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

Imre Boba





The Kievan state of the eleventh and twelfth centuries was the end result of a long process. In the period between the seventh and ninth centuries, the Pax Chazarica created the conditions for a peaceful Slavic colonization of large areas of Eastern Europe and for the consolidation of Slavic tribal state formations such as those of the Polanians and the Derevlians. The advantages offered by international trade facilitated the economic growth of the whole region.


The Slavic tribal state formations in Eastern Europe at that time were basically at the stage of a semi-patriarchal society, where the authority and administration were exercised by the assembly of elders, the veche, or by the tribal princes and their councils.


The movements of the Onogurs, Northmen, Majghari, and Pechenegs during the ninth century in various regions of Eastern Europe, however, also created the necessity of increased defensive measures both on the part of the Khazars and of various Slavic tribal state formations. In the case of the Slavs, new state formations came to the fore, such as those of the Radimichi and the Viatichi. These, and probably other formations, were no longer ‘tribal’ and patriarchal, but, rather, centered around a leader and his military retinue.


Furthermore, as a result of the mass movements of nomads and the inroads of the Vikings from the West, the economically-important waterways of Eastern Europe had to be protected by military force. Both the Scandinavian merchants, originally known as Ruses, and the population of the Ilmen region were interested in occupying strategically important portages and trading centers. Similar were the aims of the Khazars and nomads. The commercial communities of the Ilmen region attempted to base their security upon mercenary troops under Scandinavian leadership. The experiment with Rurik and his mercenaries failed and the Rus, or druzhina, were expelled from Novgorod. The leader of the Rus, the Rurikide prince, moved to Kiev. Thus, from the three Rus centers known to Muslim authors there remained only one: the center in Kiev.


Kiev itself and the land of the Polanians passed in a short period of time from independent status to dependence upon the Khazars and, soon





afterwards, came under the control of the Ruses of Askold and Dir. The Rus leaders, expelled from Novgorod, usurped the prerogatives of Askold and Dir and probably maintained the relations with the population of the city and of the land of the Polanians as established by the first Ruses. Around this core began the formation of the Rus nation and of the medieval Kievan state.


During the last decades of the ninth century and the larger part of the tenth century there was not yet any organized cooperation between the princely House of Rurik, which based its power on the military retinue, and the autochthonous population represented by local princes and the veche. This dualism of authority, however, did not exclude the participation of the Slavic and Finno-Ugric elements in the services of the Rurikides, nor did it prevent Varangians, i.e., foreigners from the West, from pursuing independent trade activities among the Eastern Slavs without formal membership in the princely retinue.


A closer cooperation between the Prince and the local self-government emerged only very slowly and was based on the dangers faced simultaneously by the Prince and by the population as represented through the veche. But instances of cooperation were neither the result of solidarity nor of a joint long-range policy. They were usually last-minute solutions to divert a danger faced by both socio-political formations.


As time went on, the gulf between the two centers of authority in Kievan Rus slowly diminished at the expense of the democratic self- government, although, at the same time, the princely family and the boyars were being assimilated by the Slavic majority. The retinue, the druzhina, remained for several centuries a heterogenous organization, in which, in addition to autochthons, the Varangians continued to play an important role. It also became customary to hire nomads as auxiliary mercenary troops. But such was the basic pattern of military organizations elsewhere in Europe also. The originally Nordic leadership of the ‘Druzhina’ became more and more heterogenous and finally Slavic, since replacements could not always be made from overseas.


The strongest element in changing the pattern of the Rurikide rule was the pressure of the Pechenegs, Kumans and Mongols. Instead of following an aggressive policy of expansion and exploitation, the princes were forced to organize themselves for defense at any price and to seek the cooperation of the population. As a result of this development, during the eleventh and twelfth centuries, the interests of the already-Slavicized princes and of the autochthonous population became more interdependent and a feeling of national solidarity began to evolve. In this process of the formation of the nation, the Church also played an important role.



The role of the nomads in the earliest history of Eastern Europe was complex, and to hold that their influence was either positive or negative





would be as absurd as to assert that the Nortmen were decisive in the creation of the Kievan state. History is a complex interplay of events, and any attempt to reduce the causes of a development to only one factor or to eliminate the possible interplay of other factors is to deny that a historian’s obligation is to attempt as nearly as possible to restore the past as it was.


The nomads, as well as the Northmen, the Western Slavs, the Greeks, and many other peoples, played a role in the history of Kievan Rus, as they did throughout the whole history of Russia. The Northmen were never fully masters of the situation in Eastern Europe. Their freedom of action was much more restricted by outside factors than the freedom of action of the autochthonous population. Similarly, the nomads could not avoid dispersion or absorption by the people of the surrounding areas. But both the nomads and the Northmen, on occasion, speeded up or slowed down the internal developments of the various groups of the population of Eastern Europe.


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