Home / Early Christianity and Byzantium 6 B. C. - 1453 A. D. / Byzantium and Russia 400 B. C. – 1240 A. D.

Byzantium and Russia 400 B. C. – 1240 A. D.

THE BEGINNINGS of Russian history date back to the centuries when Byzantium was at the height of its glory. A thousand years before that Herodotus, the Greek explorer, found Greek settlements on the northern shore of the Black Sea. They traded with the Scythians, a tribe of nomads living on the open plains that stretched eastward for thousands of miles to the mountains of Asia.

Bordering these plains on the north were the forest lands and above them, in the far north, stretched the frozen wastes of the arctic tundra. In all that vast land there were no barriers, no high mountains to serve as national boundaries. Even the rivers gave little protection against invasion, for they could be crossed when they froze in the winter. As a result, there was a constant shitting of tribes, the strong pushing back the weak.


The Scythians who once held the grassy plains above the Black Sea were pushed away by the Sarmatians and they in turn gave way to the Goths in the third century. An invasion of Huns from the Mongolian desert in the fourth century overran everything in its path. It pressed far into Europe, threatening both Constantinople and Rome. All the conquered peoples, including the Slavic tribes of the forest, were forced to pay taxes to Attila, king of the Huns, for many years. Upon his death in the fifth century, the power of the Huns was broken and the tribes won their freedom again. Then followed a series of tribal wars and a general shifting of populations. Where the Slavs came from originally is not known, but they first appear in history on the Vistula River in the fifth century, as subjects of the Huns. It is possible that the name Slavs really meant slaves, since the Huns were then their masters. After the general shitting of populations, the Slavs who finally settled in the western regions became in time Poles, Czechs and Slovaks. The Slavs of the south mixed with peoples of that region and became Serbs, Croats, Bulgarians and Slovenes. The largest number of Slavic tribes settled in the forests of the east and became Russians.

By the middle of the seventh century, a nomad tribe of the grasslands, known as the Khazars, controlled a huge area of what is now European Russia. The Slavic tribes of the forest had to pay tribute to them. The Khazars traded with them and their rule was mild. Many Jews expelled from Constantinople were taken in by the Khazars and lived with them. The Khazar ruler and his court were converted to Judaism. They traded with Byzantium and Persia and offered knives, swords, silver and gold ornaments to the Slavs in exchange for furs, wax and honey.

The Arab Moslems overran Persia and continued marching north until they met the Khazars defeating them in battle in 737. The Slavic tribes probably missed their profitable trade with the Khazars. At any rate, they turned their attention to the Vikings of the north, the Varangians and became friendly with them.

The coming of the Varangians in the ninth Century is usually taken as the beginning of Russian history. This early period lasted for three and a half centuries and the monks in a monastery at Kiev wrote down what they knew about it. What they wrote probably came from church and monastery records and from folk tales and legends handed down from generation to generation. Their writings of the period came to be called the Ancient Chronicle. Although some of the stories in it are probably not true, it does give a great deal of information about a little-known period in history.

According to the Ancient Chronicle, the Slavic tribes, living in settlements along the rivers, had great respect for the Vikings. They admired their slim, beautiful ships with colorful sails and high prows that were sometimes decorated with gilded dragons. They also admired their long swords, their broad axes and the chain mail which covered their bodies.


The Vikings of Scandinavia came by way of the Gulf of Finland and sailed up the Dvina River as far as they could go and then carried their ships across land to the headwaters of the Dnieper, which flows south to the Black Sea. During the ninth century many Viking ships sailed on the Dnieper. They did less raiding of villages than they had earlier; they were now interested in trading with the Slavs. Using the Dnieper River as a water highway, they carried ship loads of furs, honey and wax south to markets on the Black Sea, or sailed across that sea to trade in Constantinople. Slav ships often joined the Viking fleets, for they needed protection from the nomad tribes of the plains in the south.

These wandering tribesmen of the steppe, as the plains were called, were fierce warriors who fought on horseback with bows and arrows. They lived in round tents made of felt, which could be moved from place to place. The nomads moved frequently to keep their herds of horses, cattle and sheep on fresh grasslands. They wandered north to the edge of the forest in summer and moved southward to the open plains as winter approached.


Most of these wandering tribes were peoples of Asia. The Slavs of the woodlands looked like Europeans and lived in the European manner. They built log-cabin towns along the rivers where hunting and fishing were good and surrounded each village with a wall of earth and a wooden stockade. The tribes in the southern woodlands cleared small fields and raised rye and barley and flax for linen. In crude boats hollowed out of logs they hauled their farm products to northern villages and exchanged them for salt and furs. They made wooden images of the thunder god Perun and of Veless, the god who protected sheep and cattle, and mounted these on high ground near their villages.


The villages were far apart, and some hunters and fishermen lived by themselves in the wilderness. There was much quarreling among the villages and this often led to battles and bloody acts of vengeance. Each village was independent of the others and was ruled by elders elected by the people. There was nothing to hold the villages together.

According to a legend reported in the Ancient Chronicle, there was so much quarreling in the northern town of Novgorod that the people of that town sent a message to the Vikings asking for help. “Our country is large and has an abundance of everything,” they said, “but there is no order or justice amongst us. Come and take possession of the land and govern us.” Historians doubt that such a message was ever sent. A Viking chief named Rurik and his people did come in a fleet of ships to live in Novgorod.


Rurik became the chief there and ruled over the scattered towns of the northern rivers. Two of the Vikings, Askold and Dir, left Novgorod and sailed south down the Dnieper. They came to the town of Kiev, on a height overlooking a bend in the river. They liked the town so much that they settled there and became its rulers. In time, other Vikings joined them.


Rurik died in Novgorod, leaving his close friend Oleg to rule until his small son came of age. Oleg was a man of action. About the year 878 he gathered a large army of Finns, Varangians, Slavs and set sail down the Dnieper. At the town of Smolensk he went ashore, held up Igor, the small son of Rurik and told the people, “This is the Prince of all the Russians, Rurik’s son.”

The people swore to be loyal to Igor. Oleg left a few of his men to rule the town and continued southward. He did the same in all the other towns  along the river. At Kiev he set a trap for its rulers, Askold and Dir, who had left Rurik, and them. Oleg found Kiev much to his liking. It was a good place from which to control Russian trade with the lands to the south. “This shall be the mother of all Russian cities,” he declared.


Oleg told all the Slavic towns of the region to stop paying taxes to the nomad Khazars of the grasslands and pay only to him. He would protect them. Under the rule of Oleg in Kiev, all the land from there up to Lake Ladoga in the far north came to be known as Rus and its people were called Russians. It was explained in the Chronicle that Rurik and his Vikings had been called “men of Rus.”

Exactly where the name Rus came from is still an unanswered question. Some believe it came from the Finnish word “ruoysi,” meaning “those who rowed.” Many believe it a Scandinavian word for some tribe or military unit, or the name of some place near Kiev where the Vikings settled. The Russians themselves do not accept these explanations. They do not like to think that the name of their country came from a foreign word. In 907, young Prince Igor was old enough to take charge at Kiev. Oleg organized a large army and sailed down the river to force Byzantium into a trade agreement with the Slavs. Instead of attacking Constantinople, he raided the villages along the Bosporus. As he probably hoped, the emperor sent out ambassadors to him with offers of Peace and gifts. Oleg made a trade treaty with them and returned to Kiev with his ships loaded with fine clothes, cloth of gold, sweet wines and fruits.

Trading with Constantinople became an important event every spring. After the rivers were free of ice, ships from all the settlements would gather at Kiev with cargoes of furs — sable, marten, beaver, otter and fox — jars of honey, wax pressed into cakes, linen‚ grain, flax, and slaves. Some of the slaves were local criminals or troublemakers; some were prisoners of war, taken in raids on other settlements.

Oleg was recognized as the grand prince. The leader of each town was called a prince and the area which he ruled was really an independent little state. The states paid taxes to Oleg mainly because they needed his help in the export trade.

The grand prince and his ships led the way down the river and the ships of other towns followed in the order of their importance. There was little danger until they entered the steppe where the broad plains stretched out on either side of the river like an endless green ocean of waving grass. A cruel new enemy, a nomad tribe called the Pechenegs, had conquered the Khazars. One of their favorite tricks was to lie in ambush in the tall grass, waiting for the traders to come ashore to repair their ships or to hunt for fresh food. The greatest danger for the traders came when they reached the rapids. There they had to unload the ships and carry everything along the bank of the Dnieper until they reached quiet water again.


In time, Oleg died and Igor became the grand prince of Kiev. The towns were constantly at war with each other during his rule, for almost every prince wanted to enlarge his territory. Igor dreamed of taking Constantinople and in 944, he attacked it with a fleet of a thousand ships.

The fleet of Byzantine warships that sailed out to fight him was not nearly so large. It carried one of the most closely guarded secrets of Byzantium — a secret weapon known as Greek fire. Flaming tongues of fire shot out of tubes and landed on enemy ships, burning them and setting fire to great patches of the sea itself. Flames leaped quickly from ship to ship until most of the Russian fleet was ablaze, while screaming men flung themselves into the burning sea. Igor and a few of his ships managed to escape and return to Kiev.

Upon Igor’s death a few years later, his wife, Olga, took his place as ruler, calling herself the grand princess of Rus. With her ladies-in-waiting and chief merchants, she sailed to Constantinople for a social visit in the year 955. She was so impressed with the churches that she became a Christian and was baptized by the patriarch of Constantinople, but she could not convert her son Sviatoslav to Christianity.

Sviatoslav followed his father’s example and became a great warrior. He was away for long periods, fighting the Bulgars, the Byzantines and the Pechenegs. The Pechenegs finally trapped and killed him at the rapids of the Dnieper. The Pecheneg chiefs had his skull inlaid with gold and used it as a drinking cup.


Sviatoslav left three sons. The oldest killed the second and would have killed Vladimir, the youngest, also, had he not lied to his Viking relatives in Scandinavia. Vladimir soon returned at the head of a Viking fleet and fought and killed his brother and so became grand prince of Kiev.

Like his father, Vladimir won fame as a warrior. After one of his wars with the Bulgars he signed a treaty with them. The Ancient Chronicle reports that the Bulgar chief admired Vladimir and told him, “You are a wise and able young prince, but you have no law and no religion. Why do you not adopt ours?”

Vladimir asked about the Moslem religion of the Bulgars and was given this explanation: “We believe in God and our prophet has taught us that if we do not eat pork or drink wine we shall go to heaven and be waited upon, each one of us, by seventy beautiful women.” Vladimir shook his head. “Drinking is the chief pleasure of the Russians and we could never live without it.”


Later, Roman Catholic priests from Germany came and told him about their religion. Then came Jews from the land of the Khazars on the Volga River to urge Vladimir to believe in the “true God, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.”

When Vladimir learned that the land of the Jews was Palestine, he asked, “Why then do you not live there?”

The Jews answered: “God scattered us all over the countries of the world and has given our country into the hands of our enemies.”

“What!” said Vladimir. “You are trying to teach others, you whom your God has punished? He would not have done that if he had loved you and your laws. Do you want the same thing to happen to us?”

When the Byzantines heard that Vladimir had been told about the different religions, they sent a Christian priest who explained the creation of the world and told him the story of Christ. The priest also showed him a painting of the Last Judgment.


Vladimir decided to send ten of his best men to see how the people of other countries worshiped God. They went to Germany, to Bulgaria and to Byzantium. They did not bother to investigate the Jewish faith. When they returned they gave this report to Vladimir and the elders of the city.

“We went to the Bulgars,” they said, “but found no joy in their worship; we went to the Germans and found no beauty in theirs. Then we went to Constantinople and we cannot tell you what we saw there; all we can say is that truly we found ourselves in the presence of God. We can never forget that beauty.”

One of the elders turned to Vladimir and said, “If the Christian faith were a bad one, your grandmother Olga, the wisest of women, would not have adopted it.”

Vladimir agreed and he and his followers became Christians. He married the emperor’s sister, Princess Ann and brought her and a number of priests back to Kiev in 990. All the wooden images of the old gods were cast into the river. Then the people were marched down to the river and baptized by the priests. This baptism was carried out in all the towns of the land.


Vladimir then spent much of his time on the problems of bringing Christianity to his people. There was so much that needed to be done. Churches had to be built. More priests had to be brought in from Constantinople to teach the new religion. Since the Russians did not have an alphabet or a written language, the priests from Byzantium gave them the alphabet they had invented for the Goths and the Slavs long ago. Then the Bible had to be translated into the Russian language.

This work was continued by Yaroslav, the son of Vladimir, after his father’s death. Yaroslav was the most successful and probably the most powerful of all the rulers of Kievan Russia. He came closer than any of the others to binding the independent states into one union. During his rule, the first code of Russian laws was begun.


The fact that he and his Russian states were Christian gave them a closer bond with other nations. Yaroslav married a princess from Sweden. His sister married a Polish king and three of his daughters married kings of France, Hungary and Norway. A son married a princess of Byzantium.

Yaroslav brought in priests, artists, scholars, architects and craftsmen from Byzantium. They helped him build Kiev into a beautiful city with a library, several churches, a monastery and one large cathedral which was a small copy of St. Sophia in Constantinople.

The Byzantine churches in Kiev served as models for churches built in other communities. Brightly colored mosaic work covered the walls of the early churches, but materials for mosaics were hard to find in Russia, so most churches were decorated with wall paintings. The outer walls were brick and were covered with plaster and painted white. The domes were gilded, or covered with green, blue, or yellow tile. In the centuries that followed, the domes slowly changed. They were made taller and more pointed, until finally they became the familiar turnip-root shape seen on Russian Orthodox churches of the present day.

With the introduction of Christianity came Byzantine art and culture, Byzantine law, church schools and the idea of a strong central government under an absolute ruler. The church organization brought new unity to the country and gave the grand princes of Kiev more power than they had ever had before. Kievan Russia never did quite reach the point of becoming a nation. It remained a loose federation of city-states as long as it lasted.


After the death of Yaroslav in 1045, the territory of the country was divided among his live sons and Kiev lost much of its influence as the leading city of the land. The princes were far more interested in getting more territory and increasing their own power than they were in improving the federation. Civil wars and treachery became the normal state of life in Russia. Some states came to hate their neighboring states so bitterly that they even joined forces with their old enemies, the Cuman nomads of the steppe, to fight against their own kinsmen.


The Cumans had conquered the grassy plains from the Pechenegs. They were more bloodthirsty than the Pechenegs had been and waged constant warfare against the Slavic towns, including Kiev, in the southern forest area. They raided without warning — burning and killing and sometimes carrying off whole populations to be sold into slavery.

The Cumans struck again and again, almost every summer, for one hundred and fifty years. Kiev was particularly hard hit. Her trade fell off. People of Kiev and of all the other towns in the southern border regions began leaving for safer places to live in the southwest and in the northern forests. This movement became greater and greater over a period of years.

Many of these people went as far into the northwest as Novgorod on the banks of the Volkhov River. Novgorod was a prosperous city-state well known for its democratic ideas. Like all states of the Kievan era, it had a veche or city assembly, which was really a mass meeting of all male citizens in the town square. Such meetings were called whenever important questions had to be decided. The veche in Novgorod was more active and had more authority than the others.


It was the steady flow of people into the north-east, the land of the Finns in the wooded valleys of the River Oka and the upper Volga, which was to have the most importance in time to come. This flow brought a great many people into the northeast. It was a shift in population which, centuries later, was to change the course of Russian history.

The northeast territory came under the rule of the prince of Suzdal, Audrey Bogoliubsky. He moved his capital from Suzdal to the town of Vladimir and built it into a great city with strong walls and a Golden Gate like the one at Kiev. With white stone brought by river barges from the Ural Mountains, he built the most splendid Byzantine churches in the lands of the Rus. In his territory lay a small settlement called Moscow, which had no importance at the time. Andrey soon became a powerful prince. He probably felt that the title grand prince of Kiev rightfully belonged to him since his father had ruled in Kiev. In 1169 he sent an army against Kiev and captured it. Andrey left his younger brother to rule over that city and took for himself the title grand prince.


The city of Vladimir prospered, while Kiev grew weaker and weaker. Kiev had to use much of its strength fighting off raids of the Cuman nomads. Kiev’s foreign trade was suffering‚ too, for the needs of the country were changing. With the steady increase in population, fields had to be enlarged to grow more food. Forest lands were cleared to make more room for fields. Wild animals of the forest were disappearing in many areas. The furs and wild honey, two of the forest products that used to be shipped to foreign markets, were now needed by the Russians themselves. More people became farmers to produce the grain, flax, meat, hides and wool that were needed by the people of Russia. The country was slowly changing from a land of forests to a land of farms and with the change came a falling off of Kiev’s export trade.

Then the capture of Constantinople by the Fourth Crusade in 1204 all but put an end to Kiev’s trading with Byzantium. It was a serious loss for Kiev. With her trade gone and her population greatly reduced, the “mother of Russian cities” quickly lost its importance in Russia.

The end was not long in coming. Mongol hordes out of the East swept across Russia in great tides, leaving only silence and smoking ruins and death behind. As the Chronicle says, “No eye was left open to weep for the dead.”

The destruction of Kiev in 1240 marked the end of the Kievan era.


Check Also


Europe Annexes the African Continent

In 1871 there occurred one of the strangest meetings in history. The place was Ujiji …

Translate »