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

Imre Boba




A. The geopolitical situation  113

B. Askold and Dir in Kiev  118

C. The Ruses: Varangians and Autochthons  122

D. The Ruses of Oleg and the Slavs  125



The ‘invitation of the Varangians’ by the tribes of the North around the middle of the ninth century has been placed by G. Vernadsky in a causal relationship with the developments in the southern part of Eastern Europe. [1] His contention is that the merchant communities of the Slavs, Finno-Ugors and Ruses (Rusk-Alans) invited the Varangians to come in order to employ them against the Khazars, who, in Vernadsky’s opinion, were blocking the trade routes from Novgorod to the South and the East. According to this theory, the blockade by the Khazars resulted in a civil war fought by restless tribes of the North and some idle Nordic merchants who were unable to carry on their normal trade activities.


As an argument in favor of this theory, Vernadsky contends that the Khazars were the ones who prevented the Ruses in 839 from returning home from Constantinople. As our analysis of the events of 839 implied, [2] it is improbable that the difficulties encountered by the Ruses in that year were caused by an allegedly hostile attitude on the part of the Khazars. Whatever geopolitical situation may have prevailed in 839, however, it cannot be applied to the evaluation of events after 850. There would seem to be more reason to look for a relation between the invitation of the ‘Ruses’ in 853-4 and the tribute payment to the Varangians in 853, two events which are not only chronologically and geographically closely related, but also appear to be in a logical relationship with each other.


Hiring Northmen against Northmen was a practice well attested to in sources, just as there were frequent cases of engaging nomads against nomads. Issues of ethnic, national, or political solidarities were not involved, or, at least, they were completely different from modern concepts of loyalty.





As long as the tribes of the Northeast could maintain the terms of the



1. George Vernadsky, Ancient Russia (New Haven, 1946), pp. 335-36; Vernadsky, The Origins, pp. 203, 209.


2. See above, pp. 23 ff.





agreement with the invited Kuses, and as long as the Ruses benefited both from the agreement and from the direct participation in international trade, the relationship between the two contracting parties had to be fair. We must remember that the various tribes had their own military organizations, and later, even with princes in power, Novgorod maintained its own militia independent of the forces of the prince. This allowed the Veche, the self-government of the city, to assure a balance of power and to prevent any coup d'etat by the prince, who ruled by invitation.


In spite of these circumstances, however, after the deaths of Sineus and Truvor, Rurik took over the government of the territories entrusted to the protection of the Ruses, and the impression is created that this time it was without the consent of the people who extended the invitation. An explanation of this development may be derived from an analysis of the political situation along the trade routes connecting the Baltic with the Khazars and the Muslim East.


Some sources lead us to assume that, in the early fifties of the ninth century, the Khazar Empire was involved in several conflicts in the Caucasus. The Khazar state during this period suffered a great internal crisis and the Pax chazarica in Eastern Europe underwent a new phase of deterioration. As the Khazar Empire, located between the Urals and the Black Sea, was a gateway for the trade routes between Europe and the East, any crisis in that region must have had its repercussions also in more remote areas.


A conflict between the Khazars and the Arabs, for instance, would naturally curtail the trade carried on along the Volga and the Caspian Sea across the Caucasus. Such a curtailment, whether of a shorter or longer duration, would especially affect the transport of goods carried by boat along the Volga and the Caspian Sea, and Northmen, the most numerous group of merchants relying on water-bound traffic, would be the first to feel the effects of such a disturbance. When the southern borders of the Khazar Empire were closed to trade, the Northmen, Slavs, and Finno-Ugors, who utilized the upper Volga and its tributaries, could trade, at best, only with the Khazars themselves and the Bulgars of the Kama-Volga region.


The city of Bulgar on the Volga was important not only as the converging point of several riverways (Belaia-Viatka-Kama and the Oka-Volga), but also as the terminal point of overland caravan routes connecting Central Asia with Northeastern Europe. The overland caravan routes were monopolized by Turks and Iranians, especially by those from Khwarezm. If the Northmen wanted to pursue their trade with the Arabs by diverting their caravans across Khwarezm, then it could have been done only through the mediation of the Turks and Iranians coming on caravan routes to the city of Bulgar. This procedure obviously resulted in a considerable loss of profits by the Northmen. Such a situation arose in





connection with the deterioration of Khazar-Arab relations in or before the year 854, the very time of the large-scale changes in the region of Novgorod.


Al-Balādhurī, a reliable contemporary Arabic historian (died before 893), reported in his “Book of Conquests of Countries” that, in the year of Hegira 240 (854/55 A.D.), the governor of Armenia (at this lime part of the Caliphate of Baghdad) had rebuilt a deserted city and had there resettled three hundred families from Khazaria “who had left their country because of their inclination toward Islam”. [3] We may assume that these refugees left Khazaria because of some conflict resulting from the fact that they showed an “inclination toward Islam”, whereas the ruling class in the Khazar Empire at that time professed Judaism. [4]


Despite the traditional tolerance of, or even indifference to, religion on the part of Altaic states, the Khazar Empire could not avoid tensions among the various religious groups of its multinational populace. Khazaria was normally a haven for persecuted Jews from the Caliphate and from the Byzantine Empire. Also, Muslim sectarians found protection and employment in the Khazar army. Both the Jews and the Muslims in the Khazar Empire represented various shades of orthodoxy, and thus conflicts among the followers of the same basic creed were difficult to prevent. Whatever the immediate cause of the defection of the aforesaid “three hundred families”, their arrival in the Caliphate contributed to the tension existing between the two neighboring states. Among the Altaic peoples, rebels were considered fugitive slaves. To accord them protection could have resulted in war or, at least, in the severance of good neighborly relations.


The relations between the Khazars and the Arabs in the early fifties of the ninth century were of a definitely unfriendly, if not a warlike, character. At the time when the Khazar refugees arrived in Armenia to seek the protection of the Caliphate, the Governor of Armenia was engaged in a military expedition against the people named ‘Sanarijah’, a Christian nation living north of Tiflis. The leaders of the Sanarijah applied for military assistance to various neighboring nations, including the Khazars. [5] The situation along the Khazar border must have been very tense, since, at one stage of the Caucasian upheavals, the Governor of Armenia, who both accepted the Khazar refugees and conducted the campaign against the Sanarijah, was removed from his post, having been suspected of maintaining treasonable contacts with the Khazars. [6]



3. Al-Balādhurī's text in Lewicki, Źródła arabskie, pp. 220-21; cf. Marquart, Streifzüge, p. 24.


4. Cf. D. M. Dunlop, The History of the Jewish Khazars (Princeton, N. J., 1954), passim.


5. Al-Ya'qūbī’s text in Lewicki, Źródła arabskie, p. 263.


6. Marquart, Streifzüge, p. 412.





The fact that the dissidents from Khazaria sought the protection of the Caliphate, the fact that the Christian Sanarijah people asked military assistance from the Khazars against the Caliphate, and, finally, the fact that the Governor of Armenia was suspected of treason because of his contacts with the same Khazars should allow us to assume that the whole region between the Urals and the Black Sea was in turmoil. During this period, moreover, there were, along the Khazar-Arab frontier, also several revolts within the Caliphate, e.g., in Albania of the Caucasus in 852 and in Armenia itself between 850 and 855. [7] Disturbances in Georgia proper led in 853 to the liquidation of an independent Muslim state with its capital in Tiflis. [8] Under such conditions, normal, or even only limited, trade contacts across the regions in question were impossible. Above all, this affected the Northmen.


As for the internal crisis in the Khazar Empire, we have mentioned that the cause may have been, indeed, religious, as the refugees to the Caliphate implied, but the underlying cause may well have been power politics among the ruling classes. We shall only refer to the fact that the Khazar Empire relied on mercenary troops provided mostly by the Muslim Khwarezmians, and, indeed, Khwarezmians were in charge of the armed forces. Since, as already mentioned, part of the ruling class professed Judaism and there was a constant influx of persecuted Jews into Khazaria, there were, no doubt, tensions between the various groups in the civil administration and in the military leadership. The defection of the three hundred families from the Khazars in the year 854/55 must have been connected with such internal difficulties.


Constantine Porphyrogenitus may have been describing a similar, if not the same, crisis, when he referred to the defection of a group named ‘Kavaroi’ from the Khazar Empire. [9] The incident in Constantine’s work is undated, and there has been much speculation as to the approximate chronology of the events, as well as to the ethnic composition of the ‘Kavaroi.’ [10] The story of the Kavars reads as follows:


The so-called ‘Kavaroi’ were of the race of the Khazars. Now it fell out that a secession was made by them from their government, and when a civil war broke out, their first government prevailed, and some of them were slain, but others escaped and came and settled with the Turks... . And because in wars they showed themselves strongest and most valorous ... they have been promoted to be first clans.



Emperor Constantine Porphyrogenitus and his father, Emperor Leo the Wise,



7. Cf. Sovetskaia istoricheskaia entsiklopediia, Vol. I (Moscow, 1961), pp. 254, 774.


8. V. Minorsky, “Tiflis”, in Encyclopaedia of Islam.


9. De administrando imperio, pp. 174-75.


10. Most recently Herbert Schonebaum, “Zur Kabarenfrage”, Berliner byzantinische Arbeiten, V (Berlin, 1957), pp. 142-46 and Omeljan Pritsak, “Yowár und Kāwar", Ural-Altaische Jahrbücher, Vol. 36 (Wiesbaden, 1965), pp. 378-93.





used the term ‘Turk’ consistently for the people who, during the late ninth and early tenth century, moved into the Carpathian Basin, In our opinion, by the term Turks’ the two emperors understood first the ethnic group known to us otherwise as Onogurs/Ougry and later the whole federation to which both the Onogurs and the Kavars belonged. From Western sources, we know that the ‘Cowari’ and ‘Ungari’ were on a raid in Western Europe in the year 881. [11] They were seen simultaneously at different places, but probably as partners in a joint expedition, The ‘Kavaroi’ must have defected, therefore, sometime before 881.


Before proposing a more exact date for their exodus, we may first suggest that the ‘Kavaroi’ were originally stationed somewhere along the western northwestern frontiers of the Khazar Empire, because from such a location their defection westward to the Onogurs is more understandable. We know that the military organization of the Khazars was composed mostly of Muslims. [12] We also know that the Muslim units had an agreement with the Khazars that they should not be employed against their co-religionists, the Arabs. [13] All this implies that the ‘Kavaroi’, who were stationed along the western, rather than southern, frontiers of the Empire, were also Muslims, or at least under the command of Muslim military aristocracy.


We may now assume that the defection of the ‘Kavaroi’ took place around, or precisely in, the year 854. This is the date of some civil strife in the Khazar Empire, followed by the exodus of the three hundred Khazar families southward. Between these events and the civil war and exodus of the Kavars there are striking similarities. The assumption that both defections were the result of the same internal crisis inside the Khazar Empire is made plausible by the fact that al-Baladuri knows about only one such crisis and, similarly, Constantine Porphyrogenitus reports only one.


The defection of the Kavars must have considerably weakened the military power of the Khazars and diminished their international prestige. The appearance of the Kavars in the Steppes along the Don and Dnieper renewed the tension in that area, and their cooperation with the Onogurs reshaped the overall political structure of the whole of Eastern Europe. Consequently, the conditions in the Steppes and in the Caucasus could not favor trade contacts between Europe and the lands of the Muslim East. The Northmen who utilized the Volga River and those who traveled



11. “Primum bellum cum Ungaris ad Weniam. Secundum bellum cum Cowaris ad Culmite”. In the Annals of Admont, s.a. 881. Cf. Monurnenta Germaniae historica. Scriptores, XXX/2 (1934), p. 741. This is the first dated reference to the Kavars. The Onogurs were first reported in Western Europe already in 862. Cf. Annales Bertiniani s.a. 862.


12. Cf. M. I. Artamonov, Istoriia khazar (Leningrad, 1962), pp. 316-17, 406.


13. Al-Ma'sūdī, Muruj al Dhabab. English translation of the relevant fragment in M. Dunlop, The Jewish Khazars (Princeton, N. J., 1954), p. 206.





to the Khazars via the Mediterranean, Black Sea, and the Don-Volga-Caspian route were now forced to look for new enterprises.


As the normal flow of traffic from the Baltic to the Caspian was disrupted, friction arose between the idle and restless Viking warrior-merchants and the less militant autochthons. A direct consequence of the new developments was the deterioration of the situation in the region of Lake Ilmen, the hub of West-East trade. [13a] This resulted in the military coup d'etat by the mercenary Ruses and the assumption of power by Rurik in 856.





The occupation of Novgorod, Polotsk, Rostov, and Belo-ozero by the Ruses changed the contractual relationship between them and the local population, above all, with respect to economic obligations. What had previously been a payment in cash or in kind for services rendered to the autochthonous population now became extortion. As the profit from trade was now, at least temporarily, restricted, the beneficiaries of the new situation were only those who had been assigned by Rurik to cities as administrators. The Chronicler explicitly stated that cities were given to individuals, who probably commanded a small military retinue. As we know from subsequent centuries of Russian history, the distribution of towns and districts was a normal practice of the Rurik dynasty, but the recipients were members of the princely clan only. The situation must have been similar during the first distribution of towns in the region of Novgorod. Since not all aspirations could have been fulfilled, and not all prominent members of Rurik’s retinue could have been compensated with benefices, there must have been some dissatisfaction with the arrangement. In similar cases, it was customary for a free member of the retinue to look for employment with a more generous prince and such may have been the background for the departure of two men, Askold and Dir, from the retinue of Rurik:


856 ... With him [i.e. Rurik] there were two men who did not belong to his kin, but were boyars. And they both asked permission to go to Tsargrad with their kinsmen. They sailed down the Dnieper; as they passed by, they noticed a small burgh on a hill ... Askold and Dir remained in the burgh, and they gathered many Varangians and began to rule (vladeti) over the country of the Polanians, while Rurik exercised princely government (kniazhashchu) in Novgorod.


860. Askold and Dir attacked the Greeks during the fourteenth year of the reign of the Emperor Michael. [14]



13a. V. O. Kliuchevskii, Sochineniie, I (Moskva, 1956), pp. 140-41.


14. Likhachev, Povest vremennykh let, Vol. I, pp. 18-19.





The order in which the Chronicler deals with the episodes of this period is extremely significant. The departure of Askold and Dir must have followed the allocation of the cities. Similarly, they departed originally for Constantinople, but changed their minds in Kiev. The Chronicler did not feel it was necessary to point out the relationships among the various episodes, because the connections between the events were obvious to him. The logic of the events defies any attempt to discredit the historicity of Askold and Dir. It is hardly possible to have invented a story which fits the general geopolitical conditions so accurately.


Since trade along the Volga was temporarily blocked and since Askold and Dir did not participate in the benefits of the occupation of Northern Russia, they were, in fact, free to go away. Their allegiance to Rurik was conditional, and the severance of relations under the new conditions was to be expected. A free man in the Germanic tribal society was free to go anywhere, could assume services even with the enemy, without being apprehended or considered a traitor. [15] Under the Rurik dynasty, up to the time of Ivan III, the practice of choosing a lord at will or severing allegiances was practiced by many of the Russian boyars. Askold and Dir were free men - the Chronicler calls them boyars - and were, therefore, in a position to depart in order to find new employment.


The two men first planned to move with their families to Constantinople, but it is clear from the Chronicler’s narrative that their original plan was altered. They changed their mind after their arrival in Kiev because of the new opportunities offered by the conditions in that city. Their decision could have been influenced also by the unsettled situation along the Dnieper, resulting from the defection of the Kavars. At any rate, their families, or even clans, represented only a small force, and they could not have contemplated an occupation of Kiev by military action. A peaceful arrangement which allowed them to remain in the city is, therefore, most likely.


The arrival of the two leaders with their retinue in Kiev can be, in accordance with the adjusted chronology, [16] easily dated in, or shortly after, the year 856. This is the period of the decline of Khazar prestige and of the Khazar protective military power. The Kavars had probably moved into the Steppes in 854/5 and their attitude to the Khazar Empire was certainly not friendly. As the ‘Pax chazarica’ was by now gone, Kiev was exposed to various pressures. The Chronicler mentioned that the city paid taxes to the Khazars, but, as we have already assumed, the Khazars themselves were not in the city. [17] It is very probable that Askold and Dir



15. Cf. Jacob Grimm, Deutsche Rechtsalterthümer, 2nd ed. (Göttingen, 1854), p. 286.


16. According to the internal chronology of the Russian Primary Chronicle, Askold and Dir moved from Novgorod to Kiev four years before their attack on Constantinople. The latter event took place in 860.


17. See above, pp. 53, 63-68.





offered the city their military assistance against marauders, or that the veche of Kiev itself offered employment to the two leaders and their retinue. The dangers faced by the Kievans and by the “Poliane” came not only from the nomads, whether Onogurs, Magyars, or Kavars, but also from the neighboring Slavic tribes of the forest zone. We refer here to the fragment already quoted from the Russian Primary Chronicle that after the death of Kii and his brothers, but before the arrival of the Khazars, the inhabitants of Kiev were oppressed by the Derevlians. [18] This episode is very plausible, since Kiev was located in the immediate neighborhood of the Derevlian tribal territory. The Derevlians present themselves throughout the Chronicle as a ferocious tribal organization. It would be rather surprising if, in the general turmoil following the Kavar defection, the Derevlians did not try again to seize the city. Under such circumstances, the services of Askold and Dir, on terms dictated by the veche of the city of Kiev, could have been for a while a valuable contribution to the preservation of peace.


Further developments in Kiev followed the pattern already traced in Novgorod. The Chronicler condensed the crucial events of 856 in Kiev into one sentence: “Askold and Dir remained in the city, and they gathered many Varangians, and they began to rule (vladeti) over the Polanian land, while Rurik exercised his princely government (kniazhashchu) in Novgorod.” It is noteworthy that the two leaders, when already in the city, first assembled many Varangians, and only then began to rule. We also must note the distinction made by the Chronicler between ‘to rule’ (vladeti) and ‘to exercise princely government’ (kniazhashchu). As we know, Askold and Dir were not from the princely clan of Rurik, and their usurpation of princely prerogatives was later to become the cause of their demise.


The extension of the rule by the Ruses over the land of the Polanians could, in turn, have shifted the balance of power inside the city, but, in the face of danger from the steppe, the Ruses were as much interested in the defense of the city as were the autochthons.


The presence of the Ruses, however, was more burdensome to the rural population. The extension of rule over the land of the Polanians meant collection of ‘dan’, a tribute, and services in the form of ‘poludie’, the housing and feeding of the Ruses in the winter. Both duties were very definite hardships, but there must have been some kind of reciprocal agreement to forestall abuses and revolts. We know that the Derevlians revolted against payments of tribute only when there were violations of the existing agreements. The payment of the ‘dan’ and the ‘poludie’ was not an infringement upon the self-government of the rural communities or upon the allodial rights of ownership. These two services could well



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





have been rendered for protection against marauders of various nationalities, including Northmen.


There is little information on which to base the history of the two decades between the arrival of Askold and Dir in Kiev and the arrival of a second group of Ruses, usually connected with the names of Igor and Oleg. We know only about the unsuccessful expedition of Askold and Dir against Constantinople in 860 and a conversion of the Kievan Ruses shortly after that date.


The fiasco of the expedition very likely worked in favor of the autochthonous population of Kiev and of the Polanian land. The decimated Ruses may now have been forced to respect the terms of the original agreement, or even to accept new conditions imposed by the veche. It is fair to assume, at least, that the veche of Kiev regained much of its prestige. Such was the case in the following centuries whenever a prince returned to the city after a defeat.


No less significant an event in the life of the city was the partial conversion of the population, probably headed by the Ruses, to Christianity. Such is the unequivocal message contained in the patriarchal letter of Photius circulated among the Archbishops of the East in the year 867. [19] In this document the Patriarch described the Ruses, ‘who once were a menace to Christianity’, as a nation now subordinate and friendly toward the Empire.


There can be no doubt that a Christianization at the date indicated by the letter of Photius actually took place. It was the result of the conditions existing at that time both in Kiev and in the Byzantine Empire. The Greeks needed an ally behind the nomads, the imminent neighbors of the Crimea and close to the Greek possessions on the Balkans. The Kievans themselves were interested in alliances which would strengthen their own positions against the same nomads. In such circumstances, the conversion could have been the expression of ideological identity and a confirmation of sincerity in political matters. The alliance was definitely welcomed by both parties, since it served the purpose of restoring the political equilibrium after the crisis in Khazaria and in Kiev.


The theory that Askold was a Christian is borne out by the fragment of the Russian Primary Chronicle which says, in connection with the assassination of Askold, that subsequently a church was built on his grave. [20] According to Canon Law, a church may be built only over the grave or other relics of a saint or Christian martyr. And Askold can, indeed, be considered a martyr, since he was killed in ambush by the heathen Oleg. The Chronicler described the local tradition of the building of the church, although, by doing so, he created a seeming contradiction.



19. Migne, Patrologia Graeca, CII, col. 736.


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





As we know, the first conversion of Rus is connected with the acceptance of Christianity by Vladimir the Saint at the very end of the tenth century. In fact, this is the event described in detail by the Chronicler. But on closer analysis this conversion appears to be actually only the official acceptance of Christianity by the princely family of the Rurik dynasty, and not by the Rus military organization as a whole. Byzantine writers never stressed this conversion, because, for them, the acceptance of Christianity between 860 and 866 was the more significant. For them, Askold and Vladimir represented the same military or political formation and the killing of the former and a relapse to heathenism was an internal Rus affair. From the Byzantine point of view, Christianity was transplanted to Kiev already in 860-66, and, hence, the silence about the conversion at the end of the tenth century. There were Christians among the Rus signatories of the Treaty of 944 with Byzantium and, at the same time, there was already a Christian church in Kiev dedicated to St. Elias. [21] On the issue of the conversion the Chronicler must have relayed an official tradition of the Kievan court.





The proper understanding of the relations between the ‘Ruses’ and the local population of Eastern Europe is hampered by the ambiguity of terminology used in modern historical writings, but, above all, by the inadequate attention devoted to the semantic and syntactic changes occurring constantly in Russian phraseology. We refer to the examples of the terms ‘Rus’ and ‘dan’ (tribute, taxation), both of which are of crucial importance for the interpretation of sources relevant to the history of Eastern Europe in the ninth and tenth centuries.


As already analyzed, the original term ‘Rus’ assumed in East Europe first a semi-ethnic connotation with the meaning ‘member of a Danish confraternity’, ‘particular foreigner from Denmark’, ‘Dane’. With the fact of their invitation to Eastern Europe, the term ‘Rus’ became synonymous with ‘military organization’, ‘military confraternity’, the Slavic ‘Druzhina’.


At the outset of the quoted text, [22] we read that Oleg collected soldiers from among the Varangians, Chud, Slovenes, Meria and all of the Krivichi. In the same text, we read that "The Varangians, Slovenes and others who accompanied him were called Rus”.


Of importance here is not the fact that the temi ‘Rus’ is used with the meaning of ‘military organization’, but that this organization includes, besides the Varangians, also the Slavs and Finno-Ugors. This conclusion should not be considered a novelty in the interpretation of the text, because



21. Ibid., p. 39.


22. See above, p. 107.





it is in complete agreement, for instance, with the laws governing the Viking military organization in Jomsborg. Point two of this Viking law states that members of the organization do not need to be from the same ethnic group, but they must fight like brothers. [23]” This observation might lead us to a possible reinterpretation of the following fragment of the Chronicler’s entry under the year 6390:


poide Oleg, poim voia mnogi variagi, chiud, slovieni, menu i vsie krivichi, i pride k Smolensku s krivichi i priia grad, i posadi muzh svoi ... i vzia Liubech, i posadi muzh svoi ... I siede Oleg kniazha v Kievie, a reche Oleg: 'Se budi mati gradom russkim'. Biesha u nego variazi i slovcni i prochi prozvashasia Rusiu. Se zhe Oleg nacha gorody staviti, i ustavi dani slovienom, krivichem i meri, i [ustavi] variagom dan daiati ot Novograda griven 300 na leto, mira dielo. . . [24]


The customary interpretation and translation of this fragment reads as follows:


6390 (882). Oleg set forth, taking with him many warriors from among the Varangians, the Chud, the Slovenes, the Meria and all the Krivichi. He thus arrived with his Krivichi before Smolensk, captured the city, and set up there his men. Thence he went on and captured Liubech, where he also set up his men.... Oleg set himself up as prince of Kiev, and declared that it should be the mother of Rus burghs. The Varangians, Slovenes, and others who accompanied him were called Rus. Oleg began to build burghs, and set up tributes to be paid by the Slovenes, the Krivichi and the Meria. He commanded that Novgorod should pay the Varangians tribute to the amount of 300 grivny a year for the preservation of peace. [25]


But such a translation of the original text creates internal contradictions, because it could imply that the same people who were part of Oleg’s military organization, the Slovenes, the Krivichi and the Meria, were paying tribute. On the other hand, only the Varangians were receiving tribute, and only from the city of Novgorod. The question arises as to whom, then, did the Slovenes, Krivichi, and others pay their tribute, if the translation is correct? All these questions are vital for the interpretation of early history of Eastern Europe, but not all the ambiguities can be blamed on the Chronicler. In fact, a careful rereading of the text removes the seeming contradictions and all the ambiguities appear to result from the deep-rooted Normanist concepts, observable even among the ideas of the anti-



23. The Saga of the Jomsvikings. Translated by Lee M. Hollander (Austin, Texas, 1955), p. 63.


24. Likhachev, Povest vremennykh let, Vol. I, p. 20. The word in brackets, although printed in Likhachev’s rendering of the text, does not appear in the manuscript of the Laurentian version of the Chronicle. Cf. ibid., Vol. II, p. 184.


25. Cf. the Russian translation by Likhachev and B. A. Romanov, ibid., Vol. I, pp. 216-17.

Similar is the English translation in Cross, The Russian Primary Chronicle, p. 61;

George Vernadsky, The Origins of Russia (Oxford, 1959), p. 245.





Normanists, that the tributes were imposed upon the Slavs by a foreign ethnic group. In short, our interpretation of the text is that the tribute was not paid by the Slovenes, Krivichi and Meria, the ethnic groups in the Rus organization, but to them by the population of the regions in which the new burghs were built and the auxiliary troops of Slovenes. Krivichi and Meria were stationed.


In our opinion, the misinterpretation of the original Old Russian text appears to be the result of the ambiguity in the modern Russian syntax. Here again we quote the medieval text:


Se zhe Oleg nacha gorody staviti, i ustavi dani slovienom, krivichem i meri, i ustavi variagom dan daiati ot Novograda griven 300 na leto, mira dielo....


In the modern Russian, the form ‘staviti dan Slovenom’ may mean that the Slovenes paid the tribute to someone, or that tribute was to be paid by someone else to the Slovenes, but in the syntax of the Medieval Russian or at least in the syntax used by the Chronicler, this ambiguity did not exist. [26]


As our interpretation of the fragment under analysis may lead to a need for re-evaluation of the problem of tribute payments in particular, and of the ‘Rus’ controversy in general, we should make some additional observations. First of all, the Slovenes, Krivichi, Meria and Chud, all of whom were mentioned in the Chronicle as members of the Rus organization, are never included among tribes paying tribute to the Rus princes. On the other hand, tribes which, according to the Russian Chronicle, paid tribute to the Khazars, or the Rus princes, the Derevlians, Severiane, Radimichi and Viatichi, surprisingly enough, were not members of ‘Rus’ and appeared to be self-governing tribal or semi-tribal principalities with their own princes and military organizations. Since the Greeks of Byzantium also happen to have been, on occasion, among the tribute-paying partners of the Ruses, we may assume that the tribute payment to the Rus organization was no more than rendering peace money “for the preservation of peace”, as mentioned in the last sentence of the text under analysis. The Derevliane, Viatichi, Radimichi and the city of Novgorod were, therefore, in the late ninth century and during the tenth century in the same relationship to the Rus princes as Byzantium. Of course, the tribute payment was extorted under duress, but the relationship established through the tribute payment excluded the direct exploitation of tribal regions by the Rus military organization and allowed for complete tribal self-government. On the other hand, the non-tribute-paying Slovenes,



26. Likhachev, Povest vremennykh let, Vol. I, passim. Similarly all the cases quoted by I. I. Sreznevskii in his Materialy dlia slovaria drevnerusskago iazyka, Vol. I (Sanktpeterburg, 1893), s.v. dan. Dative form is usually used in Old Rus when an action is in favour of, or for the benefit of, somebody.





Krivichi, and Meria (and probably the Chud) were actually partners in the Rus military organization. [27]


To summarize, the autochthons of Eastern Europe, already around the year 880, appear to be either confederates of the Rus princes, equal with the Varangians in the Rus military organizations or tribute-paying independent tribal formations. This general pattern did not exclude the fact that segments of the population, usually along the trade routes and around the burghs, were exposed to abuses and hardships. We should also realize that in the ninth and tenth centuries the sphere of direct Rus control was limited only to a small area of Eastern Europe, probably only a narrow strip of land along the navigable rivers used for communication and in areas used for wintering (poludie).





We should now turn to the circumstances in which the relatively peaceful symbiosis of the Polanians and the Ruses under Askold and Dir was brought to an abrupt end by the arrival of Oleg and Igor in Kiev.


The events in Kiev are described by the Chronicler in the following fragment, which has already been partly analyzed:


6390 (882). Oleg set forth, taking with him many warriors from among the Varangians, the Chud, the Slovenes, the Meria and all the Krivichi. He thus arrived with his Krivichi before Smolensk, captured the city, and set up there his men. Thence he went on and captured Liubech, where he also set up his men. He then came to the hills of Kiev, and saw how Askold and Dir reigned (kniazhita) there. He hid his warriors in the boats, left some others behind and went forward carrying the child Igor. He thus came to the foot of the ‘Ugorskoe’, and after concealing his troops, he sent messengers to Askold and Dir, representing himself as a merchant on his way to Greece on an errand for Oleg and for Igor, the prince’s son, and requesting that they should come forth to greet them as members of their race. Askold and Dir straightway came forth. Then all the soldiery jumped out of the boats, and Oleg said to Askold and Dir, “You are not princes nor even of princely stock, but I am of princely birth.” Igor was then brought forward and Oleg announced that he was the son of Rurik. They killed Askold and Dir, and after carrying them to the hill, they buried them there, on the hill now known as ’Ugorskoe’ ... Oleg set himself up as prince of Kiev, and declared that it should be the mother of Rus burghs. [28]



27. The whole problem of dan and of poludie requires a new evaluation. Much information might be derived from a comparative study of the tribute payments in the Middle Ages. An attempt in this direction was made by Grace F. Ward in a study entitled “The English Danageld and the Russian Dan”, The American Slavic and East European Review, XIII (1954), pp. 299-318.


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





In our opinion, the whole story of the arrival of the second wave of Ruses in Kiev should be treated as a reliable source of information. There is nothing which would create the impression that the episode is an invented legend. Askold and Dir died unheroic deaths; they were not brothers, as might have been expected in a legend. The ambush is very realistic and could have been performed by any Viking leader. The killing was justified by Oleg with the claim that Askold and Dir were not from the princely clan and had assumed princely functions illegally. In Germanic legal concepts, the prince was elective, but only in a specific clan. Even the episode of the little Igor’s being lifted in the arms of Oleg and shown to the Ruses in Kiev is a ceremonial from the Germanic tribal law. In fact, the presence of the child-prince on a war expedition is a Germanic tribal practice. [29] In addition to identical cases in old Germanic legal literature, we even have a similar case presented by the Russian Primary Chronicle. We refer to the following episode:


6454 (946). Olga, together with her son Sviatoslav, gathered a large and valiant army, and proceeded to attack the land of the Derevliane. The latter came out to meet her troops, and when both forces were ready for combat, Sviatoslav cast his spear against the Derevliane. But the spear barely cleared the horse’s ears, and struck against his leg, for the prince was but a child. Then Sveinald and Asrnund said, “The prince has already begun battle; press on, retainers, after the prince.” [30]


It is rather improbable that the compiler of the Chronicle, a monk in Kiev, with Greek education and Slavic legal concepts would be capable of inventing a story of the capture of Kiev which cannot be challenged from any angle, be it historical, legal, or chronological.


We may now pose the question as to why the Ruses from Novgorod moved against Kiev. In our opinion, the decision was not a matter of choice, but of necessity.


There is some evidence on which to base our assumption that the Ruses were forced to leave Novgorod. Although the city was still the center for international trade between the Baltic and the East, and the Dnieper offered no special advantages, Oleg occupied and remained in Kiev. The Chronicler explicitly stated that it was only after the occupation of Kiev that “Oleg began to build burghs and set up tributes to be paid to the Slovenes, the ‘Krivichi’ and the ‘Meria’. He commanded that Novgorod should pay the Varangians, i.e. to the foreign mercenaries in the Rus organization, tribute to the amount of 300 grivny a year for the preservation of peace."


In our opinion, the Ruses were, in reality, expelled from Novgorod and moved south, occupying Smolensk and Liubech, both cities on the



29. Jacob Grimm, Deutsche Rechtsaltertümer, 2nd ed. (Gottingen, 1854), pp. 231, 232.


30. Likhachev, Povest vremennykh let, Vol. I, p. 42.





Dnieper, as they went along. In Kiev Oleg reorganized his forces and began the imposition of tributes. The Novgorodians were now exposed to renewed attempts by the Ruses to return to the city. The 300 grivny “for the preservation of peace” was exactly what the Chronicler intended to say. It was a payment to keep the Ruses out of the town. Such arrangements were made, for instance, between the Vikings and the kings of Germany and of England, and also between the Emperor of Byzantium and the various nomads of the steppes, as well as with the Rus princes themselves.


The next question might be: why were the Ruses expelled from Novgorod in the first place? Here we are forced to depend upon surmises, but the fact that ‘Varangians’ were expelled from Novgorod for stated causes also on other occasions seems to indicate that the expulsion, in this case, was also caused by abuses on the part of the Ruses. We have also to recall that the ‘Dogovory’ (treaties) between Rus and Byzantium, although listing several Rus cities, do not mention Novgorod, and, in fact, the Novgorodians themselves did not consider their city to be part of the land of Rus. [31]


We have to relate the expulsion of the Ruses from Novgorod and their arrival in Kiev to the chain of disturbances caused by the appearance of the Pechenegs on the Volga, all of which events happened around the year 880. The Khazars were involved in a war with the Pechenegs even before the latter crossed the Volga. [32] By the year 885, the Proto-Hungarians had been forced by the Pechenegs to abandon their grazing lands east of the Dnieper. The disturbed conditions in the whole of Eastern Europe lasted from the late seventies of the ninth century to the end of the century. In 881, in the same year that the Pechenegs crossed the Volga, and probably in connection with that event, the ‘Ungari’ and ‘Covari’ were seen in Western Europe [33] on a raid or, as is more likely, on an exploratory scouting expedition of a defeated nomadic federation.


Because of the appearance of the Pechenegs, the Volga waterway was, for a while, inaccessible to normal traffic. Trade contacts between the Khazars and the Arabs, as well as trade between the peoples of the Baltic and the Khazars, came to a standstill. The consequent, temporary idleness of the merchant-warrior Ruses in Novgorod was undoubtedly the cause of their expulsion. With their journey along the Dnieper to Kiev, the Ruses very likely hoped to open up new trade routes toward the East and the Byzantine Empire.


In this connection, we may recall the still obscure fragment of the arrival of Oleg in Kiev, reported only in some versions of the Old Russian



31. Cf. Novgorodskaia pervaia letopis starshego i mladshego izvodov (Moscow-Leningrad, 1950), s.a. 6643 and 6657.


32. Byzantinoturcica, Vol. I, p. 87.


33. See above, p. 117.





Chronicles (e.g., Eremitazhnyi Spisok, the Komissionnoi Spisok of the Novgorodian Chronicle, etc.). According to this fragment, Oleg and his retinue presented themselves to the Kievans as a group of merchants. Here are the phrases used by the Chronicler: “iako gost esm Podugorski idem v Greki”, and “tvoriashchasia podugorskymi gostmi”. [34]


For our purpose, the proper interpretation of the term “podugorski” is of greatest importance. In the index of Volume 25 of the Polnoe Sobranie Russkikh Letopisei, the editors offered the explanation that the term “podugorski” meant “merchants traveling on trade business to the Hungarian mountains and into Hungary”. [35] This explanation is obviously an anachronism, because in 880 there was no Hungary nor were there any Hungarians in that territory. Besides, Oleg stated that their destination was Byzantium. Subject to linguistic confirmation, the explanation appears to be that Oleg pretended to be a merchant in the service of, or trading with, the Onogurs of the Steppe zone. It might also mean that he was using the Dnieper with the permission of the Onogurs.


There is a further conclusion to be drawn from this fragment: we may assume that Kiev under Askold and Dir was in friendly contact with the Onogurs and that Oleg expected his claim of Onogur connections to be respected.


The arrival of Oleg shifted the balance of power between the people of Kiev and the military organization of Ruses in favor of the latter, although the elimination of Askold and Dir and the assumption of the leadership by Oleg on behalf of the young Igor could have been initially construed by the Kievans as only a change of guard, a palace revolution inside the Rus community. In reality, however, the changes were much more crucial.


Whereas the first twenty years of Russo-Slavic cooperation in Kiev, between the years 860 and c. 880, was a period of reciprocal adjustments of two communities, both striving to maintain peaceful conditions in and around the city, the arrival of the Ruses under Oleg brought about, in the basin of the Dnieper, the imposition of a military regime and an age of extensive exploitation of the autochthonous population. The main income of the newly arrived Ruses was from slave trade, a fact which is amply illustrated by Muslim sources and by Constantine Porphyrogenitus. [36]



34. Polnoe Sobranie Russkikh Letopisei, Vol. XXV (Moscow-Leningrad, 1949), p. 14;

Novgorodskaia pervaia letopis starshego i mladshego izvodov (Moscow-Leningrad, 1950), p. 107.


35. Polnoe Sobranie Russkikh Letopisei, Vol. XXV (Moscow-Leningrad, 1949), p. 341.


36. De administrando imperio, pp. 60-61. During the ninth and tenth centuries there was a considerable increase in the number of Saqaliba slaves in the Muslim lands, cf. Lewicki, Źródła arabskie, p. 94. The Russian Primary Chronicle reports under the year 1067 that Iziaslav, Sviatoslav and Vsevolod, sons of laroslav, captured Minsk, “put the men to the sword, sold the women and children into slavery". For a detailed study see T. Lewicki, "Osadnictwo słowiańskie i niewolnicy słowiańscy w krajach muzułmańskich według średniowiecznych pisarzy arabskich", Przegląd Historyczny, XLIII (1952).





The Ruses appeared in the southern part of Eastern Europe as rivals of the various nomadic tribal federations, both in pursuing trade with the Greeks and in military exploits. The presence of an aggressive military organization in Kiev shifted the whole political equilibrium in Eastern Europe, brought the ‘Rus’ danger closer to Byzantium and hastened the weakening of the Khazar Empire. Only the presence of the Majghari, Onogurs, ‘Kavaroi’ Pechenegs and finally of the Mongols, prevented the Ruses from establishing a base somewhere closer to the rich Byzantine cities. The presence of these Nomads also forced the heterogenous Ruses to remain in the basically Slavic-populated North, thus speeding up their total linguistic absorption by the autochthons.


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