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

Imre Boba





The Primary Chronicle, our main source of information on Early Rus, presents the history of Eastern Europe during the ninth century in its full complexity. This history was shaped by elements of internal, external, and international developments. The first dated entries of the Chronicle already singled out the Varangians and the Khazars as two forces that continued to play important roles in these developments. The Chronicler was also aware of the participation in these events of other, non-Slavic, peoples of Eastern Europe. As the narrative of the Chronicle continues, we notice references to the Byzantine Greeks, to peoples of the western part of Europe, and, in a more dramatic context, to the various nomadic groups which moved into and disappeared from the Pontic Steppes.


The Rus Chronicler presents the history of Rus in its entirety. Setting himself the task of describing “from where the land of Rus has its beginnings”, he did not yet have a definite answer in mind, but posed the question and proceeded to give a full answer. He presented the whole history of Rus as it appeared to him, with no bias, preferences, or assumptions. We may regret that he has no answers to certain questions we should like to pose, but this only shows that for him other issues were of greater importance.


Our knowledge of contemporary Muslim, Byzantine, and Western sources confirms that the observations made by the Chronicler are in many instances strikingly accurate. Much can still be done to extract the full information contained in the Chronicle and thus to deepen our understanding of Kievan Rus.


There are in the Chronicle some ambiguities which, unfortunately, have been interpreted in modern times to support the contention that the Northmen played a dominant role in the process of formation of the Kievan State. The so-called Normanist theory, which originated in the early eighteenth century, [1] explicitly or implicitly makes value judgments



1. The so-called Normanist controversy began in the early eighteenth century, when Theophilus (Gottlieb) Siegfried Bayer (1694-1738) published a collection of sources and some studies on the Scandinavian origin of the Varangians and of the Rurykid dynasty. The sources assembled by Bayer were used by Gerhart Friedrich Müller for a theory of a conquest of F.astcrn Europe by Northmen (= De origine gentis et nominis Russorum). The theory was submitted in the Russian Imperial Academy in 1749 and was immediately repudiated by Mikhail V. Lomonosov. Since that date, the controversy has continued without signs of abating.


The Anti-Normanists are inclined to blame the origin of the controversy upon the author of the Russian Primary Chronicle. Mikhailo Hrushev’sky in his Istoriia Ukraïny-Rusy, 3rd ed. (Kiev, 1913) has stated that “no other source but the Russian Primary Chronicle speaks about a Varangian origin of Russia” (p. 385). He also added that “the theory of a Varangian state (in Eastern Europe) is based exclusively on the story of the Russian Primary Chronicle” (p. 386; cf. also p. 602). Of a similar opinion is Henryk Łowmiański in his Zagadnienie roli Normanów w genezie państw słowiańskich (Warsaw, 1957), p. 36. Both authors are correct, insofar as the Normanists made the Primary Chronicle the main basis of their concepts, but both are mistaken in ascribing to the Chronicler the first formulation of the theory. A proper understanding of the Chronicler gives no basis for any such theory.


A modern presentation of the Normanist theory was made by V. Thomsen in The Relations between Ancient Russia and Scandinavia and the Origin of the Russian State (Oxford-London 1877, and revised editions). There are several translations of this work: in German (Gotha, 1879); in Swedish (Stockholm, 1882); in Russian, in Chteniia v Moskovskom obshchestve istorii i drevnostei (Moscow, 1891); and in Danish, in his collected works (Copenhagen, 1919).


There are numerous surveys of the Normanist controversy, usually with some degree of engagement in favour of or against the theory. In the work of Hrushev’sky, cited above, there is a presentation of the earlier stage of the controversy on pages 602-24. The book by Łowmiański surveys the controversy up to 1936. A survey of recent opinions is given by I. P. Shaskolskii in “Normanskaia teoriia v sovremennoi burzhuaznoi istoriografii”, Istoriia SSSR, I (1960), No. 1, pp. 223-36.


A critical evaluation of the problems connected with the controversy is presented by A. V. Riasanovsky in his doctoral dissertation, Stanford University. See “The Norman Theory of the Origin of the Russian State: A Critical Analysis”, Dissertation Abstracts, 20 (1960), No. 4381.





on Nordic and Slavic abilities to organize and govern a state. Scholars have long devoted themselves to seeking evidence and formulating arguments for or against that concept. In fact, the various schools of historical interpretation in respect to Early Rus - the anti-Normanist, the Euro-Asiatic, the Marxist - have become but branches of the Normanist school. Instead of being rejected on methodological principles for its nonhistorical conclusions, the Normanist theory is being confronted with theories stressing the exclusiveness of Slavic [2] or the preponderance of Khazar [3]



2. E.g. V. V. Mavrodin, Drevnaia Ruś, proiskhozdenie russkogo naroda i obrazovanie Kievskogo gosudarstva (Leningrad, 1946);

A. N. Nasonov, “Russkaia Zemlia” i obrazovanie territorii drevnerusskogo gosudarstva (Moscow, 1951);

B. D. Grekov, Kievskaia Ruś, several editions, first ed., with the title Feodalnye otnosheniia v Kievskom gosudarstvie (Moskva-Leningrad, 1935), and also English translations;

P. N. Tretiakov, Vostochnoslavianskie plemena, 2nd ed. (Moscow, 1953).


3. A positive role of the Khazars, despite the alleged subjugation of some Slavic tribes to Khazar domination, was assessed, i.a., by V. O. Kliuchevskii (1841-1911), Sochineniiaa, Vol. I (Moscow, 1956). pp. 125-27. Similarly A. A. Shakhmatov in his Drevneishia sudby russkago plemeni (Petrograd, 1919), passim. For more exaggerated and less tenable views see

V. A. Parkhomenko, U istokov russkoi gosudarstvennosti (Leningrad, 1924), and his “Kievskaia Ruś i Khazariia”, Slavia, VI (1927-28), pp. 380-87;

Y. (J.) D. Brutzkus, “Chazaren”, in Encyclopaedia Judaica, and his “The Khazar Origin of Ancient Kiev”, Slavonic and East European Review XXII (1944), pp. 108-24.

- Arguments against the Khazar theory were assembled by B. A. Rybakov, “Rus i Khazariia”, in B. D. Grekovu (Moscow, 1952), pp. 76-88. A most recent monographic presentation of the Khazar history and of the Khazar-Slav relations has been produced by M. I. Artamonov, Istoriia khazar (Leningrad, 1962).

- A strong ‘Magyar’ influence upon the Slavs of Kiev was suggested recently by G. Vernadsky in “Lebedia”, Studien zur ungarischen Frühgeschichte (Munich, 1957), pp. 7-31.

For a review and repudiation of Vernadsky’s theory, cf. Alexander V. Soloviev, “Die angebliche ungarische Herrschaft in Kiev im 9. Jahrhundert", Jahrbücher für Geschichte Osteuropas, VIII (1960), pp. 123-29. See also G. Vernadsky, “The Eurasian nomads and their impact on medieval Europe”, Studi medievali, 4 (1963), pp. 401-34.





elements in the process of the formation of the Kievan state. There are even theories which attempt to reconcile the conflicting concepts. [4] The whole polemic known as the Normanist controversy assumes often a nationalistic and political character instead of that of a genuine historical disputation.


There are still many open issues in the history of Eastern Europe, which, studied without recourse to theories, would help to reduce the Normanist controversy to its proper dimensions. There is still, for instance, much to be done in order to establish the real picture of the Slavic tribal institutions, which fulfilled in the Middle Ages the requirements of an organized society. The roles of Byzantium and of the Church might also be re-evaluated and their influence upon the formation of the supratribal nation of Rus elucidated. Although there is an abundance of studies on the nomads of Eastern Europe, [5] there is little which would correlate their presence with the developments leading to the emergence of the Kievan State. [6]


The purpose of this study is to trace the changing role of certain nomadic



4. Ad. Stender-Petersen. “Das Problem der altesten byzantinisch-russisch-nordischen Beziehungen”, Relazioni, Vol. Ill (International Congress of History, Rome, 1955), pp. 165-88.

The main argument of Stender-Petersen is that there was a slow infiltration of Swedish agricultural population into Northern Russia. This theory is, however, contradicted by the testimony of the Muslim sources that the Northmen in Eastern Europe had no agriculture. Stender-Petersen assumes that the Swedes learned the vocation of tradesmen from the Bulgars and the Khazars. For several other studies of Ad. Stender-Petersen on the Varangians and the Slavs see his Varangica (Aarhus, 1953).


5. Nearly complete bibliographies and short histories of the Avars, Bulgars, Khazars, Huns, ‘Magyars’, etc., are provided in Gyula Moravcsik’s Byzantinoturcica, Vol. I2 (Berlin, 1958).


6. Ocherki istorii SSSR III-IX vv., ed. B. A. Rybakov (Moscow, 1958) and Ocherki istorii SSSR IX-XIII vv., ed. B. D. Grekov (Moscow, 1953). Both volumes have large sections devoted to the history of the nomads of the East European steppe zone and to the history of the Finno-Ugric people of the North, but there was no attempt made to integrate their histories with the developments in Slavic Eastern Europe.





federations and states in the developments in Eastern Europe shortly before and during the ninth century. Since Eastern Europe is divided into a zone of forests and a zone of steppes, separated by a park zone most suitable for human settlement, the autochtons of this last region were always in the past in close contact with nomadic tribes of the steppes. The formation of Slavic tribal states of the Dnieper Basin and the emergence of Kiev as a city and later as the center of a supratribal state were, in many respects, affected by the presence of those nomads. It was also certain developments in the Khazar Empire and among the nomads in the steppes that made the settlement of some Northmen in Eastern Europe possible and even, from the point of view of the Slavs, necessary and advantageous.


On the basis of relevant Muslim, Byzantine, West European, and Slavic sources, several problems connected with the emergence of Kievan Rus will be re-analyzed in the subsequent chapters, some earlier assumptions revised and new observations made. It is, for instance, our contention, that the river Dnieper, contrary to general belief, could not be fully utilized as an economically important trade route connecting Scandinavia with Byzantium because of the numerous cataracts obstructing navigation and the dangers posed by the nomads. Further, it is contended that Slavic tribal states existed in Eastern Europe during the ninth century and that their consolidation was due to the long-lasting peace secured by the Khazar Empire on the Volga. The Khazars prevented the influx into Europe of new nomadic waves, and their interest in trade stimulated the economic growth of the Slavic tribes. The emergence of Kiev as an important economic and political center is connected with its strategic location, the site having been used in the early ninth century as an Altaic - Avar or Khazar - outpost, securing and servicing the overland trade routes connecting Central Europe with the Muslim East.


The tributary affiliation of some East Slavic tribes with the Khazars is reinterpreted as a protective measure in the face of the appearance of the Northmen in the region of Lake Ilmen and of some nomadic tribes in the steppe zone. The tributary affiliation did not take place before the middle of the ninth century and did not interfere with the full self-government of the affected tribes.


In the course of the reconstruction of events of the ninth century in Eastern Europe, the opinions as to the reasons behind the Khazar defense measures against some tribes are scrutinized anew. Attempts have been made in the past to identify these tribes with the Ruses, Pechenegs or Magyars (i.e., Hungarians). The theory is here proposed that the disturbances in the Don region were caused, not by a single group, but by two independent tribal federations known in the sources as the Onogurs and the Majghari. Our contention is that the Magyars (i.e., the Hungarians) did not yet exist at that time as a nation or as a tribal federation.





According to this theory, the Onogurs were remnants of the defeated Avaric federation escaping from the middle Danube region and the Majghari were identical with the Meshchera of the Oka-Volga region. The Meshchera/Majghari were forced out of their abodes on the Oka River by the Ruses, who established in that region their center of Arthania. The Majghari and the Onogurs merged by the end of the ninth century and moved into Hungary.


It is further reasserted here that the so-called ‘invitation of the Ruses’ is a historical fact: the Ruses were a professional, and not an ethnic, association of soldiers and merchants, who were invited by the people of the Ilmen region to serve as mercenaries against the inroads of the Vikings.


Subsequently the developments in Novgorod and Kiev during the decade 850-60 are related to the events in the Khazar Empire. It is contended that the tension along the borders of the Khazar Empire created conditions under which the usurpation of power by the Ruses in Novgorod was possible. In c. 880 the Pechenegs again blocked the Volga, and the repercussions of this event are related in the study to the expulsion of the Ruses from Novgorod. At that time the professional Rus organization was already a heterogeneous body composed of ‘Varangians’ (i.e., foreigners from the West), Slavs, and Finno-Ugors. The expelled Ruses moved against Kiev.


Furthermore, in the light of these observations, doubt is cast on the traditional interpretation of a fragment of the Primary Chronicle: The hypothesis is submitted that it was not the Slovenes, Krivichi, and Meria who paid tribute to the Ruses, but some cities along the rivers which paid tribute to the Slovenes, Krivichi, and Meria, all of whom participated in the Rus organization.


The study concludes that in Kiev there was for a long time a dualism of authority: one around the heterogenous military organization of Rus (the Druzhina), and one around the veche, the self-government of the autochthonous population. The merger of the two elements of authority was the result of the common and prolonged fight against the nomads of the steppes in self-defense and for the right of utilization of the South Russian waterways.


This study is based primarily on written sources. [7] Our method of



7. There is an abundance of sources for the study of the history of Eastern Europe during the ninth and tenth centuries. In addition to the chronicles of Old Rus, there are the Muslim (Arabic and Persian) geographic and historical descriptions, Byzantine chronicles, sources produced in Latin in Central and Western Europe, and writings in Old English and Scandinavian languages. Although only a few of these sources have been preserved in the original, the value of the extant copies is undisputed. - The Old Rus chronicles are available in various editions and translations, the most important being the Polnoe Sobranie Russkikh Letopisei of which the latest volume was published in 1965 (Vol. XXX). Important studies on these chronicles were produced by A. A. Shakhmatov, D. S. Likhachev, M. D. Priselkov and others. A complete bibliography of studies on the chronicles appeared in 1962: Bibliografiia russkogo letopisaniia compiled by R. P. Dmitrieva (Moscow-Leningrad, 1962).


- An excellent guidance to the study of Muslim sources pertinent to the study of Eastern Europe in the ninth and tenth centuries is provided by V. Minorsky with his commentaries to the anonymous Persian work udud al-'Ālam, ‘The Regions of the World' (London, 1937). Valuable contribution to the study of Muslim sources has been provided by Tadeusz Lewicki in his Źródła arabskie do dziejów Słowiańszczyzny, Vol. I (Wrocław-Cracow, 1956). This volume contains sources pertaining to the eighth and early ninth centuries in the original, as well as in Polish and Latin translations. Extensive bibliographic references and exhaustive commentaries make this volume indispensable for the study of medieval Eastern Europe.


- A complete survey of those Byzantine sources which carry references to the Altaic people in Eastern Europe has been compiled by Gyula Moravcsik, Byzantinoturcica, I-II, 2nd ed. (Berlin, 1958). This monumental work, in adition to bibliographies on Altaic people mentioned above, provides complete bibliographies of Byzantine sources and of relevant studies.


- Among the Byzantine sources, the most comprehensive picture of Eastern Europe of the ninth and tenth centuries has been presented by the emperor- historian Constantine VII, Porphyrogenitus, in his De administrando imperio. This work was composed between the years 948-952 as a secret document, a manual of diplomacy, to be used by the son of the emperor. There is a modern edition: Constantine Porphyrogenitus, De administrando imperio, Greek text edited by Gyula Moravcsik, English translation by R. J. H. Jenkins (Budapest, 1949), Vol. II, Commentary (London, 1962).


- A new collection of sources of importance for the study of the history of the Proto-Hungarians is available in Hungarian only: A magyarok elődeiről és a honfoglalásról, edited by György Györffy (Budapest, 1958). This volume contains references to earlier, more complete editions of the pertinent sources.


- A series of volumes of Nordic sources relevant to the study of medieval Eastern Europe is being published in Poland. The first volume of the series, Źródła skandynawskie i anglosaskie do dziejów Słowiańszczyzny, has comments and bibliographic notes by Gerard Labuda (Warsaw, 1961).


- A corpus of sources, or even a good bibliography of sources of value for the study of Eastern Europe in the centuries of formation of medieval states is still among the desiderata of historical science. The Polish Słownik Starożytności Słowiańskich, published in fascicles since 1961, will provide excellent surveys and bibliographies on most of the topics and names discussed in this study.





dealing with these sources is founded on the belief that the chroniclers and medieval historians knew and understood the events described by them much better than we. It is far more likely that the obscurity of certain passages in their narratives is due, not to the ignorance of a medieval scribe, but to our own inability to comprehend. Unless we can establish contact with the thought-world of the medieval chronicler and historian whose works are our main source of knowledge, we may completely fail in our attempts to understand the history of Early Rus.


In our attempts to restore the history of Early Rus, we may fail unless we are able to disassociate ourselves from modern concepts such as nation and state. A medieval state was something quite different from the territorial state of modern times, which emerged during the fifteenth and





sixteenth centuries and is still undergoing constant change. We have to remind ourselves, among other things, that an ethnic group is not necessarily the equivalent of a nation. Whereas the first is only a biological reality, the second is the product of intellect and can encompass individuals of various different ethnic origins. Consequently, the state as an expression of nationhood should not be construed as an ethnic or biological formation.



[Back to Index]