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

Imre Boba




A. The terms ‘Varangian’ and ‘Rus’  102

B. The historicity of the ‘Invitation’  108

C. The chronology of the ‘Invitation’  109



According to the Primary Chronicle, the tribe of the Slovenes of the Ilmen region and several other Slavic and non-Slavic tribes of Northeastern Europe invited around the middle of the ninth century, a particular group of people called “Ruses” from overseas to rule over their land. This episode, known in historiography also as “the calling of the Varangians”, is the main written evidence used by proponents of the theory of the Nordic origins of the Russian state. Adherents of the various branches of the anti-Normanist school, on the other hand, attempt to discredit the reliability of this and other relevant fragments of the Chronicle or, at least, to minimize their significance.


An analysis of some of the written sources relevant to the history of Western and Eastern Europe in the ninth century will make it plausible that the Russian Chronicler derived his knowledge of the invitation and related events from reliable sources.


In our opinion, the ‘invitation’ reflects a historical fact which logically emerged from preceding events in the region, all of which were but links in the chain of a historical process. Consequently, the episode of the invitation should not be treated, analyzed, and evaluated, in and of itself, but only against the broader background of developments in Eastern Europe and the adjacent areas.





Before submitting our own observations on the developments leading up to the invitation of the Ruses, we should recall the description of the event as related in the Primary Chronicle.


6367. The Varangians from beyond the sea imposed tribute upon the Chud, the Slovene, the Meria, and Ves, and the Krivichi. But the Khazars imposed it upon the Polanians, the Severians, and the Viatichians, and collected a white squirrelskin from each hearth.


6370. They drove the Varangians back beyond the sea, and, refusing them further tribute, set out to govern themselves. There was no law among them,





and they began to war one against another. They said to themselves, “Let us seek a prince who may rule over us and judge us according to the Law.” They accordingly went overseas to the Varangian Ruses: these particular Varangians were known as Ruses, just as some are called Swedes, and others, Normans, Angles, and Gotlanders, for they were thus named. The Chud, the Slovene, the Krivichi, and the Ves then said to the people of Rus, “Our land is great and rich, but there is no order in it. Come to rule and govern over us." They thus selected three brothers, with their kinsfolk, who took with them all the Ruses and migrated. The oldest, Rurik, located himself in Novgorod; the second, Sineus, at Beloozero; and the third, Truvor, in Izborsk. On account of these Varangians, the Novgorodians became known as the land of Rus. The present inhabitants of Novgorod are descended from the Varangian race, but aforetime they were Slovenes. [1]



The term ‘Varangian’, as used in this fragment and throughout the Chronicle, is one of the major problems in the historiography of Early Rus. Various explanations have been offered. Among them, the more popular suggestions propose the identification of the ‘Varangians’ with some of the people of the Scandinavian north. According to Stender-Petersen the term was used in the Slavic East, particularly around Novgorod, originally with the semantic meaning ‘Nordic, Scandinavian merchant’. Max Vasmer considers a ‘Varangian’ to be a ‘member of an association of Nordic people in Russia’. [2] B. D. Grekov explains the term to mean ‘Scandinavian, Norman (from Scandinavia)’. Similarly, G. Vernadsky assumes that the term is equivalent to ‘member of Norse military fraternity’ or ‘Norse’. [3] In our opinion, none of the suggested solutions is fully adequate.


Irrespective of the etymology of the term ‘Varangian’, and without regard to its meaning in Old Germanic languages in the ninth to eleventh centuries, its semantic meaning in East Slavic was ‘foreigner from the Germanic West’, especially ‘foreigner from the non-Slavic regions around the Baltic’. In any case, the term ‘Varangian’ should definitely not be connected with a single ethnic or professional group, be it Norman, Swede, or even ‘Norse’. This conclusion can be deduced from the fragment quoted above, where we read that the Ruses were a particular kind of Varangians, “just as some [particular Varangians] are called Swedes, and other Normans, Angles, and Gotlanders”. In other words, the Gotlanders, Normans, and Angles were also Varangians. This meaning of the term ‘Varangian’ is maintained throughout the whole Russian Primary Chronicle.


There is also a later source, the “Treaty of Novgorod with Gothland and the German Cities” (c. 1189-99),



1. Likhachev, Povest vremennykh let, p. 18.


2. Ad. Stender-Petersen, “Die Väringer and Kylfinger” in his Varangica (Aarhus, 1963), pp. 89-99;

Max Vasmer, Russisches etymologisches Wörterbuch (Heidelberg, 1950-58), s.v. “variagi”.


3. B. D. Grekov, “Kievskaia Rus" in his Izbrannye trudy, vol. II (Moscow, 1959), index. Of similar opinion is Likhachev, Povest vremennykh let, Vol. II, p. 211. For G. Vernadsky’s opinion see e.g. his The Origins, pp. 131, 174.





in which the term ‘Variag’ is used interchangeably with ‘German’ and ‘Gothlander’ and even with ‘latinski iazyk’, literally ‘Latin race’, i.e. ‘all non-Orthodox Christians’. [4] Consequently, the term ‘Varangian’/‘Variag’ cannot be applied exclusively to a single ethnic group.


Summarizing our analysis, we can conclude that all references to Varangians in the Primary Chronicle are to people of non-Slavic and non-East European origin, who moved in, out, or across Eastern Europe. In the Chronicle’s narrative, these peoples never appear as groups permanently settled on East European soil except for the invited particular group known as Ruses.


These observations lead us to the next controversial issue of the historiography of Early Rus, namely to the problem of the name and origin of the Ruses. The generally-accepted etymology of the name Rus suggests that it is derived from old North Germanic Roþstnenn or Roþskarlar, both meaning ‘rower’, ‘seaman’. [5] There have been attempts to identify the original homeland of the ‘Ruses’ who came to East Europe with the region of Sweden known as Roslagen. [6] Whereas the etymology Roþ > Ros is plausible, however, the theory of the original homeland of the Ruses in Roslagen, Sweden, is illogical and confusing. If Roþsmenn meant ‘seaman’, it still does not necessarily follow that all ‘seamen’ came to Eastern Europe from one specific region, namely from Roslagen. Roþsmenn could have come to Eastern Europe from among the Swedes, Norse, or Danes. [7]


We may go a step further and question the traditional identification of the Ruses with the Swedes: the Chronicler knew the Swedes, but never did connect the Ruses with the Swedes or Sweden. What is more, the Ruses appear in the Chronicle side by side with the Swedes.


In Vernadsky’s theory, the name Rus is of Iranian origin and was originally used for an Alano-Slavic-Norse population settled in Tmutorakan on the Sea of Azov. [8] This population eventually moved toward Novgorod and became leaders of a Rus-Slavic-Finnish federation. This theory has been criticized on various grounds, but primarily because there is little evidence for the existence of a Rus settlement on the Azov before



4. Cf. Pamiatniki prava feodalno-razdroblennoi Rusi XII-XV vv., ed. A. A. Zimin (Moscow, 1953), pp. 125-26, preamble and paragraph ten of the document.


5. V. Thomsen, Der Ursprung des russischen Staates (Gotha, 1879), p. 99.


6. First suggested by J. Thunman, Untersuchungen iiber die älteste Geschichte der ostlichen europäischen Völker (Leipzig, 1774). His view accepted by V. Thomsen, op. cit., p. 99-109.


7. For a variety of opinions cf. Ad. Stender-Petersen, “Zur Rus Frage", in his Varangica (Aarhus, 1963), pp. 65-87;

Henryk Paszkiewicz, The Making of the Russian Nation (London, 1963), pp. 110-75.


8. Vernadsky, The Origins, pp. 175, 180, 198-201, 207.





the tenth century and the derivation of the name ‘Rus’ from Iranian is inconclusive, if not improbable.


Etymology cannot provide a satisfactory solution to the problem of origin and meaning of the term Rus. All names, especially of ethnic and ethno-political connotation, undergo constant semantic changes. Such names are easily transferred from one ethnic group to another or can be used simultaneously by various ethnic or political formations. One nation may have several names, each one used by different neighbors. The names ‘Dutch’, ‘Deutsch’ are all derivations of the same name. The name of the Romans was used as their own name by the medieval Greeks and more recently by the Moldavians and Wallachs. The name of the Germanic Franks is used by the French, and the first name of the Italian explorer Vespucci for the inhabitants of America. The etymology of each of these names only tends to obscure the modern semantic meanings.


The proper understanding of the term Rus might be approached more realistically if the term were studied only in the contexts in which it appears. We should not be disturbed by the fact that the name Rus will have several meanings as time progresses. Paszkiewicz in his book Origin of Russia traced at least five meanings for the name, some used concurrently. [9]


If we return now to the story of the Invitation, we read, in the Laurentian version, that “these particular Varangians were known as Ruses, just as some are called Swedes, and others Norse (Urmane), Angles, and Gotlanders, for they were so named”. From this short text it appears that the Ruses were ‘Varangians’, which is a generic name for foreigners from the West; they cannot be identified with the Swedes or with the Gotlanders, etc. since all these peoples are enumerated along with the Ruses. Moreover, the name of the Ruses in this text has a similar connotation, ethnic or political, to the name of the Swedes, Gotlanders or Angles. Significantly enough, the Chronicler did not mention the Danes in his enumeration. The omission is significant, because, at the time of the Invitation and long after, the Danes were the most active people of the North both in military exploits and commercial enterprises. The deduction should be made that, apparently, the Chronicles used the term ’Rus’ as a substitute for the name ’Danes ’.


It might be argued that the Old-Russian term Urmane, *Murmane means not ‘Norse of Norway’, as generally accepted, but ‘Northmen’ and thus may refer, not necessarily to te Norse, but also to the Danes. Indeed, such substitution occurs in some Continental medieval Latin sources, where the general term Nordmanni, Nortmanni is used on occasion also for the Danes. On the other hand, English sources usually distinguish between the Danes and the Norse, the latter being named Nortmanni, etc.



9. Henryk Paszkiewicz, The Origin of Russia (London, 1953), chapters one, five and six.





In our source the term Urmane is used, not as a general term, but rather as a specific; excluded are the Swedes, Gotlanders and the still enigmatic Ruses, all of which, considering their geographic location, could claim to be Northmanni. If we take into account the ambiguity in the use of the term Nortmanni as presented by the divergence in the Continental and insular English annalistic practice, then the term Urmane could mean either ‘Danes’ or ‘Norse’. Consequently, the name Rus would probably be a substitute for ‘Norse’ or ‘Danes'. A point in favor of identifying the Ruses tentatively with the Danes would be the relative proximity of the Danes to Eastern Europe, as compared to the more remotely located Norse.


Vernadsky made the suggestion that the particular Varangians were indeed Danes, but that only due to a misconception of the Chronicler were they named Ruses. The misconception of the Chronicler was caused, according to Vernadsky, by the fact that Rurik, with his Danes, merged with the Ruses of Southeastern Europe. Even the conclusion has been drawn that it was the East European Ruses who expelled the Varangians. [10] Against this theory it should be noted that in the Russian Primary Chronicle the substitution of the name ‘Rus’ for ‘Danes’ is made not only in the fragment describing the invitation of the Ruses, but also in the preamble to the Chronicle, where all the people of the inhabited world are listed. Among the Varangians, the Chronicler enumerated “the Swedes, the Urmane, the Gothlanders, the Ruses, the Angles, the Spaniards, the Italians, the Romans, the Germans, the French, the Venetians, the Genoese, and so on”. [11] As we see, the Ruses are listed again among the people of Western Europe and the name ‘Danes’ is not included. Furthermore, the Ruses appear in this list in what would be the logical place for the Danes. A conclusive, although indirect, evidence is the heretofore unnoticed fact that, in his whole narrative covering history up to the year 1117, the Chronicler never mentioned the Danes by the name customarily used for them in the West.


Indeed, this proposed identification of the Ruses of the earlier part of the ninth century with Danes can be arrived at independently by comparing al-Ya'qūbī's report on the Ruses attacking Seville in Spain in 844 [12] with some of the reports of the Annales Bertiniani for the same and subsequent years. Following are the entries from the Annales Bertiniani:


844 ... The Northmen moved up the Garonne as far as Toulouse.... Some of them turned even to the most distant Spain ...


845 ... The Danes, who in the previous year had devastated Aquitania [i.e. the lands along the Garonne], came again this year ...



10. Vernadsky, The Origins, pp. 203-4.


11. Likhachev, Povest vremennykh let, p. 10.


12. Al-Ya'qūbī’s text in Lewicki, Źródła arabskie, p. 251. See above, p. 29.





There should be no doubt that the Northmen who were in Spain in 844 were Danes. The report of al-Ya'qūbī’, describing the same event, uses, instead, the name Rus.


The fact of the substitution can be explained if we perceive that the name Rus was originally not an ethnic name, but the name of a clan or of a professional group similar to the terms ‘Viking’ or ‘Kylfingr’ (koulpiggoi in Byzantine and kolbiagi in old-Russian sources). The people of Eastern Europe apparently first came into contact with these Ruses and their frequent contacts with Denmark account for the substitution of the names.


An original confraternal or clanlike character of the Ruses, similar to the organization of the Vikings, is suggested by the Russian Chronicler’s remark, that all the Ruses moved to Eastern Europe. Such a total emigration could have been possible only in the case of a confraternity or military organization. The same confraternal character of the Ruses is indicated by the contemporary description made by Constantine Porphyrogenitus, according to which all the Ruses used to leave Kiev for the winter. [13] The same conclusion can be derived from the parallel reading of analogous texts preserved in the Laurentian version of the Russian Primary Chronicle and in the Novgorodian Chronicle. The first text reads:


“I izbrashasia 3 bratia s rody svoimi, poiasha po sobie vsiu rus . .  ."


The parallel Novgorodian text has:


“Izbrashasia 3 brata s rody svoimi i poiasha so soboiu druzhinu mnogu . . .”. [14]


The Primary Chronicle reports that the three brothers took with them all of the Rus, whereas the Novgorodian version repeating the sentence mentions that the brothers took with them a numerous retinue. The conclusion is obvious that in this case the term Rus is used as synonym of retinue, the Russian druzhina.


The Ruses, as a confraternity, only at the time of the Invitation would have consisted predominantly of Danes or Scandinavians. As in the case of any medieval princely retinue, the leader of the ‘Ruses’ would obviously also have employed able-bodied volunteers of other ethnic groups. Our contention is that some ten-fifteen years after the arrival of the Ruses in Eastern Europe the organization was already multinational. Such is the testimony of the Russian Primary Chronicle where the entry under the year 882 reads:


6390. Oleg set forth, taking with him many warriors from among the Varangians, the Chud, the Slovenes, the Meria and all the Krivichi ... The Varangians, Slovenes, and others who accompanied him were called Rus. [15]


Obviously, the ‘Rus’, the confraternity of warriors, on that occasion, was



13. De administrando imperio, pp. 62-63.


14. Likhachev. Povest vremennykh let, Vol. I, p. 18;

Novgorodskaia pervaia letopis starshego i mladshego izvodov (Moscow-Leningrad, 1950), p. 106.


15. Likhachev, Povest vremennykh let, Vol. I, p. 20.





composed not only of Varangians, i.e., of foreigners, but also of Chud, Slovenes and Krivichi.


We may now propose the theory that the Danes were known in Eastern Europe first as a confraternity of rowers engaged in trade along the rivers leading to the Volga and further to the East. They were known in Eastern Europe, Byzantium and in Muslim countries under the name of the confraternity or clan: ‘Rus‘. Around the middle of the ninth century an invasion of East European territory by some Vikings took place and a tribute was collected. At this stage, the population around Lake Ilmen and in the adjacent regions approached the Ruses known to them from earlier contacts, requesting them to organize the defenses of the region in the capacity of mercenary soldiers, no doubt with appropriate privileges in trade and residence. The invasion of East European territory, mentioned above, was not necessarily the first Viking raid, but it was definitely the first one known to the compiler of the Russian Chronicle and probably remembered in local tradition.





The invitation went to a particular group of Varangians, to the Danish Ruses, because they were known in Eastern Europe better than the other merchant confraternities. Some of the Ruses traversed Eastern Europe already in 838-39, if not earlier. In Constantinople and in Ingelheim in 839, they appeared to be on a peaceful mission. They were known to Ibn Hurdadbeh around the year 847 exclusively as merchants. [16] For the Ruses, the invitation was a lucrative proposition, because it gave them a privileged position on the East European waterways which were under the control of the people extending the invitation.


There have been many attempts in the past, and even currently, to reject the whole story of the invitation as a direct borrowing from some foreign tradition. [17] It is argued that the legendary form of the story itself casts doubts upon it and, in addition, that there are similar descriptions in other national chronicles, a fact which warrants caution. Indeed, there do exist legends which describe the ‘invitation’ of Northmen by the Irish, Angles, or Saxons. In our opinion, however, the similarities in national traditions are not necessarily the results of borrowing, but can be easily explained as reflections of similar historical facts.



16. See above, pp. 27-28.


17. E.g. Likhachev, Povest vremennykh let, Vol. II, pp. 234-46. Likhachev's main argument is that similar stories are known from foreign sources. In his opinion, the legend was adopted in Novgorod when the city was strong and the Varangians did not represent any longer a political power. The adoption of the ‘Varangian’ genealogy, in Likhachev’s opinion, was the result of “similarities in the stages of historical development” in Russia and other states.





In the Middle Ages, it was normal practice for commercially important cities to engage unruly condottieri as armed forces of the merchants’ guilds. It is enough to point to the histories of the city republics of Italy, where there are numerous examples of a hired mercenary military leader’s taking over the government and dictating new conditions of cooperation. We have such examples even from the ninth century. In 842 the people of the region of Beneventum were carrying on a feud with some neighboring cities and invited the Saracens from North Africa to serve as mercenaries. The Saracens willingly joined in the conflict, but as soon as the fighting ended, they took over the government of the host city and of other parts of the region of Beneventum. [18] These events in Beneventum are analogous to the chain of events in the Ilmen region following the ‘invitation of the Ruses’, but a borrowing of the story cannot even be suggested. That the principality of Novgorod continued to invite (and expel) princes in its subsequent history should not escape our attention.


The first such invitation may well have been the one described by the Russian Primary Chronicle in the fragment analyzed.





As the story of the invitation of the Ruses undoubtedly reflects a historical fact, we may proceed to verify the chronology connected with it. At the same time, we should also reconstruct the geopolitical conditions in Eastern Europe which could have influenced, or could be related to, the invitation and subsequent developments.


In verifying the chronology of the first tribute payment and of the invitation, we can only confirm that the dates provided by the Chronicler seem to be correct, logically corresponding to the facts and dates derived from other, independent sources. The logic of the events makes it clear not only that the developments described by the Chronicler are historically plausible, but also that they could have taken place only on the dates indicated.


The dates supplied by the Russian Primary Chronicle prior to the entry under the year 945 appear at first sight to be incorrect. A. A. Shakhmatov has established, however, that the apparent mistakes are the result not of a random choice of dates, but rather of a careless adaptation of the complicated Byzantine system of time-reckoning. [19] A basic error was already present in the chronological handbook used by the compiler of the Russian



18. Annales Bertiniani, s.a. 842.


19. A short presentation of the complex problem of chronology connected with the Russian chronicles is given in Cross, The Russian Primary Chronicle, pp. 30-35. For a detailed study see the posthumously published work of I. G. Berezhkov, Khronologiia russkogo letopisaniia (Moscow, 1963).





Chronicle. All dales of the Chronicle prior to 945 must therefore be adjusted. Fortunately, there are a few dates in parallel Byzantine or Western sources upon which to base some of our corrections. If we convert the Chronicle’s date of the raid on Constantinople to our modern calendar system, the event would seem to have taken place in 866 A.D. But, as already discussed, [20] the attack actually occurred in 860 A.D. As this attack on Constantinople is the third entry in the Chronicle dealing entirely with the Ruses, we may tentatively assume that all three entries are derived from the same source and that, therefore, the internal chronology of the three entries should remain correct. This means that not only the date of the attack must be adjusted by six years, but also the date of the first tribute payment to the ‘Varangians’ and the date of the invitation of the Ruses. Accepting this method of adjustment, we get the following tentative reconstruction of the dates:


6367 (859-6, i.e., 853)            The imposition of tribute

6368    no entry

6369    no entry

6370 (862-6, i.e., 856)            Expulsion of the ‘Varangians’ and Invitation of the Ruses

6371    no entry

6372    no entry

6373    no entry

6374 (866-6, i.e., 860)            Attack on Constantinople


A careful reading of the complete entries under the three dates will make it possible to introduce further adjustments in chronology by using the internal logic of the narrative. This opportunity is afforded by the fact that under the date 6370 the Chronicler actually entered the events of three, or at least of two, years. This is an exception to annalistic practice, because a given date is usually followed by the events of only one year. In extant manuscripts where the Russian Chronicler had nothing to report, the dates are entered without any text. In our case, the entry under the year 6370, despite the deviation from the usual routine, creates no conflicts because there are no entries for the two previous years.


The main points of the entry under the year 6370 (i.e., 856), on which we shall base our conclusions, are as follows:


6370. They [the tributaries of the Varangians] drove them back beyond the sea, and, refusing them further tribute, set out to govern by themselves. ... They said to themselves, “Let us seek a prince who may rule over us and judge us according to the Law.” They accordingly went overseas to the Varangian Ruses: these particular Varangians were known as Ruses.... They



20. See above, pp. 31-32.





thus selected three brothers with their kinsfolk, who took with them all the Ruses and migrated. ... After two years, Sineus and his brother Truvor died, and Rurik assumed the sole authority. He assigned cities to his followers. Polotsk to one, Rostov to another, and to another Beloozero.


The fact that events of three years were summarized in this entry is obvious: the Varangians were driven back; a particular group of Varangians, the Ruses, were invited; after the lapse of two years Sineus and Truvor died; and after all those events Rurik assumed sole authority and assigned cities to his men.


The logic of events makes it evident that the Varangians were driven out immediately or within a year after the imposition of the tribute, or, at least, that the tribute payment happened only once. We may also suspect that the temporary usurpation of power by the Ruses occurred only during the third year of their stay among the Slovenes, namely after the death of Sineus and Truvor, when Rurik began to assign cities to his men. We must also note that, on this occasion, in the redistribution of cities there is no mention of the local population as a partner to the transaction.


We are now in a position to date the invitation more exactly:


853      The imposition of tribute and expulsion of the Varangians.

853/854           Invitation of the Ruses.

856      Deaths of Sineus and Truvor. Distribution of cities. “Rurik assumed the sole authority”.


A close confirmation of our calculation of dates is provided by the Life of Saint Ansgar. [21] According to this source, some Danes sailed across the Baltic, seized a civitas of the Slavs, collected a ransom, and returned home. Vernadsky identified this civitas as Novgorod. [22] The invasion took place several years before the Saint’s death in 864. Vernadsky dates the collection of ransom in 852. The events described in the Life of St. Ansgar, accordingly, would correspond to the Chronicler’s own story of the tribute payment and of the expulsion. The discrepancy of one year between the date of the raid suggested by Vernadsky and the restored date for the



21. Rimbert, Vita Anscari, edited by G. Waitz (Hannover, 1884), p. 43. Summarized by Vernadsky in The Origins, p. 204.


22. The identification is rather bold. The Rus chronicler, in connection with the raid, did not mention the city of Novgorod, but only the Slovenes and other people of the Ilmen region. According to most recent estimates, Novgorod assumed urban characteristics only around the middle of the tenth century. Cf. B. A. Kolchkin, “Topografiia, stratigrafiia i khronologiia Nerevskogo raskopa", Materialy i issledovaniia po arkheologii SSSR, LV (1956), p. 137.





tribute payment in the Russian Chronicle can be explained by the fact that the Byzantine year started in September, the Western year, at various dates in the spring. [23] What is more, the difference in dating may imply that the Russian Chronicler’s information was derived from a source independent from the source used by the compiler of the life of St. Ansgar. This fact would greatly enhance the credibility of the Russian Chronicler. We may conclude that the ‘invitation’ of the Ruses followed immediately after the raid mentioned in the Life and that it was aimed at preventing new attacks coming from the sea, and not from the Khazars, as assumed by G. Vernadsky in his various presentations of the history of early Russia. [24]



23. In early Rus there were two systems of chronology starting in the spring, both beginning in March. The so-called Ultra-March system was one year behind the regular March system.


24. Vernadsky, The Origins, pp. 203-5, 209.


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