We briefly talked about Russia in the post about Vikings and the Mongols. In Western imagination and history Russia has always been seen as the 'other'. Not quite Europe, and not quite Asia. This has been the case throughout history: the Russian Empire was seen as 'Oriental', by the mid-nineteenth century the empire was seen as backward, the USSR was the ideological enemy which almost led to nuclear war, and even today Putin's Russia has been seen as the 'other'. This is a shame as Russia has had a vibrant, unique history as great as any place in Western Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas. This post will summarize the origins of Russia from the first Russian state with the Kievan Rus up to the formation of the Tsardom of Russia in 1547. However, the period we are covering if we called the land Russia a contemporary would have no idea what we were talking about. For simplicity we'll refer to it as Russia.
Origins of the Kievan Rus
|Kievan Rus at its height|
You may be wondering why we are starting with the Kievan Rus considering that Kiev is Ukraine's capital. Over a thousand years ago there wasn't an idea of Ukraine and Russia, and without the Kievan Rus there would be no Russia. There is some historiographical debate around the origins of the Kievan Rus. There are two schools of historiography: the 'Normanist' and the Nationalist schools. The Nationalist school states that the Kievan Rus was founded by Slavs, whereas the Normanist school states that the Rus were Vikings who founded trading posts along the Dnieper. There is strong evidence to suggest both. Archaeological evidence and written sources indicate that Vikings, called Varangians, were in the area while if we look at Russian and Ukrainian they sound nothing like Swedish. Elizabeth Howe has suggested that the subjects were Slavic and the Grand Princes (not kings) of Kiev were originally Varangian but became Slavic. Using the Russian Primary Chronicle we go from Rurik, to Oleg, to Igor showing a clear shift from Scandinavian names to Slavic names. The Slavs entered written history during the reign of Byzantine Emperor Justinian where they appear across the Danube from the direction of the Carpathians. In 626 with the Avars, either a Turkic or Mongol people, they even attacked the Empire, and the following two centuries they settled the Balkans. Others settled north along the upper Dnieper where they mingled with the Baltic and Finnish tribal peoples. There they encountered the Varangians.
The Varangians possibly came from Ruslagen in eastern Sweden and for years had been collecting tribute from the Baltic, Finnish, and Saami peoples. They also were big traders where a quarter of a million Islamic coins have been found in the Baltic. The Varangians started forming trade posts from Lake Ladoga, the Dnieper, and the Volga giving them access to the Black and Caspian Seas. Quite often they would go to Baghdad to access the very lucrative Islamic markets. Arabs even went north with Ibn Faldan in the 900s describing a Viking-style ship burial. The Russian Primary Chronicle, 'Tale of Bygone Years', (written by eleventh-twelfth century monks so they are not primary sources and must be taken with a pinch of salt) talk of the Varangian growing control over the locals:
859. The Varangians from beyond the sea imposed tribute upon the Chuds, the Slavs, the Merians, the Ves, the Krivichians. But the Khazars imposed it upon the Polianians, the Severians and the Viatichians, and collected a squirrel-skin and a beaver-skin from earth hearth.
860-2. The tributaries of the Varangians drove them 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 one another. They said to themselves: 'Let us seek a prince who may rule over us and judge us according to law'. They accordingly went overseas to the Varangian Russes: these particular Varangians were called Russes, just as some are called Swedes, and others Normans, Angles and Goths, for they were thus named. The Chuds, the Slavs and the Krivichians then said to the people of Rus, 'Our whole land is great and rich, but there is no order in it. Come to rule and reign over us'. They thus selected three brothers [Rurik, Sineus and Truvor] with their kinsfolk, who took with them all the Russes, and migrated.
A Russian historiography places the founding of the Kievan Rus in 882 when Oleg of Novgorod became Grand Prince (although the settlement itself existed long this date). Oleg moved the capital from Novgorod to Kiev. We shall then continue the story of Russia from here.
The Kievan Rus
|The Baptism of the Kievans by Klavdiy Lebedev|
Like with their origins the Kievan Rus was built on trade. According to Arab traveler Ibn Rusta:
[The Rus] have no cultivated land. They eat only what they carry off from the land of the Saqlaba [the woodland Slavs, Balts and Finns]...They have no landed property nor villages nor cultivated land; their only occupation is trading in grey squirrel and other furs.
As shown in this quote trade was integral to the Rus. Coins and amber came from the extremely rich cities of the Islamic Caliphate and the Byzantine Empire, and slaves came from all over. Slavery was prolific in the Rus where even one of the possible origins for the English word 'slave' coming from 'Slav'. A 'Varangian Guard' was even made for the Byzantines indicating that the reputation of the Rus made them the best bodyguards for the Second Rome. The Kievan Rus lacked the class institutions and autonomous towns of traditional feudal societies although they had their unique structures. Merchants, laborers, and artisans in urban areas could exercise some political influence through a council called the veche. There was even an entire class of peasants who paid tribute directly to the princes so traditional serfdom was not present in the Rus. Despite the conception that women had no place in society during this time period there were several powerful regents who were women. In 945 Grand Prince Igor was killed fighting rebellious tributaries and his widow Olga (Helga) ruled until her son, Sviatoslav, came of age in 962. Olga was sent to Byzantium in 957 where she personally met with Emperor Constantine VII to organize trade. Rus relations with the Empire was marked by conflict and cooperation. War between the two broke out in 907, 941 and 971 leading to treaties giving the Rus trading rights in 911, 944 and 971 (notice how they did not seize land during these treaties).
In 980 Vladimir became Grand Prince after conflict broke out among the sons of Sviatoslav with the aid of Novgorod. What I would argue is the most important event in Russian history occurred in Vladimir's reign. The Kievan Rus had various religions within its borders with most being polytheistic. Upon becoming Grand Prince Vladimir had erected idols to Norse, Slav, Finn and Iranian gods to bolster support for himself following the succession conflict. However, he would make a huge impact on religion in the area: he converted to Orthodox Christianity. In the 860s the Byzantines sent two missionaries, Cyril and Methodius, to convert the Slavic peoples. When Bulgaria converted they adopted a script similar to Greek, Cyrillic, which would spread to Russia. Orthodoxy was not the only Abrahamic religion to convert to. Trade had exposed the Rus to Islam through the Caliphate, Judaism from Khazaria, and Olga had invited a Catholic mission from Holy Roman Emperor Otto I. The Russian Primary Chronicle states that Vladimir had emissaries find out about Catholicism, Orthodoxy, Judaism and Islam to see which was best. It stated that Catholic ritual was without beauty, Judaism passed over in silence, Islam banned alcohol which was required in the primary bonding ceremonial of the druzhina (retinue in service of a chieftain) but Orthodoxy's divine service was described as being so beautiful that 'we knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth'. Although closer ties with the Byzantines was likely the true cause for conversion to Orthodoxy. Thus Russia became Orthodox. In 1019 Yaroslav the Wise came to power who created the Russkaya Pravda. This was a major law reform which even made no reference to corporal or capital punishment in reference to the old Norse law code. This code was so successful that it would last for centuries. Finally, Yaroslav granted Novgorod more independence for helping place both him and his father on the throne thus forming the groundwork for the Novgorod Republic. After Yaroslav's death the Rus went into decline as principalities started fighting over power. In 1136 Novgorod dismissed the prince (which had been appointed by the Kievans) and formed the Novgorod Republic, Constantinople went into decline, and the Crusades sapped further power away from Constantinople. Novgorod even started to replace Kiev as a major economic center. Then in 1223 the Mongols invaded and the Kievan Rus was conquered by 1240.
Mongols and Novgorod
In 1240 Kiev fell although several major centers of power like Novgorod had submitted before being overrun by the Mongols. The Russian lands of the Mongol empire was organized into a khanate called Kipchak, or the Golden Horde in European and Russian sources, with a capital at Sarai on the lower Volga. Despite many fleeing to the relative safety of Tver and Moscow the structures of power remained the same in many cities. The Mongols were relatively tolerant in religious matters so the Orthodox church retained its power, and the princes still ruled. However, they ruled at the pleasure of the khan, such as Prince Yaroslav of Vladimir in 1243 being made Great Prince of Kiev and Vladimir for paying tribute. Mongol rule has often been described as 'the Tatar Yoke'. The princes actually gained more power through Mongol rule as the Mongols prevented fighting by appointing princes, and the veches were given less power in return. The seeds for the autocracy of the Russian Empire were sown here. Many resented the stripping of the veche's power, and enslaving/conscripting householders who failed to pay their dues. Electing princes, diplomacy over war and peace, taxation, and recruitment into the militia were now controlled by the Mongols where they had been controlled by the veche forging an alliance between the veche and people. There were several risings, such as in 1262, which the Mongols put down. As the years went on the Mongols started giving more autonomy to cities to collect taxes.
We now need to talk about Novgorod. Like Kiev it had been founded as a major trading city and had been the capital before Kiev was. It became so powerful that it managed to choose the princes of Kiev. As their overlord Kiev had appointed the Novgorod prince until 1136 when they ousted the Kievan prince, appointed their own, and formed the Novgorod republic. Often overlooked Novgorod was a fairly democratic society compared to the other societies of contemporary Europe. A traditional narrative states that the Novgorod government ran through the veches, posadniks (mayors), tysyatskys ('thousandmen' who originally were militia heads but later were judicial and commercial officials), archbishops and boyars (aristocrats). A Soviet (and a Marxist) historiography has described Novgorod as a 'feudal republic' although it has been contested whether Russia was ever feudal in the same sense as the West which the historiography implies. The most famous Novgorodian prince is Alexander Nevsky who has become a cultural icon in Russia. The same year that the Mongols sacked Kiev (1240) he won the Battle of Neva against a Swedish army, (although this battle is not mentioned in non-Russian sources). Nevsky opted to subordinate Novgorod to the Golden Horde. The Roman Curia had hoped that Novgorod would go to war against the Mongols, which would forestall an invasion of the rest of Europe. Historians have debated why. Some have argued that Nevsky saw Catholicism as a greater threat to Russia while the more tolerant Tatars could aid Russia. Others have argued that it was more self-serving pragmatism; aiding the Mongols would preserve his power while a war would certainly end it. Either way it further placed Russia in the Orthodox camp.
Rise of Moscow
|Dormition Cathedral, Moscow|
As we all know Moscow is the capital of Russia today. Until the creation of St Petersburg, and after the Russian Revolution Moscow was Russia's capital. How did Moscow usurp Novgorod and Kiev as the most powerful city? Founded in 1147 Moscow remained largely insignificant until the thirteenth century. Thanks to the Mongols many had fled to Moscow boosting the city's population. It was well situated being on the Movska River, (good for trade), and has a relatively high elevation (making it easy to defend). Quite fortuitously the princes of Moscow produced male heirs (like many societies it was patriarchal) and curried the favor of the Mongols. Ivan I of Muscovy was granted the responsibility for collecting the tribute from the Rus and he became very wealthy as a result. In fact he earned the nickname 'Kalita' which literally translates to 'Moneybags'. Ivan used his wealth to buy land from other principalities and to fund the construction of churches. Princely power in Muscovy became heavily linked to the church. Meanwhile, Mongol power was slipping. Collapse of the Mongol Yuan Dynasty in China separated the Golden Horde from the rest of the empire and the various khanates warred against one another. In Europe growing powers like Lithuania started to chip away at the horde. Also Russia loathed the Mongols. The Mongols were seen as punishment from God and were begrudged for the raids/tributes. Moscow had gotten powerful and in 1380 Dmitrii Ivanovich led a coalition handing the Mongols a major defeat at the Battle of Kulikovo Field. Although the Mongols regrouped and sacked Moscow in 1382 the idea of Mongol invincibility was shattered. They besieged Moscow again in 1408 but it could not save the Horde. It became split between the Crimean Khanate (1430), the Kazan Khanate (1436), the Astrakhan and the Great Horde.
Moscow's predominance almost ended in 1431 in what Roger Bartlett described as a Muscovite equivalent of the Wars of the Roses. In 1431 Vasily II's reign was challenged by his uncle, Yuri, and a civil war erupted. During the war Vasily captured his cousin, Vasily the Cross-Eyed, and blinded his cross-eyed cousin only for later on to be blinded by his other cousin. In the end Vasily II won the war. His son, Ivan III, became Grand Prince and continued to expand the realm. Under Vasily and Ivan Moscow's control expanded by 1,000,000 kilometers squared. In 1478 Ivan III captured Novgorod destroyed the veche, massacred the population and, destroyed the library and archives. Ivan died in 1505 after a successful war with Lithuania. In 1533 Ivan's grandson, Ivan IV, would not be crowned Grand Prince as his father was. Instead he was crowned Tsar or 'Caesar'. After the fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans in 1453 Moscow became the main seat of Orthodoxy. As a result Moscow claimed to be the Third Rome (Rome being the first and Byzantium being the second). With Ivan crowned Tsar the Tsardom of Russia was formed. Ivan would be known as 'the Great', 'the Awesome', 'the Awe-inspiring', and most famously 'the Terrible'. However, that is for a future post.
Russia has often been described as one of the 'in-between lands'. Kiev was founded through the actions of Slavs and Scandinavians of the West while Russia was founded thanks to Slavs and Mongols in the East. However, this description is often used negatively. For centuries Russia has been portrayed as being 'backward' or 'archaic' in Western culture. By looking at the origins of Russia we see a rich culture born through trade and diplomacy. We see a state born through clever political maneuverings. This is something often overlooked in world history. Next time we will look go to West Africa to look at Mali and Songhai, and a man reported to be the richest man in history.
Thank you for reading and the sources I have used are as follows:
-A History of Russia by Roger Bartlett
-Russia and the Russians: From Earliest Times to 2001 by Geoffrey Hosking
-'The Volga Vikings', BBC In Our Time podcast
-The Mongols by David Morgan
-Crash Course World History: Russia, the Kievan Rus and the Mongols
For a full list of the World History posts please see here
For a full list of the World History posts please see here