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The Rus' Khaganate (sometimes called Volkhov Rus, Ilmen Rus, or Novgorod Rus) was a polity that flourished during a poorly documented period in the history of Eastern Europe (roughly the late eighth and early to mid-ninth centuries C.E.). A predecessor to the Rurik Dynasty and Kievan Rus', the Rus' Khaganate was a nation-state (or a cluster of city-states) in what is today northern Russia. The region's population at that time was composed of Slavic, Finnic, and Norse peoples, among which the dominant group was the Rus' tribe or tribes. The region was also a center of operations for eastern Scandinavian (Varangian) adventurers, merchants and pirates.
According to contemporaneous sources, the population centers of the region, which may have included the proto-towns of Holmgard (Novgorod), Aldeigja (Ladoga), Lyubsha, Alaborg, Sarskoe Gorodishche, and Timerevo, were under the rule of a monarch or monarchs using the Old Turkic title Khagan. The Rus' Khaganate period marked the genesis of a distinct Rus' ethnos, and its successor states would include Kievan Rus' and later states from which modern Russia evolved.
The ruler of the Rus' is mentioned by the title of "khagan" in several historical sources. Most of them are foreign texts dating from the ninth century. Three others are East Slavic sources from the eleventh and twelfth centuries.
The earliest European reference to the khaganate comes from the Frankish Annals of St. Bertin. The Annals refer to a group of Vikings, who called themselves Rhos (qi se, id est gentem suam, Rhos vocari dicebant) and visited Constantinople around the year 838. Fearful of returning home via the steppes, which would leave them vulnerable to attacks by the Magyars, these Rhos travelled through Germany accompanied by Greek ambassadors from the Byzantine emperor Theophilus. When questioned by the Frankish Emperor Louis the Pious at Ingelheim, they informed him that their leader was known as chacanus (the Latin for "Khagan") and that they lived in the north of what is now Russia, but the emperor found out that their ancestral homeland was in Sweden (comperit eos gentis esse sueonum).
Thirty years later, in spring 871, the Eastern and western emperors, Basil I and Louis II, quarreled over control of Bari, which had been conquered by their joint forces from the Arabs. The Byzantine emperor sent an angry letter to his western counterpart, reprimanding him for usurping the title of emperor. He argued that the Frankish rulers are simple reges, while the imperial title properly applied only to the overlord of the Romans, that is, to Basil I himself. He also pointed out that each nation has its own title for the supreme ruler: for instance, the title of chaganus is used by the overlords of the Avars, Khazars (Gazari), and "Northmen" (Nortmanno). To that, Louis replied that he was aware only about the Avar khagans, and had never heard about the khagans of the Khazars and Normanns. The content of Basil's letter, now lost, is reconstructed from Louis's reply, quoted in full in the Salerno Chronicle. The correspondence between Louis II and Basil I indicates that at least one group of Scandinavians had a ruler who called himself "khagan."
Ahmad ibn Rustah, a tenth century Muslim geographer from Persia, wrote that the Rus' khagan ("khaqan rus") lived on an island in a lake. Constantine Zuckerman comments that Ibn Rustah, using the text of an anonymous account from the 870s, attempted to accurately convey the titles of all rulers described by its author, which makes his evidence all the more precious. The Muslim geographer mentions only two khagans in his treatise–those of Khazaria and Rus'. A further near-contemporary reference to the Rus' comes from al-Yaqubi, who wrote in 889 or 890 that the Caucasus mountaineers, when besieged by the Arabs in 854, asked for help from the overlords (sahib) of al-Rum (Byzantium), Khazaria, and al-Saqaliba (Slavs). Hudud al-Alam, an anonymous Arabic geography text written in the late tenth century, refers to the Rus' king as "rus-khaqan". As the unknown author of Hudud al-Alam relied on numerous ninth-century sources, including ibn Khordadbeh, it is possible that his reference to the Rus' Khagan was copied from earlier, pre-Rurikid texts, rather than reflecting contemporary political reality. Finally, the eleventh century Persian geographer Abu Said Gardizi mentioned "khaqan-i rus" in his work Zayn al-Akbar. Like other Muslim geographers, Gardizi relied on traditions stemming from the ninth century.
There are good grounds for believing that the title "khagan" was still remembered in Kievan Rus' during the Christian period. Metropolitan Hilarion of Kiev applied the title "khagan" to Vladimir I of Kiev and Yaroslav I the Wise in the earliest surviving example of Old Russian literature, Slovo o Zakone i Blagodati ("Sermon on Law and Grace"), written around 1050. Hilarion referred to Vladimir as "the great khagan of our land" (velikago kagana nashea zemlja, Vladimera) and Yaroslav as "our devout khagan." A graffito in the north gallery of Saint Sophia Cathedral reads "O Lord, save our khagan," apparently in reference to Sviatoslav II (1073-1076). As late as the end of the twelfth century, The Tale of Igor's Campaign refers in passing to a "kogan Oleg", traditionally identified with Oleg of Tmutarakan.
Extant primary sources make it plausible that the title of khagan was applied to the rulers of the Rus' during a rather short period, roughly between their embassy to Constantinople (838) and Basil I's letter (871). All Byzantine sources after Basil I refer to the Rus' rulers as archons. Later Kievan authors, mentioned above, appear to have revived the term "khagan" as a laudatory epithet of the ruling knyaz rather than as a valid political term.
The dating of the Khaganate's existence has been the subject of debates among scholars and remains unclear. Omeljan Pritsak dates the foundation of the Khaganate to around 830-840. In the 1920s, Russian historian Pavel Smirnov suggested that the Rus' Khaganate emerged only briefly at around 830 and was soon destroyed by the migration of the Magyar-Kabar tribal confederation towards the Carpathian Mountains. Whatever the accuracy of such estimates may be, there are no primary sources which mention the Rus' or its khagans prior to the 830s.
Equally contentious has been discussion about the date of the khaganate's disintegration. The title of Khagan is not mentioned in the Rus'-Byzantine treaties (907, 911, 944), or in De Ceremoniis, a record of court ceremonials meticulously documenting the titles of foreign rulers, when it deals with Olga's reception at the court of Constantine VII in 945. Moreover, ibn Fadlan, in his detailed account of the Rus (922), designated their supreme ruler as malik Arabic for ("king"). From this fact, Peter Golden concluded via an argumentum ex silentio that the khaganate collapsed at some point between 871 and 922. Zuckerman, meanwhile, argues that the absence of the title "khagan" from the first Russo-Byzantine Treaty proves that the khaganate had vanished by 911.
The location of the khaganate has been actively disputed since the early twentieth century. According to one fringe theory, the Rus' khagan resided somewhere in Scandinavia or even as far west as Walcheren. In stark contrast, George Vernadsky believed that the khagan had his headquarters in the eastern part of the Crimea or in the Taman Peninsula and that the island described by Ibn Rustah was most likely situated in the estuary of the Kuban River. Neither of these theories has won many adherents, as archaeologists have uncovered no traces of a Slavic-Norse settlement in the Crimea region in the ninth century and there are no Norse sources documenting "khagans" in Scandinavia.
Soviet historiography, as represented by Boris Rybakov and Lev Gumilev, advanced Kiev as the residence of the khagan, assuming that Askold and Dir were the only khagans recorded by name. Mikhail Artamonov became an adherent of the theory that Kiev was the seat of the Rus' Khaganate, and continued to hold this view into the 1990s.
Western historians, however, have generally argued against this theory. There is no evidence of an urban settlement on the site of Kiev prior to the 880s. Archaeological finds from the period in the vicinity of Kiev are almost non-existent. Particularly troublesome is the absence of hoards of coins which would prove that the Dnieper trade route—the backbone of later Kievan Rus'—was operating in the ninth century. Based on his examination of the archaeological evidence, Zuckerman concludes that Kiev originated as a fortress on the Khazar border with Levedia, and that only after the Magyars' departure for the west in 889 did the middle Dnieper region start to progress economically.
A number of historians, the first of whom was Vasily Bartold, have advocated a more northerly position for the khaganate. They have tended to emphasize ibn Rustah's report as the only historical clue to the location of the khagan's residence. Recent archaeological research, conducted by Dmitry Machinsky among others, has raised the possibility that this polity was based on a group of settlements along the Volkhov River, including Ladoga, Lyubsha, Duboviki, Alaborg, and Holmgard. "Most of these were initially small sites, probably not much more than stations for re-fitting and resupply, providing an opportunity for exchange and the redistribution of items passing along the river and caravan routes". If the anonymous traveller quoted by ibn Rustah is to be believed, the Rus of the Khaganate period made extensive use of the Volga route to trade with the Middle East, possibly through Bulgar and Khazar intermediaries. His description of the Rus' island suggests that their center was at Holmgard, an early medieval precursor of Novgorod whose name translates from Old Norse as "the river-island castle." The First Novgorod Chronicle describes unrest in Novgorod before Rurik was invited to come rule the region in the 860s. This account prompted Johannes Brøndsted to assert that Holmgard-Novgorod was the khaganate's capital for several decades prior to the appearance of Rurik, including the time of the Byzantine embassy in 839. Machinsky accepts this theory but notes that, before the rise of Holmgard-Novgorod, the chief political and economic centre of the area was located at Aldeigja-Ladoga.
The origins of the Rus' Khaganate are unclear. The first Scandinavian settlers of the region arrived in the lower basin of the Volkhov River in the mid-eighth century. The country comprising the present-day Leningrad Oblast (or district), Novgorod, Tver, Yaroslavl, and Smolensk regions became known in Old Norse sources as "Gardarike," the land of forts. Norse warlords, known to the Turkic-speaking steppe peoples as "köl-beki" or "sea-kings," came to dominate some of the region's Finno-Ugric and Slavic peoples, particularly along the Volga trade route linking the Baltic Sea with the Caspian Sea and Serkland.
As with the Rus' generally, there is much debate as to the identity and ancestry of the Rus' Khagans. They may have been Scandinavians, native Slavs or Finns, or (most probably) of mixed ancestry. Omeljan Pritsak speculated that a Khazar khagan named Khan-Tuvan Dyggvi, exiled after losing a civil war, settled with his followers in the Norse-Slavic settlement of Rostov, married into the local Scandinavian nobility, and fathered the dynasty of the Rus' khagans. Zuckerman dismisses Pritsak's theory as untenable speculation, and no record of any Khazar khagan fleeing to find refuge among the Rus' exists in contemporaneous sources. Nevertheless, the possible Khazar connection to early Rus' monarchs is supported by the use of a stylized trident tamga, or seal, by later Rus' rulers such as Sviatoslav I of Kiev; similar tamgas are found in ruins that are definitively Khazar in origin. The genealogical connection between the ninth-century Khagans of Rus' and the later Rurikid rulers, if any, is unknown at this time.
Most historians agree that the title "khagan" was borrowed by the Rus' from the Khazars, but there is considerable dispute over the circumstances of this borrowing. Peter Benjamin Golden presumes that the Rus' khaganate was a puppet state set up by the Khazars in the basin of the Oka River to fend off recurring attacks of the Magyars. No source records that the Rus' of the ninth century were subjects to the Khazars, however. For foreign observers (such as Ibn Rustah) there was no material difference between the titles of the Khazar and Rus' rulers. Anatoly Novoseltsev hypothesizes that the adoption of the title of khagan was designed to advertise the Rus' claims to the equality with the Khazars. This theory is echoed by Thomas Noonan, who asserts that the Rus' leaders were loosely unified under the rule of one of the "sea-kings" in the early ninth century, and that this "High King" adopted the title khagan to give him legitimacy in the eyes of his subjects and neighboring states. The title of khagan was, according to this theory, a sign that the bearers ruled under a divine mandate.
The likely mainstay of the khaganate's economy was the Volga trade route. Early ninth-century coin hordes unearthed in Scandinavia frequently contain large quantities of dirhem coins minted in the Abbasid Caliphate and other Muslim polities, sometimes split into smaller pieces and inscribed with Runic signs. All in all, more than 228,000 Arabic coins have been recovered from over a thousand hoards in European Russia and the Baltic region. Almost 90 percent of these arrived in Scandinavia by way of the Volga trade route. Unsurprisingly, the dirhem was the basis for the monetary system of Kievan Rus'.
Trade was the major source of income for the Rus', who according to ibn Rustah did not engage in agriculture:
"They 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."
Rus' merchants traveled down the Volga, paying duties to the Bulghars and Khazars, to the ports of Gorgan and Abaskun on the southern shore of the Caspian Sea; on occasion they travelled as far as Baghdad.
Writing in 922, Ibn Fadlan described the Rus' ruler (like the Khazar khagan), as having little real authority. Instead, political and military power was wielded by a deputy, who "commands the troops, attacks [the Rus' ruler's] enemies, and acts as his representative before his subjects." The supreme king of the Rus', on the other hand, "has no duties other than to make love to his slave girls, drink, and give himself up to pleasure." He was guarded by 400 men, "willing to die for him... These 400 sit below the royal throne: a large and bejewelled platform which also accommodates the forty slave-girls of his harem." Ibn Fadlan wrote that the Rus' ruler would almost never leave his throne and even "when he wants to go riding his horse is led up to him, and on his return the horse is brought right up to the throne." Ibn Rustah, on the other hand, reported that the khagan was the ultimate authority in settling disputes between his subjects. His decisions, however, were not binding, so that if one of the disputants disagreed with the khagan's ruling, the dispute was then resolved in a battle, which took place "in the presence of the contestants' kin who stand with swords drawn; and the man who gets the better of the duel also gets the decision about the matter in dispute."
The dichotomy between the relative powerlessness of the nominal ruler and the great authority of his subordinate reflects the structure of Khazar government, with secular authority in the hands of a Khagan Bek only theoretically subordinate to the khagan, and sharply contrasts with the traditional Germanic system, where kingship was held by military prowess and not necessarily by blood. Moreover, some scholars have noted similarities between this dual kingship and the postulated relationship between Igor and Oleg of Kiev in the early 10th century (compare Askold and Dir in the 9th century). The institution of separate sacral ruler and military commander may be observed in the reconstructed relationship between Oleg and Igor, but whether this is part of the Rus' Khaganate's legacy to its successor-state is unknown. The early Kievan Rus' principalities exhibited certain distinctive characteristics in their government, military organization, and jurisprudence that were comparable to those in force among the Khazars and other steppe peoples; some historians believe that these elements came to Kievan Rus' from the Khazars by way of the earlier Rus' Khagans.
See also: Norse paganism, Slavic mythology, and Christianization of the Rus' Khaganate
Judging from excavations conducted since the 1820s at Ladoga and related sites in Northern Russia, the Rus' customs reflected primarily Scandinavian influences. This is consistent with the writings of ibn Rustah and ibn Fadlan. The former gives a brief description of the burial of a Rus' nobleman, who was put into a "grave like a large house," together with food, amulets, coins, other staples, as well as his favorite wife. "Then the grave door is sealed and she dies there." Ibn Fadlan provides further evidence of the Rus' building a memorial mound, or cenotaph, and giving it a runic inscription on a piece of wood.
The Arab traveler also left a detailed description of the Rus' custom of cremating noblemen in a ship, which involved both animal and human sacrifice. When a poor man died, he was put into a little ship and burned in it; the funeral of a nobleman was much more elaborate. His estate was divided into three parts: one for his family, one to pay for his funerary costume, and one to make beer, which was consumed on the day of his cremation.
One of the deceased man's slave girls volunteered to be put to death so as to join her master in paradise. On the day of cremation, the dead man was disinterred from his grave, dressed in fine clothings, and put onto a specially constructed ship. The volunteer slave girl was killed (after the deceased man's kinsmen and friends had sex with her) and placed on board together with her master before the dead man's nearest kinsman set the vessel on fire. The funeral ended with the construction of a round mound.
Early medieval historians were impressed with the spirit of independence and enterprise inculcated among the Rus' from birth.Ibn Rustah writes:
"When a son is born the father will go up to the newborn baby, sword in hand; throwing it down, he says; 'I shall not leave you any property: you have only what you can provide with this weapon!'"
Al-Marwazi repeated this description of the instructions given to a son and added that it was the daughter who received her father's inheritance. The same sense of rugged individualism was reflected in their treatment of the ill. According to ibn Fadlan, "if one of the Rus falls sick they put him in a tent by himself and leave bread and water for him. They do not visit him, however, or speak to him, especially if he is a serf. Should he recover he rejoins the others; if he dies they burn him. If he happens to be a serf, however, they leave him for the dogs and vultures to devor." Sources describe the Rus as liberal in sexual matters. Ibn Fadlan wrote that the king of the Rus did not shy away from having public intercourse with the slave girls in his harem. When Rus traders arrived to the Volga shores, they would make love with the slave girls they brought for sale in the presence of their comrades; sometimes this would develop into a communal orgy.
Both ibn Fadlan and ibn Rustah portray the Rus as devout pagans. Ibn Rustah and, following him, Garizi reported that the Rus shamans or "medicine men" (attiba) wielded great power over the common folk. According to ibn Rustah, these shamans acted "as if they own everything." They determined what women, men, or animals had to be sacrificed, and there was no appealing their decisions. A shaman would take the selected offering, whether human or animal, and hang it from a pole until it died. Ibn Fadlan left a description of the Rus merchants praying for success in trading before "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." If trade did not pick up, more offerings were made; if the business remained slow, the trader would make offerings to the minor idols, too. When the trading was especially good, Rus merchants would likewise make additional offerings of cattle and sheep, some of which were distributed as alms.
On the other hand, Byzantine sources report that the Rus adopted Christianity by the end of the 860s. In his encyclical dated to 867, Patriarch Photius wrote about the enthusiastic conversion of the Rus, mentioning that he had sent to their lands a bishop. Constantine VII (905-959) attributes the conversion to his grandfather Basil the Macedonian and to Patriarch Ignatius rather than to their predecessors Michael III and Photius. Constantine narrates how the Byzantines galvanized the Rus' into conversion by their persuasive words and rich presents, including gold, silver, and precious fabrics. He also repeats a traditional story that the pagans were particularly impressed by a miracle: a gospel book thrown by the archbishop into an oven was not damaged by fire. Ibn Khordadbeh wrote in the late ninth century that the Rus who arrived to Muslim lands "claimed to be Christians". Modern historians are divided in their views on the historicity and extent of the Christianization of the Rus' Khaganate.
In 838, the Rus' Khaganate sent an embassy to the Byzantine Empire, which was recorded in the Annals of St. Bertin, the reasons for which remain a cause of controversy among historians. Aleksey Shakhmatov argued that the embassy of 838 had two ends in view: to establish amity with Byzantium and to open up the way into Sweden through Western Europe. Constantine Zuckerman postulates that the Rus' ambassadors were to negotiate a peace treaty after their Paphlagonian expedition of the 830s. George Vernadsky connects their mission with the construction of the fortress of Sarkel in 833. That embassy was not recorded in Byzantine sources, and in 860 Patriarch Photius referred to the Rus as "unknown people."
According to Vernadsky, the Khazars and Greeks erected Sarkel near the portage between the Don River and Volga specifically to defend this strategic point from the Rus. Other scholars, however, believe that the fortress of Sarkel was constructed to defend against or monitor the activities of the Magyars and other steppe tribes, and not the Rus'. The Ukrainian historian Mykhailo Hrushevsky declared that the extant sources were unclear on this point. John Skylitzes claimed that Sarkel was a "staunch bulwark against the Pechenegs" but did not identify that as its original purpose.
In 860, the Rus besieged Constantinople, with a fleet of 200 ships. The Byzantine army and navy were far from the capital, leaving it vulnerable to the attack. The timing of the expedition suggests that the Rus were well-aware of the internal situation in the empire thanks to the commercial and other relations that continued after the embassy of 838. The Rus warriors devastated the suburbs of Constantinople before suddenly departing on August 4.
The early Rus' traded extensively with Khazaria. Ibn Khordadbeh wrote in the Book of Roads and Kingdoms that "they go via the Slavic River (the Don) to Khamlidj, a city of the Khazars, where the latter's ruler collects the tithe from them." Some modern commentators infer from Arab accounts that the Rus' Khaganate's political culture was profoundly influenced by its contacts with Khazaria. By the beginning of the Rurikid period in the first decades of the tenth century, however, relations between the Rus' and the Khazars soured.
Soon after Patriarch Photius informed other Orthodox bishops about the Christianization of the Rus, all the centers of the khaganate in North-Western Russia were destroyed by fire. Archaeologists found convincing evidence that Holmgard, Aldeigja, Alaborg, Izborsk and other local centers were burnt to the ground in the 860s or 870s. Some of these settlements were permanently abandoned after the conflagration. The Primary Chronicle describes the uprising of the pagan Slavs and Finns against the Varangians, who had to withdraw overseas in 862. The First Novgorod Chronicle, whose account of the events Shakhmatov considered more trustworthy, does not pinpoint the pre-Rurikid uprising to any specific date. The sixteenth-century Nikon Chronicle attributes the banishment of the Varangians from the country to Vadim the Bold. The Ukrainian historian Mykhailo Braichevsky labelled Vadim's rebellion "a pagan reaction" against the Christianization of the Rus'. A period of unrest and anarchy followed, dated by Zuckerman to ca. 875-900. The absence of coin hoards from the 880s and 890s suggests that the Volga trade route ceased functioning, precipitating "the first silver crisis in Europe".
After this economic depression and period of political upheaval, the region experienced a resurgence beginning in around 900. Zuckerman associates this recovery with the arrival of Rurik and his men, who turned their attention from the Volga to the Dnieper, for reasons as yet uncertain. The Scandinavian settlements in Ladoga and Novgorod revived and started to grow rapidly. During the first decade of the tenth century, a large trade outpost was formed on the Dnieper in Gnezdovo, near modern Smolensk. Another Dnieper settlement, Kiev, developed into an important urban centre roughly in the same period.
The fate of the Rus' Khaganate, and the process by which it either evolved into or was consumed by the Rurikid Kievan Rus', is unclear. The Kievans seem to have had a very vague notion about the existence of the khaganate. Slavonic sources do not mention either the Christianization of the Rus in the 860s nor the Paphlagonian expedition of the 830s. The account of the Rus' expedition against Constantinople in the 860s was borrowed by the authors of the Primary Chronicle from Greek sources, suggesting the absence of a vernacular written tradition.
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