentic Version (Nachalnyi Svod), [36] the earliest compilation of popular traditions and official documents. As the Novgorodian group and the Laurentian version of the Primary Chronicle preserved independently the tradition of a kinship between the clan of Kii and the Khazars, there is no justification for accepting the correction of the relevant text suggested by Shakhmatov.


Unfortunately, Shakmatov’s correction was adopted in modern editions of the Laurentian text, e.g. by D. S. Likhachev in his reconstruction of the text and in his modern Russian translation, and also by S. H. Cross in his English rendering. [37]


This crucial sentence stating the kinship between the founders of Kiev and the Khazars clarifies some additional, heretofore obscure, passages of the Chronicle, for instance, the sentence: “[the brothers] built a grad — There was around the grad a wood and a great pine forest, where they hunted wild beasts, and there were men wise and prudent named Polanians; from among them there are in Kiev Polanians to this day”. It was assumed until recently that the inhabitants of the city of Kiev were Polanians, but, in fact, the sentence says only that around the city were Polanians, from among whom there were some in Kiev in the Chronicler’s day. It is surprising that the presence of Polanians in Kiev was, in the opinion of the Chronicler, an exception and not a natural state of affairs.


The Chronicler appears to be consistent also when he remarks: “After those brothers their kinsmen assumed the rule among the Polanians. Among the Derevlians [there was rule] of their own, and the Dregovichians of their own, and the Slovenes in Novgorod of their own...”. These sentences contrast the situations prevailing among the Polanians and the neighboring tribes. Whereas the Khazars assumed the rule over the Polanians,



34. A. A. Sbakhmatov, Povest’ vremennykh let, Vol. I (Petrograd, 1916), s.a. 862.


35. D. S. Likhachev, Russkie letopisi (Moscow-Leningrad, 1947), pp. 431-33.


36. A detailed discussion of the extant manuscripts is offered in D. S. Likhachev, op. cit., passim and in his Povest vremennykh let, Vol. II, pp. 5-181.


37. Likhachev, Povest vremennykh let, Vol. I, pp. 18, 214; Cross, The Russian Primary Chronicle, p. 60.





the Derevlians and other tribes retained a self-government of their own. The Chronicler will later report that the Slovenes and others lost this self-government to the Northmen.


The Polanians definitely already had a self-government before the rule of the Khazars was imposed. This is evident from the often quoted fragment of the Chronicle describing the form of the tribute payment:


“. . . subsequent to the death of the three brothers in Kiev, the Polanians were oppressed by the Derevlians and other neighbors of theirs. Then the Khazars came upon them as they lived in the hills and forests and demanded tribute from them. After consulting among themselves, the Polanians paid as tribute one sword per hearth . . .”. [38]


Here it is noteworthy that the Khazars were dealing with an assembly of the Polanian people and not with a prince or a princely family.


Such an assembly of the heads of families, the so-called veche, was an old Slavic institution. The fact that the veche conducted the parleys with the Khazars confirms our earlier assumption that Kii and his clan did not rule over the Polanians. The change in the situation was brought about by the Khazars. The Chronicler stressed this fact by bringing into his narrative the remark that the Derevlians and others still maintained the rule of their own at the time when the kinsmen of Kii assumed supremacy in the land of the Polanians.


All the quoted fragments relating to the early history of Kiev and of the Polanians are in logical agreement. Although they are parts of different legends, there is no contradiction among the discernible facts. Insurmountable contradictions would arise only if the textual corrections suggested by Shakhmatov were accepted.


At this stage attention must be paid to the value of the legendary descriptions in the reconstruction of historical developments. Legends usually reflect some historical reality and the name of an eponym in most cases is a personification of some ethnic group. Even if we reject the historicity of the persons of Kii, Shchek, Khoriv, and Lybed, we are still in a position to retain the historical facts underlying the legends connected with these names.


These names are basically of the same nature as the names of Lech, Czech, and Rus, the three brothers of the Polish national tradition, and Hunor and Magor, the two brothers who were the legendary ancestors of the Huns and the Magyars. To suggest that Kii was a Slavic prince in the sixth century who concluded an alliance with the Emperor of Byzantium [39] is no more justified than to accept the notion that Romulus founded Rome on the 21st of April 753 B.C.


The names of Kii and his brothers and sister were long suspected to



38. Likhachev, Povest vremennykh let, Vol. I, p. 16.


39. Cf. B. A. Rybakov in Ocherki istorii S.S.S.R. III-IX vv., pp. 777-80.





be of non-Slavic etymons. [40] At least some of their names can be related to some Altaic language and even corresponding tribal names can be detected.


It will be recalled that originally the names of individuals, clans, and tribes had a definite connotation expressing some characteristic. Clans, tribes, or nations could have names used by themselves and at the same time have other names used by their neighbors. The semantics of ethnic names only slowly changes towards an abstract label, but during the times covered by our study, names were, in most cases, still understood verbally. Polane were ‘those who lived in the fields’ (pole - ‘field’); Derevlane, ‘those who lived in the forests’ (dereva - ‘wood’). [41]


One indication that the names carried a meaning is the fact that there are several instances where personal or ethnic names were used in translated forms. There is the nomadic tribe known in Turkic as ‘Qipčaq’, or ‘Quman’. In Rus they were known as ‘Polovtsy’; and in German, as ‘Falwen’ or ‘Valben’. All three names, in Turkic, in Slavic, and in German, mean ‘people of yellowish, pale, pink complexion’, connected probably with the fact that the tribe was blonde rather than dark. [42]


If we consider now the name ‘Kii’ as an eponym reflecting in reality an ethnic name, then for such an assumption there is some supporting evidence. The linguistic analysis of the name ‘Kiev’ reveals that it is a composite noun, in which the underlying etymon is ‘Kii’, followed by a possessive or genitive ‘-ev/-ov’. According to the pattern of Slavic toponomy, the city name Kiev (phonetically, in Russian, Kijov; and in Ukrainian, Kyïv) is a short form for ‘Kiev gorod’, i.e., ‘city of Kii’, that is, a settlement populated, owned, or founded by a man or people of that name. In short, the name Kiev is grammatically a genitive form originally modifying the noun ‘gorod' (burgh), which has been dropped in the course of time. [43]


It may also be of interest that, in medieval Rus sources as well as in modern Ukrainian, the inhabitants of Kiev are named Kiiane, [44] and not Kievlane, as is the case in modern Russian. The modern name is derived from the name of the city; the first, from the name Kyï. As as example of a similar development, we may recall that the inhabitants of Smolensk



40. Cf. George Vernadsky, Ancient Russia (New Haven, 1943), pp. 301, 333;

Krymskyj, “Prologomena do istorii Khazariv, zvidky vony vzialisia i iaka ikh mova", Movoznavstvo (Kiev, 1941).


41. Cf. “Nazwy ludów i plemion słowiańskich” in Słownik starożytności słowiańskich. Zeszyt dyskusyjny (Wrocław, 1958), pp. 75-77;

Max Vasmer, Russisches etymologisches Wörterbuch (Heidelberg, 1950-55), s.v.


42. György Györffy, “A kun és a kumán népnév eredetének kérdéséhez”, Antiquitas Hungarica, II (1948), pp. 158-76.


43. Słownik starożytności słowiańskich. Zeszyt próbny (Wrocław, 1958), article: Nazwy miejscowe na terenie Slowiańszczyzny.


44. Likhachev, Povest vremennykh let, Vol. I., passim. One of the copies of ihe “Russkaia Pravda" was signed by Nikofor Kyianin (c. 1054-73). The city was known also as Kiiangorod, i.e., ‘City of the Kiians’.





in the Middle Ages were known as Smoliane, [45] and not as in modern times Smolenshchane. The ethnic name is derived from Smola, and from that ethnic name is formed the name of the city.


Popular tradition, obscured by legendary form, usually lacks dates and, for this reason, poses special difficulties when its analysis must be used to establish a more exact chronology. A reconstruction of the developments around Kiev from the arrival of the Avars and Khazars in Europe to the first tentative recorded date for Kiev’s history (856) must therefore be based mainly on surmises.


The absence in sources of concrete dates for the history of the Eastern Slavs from the late seventh century to the early ninth century may be inconvenient for historians, but for the people of Eastern Europe this fact could signify the blessing of relative peace during this span of time. The peace in Eastern Europe was assured by the fact that the three nomadic states, those of the Khazars, the Danubian Bulgars, and the Avars, were separated by extensive buffer zones. In the early eighth century, the Avars lost much of the vigor of a nomadic state, and the sphere of their direct control diminished. This fact led to the emancipation of a number of Slavic tribes. During the late eighth century, the Slavs east of the Elbe were already playing an independent role in historical developments. [46] It may be expected that a similar process of emancipation took place also in areas northeast of the Carpathians.


In this region, the most advanced tribe was that of the Polanians. Across the land of the Polanians led the trade routes connecting the Avars with the East. Outposts controlling the fords across the rivers were maintained most probably by the Avars, who themselves were interested in trade. [47] With the slow decline of the Avar power in Central Europe, a garrison on the Dnieper, on the site of the future town of Kiev, could have been retained only with the consent of the autochthonous populations of the region. By the end of the eighth century, as evidenced by results of archeology, [48] Slavic settlements began to grow around the nomadic garrison.


The Avar Empire was finally destroyed by Charlemagne in a series of large-scale military expeditions between the years 791 and 803, and therewith the prestige and the influence of the Avars outside the Carpathian Basin came to an end. The scattered Avaric garrisons north of the Carpathians



45. Cf. "Dogovor (‘Pravda’) Smolenska s Rigoiu i gotskim beregom’', Pamiatniki prava feodalno-razdroblennoi Rusi XII-XV vv. (Moscow, 1953), pp. 54-98.


46. E.g. “Annales Mettenses”, Monumenta Germaniae Historica. Scriptores, Vol. I (Hannover, 1826), s.a. 789.


47. In a Byzantine collection entitled "Suidas” there is a story that the Bulgarian Khagan Krum asked some Avars why their nation had disappeared. The answer was that the Avars had been too much interested in trade. Cf. Suidae Lexicon, Vol. I (Leipzig, 1928), pp. 483-84.


48. N. N. Voronin, Drevnerusskie goroda (Moscow-Leningrad, 1945), p. 15.





had to come to terms with the autochthonous population. It is assumed that some defeated Avaric groups, fleeing from Pannonia, sought refuge among Western and Eastern Slavs. [49]


It is our belief, and we shall discuss it in detail, that parts of the Avaric federation moved also to the Pontic Steppes, a traditional refuge place for defeated nomads, [50] where they formed a new independent federation.


The normal process of disintegration of a nomadic empire is that parts of the federation, willingly or under duress, join other nomadic federations, or start to form a new federation of their own. At an early stage of the dissolution of the Avar Empire, it is quite plausible that a clan named Kii on the Dnieper lost its political and strategic importance, but was able to remain among the Polanians. Then came the final blow to the Avars. This was inflicted by the Danubian Bulgars, who, by the year c. 814, moved into Transylvania and up to the bank of the River Tisza. [51] It is assumed that soon after that event the Bulgars moved also toward the Dnieper (818-20), no doubt in order to take the best advantage of the new geopolitical situation.


Probably at this stage of development, the Khazars extended a nominal protection over Kiev, or the tribe Kii recognized the Khazars as overlords. The remnants of the Avars in Kiev were from now on considered to be representatives of the Khazar Empire. This could explain why the clan of Kii was linked some forty years later to the Khazars. We may note that the Rus Chronicler did not say specifically that the clan of Kii was Khazar, but only that they were kinsmen of the Khazars (“i my sedim platiache dan rodom ikh kozarom”). Considering the variety of meanings of the old Russian word, rod, we should in this case understand ‘kinsmen’, ‘race’, ‘gens’, but definitely not ‘family’. [52]


The Polanians enjoyed full self-government until the middle of the ninth century. The elimination of the Avar Empire and the absorption of the Altaic garrison on the Dnieper by the Slavs, as well as the absence of a Khazar garrison in the city of Kiev, created by the middle of the ninth century a situation in which the Derevlians and other Slavic neighbors of the Polanians attempted to impose their control over the economically important ford on the Dnieper. This could be the explanation for the Chronicler’s remark that “the Polanians were oppressed by the Derevlians and other neighbors of theirs ... then the Khazars came upon them”. The move of the Khazars is understandable. It was a race for control of the



49. A. A. Shakhmatov, Drevneishia sud'by russkago plemeni (Petrograd, 1919), pp. 23-24.


50. E.g., after Attila’s death, a part of the Hunnic federation moved from the Carpathian Basin to the Pontic steppes. Cf. Byzantinoturcica, Vol. I, p. 36.


51. Arnulf Kollautz, “Die Awaren”, Saeculum, V (1954), p. 169. On the move toward the Dnieper see: Vernadsky, Ancient Russia (New Haven, 1943), p. 301.


52. Cf. I. I. Sreznevskii, Materialy dlia slovara drevnerusskogo iazyka, Vol. III (Sanktpeterburg, 1903), s.v.





ford of Kiev, a race not only between the Derevlians and the Khazars: around the same time, in the years 853-56, the Northmen started their advance from Lake Ilmen southward.



From the preceding discussion, it appears that before the ninth century, in the case of the Avars, and before the middle of the tenth century, in the case of the Khazars, neither of the two nations played a significant role in the internal life of the Eastern Slavs, although the existence of two Altaic states contributed to the rule of peace in Eastern Europe and to the economic prosperity of the whole region.


Kiev, with its Altaic background, appears to be only an isolated instance of nomadic penetration into the forests of Eastern Europe. A small Altaic settlement in Kiev served only the purpose of trade contacts. There are no indications that the Polane or other East Slavic tribes bordering on the Steppe Zone, were politically subordinated or economically exploited by any of the Altaic states during the seventh, eighth, or early ninth centuries.


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