Eastern European trade and the Rus

There was also a lot of Scandinavian trading and settlement activity in eastern Europe, particularly on the part of the Swedes, who started trading, raiding, and establishing settlements along the Baltic coast and down rivers like the Dnieper and the Volga even before the Viking Age (there are finds from the mid-8th century). They competed in this with the Danes, but their activity in the Finno-Ugric, Baltic, and Slavic areas was so extensive that the whole vast region became known as Greater Sweden or Cold Sweden (Svíţjóđ in Mikla, Svíţjóđ in Kalda); Sweden proper was Lesser Sweden (Svíţjóđ in minni).

Ahmad ibn Fadlān, an emissary from Baghdad to the Bulgarian Empire, wrote a lengthy description of traders on the Volga whom he called Rūs or Rūsiyyah, who were evidently the same as the Rus, i.e., eastern Swedes. He describes them as as tall as palm trees, with blond hair and ruddy skin, and covered "from fingernails to neck" with dark blue or dark green tattoos of "tree patterns" and other "figures," and says all the men were armed with an axe and a long knife - and that men and women alike carried their wealth on them as jewelry. He dwells on their revolting and unhygienic habits (urinating in a dish in public, having public sex with concubines) but does note that they combed their hair daily. He witnessed a chieftain's funeral and described it at length, including the ten-day waiting period while preparations were made including new clothes for the dead man, the concubine who volunteered to be killed to accompany him and who went into each of his friends' tents one by one (he says to have sex with them), then was three times lifted over a door frame to see visions, the old woman called the "angel of death" who killed her and who decapitated a cock and threw its head into the ship resting on the pyre, and the setting alight of the pyre. He also offers us an unusual description of heathen sacrifice: the Rus traders immediately offered to "our Lord" (Freyr, we may presume), and they left the offerings lying and considered them accepted if they were gone in the morning, even though Ibn Fadlan as a Moslem regarded it as the antithesis of divine sacrifice that the dogs consumed them:

    On anchoring their vessels, each man goes ashore carrying bread, meat, onions, milk, and nabid [beer?], and these he takes to a large wooden stake with a face like that of a human being, surrounded by smaller figures, and behind them tall poles in the ground. Each man prostrates himself before the large post and recites: "O Lord, I have come from distant parts with so many girls, so many sable furs (and whatever other commodities he is carrying). I now bring you this offering." He then presents his gift and continues "Please send me a merchant who has many dinars and dirhems, and who will trade favourably with me without too much bartering." Then he retires. If, after this, business does not pick up quickly and go well, he returns to the statue to present further gifts. If results continue slow, he then presents gifts to the minor figures and begs their intercession, saying, "These are our Lord's wives, daughters, and sons." Then he pleads before each figure in turn, begging them to intercede for him and humbling himself before them. Often trade picks up, and he says "My Lord has required my needs, and now it is my duty to repay him." Whereupon he sacrifices goats or cattle, some of which he distributes as alms. The rest he lays before the statues, large and small, and the heads of the beasts he plants upon the poles. After dark, of course, the dogs come and devour the lot - and the successful trader says, "My Lord is pleased with me, and has eaten my offerings."

In contrast the Persian Ahmad ibn Rustah emphasized that the Rus of Novgorod wore clean clothes - and that a father would throw down a sword beside his newborn son, saying "I shall not leave you with any property: You have only what you can provide with this weapon."

Somewhere on the Baltic coast was the town of Vineta or Wineta (two sites in Germany and one in Poland all claim authenticity and hold Vineta festivals). It is likely identical with the Jómsborg, the headquarters of the Jómsvikings (Graham-Campbell 184, plumping for Wolin, Poland). Around 970 Ibrāhīm ibn Ya`qūb, envoy of the Caliph of Córdoba, claimed it had twelve gates and the strongest armed force in the North. 11th- and 12th-century traders called it the most powerful port on the Baltic; Adam of Bremen called it the largest town in Europe. A Danish fleet destroyed it in 1159 as part of operations to convert the Wends; on the other hand it is said to have sunk into the sea because of the sinfulness of its inhabitants. The true story may be that the port silted up and the town petered out.

Truso in East Prussia (Elbing, now Elbląg in Poland) and its rival Wiskiauten in Prussia were stops on the Amber Road, which led from Hedeby into Asia via the Black Sea and Constantinople.

Staraya Ladoga, near Lake Ladoga in Russia, originated as the Norse Aldeigja or Aldeigjuborg and was a prosperous Norse trading center in the 8th and 9th centuries. It has been called the first capital of Russia.

The reason for this claim is that the origins of Russia are indeed Scandinavian. The word Rus, or more properly Rus', from which "Russia" is derived, refers to Norse - mainly Swedish - traders and explorers who traded along the Volga and settled Kiev. The etymology of the word is hotly disputed, not the least because pan-Slavicism is very important to Russian nationalism and pride, but it is most likely cognate to the Finnish word for Sweden, Ruotsi, and derived from Roslagen, the coastal region of Uppland, or from róa, róđr, "to row," and "rowing" or "a rowing crew" - or both. The whole of modern Uppland, Södermanland, and East Gotland at one time was known as Róđer or Róđin.

In any event, the earliest East Slavic record, the Primary Chronicle, says that the Rus were one kind of "Varangian," a term it uses for Scandinavians in general. (The Dnieper trade route was also known as "the trade route from the Varangians to the Greeks" and ran between Birka and Hedeby and Constantinople.) It tells a story oddly similar to that of the settlement of England: the Rus had subjugated the local Slav and Finno-Ugric tribes and were forcing them to pay tribute, got tired of this and forced them out, but then found they could not get along together and invited three brothers back to impose order, whereupon their leader, Rurik (Röríkr, "famous ruler," the same name as English "Roderick"), brought all his people with him and settled (in approx. 860). He first took control of Aldeigja. In 862 he built Holmgard (now Novgorod, Russia) as his first capital. Rurik married Efanda (Edvina Alfrind Ingrid) of Urman and founded the Rurikid dynasty. But within a year of his death in 879 (what locals refer to his grave, a barrow in Novgorod Oblast, has yet to be excavated), his successor Oleg (Helgi) - who was probably his brother-in-law but may merely have been a trusted local prince - conquered Kiev (a Slav local center controlled by the Kurghan Empire - now the capital of Ukraine) and moved the capital there, driving out the Kurghans and setting up what was known as the State of Kievan Rus. Over the next 35 years, starting by consolidating power against other Rus, Oleg carved out a sizeable territory, even attacking Constantinople in 907. The Byzantines reputedly tried to poison Oleg, but he outwitted them and in 911 signed a commercial treaty with the Byzantine Empire as an equal partner. On his death in 912 he was succeeded by Rurik's son Igor (Ingvarr). The Kievan Rus exported furs, beeswax, and honey and controlled important trade routes; they continued to become wealthier and stronger and under Sviatoslav I (ruled 945–972) they destroyed both the Khazars and the Bulgarian Empire. This is the origin of both Ukraine and Russia (Garđaríki in Old Norse, from the Slavic gorod, "city," so, "land of trading cities"); the Kievan Rus state came to an end in 1240 during the Mongol invasion (when Kiev was leveled), but the Rurikid dynasty ruled Russia until the death of Vasily IV in 1612.

However, by the time of Sviatoslav I, the Kievan rulers had adopted Slav names and, it is presumed, Slav religion, even though their nobles remained Norse - and Old Norse would continue to be spoken in one district of Novgorod until the 13th century. Sviatoslav's son Vladimir the Great (ruled 980–1015) is responsible for the conversion to Xianity. He deliberately chose the Eastern Orthodox version on the advice of emissaries who he had sent out to investigate the options: they found Islam unacceptable because of its ban on alcohol, Judaism ill-advised because the Jews had lost their country despite being the "chosen people," and Roman Catholic ceremonies dull, but loved Hagia Sophia and the services there. Vladimir went to Constantinople and arranged to marry Emperor Basil II's sister Anna. This of course did not hurt the close trading relationship between the Rus and the Byzantines.

Map created by Briangotts, Wikimedia Commons

Map showing the distribution of early Varangian settlement, mid-ninth century CE. Varangian settlements shown in red, other Scandinavian settlement in purple. Grey names indicate locations of Slavic tribes. Blue outline indicates extent of Khazar sphere of influence. Names in parenthesis indicate names of more familiar, and later, cities built on approximately the same site as the settlements named. Note:There is controversy over the name of the original settlement at modern-day Rostov. Later Norse sources referred to the town (even in its earliest periods) as Rostofa or Ráđstofa. However, the original settlement (relevant to the period of this map) was at nearby Sarskoye Gorodishche, a later designation meaning simply "Citadel on the Sara River." The original name used by the town's Varangian inhabitants is unknown. - map of Rus settlements.

Map created by KoryakovYuri, Wikimedia Commons

Kievan Rus after Sviatoslav's campaigns, with division into principalities (in Russian)

Nicholas Roerich [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Nicholas Roerich's, Guests from Overseas

Viktor Vasnetsov [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Vasnetsov's Russian Konung Oleg

[1. Early Russia map image from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Early_Rus.png

2. Kievan Rus map image from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Rus-1015-1113.png

3. Nicholas Roerich's, Guests from Overseas image from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Nicholas_Roerich,_Guests_from_Overseas.jpg

4. Vasnetsov's Russian Konung Oleg image from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Russian_konung_Oleg_by_Vasnetsov-2.jpg]


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