Do Russians really have Viking ancestors

Russia is Europe! If only the Vikings had tried a little harder ...

Russia and Europe don't exactly have the easiest relationship. In school we learned that everything up to the Urals belongs to Europe. Even so, it doesn't feel like the Russians are really part of it. There are just big differences. After all, Russia has been ruled for ages by a topless judo master who rides through the area and fights with bears. There would never be something like that with us! Here, in Europe, we have civilized, suitable and responsible politicians who only have our best in mind. Or so…

But Russia was different too. The country was by no means built by any wild Slavs or even wilder Asian steppe peoples. No, Russia was founded by the Vikings! And the country is not exactly alone in Europe. There must still be similarities!

Russia, Europe and the Vikings

The Vikings have a strange reputation today. They are usually associated with horn helmets, inappropriate consumption of mead and a certain propensity for violence. Not particularly positive attributes, one would think. So it's all the stranger that the Vikings are extremely popular. From children's series like “Wiki and the Strong Men” to all sorts of metal bands, many of them use the old Vikings today, often with a certain amount of admiration. It is not without reason that the former Viking countries of Scandinavia are right at the top of the popularity scale in Europe! For another former Viking country, Russia, that's true ... well ... a little less.

But wait a minute! How did the Vikings get to Russia in the first place? Well, that's a pretty funny story. The Slavic and Finnish tribes of Russia, probably from the area around Novgorod, traveled to Sweden of their own accord in the 9th century in order to submit there! They just saw that they were incapable of governing themselves, so they asked the Viking prince Rurik there if he wouldn't want to rule over them instead. If this official story strikes you as a bit suspicious now, there is a reason for it. It is told in his chronicle by a Kiev monk named Nestor, 250 years later! And we already learned last week in the case of the English legend of Hengist and Horsa that one should perhaps be careful with such "reports". The chances are not so bad that in the 12th century a lonely and unhappy monk simply wanted to make something important to himself.

And the story without myths? The Varangians

The Vikings, or in that case the Swedish Varangians, probably came to Russia by the obvious and traditional route. So through trade, war, or a mixture of both. In the Russian case it was actually primarily trade, which does not fit our image of the Vikings at all. Stupid story. It always throws our beautiful, simple stereotypes a thwart! From the early 9th century, the Varangians are likely to have resided in present-day Russia, first in the area around Lake Ladoga east of today's St. Petersburg, then a little further south in Novgorod and later as far as the Black Sea.

This version of the story is now a lot more believable than the idea that some Slavic-Finnish tribes pleaded with the Swedes to please invade. After all, the various Viking groups could already be found in half of Europe at the time. The Franconian Empire, Ireland, England ... they appeared everywhere at the time. They didn't need an invitation anywhere.

Novgorod and the Kievan Rus and the Vikings

It was not entirely illogical for these Varangians to turn to the east as well. On the large rivers of the region, especially the Volga and Dnieper, they made very good progress with their small boats. After appearing under Rurik in the north and in Novgorod, they soon reached the Black Sea and even got as far as Constantinople. That must have been a funny picture. Such a bunch of horned, bearded Vikings dressed in furs at the Istanbul spice market. Well, at least the spice market would have existed back then. Or Istanbul. And would the Vikings really have worn horns ...

The Varangians didn't just travel through the country and trade, they also quickly made themselves comfortable. As I said, a first large Viking settlement soon formed near Novgorod, from which Rurik himself also exercised his increasing rule over the country. Further south, Rurik's successor Helgi proclaimed himself the first Grand Duke of Kiev. With this he founded the first Russian state: the Kievan Rus.

As a side note: Even the word “Rus” in Russia comes from the Varangians. It is likely to be a modification of the Finnish "Ruotsi" that they used for their Swedish neighbors. So Russia could actually also be translated as “Sweden”, Rus and Vikings are basically the same thing. A certain topless judo master who rides through the area and fights with bears certainly doesn't like to hear that.

The story of how the Vikings became the Rus

The Varangians were able to build up a more or less stable rule in the region of what would later become Russia, Ukraine and Belarus, the state of the Kievan Rus. However, this state did not retain an overly Nordic identity for long. Rurik and his successor Helgi may have been true Vikings, but almost all of the inhabitants of their state were Slavs. And back then you weren't as inflexible as you are today. Helgi didn't find it all that bad and a little later even renamed himself Oleg! Oh, you good time before nationalism ...

In the late 10th century, Oleg's successor Vladimir (yes, indeed, that is how Slavic the Vikings Rus were now) then even converted to Orthodox Christianity. With the Kievan Rus we now have a Slavic-speaking state with an Orthodox religion. That might sound familiar to us. Well, the conversion to Christianity had less religious than practical reasons. The rulers of Byzantium simply needed help in suppressing an uprising and they offered Vladimir the emperor's sister as a wife. For this he only had to send a few thousand men to Constantinople and - if it wasn't too much effort - please transfer to the Christian church. Vladimir didn't want to be like that.

Unfortunately, the Kievan Rus, like the Byzantine Empire itself, was not very lucky as a result. For centuries, Asian cavalry hordes invaded the East and there was not much that could be countered. On top of that, the empire of the Kievan Rus became more and more fragmented, as there were numerous inheritance divisions. When Genghis Khan knocked in the 13th century, it was finally over for the Kievan Rus and the state went under. The Rurikids (named after the good old Rurik, as the attentive reader may notice) were able to maintain themselves in the various small principalities and under Mongolian control, and a new power grew some time later in far-away Moscow. There the Rurikids were still the tsar until 1598!

What is left of the Vikings in Russia?

The Varangians, Vikings, Kievan Rus, Rurikids or whatever they wanted to call themselves remained in power in Russia for 700 years. That's a long time. So long that the Vikings in Western and Northern Europe were almost forgotten again. Even in England, and de facto a Viking foundation, the Normans were long gone by then. It is all the more strange that Russia moved more and more away from Europe, conquered half of Asia and is no longer really perceived as a European country. Sometimes history leaves no trace at all, it seems. Or the Mongols were just really good at isolating the Russians from the world. Maybe I should reconsider the story blog ...

However, Russia continues some proud Viking traditions to this day. For example, people there still like to raid neighboring countries overnight to do a bit of looting. People in Georgia and Ukraine can tell stories that are not so dissimilar to those of the Viking victims from 1000 years ago. Oh yes, and just as the Vikings stimulated each other with tons of mead before going into battle, Russian professional athletes still do the same today. That's why Russia didn't take part in the Winter Olympics in 2018. Phew, just saved. History leaves its mark and I don't have to stop my blog. Nice.