Chapter 9 Persia, Byzantium and the Rus

Section 3 The Rise of Russia

The people known as the Rus took possession of an area from Novgorod to Kiev and began the process of building up a powerful new state in Eastern Europe. The Kievan rulers were heavily influenced by Byzantium, especially in religious matters. As Kievan Russia weakened and finally fell to nomadic invaders, the center of power shifted to the trading centers of the north, setting the stage for the emergence of Moscow as a “Third Rome” and successor to the Byzantine Empire.

Origins of the Rus

One of the most fateful encounters of the Byzantines with a foreign nation, and one which was to have far-reaching historical consequences, was that with the people known as the Rus. The first appearance of the Rus came in the form of a naval attack on the city of Constantinople itself, in the year 860. The Rus attackers had appeared suddenly and unexpectedly from the north with a flotilla of some 200 vessels. By chance or design, they struck at a moment when both the Byzantine army and fleet were away on another campaign. Photius, the Patriarch of Constantinople, described the results in one of his sermons:

      [This] does not resemble other inroads of barbarians; but the unexpectedness of the incursion and its extraordinary speed, the mercilessness of the barbarous race and the harshness of their temper and the savagery of their habits, prove that this blow has been sent from heaven like a thunderbolt....They despoiled the surroundings and plundered the suburbs, cruelly massacred captives and safely established themselves around all this (city), showing in their greed for our wealth such conceit and arrogance that the inhabitants did not even dare to look on them....[12]

The Rus did little more than pillage the environs of the city since they were utterly unable to break through the massive sea and land walls protecting Constantinople itself, and they eventually withdrew.

            But who were these Rus, after whom the Russian nation would eventually be named? According to one school of thought, the Rus were Scandinavian in origin, and their attack on Constantinople was simply another example of the Viking or Norman raids which were devastating much of Europe and the Mediterranean world during the ninth century. Other scholars, especially those in Russia and the Soviet Union, have rejected this theory, pointing to some evidence which suggests that the Rus were a Slavic people who had been long established in the area north of the Black Sea.

            Certainly, by the time of the raid on Constantinople, Slavic speaking peoples had spread across most of Eastern Europe—the Western Slavs in what would become Poland and Czechoslovakia; the Southern Slavs throughout the Balkans, and the Eastern Slavs all along the plain of the Dnieper River as far west as the Danube and as far east as the upper Volga. The corridor from the Baltic to the Black Sea inhabited by the Eastern Slavs was an important trade route for both the Byzantines and the Muslims who wished to import slaves, furs, amber, wax, metal, and various foodstuffs from the region. It was also an unsettled, rather chaotic, and often dangerous area for merchants: An anonymous Persian geographer, for example, reported that a town produced excellent swords but “strangers are killed whenever they visit it.”[13]

            Against this background, it does appear that a group of Scandinavian people, perhaps known as the Rus, were able to insinuate themselves as the ruling elite in the area. As explained in a medieval text known as the Russian Primary Chronicle, the Rus, like the Swedes, Normans, or Angles, were Varangians (Scandinavian traders or warriors who had taken an oath of loyalty to each other). The Slavs and other people living along the Dnieper River “said to the people of Rus’, ‘Our land is great and rich, but there is no order in it. Come to rule and reign over us.’ They thus selected three brothers, with their kinsfolk, who took with them all the Russes and migrated.”[14] The oldest of the brothers, Rurik, established himself in the fortified trading center on the upper Dnieper known as Novgorod, while two of his nobles (boyars) took control of Kiev, on the middle Dnieper, launching the attack on Constantinople from there. A few years later, Rurik’s successor Oleg took over Smolensk, Lyubech, and Kiev, which he made his capital (the traditional date is 882.) The size of the Varangian population and the extent of its cultural influence on the Slavs may be open to question, but there is little reason to doubt its importance in the founding of Kievan Russia.

Kievan Russia

Under the leadership of the Kievan rulers, the Rus confederation rapidly grew in size and power. A number of Slavic tribes were either forced or persuaded to recognize the authority of Oleg and his successors. Sviatoslav (962-972) continued to subjugate various Finnic and Slavic areas, sacked the capital of the Volga Bulgars, and, in the most impressive campaign, smashed the Khazar army and penetrated deep into their territory as far as the Caspian Sea. After successful campaigns against the Danubian Bulgars and the nomadic Pechenegs, Sviatoslav renewed the Russian offensive against Constantinople. It was his misfortune that this period coincided with the resurgence of Byzantine military strength under the Macedonian emperors. John Tzimisces crushed the Russian invasion in 969 and extracted a peace treaty from Sviatoslav in 971 that recognized Byzantine authority in the Balkans and the Crimea. Sviatoslav was then attacked and killed by the Pechenegs while on his way back to Kiev.

            The initial encounters between the Rus and the Byzantines were thus hostile ones. They made clear, however, that Byzantium was by far the superior power—the surprise attack in 860, subsequent raids in 907 and 941, and the disastrous offensive of 969 all proved to be more of a nuisance than a threat to the Byzantines. At the same time, the Byzantines wisely perceived that there was much to be gained from trying to cooperate with the Russians.

A number of circumstances tended to bring the two peoples together. One factor was mutual trading interests. After the various raids, in 866, 911, and 944, the Byzantines agreed to treaties which accorded considerable commercial advantages to the Rus and which demonstrated the economic benefits to be derived from peaceful relations. In addition, the Byzantines sent gifts to the Kievan rulers and permitted Russians to serve in the Byzantine army (where some eventually made up the Varangian Guard, an elite imperial bodyguard.) Another factor was the appearance of common enemies such as the Bulgars and Pechenegs. Here, too, the Byzantines demonstrated that they were willing to work in alliance with the Russians as evidenced by Nicephorus Phocas’ invitation of Sviatoslav to attack the Danubian Bulgars.

The third, and perhaps most critical, factor in transforming the Russian-Byzantine relationship was religion. The Patriarch Photius had immediately realized the benefits that would be gained if the pagan Russians could be converted to Orthodox Christianity and started missionary activities towards that end. The influence of Christianity on the Russians was also encouraged by the presence of Christian communities in the trading cities of the Crimean peninsula and the acceptance of Christianity by Boris, king of the Bulgarians, around 864. No later than 867, there must have been numerous Russian conversions to Christianity, for it was then that Photius wrote a letter stating that the Russians had ceased their destructive activities and “their desires and attachments to the faith have become so burning that they have accepted a bishop...and embraced the beliefs of Christians.”[15]  By 944, a church had been established in Kiev. Around 954, the Grand Princess Olga, mother of Sviatoslav, visited Byzantium, was greatly honored by the Emperor Leo, and agreed to be baptized.

All of these factors drawing Kievan Russia and Byzantium together culminated during the reign of Vladimir (980-1015), who abandoned earlier aggressive policies and sought improved relations with Byzantium. He made an alliance with the Emperor Basil II, sent troops to help Basil put down a rebellion, and assisted in Byzantine attacks on the Bulgars. Eventually, he even married Basil’s sister Anna. The marriage with Anna, however, required that Vladimir change his religion.

Most of the Russians, including Vladimir himself, were still pagans, worshipping idols and practicing human sacrifice. In light of his closer association with Byzantium, Vladimir formulated a new religious policy. Traditional accounts claim that he considered converting to Judaism, Islam, or Latin Christianity but found the rituals and ideas of Orthodox Christianity as practiced in Byzantium more appealing. In any case, around the year 988, he was baptized, followed by the Kievan population, and the Russian church was officially established. For this decision, Vladimir was regarded as a saint and “the equal of the Apostles.”

The Russian church used its own language rather than Greek and like other orthodox national churches was technically self-governing (autocephalous) under the Metropolitan of Kiev. Nevertheless, it drew heavily on the Byzantine example of Christianity. This had the effect of opening the way for Byzantine influence to affect virtually every aspect of the culture of Kievan Russian, particularly during the reign of Yaroslav the Wise (1019-1054). Sumptuous new churches were constructed, notably the Church of St. Sophia in Kiev inspired by the example of St. Sophia in Constantinople. With the example of Mt. Athos in mind, Yaroslav also founded many monasteries, the most famous of which was the Cave Monastery near Kiev.

In addition to sponsoring the construction of religious buildings and patronizing priests and monks, Yaroslav also promoted learning and scholarship, a task made easier by the development of a written language using a new script for writing Old Church Slavonic that had been devised by the Byzantine missionaries Cyril and Methodius. Education was in the hands of the church, and the literature thus produced was largely religious and derivative as it focused on translating religious texts from Greek into Slavonic. However, it also laid the foundations for secular literature and facilitated other work such as drawing up a codification of Russian law patterned after Justinian’s Corpus. Over time, this religious policy gave a remarkable unity and sense of identity to the Kievan state; because of its Byzantine orientation, however, it also tended to separate Russian culture from that of Western Europe.

Decline of Kievan Russia

Kievan Russia began a slow decline after the death of Yaroslav. Changes in the international system of trade routes certainly contributed to this. Since Byzantium and the Middle Eastern states were also weakening, they did not constitute such strong markets, as had previously been the case. With the arrival of the Crusaders, merchants from Western Europe, especially Genoa and Venice, began to dominate the avenues of trade.

Recurrent political instability was another major factor in the decline. The rulers of Kiev never really became Byzantine style emperors or absolute autocrats. Rather, the Grand Prince of Kiev had to take into account the interests of other members of his family, his company of personal retainers (the druzhina), the princes and nobility of other cities, and the assemblies of free men. Quarrels and fighting among members of the aristocratic elite were almost unending. The development of regional tensions and rivalries, especially between Kiev and Novgorod, further complicated this internal strife. Novgorod tended to follow a more and more independent course since it had its own prince, powerful nobility, and political assembly; it was also much less affected by the changes in trade and the economy than Kiev. In 1136, the nobles of Novgorod expelled the prince appointed from Kiev, and in 1156 Novgorod also obtained the right to elect its own archbishop. Gradually, the political and economic center of Russia was shifting from Kiev in the south to Novgorod and eventually Moscow in the north.

            The final factor in the fall of Kievan Russia was the arrival of new invaders. The first of these were a nomadic Turkic people known as the Cumans or Polovtsy who began raiding Russian territory around 1061 and continued to be a problem for over a century. In the north, there were attacks by Swedes and the Teutonic Knights, both of which were driven back by Alexander Nevsky (1236-1263), prince of Novgorod and Vladimir. The greatest calamity, however, was the invasion of the Mongols. In 1223, an advance force of the army of Chengis Khan, under the general Subetai, crushed both the Russians and Polovtsy at the Battle of the Kalka River (1223). That campaign was interrupted by the death of Chengis Khan, but the Mongols returned under Batu Khan, demolishing the city of Kiev in 1240.