How did Russia and Ukraine come about? A very brief history. 1. Kievan Rus, the Golden Horde, and the Polish-Lithuanian union

I’ve been asked a number of times by Europeans where distinct Russian and Ukrainian identities come from. And to tell you the truth, I wasn’t familiar with the medieval to early modern history of the region myself.

It was Alfred Tennyson who famously wrote “[…] for a lie that is half a truth is ever the blackest of lies”. When Putin starts going on about the fundamental unity of the East Slavic peoples, he isn’t all wrong. Where he goes off the rails is where he uses this historical unity as a “justification” for “uniting” them under his “benevolent” rule: this facetious argument is roughly equivalent to justifying a German invasion of the Netherlands and Flanders [=the North half of Belgium], on the grounds that the people living there are Germanic and speak a sister language of Low German. (Actually, having spoken to Ukrainian and Russian immigrants here — in Israel, those are essentially all Russian-speakers — the Ukrainian and Russian languages are about as different as Dutch and standard [High] German.)

But I freely admitted being at a loss when exactly the gradual “bifurcation” happened. For that, I needed to take a deep dive into medieval Eastern European history.

The Varangians, Novgorod, and the birth of Kievan Rus

The Vikings (or the Varangians, as they are known in East Slavic lands) did not just go a-pillaging everywhere, but were both very skilled seafarers and avid long-range traders. In the mid-9th century, a group of them from Sweden sought a route to rich Constantinople, where they could also ‘connect’ to the Silk Road. They established one via land and navigable rivers of modern-day Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine. (I will collectively call them ESL, or East Slavic Lands, below.) On the way, they set up a trading post that grew into a city the natives called Novgorod (“new town”), first documented by that name in 859 CE but probably already existing for some time then.

They then invited a Varangian named Rurik to come over from Sweden and become their ruler: “we have everything one needs, except order”. He accepted and ruled 862-879 as the first ruling prince [Russian: knyaz] of the Rurikid dynasty.[*]

His successor (probably son-in-law) Oleg [Old Norse: Helgi or Holger] (reign 879-912 CE) conquered Kiev from the Khazar khaganate and moved his capital seat there. Oleg and his people were known to the locals as the “Rus” and the kingdom is hence referred to as “Kievan Rus” in English or Kievskaya Rus in Russian. Yes, the name “Russian” at first referred not to the East Slavic people it does now, but to Swedish Vikings: Fins and Estonians still refer to Swedes as Ruotsi, possibly from Old Norse rother=rower. The Byzantines called them Ῥώς, and the Arab travelogue writer Achmed Ibn Fadlan, Rusiyyah. [**]

The next knyaz, Igor [Old Norse: Ingvar] was Rurik’s son. A war with Constantinople ended with a trade treaty. After Igor was assassinated, his wife Olga became ruler, and in 955 converted to Christianity.

Following internecine and external conflicts, Rurik’s great-grandson Vladimir [Old Norse: Waldemar], a.k.a. Vladimir the Great, unified Kievan Rus. In 988 he converted to Christianity [of the Byzantine rite — what after the Great Schism of 1054 would become the Greek Orthodox church] and then presided over the mass baptism of all Kiev. He was later canonized for this as St. Vladimir [Sviato Vladimir, or Volodymyr for the Ukrainians] — the national emblem of Ukraine is his seal.

Ironically, both Vladimir Putin and his nemesis Volodymyr Zelensky are named after him.

Under Vladimir’s successor Yaroslav the Wise, Kievan Rus probably saw its heyday. Afterward the kingdom gradually fragmented between warring princes. Interestingly, Novgorod and the surrounding area evolved into a city republic of sorts, independent since 1136.

The Mongol invasion

In the Northwest, incursions by the Teutonic Knights and the Swedes were stopped by prince Alexander of Novgorod. One of these battles took place on the Neva, hence he became known for all time as Alexander Nevsky. This front was now secure.

Meanwhile to the East and South, the Mongol empire was  expanding at a dizzying pace. It reached its furthest expansion under Ogedei Khan, son and successor of Genghis Khan, whose cavalry was given a mandate to continue all the way to “the Great Sea” (=the Atlantic Ocean). They did briefly occupy Hungary and pushed even further westward, into Austria and the lands of the Bohemian Crown. Then Ogedei died, and possibly because a council of his underlings needed to elect a successor, the Mongols withdrew, though there would be later incursions.

[Ogedei’s son, Kublai Khan, would become the emperor of China known from Marco Polo’s travels and from Samuel Coleridge’s epic poem about Xanadu (not to mention, the eponymous Rush song inspired by the latter. By the way, the term Tatars, from Persian “mounted messenger”, refers to a cluster of subject peoples; in a Russian context, the terms Tatar and Mongol are used somewhat interchangeably.]

The Golden Horde took over much of Eastern Europe, including the former Kievan Rus. (They actually got all the way to Hungary before being stopped.) Not having the numbers to rule such vast territories directly, they turned the various successor principalities of Kievan Rus into tributaries (though Novgorod remained largely independent).

Alexander Nevsky’s youngest son Daniel inherited a timber fort “na Moskva” (on the Moskva [river]). He moved there, became embroiled in succession disputes for both Novgorod and Vladimir-Suzdal, and established Moscow as a city whence he would rule as Grand Duke. From there, gradually Moscow would emerge as the new power center of the Eastern part of the empire.

But it also became a spiritual center for the Orthodox Church.  Metropolitan Maximus moved his seat from Kiev to Vladimir in 1299; his successor, Metropolitan Peter moved the residence to Moscow in 1325.

Now look at the map above. Nearly all of today’s Ukraine and Belarus were in the Polish-Lithuanian ambit, and would remain there into the 18th century. This explains two major aspects of the Russian – Ukrainian “bifurcation”:

  • the heavy influence of Polish on the spoken vernacular, and hence on the emergence of distinct Ukrainian (and to a lesser extent, Belarusian) languages
  • religiously, the less Orthodox and more “eastern-rite Catholic” orientation
  • more generally, the more (Central) European cultural influence

This latter aspect would later (18th-19th centuries) be further reinforced for Western Ukraine (Galicia) after its incorporation in the Austro-Hungarian empire following the Polish partitions.

Tomorrow [G-d willing] we will continue with Part 2: the emergence of Tsarist Russia [UPDATE: Link]

[*] I am tempted to write a “Modest Proposal” for Russia and Ukraine to be unified under… Swedish rule. I mean, if Putin is so big on historical precedents…

[**] How much of Viking/Varangian/Norseman culture persisted in Russia? Probably it’s best seen as a story like Hrolf/Rollo and his descendants in French Normandy: in that case, a small group of Viking raiders were set up by the French king to protect his kingdom against other raiders, with the territory of Normandy being awarded them as a fief. Over successive generations, they thoroughly assimilated into the surrounding Norman French culture, to the point that Rollo’s descendant William the Conqueror actually exported that to England 🙂

13 thoughts on “How did Russia and Ukraine come about? A very brief history. 1. Kievan Rus, the Golden Horde, and the Polish-Lithuanian union

  1. Reblogged this on Head Noises and commented:
    I am tempted to write a “Modest Proposal” for Russia and Ukraine to be unified under… Swedish rule. I mean, if Putin is so big on historical precedents…


  2. (Minor points – which the author may well know but readers may find interesting.)

    The Mongols were a horse-archer army. They conquered the southern steppe but were much less effective in the northern forest zone. That had a lot to do with why “Novgorod remained largely independent” and why “Metropolitan Maximus moved his seat from Kiev to Vladimir in 1299; his successor, Metropolitan Peter moved the residence to Moscow in 1325.”

    They were also much given to slaughtering large proportions of conquered populations (and carrying away the rest as slaves, who typically didn’t have a great lifespan). The gap they left in the mostly Polish population of the Oder valley was so large that after they withdrew the surviving or succeeding local rulers called in settlers from Saxony and Thuringia – hence the Germanisation of Silesia.

    In Poland, Hungary and eastwards, wood was plentiful – Kiev was almost unique in the early 1200s in having a stone wall. The Mongols were weak on siegecraft and were already finding the going much harder in stone-castle-studded Germany and Austria when “Ogedei died, and possibly because a council of his underlings needed to elect a successor, the Mongols withdrew”. After they left, the surviving Hungarians rebuilt a great many of their fortifications in stone. (That didn’t save them from the Ottomans in the 1500s, but it made the going harder for the Sultans.)

  3. I would be interested to see how you think the Cuman/Kipchak fit in here. They were blond-haired horseman (just like the later Mongols) from the Eastern Steppes (just like the Mongols) who lived in the area around the turn of the millennium and later migrated west to become part of the Hungarian people.

    • I did NOT mean to say “blond-haired horseman (just like the later Mongols)”. Crikey.
      Should be “blond-haired and horseman (just like the later Mongols)”.

  4. Just a few pedantic remarks on Mongol history.
    The Mongol Empire reached its furthest expansion **in Europe** under Ogedei Khan (third son and first successor to Chinggis Khan), but it continued to expand in China and the Middle East after the death of Ogedei (death apparently accelerated by his favorite wife plying him wih alcohol, so that her son Guyuk could take his place as Khagan).

    Kublai was not the son of Ogedei, but of Chinggis’ fourth son Tolui. In fact, he was the second son of Tolui to become Khagan.

    Also, the Tatars were originally a tribal confederation rival to the Mongols. When Chinggis Khan defeated them in a surprise attack, he and his advisors decided to kill all Tatar men taller than a cart axle, and assimilated women and children by marriage and adoption. That is a social advantage of polygyny 🙂

    The history of Tatar/Mongol relations also goes to show that Mongol atrocities have been somewhat overrated (as in Niall’s comment above).

  5. Two minor points: Kublai Khan was not Ogedai’s son. He was the second son of Tolui, Ogedai’s younger brother. Ogedai was followed as Khan of Khans by his son, Guyuk. Guyuk was succeeded by Mongke, Tolui’s oldest son. Kublai succeeded Mongke after defeating another brother,Arik Boga in a civil war.

    Novgorad was spared by the weather. The Mongol approach march took place in the Spring of 1258. The country was swampy, the weather was wet. and it didn’t hurt that Nevsky submitted to Batu Khan almost immediately.

  6. I have long felt that reconstituting the Grand Duchy of Lithuania would be a good idea. Ukraine, Belarus, and Lithuania. I suppose it would have to be run out of Vilnius. It would be a nice buffer zone and big enough to look after itself.

  7. The peninsula was not called “Normandy” until after the Scandinavian settlement. It’s literally the Duchy of the Northmen.

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