History: The Rus

As English re-enactors, we are obviously mainly concerned with the Vikings who visited the British Isles. However the Vikings were far more widely travelled than this, with Viking nations stretching from Canada to Russia. The only factor that unified the disparate regions was their extreme cultural accomodation: if the Vikings settled somewhere for several generations, they would become identical to the natives. Thus Cnut was as much English as he was Viking; the Normans were French; and the Vikings who settled in Russia soon blended in equally well.
The Viking rule of Russia happened in two stages: the early Rus Khaganate, and the dynasty founded by Rurik which created Kievan Rus (and ruled Russia until the 16th or 17th centuries).

Vikings were great travellers, and saga heroes like Egil travelled all over the Viking world. So a situation like Hauksby Saga, where some young Vikings start life with a raid to Rus lands before coming to England, certainly isn't impossible. So Wychwooders can experiement portraying Vikings who've visited the Rus if they fancy it.
But if you're going to re-enact something, you might as well study it properly. The Rus weren't just about wearing big trousers and pointy hats, they were a hotbed of religious tension, ethnic oppression, public sex, feminism, and loads and loads of violence. Brilliant!


A Tale Of Two Khaganates

The early part of Russian history is obscure. The land was variously occupied by Finno-Ugric, Slavic, Turkic and Norse people in a big horrible mess, with others like the Magyars occassionally passing through. In general it seems the Slavs provided the lower classes, whilst Turkic nomadic steppe-dwellers (converted to Judaism) ruled the southern Khazar Khaganate and the Norse (known variously as Rus or Varangians) ruled the northern Rus Khaganate.
These early Rus are reported by ibn Rustah to be led by a ruler called the khagan, from an island in a river. This has been suggested to be Holmgard (which means "island-fortress"), the town that later became Novgorod. An earlier capital seems to have been Aldeigja/Aldeigjuborg/Ladoga, which archaeologists say was founded in the 8th century and is very similar to Scandinavian settlements of the period.


The early Rus Khaganate traded south-eastwards with the Khazar Khaganate (a Turkic Jewish nation), Bulghars, Alans, and the Abbasid Caliphate, using the river Volga. This trade must have been very prosperous, as there have been many finds of Arab silver dirhems in 9th-century Scandinavian coin hoards.
According to ibn Rustah, the Rus: "have no cultivated fields but depend for their supplies on what they can obtain from as-Saqaliba's [Slavs] land. They have no estates, villages, or fields; their only business is to trade in sable, squirrel, and other furs, and the money they take in these transactions they stow in their belts."

Western Sources

The Rus Khaganate appear in several Western sources as well as in ibn Rustah's account. The Frankish Annals of St. Bertin discuss a group of Vikings called the Rhos (Rus) who visited Constantinople in 838 and travelled back via Germany. Their leader was called the Chacanus (Khagan), and their ancestors came from Sweden.
In a series of letters sent in 871 the Eastern Emperor Basil I mentionned that there were three khagans: the Avar, the Khazar and the Northman, whilst the Western Emperor Louis II said he'd only heard the Avars had a khagan.

Rurik and Kievan Rus


Rurik is a giant in Russian history, someone like Arthur for the British, Hengist & Horsa for the Saxons or Rollo Ganger for the Normans. Like these other kings, he is part myth and part history, and a confusing figure. Here we'll not be too critical and will largely follow the myths. He gained word-fame, and we respect that.

According to the 12th century Russian Primary Chronicle in 862 the Chuds, Slavs, Merias, Veses and Krivichs "drove the Varangians back beyond the sea, refused to pay them tribute, and set out to govern themselves". It is possible this was due to religious reasons, that the Varangians had converted to Christianity.
However the revolting Slavs failed to rule themselves, and instead and fell to squabbling. At this time, Rurik was invited by the tribes to rule them to end their fighting. Rurik agreed, and established the first great Russian dynasty. He ruled first at Aldeigja/Ladoga, and then at Holmgard/Novgorod. He died around 879, and the (unexcavated) 9th-century funerary barrow outside Novgorod Oblast is called Rurik's Grave.

It is possible this Rurik is the same person as Rorik of Dorestad, who conquered Friesland by taking Dorestad in 850, got involved in the Danish Civil War in 854 and took Hedeby in 857. The Vikings who attacked up the Rhine in 863 were rumoured to be his followers, causing lots of tricky political problems. In 870 his lands fell under the power of two Frankish kings, who made him a vassal. He was dead by 882, when his lands were given to the Sea-King Godfried. Rorik certainly seems ambitious enough to have tried to make himself a king by grabbing the Rus lands in between conquering western territory, and the dates sort of match, but there is no definitive proof they were the same person.

Askold & Dir vs Oleg of Novgorod

According to the Primary Chronicle, Rurik was succeeded in Novgorod by one of his followers, Oleg (or Helgi in Norse), who was the foster-father and basically regent for Rurik's son Igor (Ingvar). Meanwhile two of his followers, Dir (Dyri) and Askold (probably Haskuldr/Hoskuldr), went further south to attack Constantiople (known to the Norse as Miklagard). They also freed Kiev from Khazar rule, and were it's kings in the 870s.
Then, in 882, Oleg of Novgorod attacked Askold and Dir, conquered Kiev and became the first ruler of the whole of Kievan Rus. He attacked Constantinople in 911, winning a good trading treaty. He was succeeded by Rurik's son Igor, who the Rurikovich dynasty of Kievan Rus and later Russia were descended from.

This new Kievan Rus founded by Rurik and forged by Askold & Dir and Oleg relied heavily on the Dnieper trade route to Kiev and Constantinople rather than the traditional Rus Khaganate's Volga trade route to the Khazars and Caliphate.

Evidence to support the Primary Chronicle story of Askold and Dir being sent south to Miklagard by Rurik can be found in Byzantine sources. A Rhos force attacked Constantinople in 860, but it is not known if this was a khaganate or Rurik attack. The attack caught Constantinople unawares, whilst they were defending themselves from Arab attack, pillaged the suburbs and then retreated (possibly following a miracle, or possibly because they were only ever raiders seeking loot).
However by 867 Patriarch Photius claimed the Rus had been converted to Christianity, and had been sent a bishop. If Askold and Dir (or the khaganate before them) did convert, it was only temporary: Igor's wife Olga is widely seen as the first Rus Christian, whilst her grandson Vladimir was the Rus who first declared Christianity the state religion. It is possible Oleg's conquest of Kiev destroyed this proto-Christian state before it could take hold.

More evidence that partially support the Primary Chronicle comes from the Arab historian Al-Masudi, who claims "king al-Dir was the first among the kings of the Saqaliba" (the Slavs).

Even if Rurik, Askold & Dir and Oleg are partly mythological, their tale reflects the period of instability in the late 9th century in Russia which led to the decline of the Rus Khaganate based around the Volga trade route and the rise of Kievan Rus based around the Dnieper, as well as the pressure between pagans and Christians at the time. The Christian Kievan state was certainly a historical reality by the mid 10th century, and was being ruled by people who claimed descent from Rurik.

Rus culture

A lot of what we know about Rus culture comes from Arab sources, particularly ibn Rusta, the Hudud al-'Alam and ibn Fadlan. These are based on eye-witness descriptions by travellers, but also probably contain a lot of speculation and myth.


The Rus kings seem to have had a great time! In 922 ibn Fadlan said the Rus' ruler had little real power and it all rested in the hands of his deputy who commanded the troops. The king gave up all responsibility and instead had "no duties other than to make love to his slave girls, drink, and give himself up to pleasure". He had a great big throne, and was constantly surrounded by 400 bodyguards and 40 slavegirls.
This concept of dual kingship may explain why we find pairs of Rus rulers in the Primary Chronicle (Askold and Dir, Oleg and Igor). This concept of dual kingship seems to have been borrowed from the Khazars.
Ibn Rustah said similar things, except that he said the king was still responsible for one thing: dispute resolution. Any arguements could be judged by him, and the only higher authority was a duel ("Mad Askold Beyond The Thunderdome"?)


Before conversion to Christianity, the Rus seem to have been very religiously observant pagans. Funerals were elaborate, with ibn Rustah and ibn Fadlan both describing noble burials in mounds with loads of shiny bling for the afterlife and a sacrificed 'wife'. Ibn Fadlan's account is the most famous description of a Viking ship cremation.
Shamans ("attiba") had a lot of power in the society, declaring sacrifices of people and animals (which were done by hanging the sacrifice from a pole until dead, possibly in memory of Odin hanging on the tree). Shrines had a large wooden stake carved to look like a face, with smaller carvings around it, and tall sacrifice poles behind. Merchants sacrficed at these shrines both to get more trade and to give thanks for good trade.

Sex and Violence

Finally, the Rus seem to have been very enthusiastic about on sex and violence. The king had sex publically with his harem, and traders would do the same to new slave girls. On the violence front, sons were given a sword and nothing else by their fathers and were expected to get anything else they wanted using the sword (al-Marwazi said that daughters inherited the property, which means that Rus attitudes towards women certainly weren't simple).
On the other hand, hygiene wasn't their strong point: they washed daily, but they all washed from the same bowl of water, blowing their noses and spitting in it as they went. This must have led to some horrible fresher's flu outbreaks, but sick people were simply left to get better or die (forget NHS waiting lists!) In a word, the Rus were HARDCORE.



According to ibn Fadlan, the Rus wore "neither tunics nor caftans, but the men wear a garment which covers one side of the body and leaves a hand free" (i.e. just a cloak). However when describing the ship-burning funeral of a Rus king, he reports that "they dressed him in trousers, stockings, boots, a tunic, and kaftan of brocade with gold buttons. They put a hat of brocade and fur on him".
The Hudud al-'Alam (a 10th century geographical encyclopedia) says about the Rus: "Out of 100 cubits of cotton fabric, more or less, they sew trousers which they put on, tucking them up above the knee. They wear woollen bonnets with tails let down behind their necks." ibn Rusta goes even further, and says they use 100 cubits per leg in their trousers! On the Gotland picture-stones, baggy trousers are generally knee-length, although some show them as ankle-length.


So, it seems that everyday Rus might have just worn a cloak. But rich Rus certainly owned more than that:

Lessons for re-enactors

So, what does all this mean? Well, it means that people whose characters have visited the Rus have fun battles to brag about: raids on Constantinople, local uprisings, Oleg vs Askold, that sort of thing.
Don't forget that in the Hauksby Saga version of history, Hastings 2006 was actually a battle down in Rus lands before we got to Britain. So if you're re-enacting Britain during Alfred's Wars (at DAS, for example), Hastings was probably either the Slavic uprising, or the attack on Constantinople (both 860s). If you're doing stuff during the reigns of Edward or Athelstan, it was probably Oleg vs Askold & Dir in 882 or Oleg's attack on Constantinople in 911.

It means we've got absolutely brilliant evidence for belt-pouches: "the money they take in these transactions they stow in their belts." Huzzah! If only it said they also used them for mobile phones…

Interestingly, it also provides an explanation for why Hauk does so little except wench and drink. Hauk clearly sees himself in the kingly role, whilst people like Manny and Arinbjorn do all the hardcore leading of warriors.

We should obviously be watching porn more, and washing less (or rather less hygenically).

I think sacrificing animals before visiting the re-enactor's market would be going a bit too far, tho!


The Volga Vikings: an episode of BBC Radio 4's In Our Time

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