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Russian principalities at the time of the Mongol invasion in 1237

The Rus ( East Slavic Роусь, also Русь, Роусьскаѧ землѧ, Greek Ρωσία, Latin Russia, Ruthenia, in earlier German usage also Russia , Ruthenia or Reuss ) is a historical area in Eastern Europe where the Eastern Slavs were originally located. The name is derived from the Rus people , who were probably of Norman descent and who sailed the rivers of this region ( Gardarike in Old Norse ) in the second half of the first millennium after Christ . Today the name is mainly derived from the Nordic roðr for "rowing, rowing team". The first state in this area was the Kievan Rus , which flourished in the 11th century after the Byzantine Orthodox Christianization of the Rus in 988. The empire ruled by the Rurikids formed the basis for the emergence of an Old Russian people with a common language and culture . The ensuing feudal fragmentation meant that the Mongol invasion of the Rus in the 13th century could devastate the country and its parts came under the control of various external actors in the following period. This led to a linguistic and cultural differentiation of the Eastern Slavs. In the north-east of Russia , a centralized and independent Russian Empire emerged at the end of the 15th century under Moscow's Grand Duke Ivan the Great , a Rurikid, which for centuries fought with the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and later with Poland-Lithuania for centuries over the western areas of Russia.

In the modern Russian language the word Русь is also used as a literary synonym for Russia or for the area that includes Russia, Ukraine ( Little Russia ) and Belarus . According to the definition of the Patriarch of Moscow and the whole of Rus Kyrill I , Rus today is the entirety of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus.

Origin and etymology of the Rus tribe

Overseas guests. Nicholas Roerich , 1901

There are different theories about the origin of the Rus. One of the most common is the Norman theory, according to which the Rus, also known as the Varangians , were peoples from Sweden who immigrated to northwestern Russia on the threshold of the Viking Age , whereupon finds from the 7th to 9th centuries in Latvia and from the 750th century established Ladoga . In less than a century they spread to the southeast (according to the Annales Bertiniani for the year 839) to the borders of the Byzantine Empire and (according to Abu'l Qasim Ubaid'Allah ibn Khordadbeh (820-912) for the year 840) Caliphate . The treasure trove of Staraja Ladoga contains oriental coins and Scandinavian finds from the time around 750, from which it can be concluded that at that time Eastern travelers already had access to oriental silver. Also in Grobiņa (Latvia) several Scandinavian fields with barrows and grave fields ( flat graves ) with cremations from the Vendel period were found. However, the latest historical studies assume that Rus was not an ethnonym , but a general term for associations of river nomads who were composed of different ethnicities and tribes.

In the Nestor Chronicle playing Rus and Varangians a prominent role. Rus is the name for a people or the social class that exercised power, and Rus also became the name of their area, similar to the words Bohemia or Hungary .

When Rus became the name of an area of ​​rulership, "the Rus" became the name of the inhabitants of this area - regardless of their tribal affiliation. So the name was carried over from the immigrants to the long-established residents. In order to be able to designate the northern Germanic peoples , other terms were needed: In Kiev these were now called varjazi (mercenaries), in Novgorod kolbjazi (probably from the Scandinavian kylfingar). But the term varjazi became generally accepted in the period that followed. This lost sight of the fact that Rus had previously been the term for the northern Germanic people. These names show that the Varangians in Kiev were mainly perceived as warriors, in Novgorod mainly as traders. In the Scandinavian saga literature, the term Garðr (= farmstead, later castle town) was used. Kiev was called Kænugarðr , Novgorod Hólmgarðr . In order to avoid the connotation "homestead", the area was called garðaríki since the 12th century .

The number of immigrating Varangians cannot even begin to be determined.

There are various theories about the origin of the name Rus :

  • Norman theory ( Scandinavian theory ): This is the theory advocated by the majority of scientists today. The name Rus is derived from the Finnish name for Sweden / Northern Germanen , Ruotsi , or from their presumed home in Sweden, Roslagen . The Finnish "Ruotsi" is borrowed from the old Germanic word for "oar". On the other hand, however, the objection is that in the genitive initial member * Rōþs the initial vowel cannot be silenced before the 6th century, and that is too late to name a tribe that has been neighboring since ancient times.
  • East Slavic theory : Rus is the name of a tribe of the East Slavs (part of the Polans ) who lived south of present-day Kiev along the Ros River . The name of the tribe can either come from the Slavic word for "red, bright" ( rusyj ) or from the name of the river. “Rus” was a root word for water in the Old Slavonic language and is preserved today in words such as Русло (river bed), Роса (morning dew) and in the verb орошать ( watering ). Rus could therefore not necessarily be a tribal name, but the name for all people who sailed the rivers. A tribe of Rossomones (Ros-Mannen) became known as early as the 6th century (Jordan), long before the arrival of the Varangians. This theory enjoyed great popularity in the Soviet Union , but is rarely supported outside the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS).
  • Alanic theory ( Iranian theory ): According to some German, Russian and British linguists and historians , the term Rus could go back to an Alanic branch of the Ruchs-as or to the Sarmatian Roxolans . Both tribal names contain, as well as the Iranian and Russian first names Rustam and Ruslan , Old Northern Iranian Raochschna = "white, light"; Rus as a common name would therefore mean "the bright, shining ones". The presence of non-assimilated Alans in the settlements and cities of the early Kievan Rus is archaeologically proven. However, this theory is rejected by most scientists. The Alanian theory is particularly unlikely because the Alans lived more in the south of the Rus, and in very few numbers. In addition, the Alans in early Rus were not as well organized as the Scandinavian predators.
  • West Slavic theory : A theory that only very few historians hold is the following: The name is derived from the West Slavic tribe of the Ranen ( Rujanen ), who participated intensively in the Baltic Sea trade and in the Varangian expeditions . The name of the Russian dynasty founder Rurik is derived from the West Slavonic Rarog.

Due to the size of the Rus and their political-spatial segmentation, specifying terms emerged over time, for example White Rus (Belarus), Black Rus , Red Rus , Novgorod Rus , Vladimir-Suzdal Rus , Moscow Rus , Great Rus (Greater Russia), Small Rus (Little Russia) etc.

Written and archaeological evidence of medieval Rus

Written sources

The most important sources about Rus and the Varangians are the Nestor Chronicle in all its variants and tradition strands as well as the chronicles from the 12th and the following centuries, which are related, but partly different. Then the Greek and Arabic sources are to be mentioned, furthermore the travel report of the Norwegian Ottar about his trip around the North Cape to the Arctic Ocean, probably to Arkhangelsk. From the 10th century there are scattered reports in the sagas of ventures to Rus (Garðaríki). There are also individual rune stones in Sweden with the names of Varangians and some companies in Rus. A rune stone was found in Pilgårds , which tells of a trip by a varangian to the Dnieper around the year 1000.


Cultural evidence of the Rus can only be expected at the end of the 10th to 11th centuries. Older evidence can only be found in connection with the waterways on the Dnieper . A Scandinavian settlement in the 8th century is documented for Staraya Ladoga . From the 10th century there are Scandinavian / North Germanic burial places in the upper and middle Dnepr region and also on the Volga. The accumulation of religious objects is striking, for example Thor's hammer rings . Close ties to Scandinavia can be established until the 11th century. On the other hand, the nomadic population has also influenced the culture of the Rus, which is reflected in the armament. In addition to the sword, the saber, chain mail and bows (often reflex bows ) can be detected. Arrowheads with thorns were preferred .

The baptism of Vladimir in 988 marked a turning point . Monumental architecture was created in Kiev. But in contrast to the Western Romanesque, the buildings were not made of stone, but of brick. In the East Slavic settlement area, the multitude of devotional objects is striking , for example reliquary crosses , cross pendants and stone icon pendants . In the past they were thought to be Byzantine products, today they are considered local products. In body burial was customary. Despite Christianization, the burial mounds no longer in use with the Western Slavs did not completely disappear in the east. In the village environment, burial mounds were used until the 12th, in some places even into the 13th century, often with relatively rich grave goods.

A birch bark certificate from Novgorod

The birch bark is characteristic of the Rus as a writing material. About 1000 birch bark documents from the first half of the 11th to the 15th century, especially from Novgorod and Smolensk, have been found.

It is noticeable that hardly any own coins were minted. Only 340 Rus coins are known. They come from Vladimir I and Swjatoslav from the southern part of the empire and from Jaroslav from the northern part of the empire, including Scandinavia.

The relations with Byzantium led to a unique level of quality in metal processing in the urban centers. The dress of princely women featured jewelry with cell enamel , granulation , filigree and niello . Silver bangles that were gilded with geometric or plant motifs were also widespread. There are also glass arm rings from the 12th and 13th centuries. Many parts of the costumes were made of bronze, for example belt buckles.

The wine amphorae are to be counted among the Byzantine imported goods. Byzantine influence is also noticeable in glazed ceramics.

Relics were imported from Central Europe and other products were exported, such as the Kiev Easter eggs or spindle whorls made from Ovrutscher slate, which are common from Sweden to Moravia.

Importance of the Rus in the High Middle Ages

The Viking Age is set in the west between 793 and 1066 after events such as the sack of Lindisfarne and the Battle of Stamford Bridge . There is no comparable division in the east. The earliest news comes from 839. There, Svear are mentioned under their leader Rhos , who, returning from Byzantium, ended up traveling down the Rhine in Ingelheim .

According to the classical concept, the Rus enterprises differed characteristically from the Vikings operating in the west, just as the geographical conditions of their area of ​​activity differed greatly (coasts in the west, inland areas with rivers in the east). In the west the journey was mostly across the sea, in the east along the rivers. In the west the Vikings soon came to the borders of the Franconian Empire, while in the east they encountered many small domains and tribes. The motives for the trips were also different. While in the west the control of areas was in the foreground, in the east, following the descriptions of the Nestor Chronicle, it was above all trade and the securing of other important trade routes.

In Russian research, on the other hand, without denying the importance of trade, the warlike role in the wake of the local princes has been emphasized more strongly, which is also mentioned in the Nestor Chronicle.

Prince Igor collects tribute from the Drewlanes . Picture by Klawdi Lebedew , 1908
The Rus on the walls of Constantinople

The Varangians apparently wanted to skim off what was suitable for long-distance trade from this area. The main trades were furs, honey and wax, which were delivered to the Greek and Oriental markets. They benefited from their experience in boat building for transport on rivers and in long-distance trade. At the beginning the goods were procured through tribute (every household had to deliver a squirrel skin annually), later the locals saw the benefit of delivering goods against payment to the large collection points, for example Kiev. The Varangian warrior guards remained active to ensure the cohesion of the empire. These Varangians attacked Constantinople with their ships in 860, 912, 941, 944, 970 and 988. Other targets were cities on the Caspian Sea, the Volga-Bulgarian Empire , the Khazar Empire and the Balkans .

Peter Sawyer referred more to the found oriental silver coins and emphasized the aspect of looting. His main argument is that at that time Scandinavia could not deliver enough goods that were in demand on the oriental market, apart from those from the surrounding area. As soon as the coins came to the north after they were minted, looting or paying tribute was closer. However, this view has met with criticism.

The economic boom brought about by the improved infrastructure attracted the Pechenegs , a tribe of equestrian nomads whose territory in the south and south-east of the empire was only a day's ride from Kiev. In response to this, chains of castles were built on the high banks of the tributaries of the Dnieper, which also had to be constantly manned and supplied with supplies, which required money and fighters from all over the empire. Because of this support from the parts of the empire in the west and north, the southern and south-eastern parts of the empire, into which most of the taxes flowed, were soon referred to as Rus in the narrower sense . As early as 912, it is documented that the cities in the threatened areas held the highest rank in the empire, and so the local tribes soon gained the social preponderance over the Scandinavian merchants operating on ships, which is the result of the rapid Slavicization of the Scandinavians in Rus today is returned.

The peculiarity is that, although there is archaeological evidence of immigration from Sweden from the sources, in contrast to Scandinavian immigration in the North Sea area, almost no place, field or river names from Scandinavian can be found (taking into account that the place name research there is still at the beginning). It is attributed to a certain at least initial isolation of the ethnic groups in different quarters of the settlements with little mutual contact. There was also no cultural or technical takeover. Shipbuilding remained the domain of the Varangians. After its Slavicization, the technology fell into oblivion.

Rus as a domain and ethno-cultural space

According to the sources (see Nestor Chronicle ), the empire of northern Rus south and southeast of the Gulf of Finland was united with southern Rus around the central Dnepr early on . The capital became Kiev, where the shipping routes from the Dnepr region converge and from where the extremely important trade route from the Varangians to the Greeks could best be controlled. Over time, the territory of the Rus extended to the territory of the present-day states of Ukraine, Belarus and European Russia, with Slavic tribes making up the majority of the population.

The benefit of long-distance trade became less and less for the population the more of it had to be given up for defense against the steppe peoples, so that in the period after the Varangians in the north and north-east there was a tendency to decouple from Kiev. The income from long-distance trade was replaced by the feudal siphoning off of agricultural yields. Long-distance trade in Novgorod remained intact, but it turned to the Baltic Sea route leading from the fur-rich hinterland in the north to Central Europe. When the Varangian Guard at the court of Vladimir I was finally relocated to Emperor Basil II in Byzantium, the connection with Sweden also loosened. While Jaroslaw the Wise was still married to a Swede named Ingigerd, Sweden only played a subordinate role in the dynastic connections of the 11th century compared to those with Western Europe.

Uspensky Cathedral of Vladimir (1159–1189), the main place of worship in northeastern Russia until the 15th century

In the 12th century the process of feudal fragmentation came into full swing, the role of Kiev declined and new centers of power formed in Russia. After the Mongol invasion of the Rus in 1237-1240, the rule of the Golden Horde was established in most of the Russian principalities . From then on, Russian princes had to pay tribute and let the Khan determine the grand prince. In the northeast, the rule of the Golden Horde and their successor states lasted until 1480. Up to this point in time, the Moscow Rurikid princes had taken the lead in “collecting the Russian soil”.

Rivalry between Moscow and Poland-Lithuania over western Russia

The areas of western Russia came under the rule of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and the Kingdom of Poland in the 14th and 15th centuries. These two states, which had been in personal union with each other since the union of Krewo in 1385, rejected the Moscow policy of reunification of the Rus and sought unification under their own rule. In the numerous Russo-Lithuanian and later Russian-Polish wars that took place between the 15th and 18th centuries, it was about the control of Western Rus ( Russian Западная Русь ). After the Union of Brest in 1596, when the Polish-Lithuanian authorities tried to subordinate the Russian Orthodox Slavic population of their empire to the Pope, Orthodox clergymen in Kiev, Galicia and other areas intensified their polemics against this development in favor of reunification advertised with the orthodox tsarist empire Russia. These political developments and the increased reappraisal of the common past from the time of the Kievan Rus led to the development of the Little Russian identity and prepared the ground for the Khmelnytskyi uprising and the Treaty of Pereyaslav in 1654, in which the hetmanate of the Zaporozhian Cossacks (forerunner modern Ukraine ) placed under the rule of the tsar. The Kiev Synopsis , a book by the Archimandrite of the Kiev-Pechersk Lavra, Innozenz Giesel , is considered to be the postulate of the triune Russian people , the official concept of the later Russian Empire .

In the areas of Russia that remained with Poland-Lithuania (Belarus, right-wing Ukraine , Volhynia , Galicia etc.), religious pressure on the Orthodox was increased, including the Ruthenian language being banned. When the Polish partitions at the end of the 18th century, Catherine the Great argued that she was not taking any direct Polish land, but merely liberating and bringing back representatives of her own people and faith. In Russia, this process was understood as the continuation of the centuries-old “gathering of Russian soil”. During World War I , the Russian press saw the brief conquest of Galicia, in which there was a strong Russophile movement , the completion of this 600-year-old process.


In the first stanza of the Soviet anthem from 1943 and also in the variant from 1977, the Russian is explicitly mentioned:

Союз нерушимый республик свободных
Сплотила навеки Великая Русь .
Да здравствует, созданный волей народов,
Единый, могучий Советский Союз!

The unbreakable union of free republics
united great Russia for eternity .
Long live the one
mighty Soviet Union created by the will of the peoples !

See also


  • Ingmar Jansson: Scandinavia, the Baltic States and Rus' under vikingatiden. In: Det 22. nordiske historikermøte. Report I: North and Baltic States. Oslo 1994.
  • Heinrich Kunstmann : The Slavs. ISBN 3-515-06816-3 (note: Iranian theory).
  • EA Melnikowa and Vladimir Jakovlevič Petrukhin: The origin and evolution of the name “Rus”. The Scandinavians in Eastern-European ethno-political processes before the 11th century . Thor 23 1991. [Gate: meddelanden från Institutions för Nordisk Fornkunskap vid Uppsala Universitet / Institutions för Arkeologi, Saerskilt Nordeuropeisk, Uppsala Universitet; Statens Humanistika Forskningsrad. - Uppsala [among others]: Almqvist & Wiksell 1.1948-1930.1998 / 99 (2000); so that adjusted]
  • Thomas Schaub Noonan : Dirham exports to the Baltic in the Viking Age. In: Sigtuna Papers. Proceedings of the Sigtuna symposium on Viking Age coinage 1989 Stockholm .
  • Peter Sawyer: Kings and Vikings. London 1982.
  • Peter Sawyer: Coins and Commerce. In: Sigtuna Papers. Proceedings of the Sigtuna symposium on Viking Age coinage 1989 Stockholm .
  • Gottfried Schramm : The beginning of old Russia . Freiburg 2002, ISBN 3-7930-9268-2 .
  • Gottfried Schramm, Marcin Woloszyn:  Rus and Russia. In: Reallexikon der Germanischen Altertumskunde (RGA). 2nd Edition. Volume 25, Walter de Gruyter, Berlin / New York 2003, ISBN 3-11-017733-1 , pp. 609-619.
  • Rudolf Simek : The Vikings . Beck'sche Verlagsbuchhandlung. Munich. 1998, ISBN 3-406-41881-3 .
  • Alexander Sitzmann: North Germanic-East Slavic language contacts in Kiever Rus' until the death of Jaroslav the Wise. Vienna: Edition Praesens 2003 (= WSS 6). ISBN 3-7069-0165-X .
  • Håkon Stang: The Naming of Russia. Meddelelser, No. 77. University of Oslo Slavisk-baltisk Avelding, Oslo 1996.

Individual evidence

  1. Erich Donnert. Kiev Russia: Culture and Spiritual Life from the 9th to the Beginning of the 13th Century. Urania-Verlag, 1983.
  2. Melnikowa / Petrukhin p. 207 ff.
  3. Митрополит Кирилл на концерте в Киеве призвал к духовному единству , RIA Novosti, July 27, 2008
  4. Byzantine Κούλπιγγοι, is predominantly put to kolfr (messenger stick ) and means "member of a merchant's guild ". Jan de Vries: Old Norse Etymological Dictionary . Leiden 1977, p. 340 and Alexander Jóhannesson: Icelandic Etymological Dictionary . Bern 1956, p. 368 f.
  5. Schramm (2003) p. 609.
  6. Woloszyn p. 617.
  7. Schramm (2003) p. 610.
  8. This is what Emperor Konstantinos Porphyrogenetus describes in chap. 9 of his book De Administrando Imperio , a key source for the functioning of the Rus Empire. Schramm (2003) p. 611.
  9. Sawyer (1982) p. 124 ff. And (1990)
  10. Noonan (1990).
  11. Schramm (2003) p. 612.
  12. Schramm (2003) p. 615.
  13. Jansson p. 18 ff.