Thursday, March 13, 2008

The Origins of the Kievan Rus'

I am wondering now if I am the first poster, or if I have simply not followed a thread and put this post in the wrong place. I hope I haven't made a mistake. Anyway....

As I listened to Roman Onufrijchuk’s televised lecture on Antiquity and the rise of the Kievan State, I was perplexed by one critical question, a question which even today cannot be definitively answered: Who exactly were the Kievan Rus’? From whom did they descend? And are they the single ethnic group to which one can refer to today in defining the familial and cultural heritage of the families in modern Ukraine? Although it is tempting to dismiss the controversy surrounding this question, which has never ceased to perplex historiographers, as an utterly moot point, I hold it to be of great importance; after all, in order to understand the ways in which any group of people is progressing, one must first understand where this group of people came from and how, from its inception, it has evolved to reach the present.

Having taken a history course offered by Professor Valerie Kivelson, I was familiar with the controversy presented by Onufrijchuk regarding whether the Kievans were an indigenous ethnic group, descended from an ancient society like the Trypillians, or rather descendants of the Varangians who came sailing down the Dnieper in search of trading goods, booty, and money to be extorted from natives in the name of a head tax. However, mere awareness of the debated origins of the Rus’- who would metamorphose over the ages into the Ukrainians, Russians, and Byelorussians of today- is not satisfying enough for me, and I doubt I am alone in this feeling.

Thus, I aim to present a few different ideas regarding the origins of the Kievan Rus’ in hopes of involving others in a discussion. For this purpose, I have consulted and will reference throughout a Wikipedia article which, to my great surprise, was the most comprehensive, definitive, and organized source that I was able to find on the topic. I will also include an excerpt from the Primary Chronicle, a written history of Kievan Rus’ which began in 850 AD and which is said to have been compiled in Kiev in the 1100’s AD by a monk and scribe named Nestor.

Nestor himself hints that the Rus’ are actually a specific tribe of the Varangians. After chasing out one gang of Varangian oppressors, who as mentioned before implemented a system of heavy and unjust taxation, the Slavs evidently experienced a total lack of social order and appealed to a new brand of Varangians, the Rus', for their assistance. The Primary Chronicle reads as follows:

“The four tribes who had been forced to pay tribute to the Varangians-Chuds, Slavs, Merians, and Krivichs drove the Varangians back beyond the sea, refused to pay them further tribute, and set out to govern themselves. But there was no law among them, and tribe rose against tribe. Discord thus ensued among them, and they began to war one against the other. They said to themselves, “Let us seek a prince who may rule over us, and judge us according to custom. Thus they went overseas to the Varangians, to the Rus. These particular Varangians were known as Rus, just as some are calld Swedes, and others Normans and Angles, and still others Gotlanders, for they were thus named. The Chuds, the Slavs, the Krivichs and the Veps then said to the Rus, “Our land is great and rich, but there is no order in it. Come reign as princes, rule over us.”

If one deals with the Primary Chronicle at face value, the origin of the Rus’ is very clear: they are a tribe of Vikings, said to have been invited by the indigenous peoples of Ukraine to impose a system of rule. Due to the fact that the Rus’ implemented a governmental structure and created what was at least the predecessor of a quasi-unified Kievan State, historians tells us that all those who lived in this state (ie. The indigenous peoples) likely also acquired the name of Rus’.

But this is, of course, an oversimplification of a complex issue. First of all, the exact origins of the indigenous peoples inhabiting the Kievan State are not clear. In his lecture, Onufrijchuk defines the Slavs as a proto-Indo-European language group; the East Slavs inhabited what is now Ukraine, Byelorussia, and Russia. But it is not clear whether the Primary Chronicle refers to Slavs in the same way (ie. As one language group) with the Veps, Krivichs, and Medians being separate entities in terms of language and ethnicity, or whether all of these groups together spoke a common language and constituted what Onufrijchuk calls the East Slavs. Such problems of classification are of course inherent in interpreting any ancient text according to our present standards, but nevertheless such an investigation of the Primary Chronicle seems to open up a whole new can of worms.

Furthermore, the legend in which the Slavs and their neighbors nicely invited the gracious Rus’ to come rule over Kiev sounds to me a bit specious. I am more of the opinion that this is the “glossing over” of what was in reality a brutal conquest by the Rus’ of the territory that they molded into the Kievan State, incorporating its people literally and etymologically into the Rus‘ fold.

And finally, it is unreasonable to expect that the Varangian Rus’ and the Slavs remained culturally, linguistically, or ethnically separated. In such a situation, where the Rus’ inhabited the Slavs’ territory for a period of hundreds of years, it is quite likely that significant cultural diffusion occurred, along with linguistic developments like word-borrowings, and most importantly, intermarriages and the birth of ethnically mixed children. So while the Rus’ and the Slavs may have originally been separate peoples in every sense of the word, the etymological incorporation of the Slavs into the Rus’ was likely followed by a great deal of cultural, linguistic, and ethnic fusion as well.

This last point also leads me to wonder how other groups, first and foremost the Mongols, ethnically blended and culturally exchanged with the inhabitants of what we now call Ukraine. Perhaps this will inspire someone else to research the topic further. But I think that the idea of a unified Ukrainian people as an amalgam of various ethnicities and cultural influences dating back 1,000 years is an interesting one; although its origins are in an unfortunate situation, wherein Ukraine was repeatedly conquered by its various neighbors, such a situation ultimately led to a very rich heritage that Ukrainians still reference with pride today.

Any thoughts?

( <--- The Wikipedia article for further reference.


Rebecca said...

Well done! I think that it is interesting to see how a nation defines its past. Nestor's account seems very nationalistic, almost as if he is creating a "legend" that explains the creation of the Kievan State. It would be interesting to see how other Ukrainian scholars read Nestor's account and perceive the formation of Ukraine, but that information may be hard to find.

Steve Taylor said...

Good job. Having also taken two of Prof. Kivelson's classes and reading more of the 'Primary Chronicle' than I could sometimes handle, it was interesting to be reminded that the Rus' were part of the Varangians. Either I totally forgot that fact or I misread it at the time. I agree with you that the Slavs asking the Rus' to come rule them was probably dressing the story up a little bit. The argument itself of where the Russians/Ukrainians/etc actually come from was always interesting to me.

Svitlana said...

Following articles could help to find some answers to your questions:

The Making of the Russian Nation by Henryk Paszkiewicz
Author(s) of Review: Nicholas Andrusiak
The Slavic and East European Journal, Vol. 11, No. 1 (Spring, 1967), pp. 120-122

Also in "The Ukrainians: Unexpected Nation", by Andrew Wilson (available in LRC)

Jessica said...

Thanks for the well-written post. Two thoughts come to mind. Firstly, bear in mind that as we study the history of ethnic groups from our historical vantage point, we must keep in mind that we are viewing them through the lens of 19 and 20th century nationalisms. As I'm sure the poster is aware, in the 19th c. and the period leading up to the world wars, European scholars (especially linguists) were primarily interested in establishing the historical development of particular modern languages for the larger purpose of legitimizing emerging European nations and independence movements. This also dove tails with the ethnic purity movements that eventually gave rise to Nazi rhetoric in the early 20th c. the poster is so right to question any explanation of origins that seems to oversimplify. Especially when we are dealing with questions of "Vikings". Even though the chronicle was written well before WWII, certainly there would have been a strong political motivation during the early 20th c. to align any European group with blond haired/blue eyed Nordic warriors!
A second thought, doesn't this sound similar to the history of the rhetoric around ethnicity in the former Yugoslavia? If there was one thing I took away from his class on ethnic violence in the former Yugoslavia it was this: the history of racial origins and the founding of the nations/ethnic groups that make up the S. Balkans was quite subject to manipulation by well-meaning but biased historians and, of course, politicians, who could manipulate historical facts to establish narratives of pure origins in order to incite hostility between groups. Contrary to much of what is told about violence in the former Yugoslavia, the conflicts between ethnic groups there was largely a modern phenomena and did *not* stem from "age old" conflicts between different tribes. I wonder, could we say some of the same things about the Ukrainian situation? Who stands to benefit from different interpretations of the origins of the inhabitants of Kiev? And how?