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.
(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rus%27) <--- The Wikipedia article for further reference.