9th Century Russia


The 9th century saw the foundation of the mediaeval state known as Kievan Rus which was the first Eastern Slavic state and the forerunner for the modern day countries of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus. The century also saw the foundation of the Ryurikid Dynasty which would rule Russia up until the death of Ivan the Terrible's son Tsar Theodor I in 1598.


'Slavs on the Dniepre' by Nicholas Roerich

Histories of Russia tend to start in the 9th century based on the fact that the main Russian Primary Chronicle (known as the Tale of Bygone Years), which was compiled in the early 12th century, goes back to this point. This era of Russian history is shared with the two other Eastern Slavic nations of Belarus and Ukraine and is often intertwined with legends. At this time the territory which constitutes modern Russia, Ukraine and Belarus was settled by various people, including Slavic, Finno-Ugric, Turkic, and various Caucasian and Siberian tribes. Generally speaking, in the north of modern European Russia, Ukraine and Belarus these tribes were forced to pay tribute to the Varangians (a Viking tribe, also known as the Rus) and in the south they had to pay tribute to the Khazars (a Turkic tribe who had adopted Judaism).

'Guests from Oversees' by Nicholas Roerich

Eventually, according to the Primary Chronicle, the various northern tribes were eventually able to drive out the Varangians hoping to be able to take full advantage of the major rivers which served as a trade route known as the "Route from the Varangians to the Greeks", i.e. from Scandinavia to Constantinople – the capital of the Byzantine Empire and one of the richest and most important cities of the time. However without their Varangian overlords, the tribes are said to have started to argue among themselves which often resulted in wars. Therefore in 862 the various tribes decided it would be best to invite a Varangian prince to rule over them and bring peace to their land.

Arrival of Ryurik

'Grandsons of Gostomysl: Ryurik, Truvor and Sineus' by Ilya Glazunov

A Varangian prince called Ryurik accepted the offer, a theory exists that Ryurik's mother was Slavic. It is believed that Ryurik was a member of a Scandinavian tribe called the Rus and this is why his new territory became known as Rus and later as Russia. In reality not many facts are known about Ryurik and it is even possible that he belongs more to mythology than history. In any case Ryurik is said to have arrived with his two brothers Sineus and Truvor in 862 (this is also disputed and many historians believe Sineus and Truvor are really mistranslations). The chronicle states that Ryurik settled in the city of Ladoga, Sineus in Belozersk and Truvor in Izborsk.  After his brothers died, Ryurik became the sole ruler and by this time the capital was moved to the large city of Novgorod on the River Volkhov near Lake Ilmen.  Novgorod means ‘new city’, although it is one of the oldest cities in Russia. To secure his new territory Ryurik sent his kinsmen to rule over the major cities of other tribes - Polotsk (in modern day Belarus), Rostov and Murom.  Ryurik’s descendants would remain the rulers of Rus and Russia for over 600 years and became known as the Ryurikid Dynasty.

Askold and Dir

Askold and Dir in the Radziwiłł Chronicle

While Ryurik was ruling in Novgorod he sent two of his chieftains on a mission to Constaninople, the capital of the powerful Byzantine Empire.  The two men were called Askold and Dir. On their way there they passed a city called Smolensk which was the centre of the Krivich people, another Slavic tribe.  However the city was very large and very well fortified and Askold and Dir decided to continue on their journey and not attempt to capture the city.

Later in their journey they reached the city of Kiev. Askold and Dir asked its citizens who their ruler was. The citizens replied that the city was founded by three brothers called Kiy, Schek and Khoriv and their sister Lybed, but they have since died and now there is no ruler. The citizens of Kiev were being forced to pay a tax known as a tribute to the Khazar Khanate in the south. Askold and Dir told the citizens to stop paying the tribute to the Khazars and to pay it to them instead. The citizens agreed and Askold and Dir became their princes.  Later they established control over the whole Polyan tribe who lived around Kiev.

Oleg the Seer

'Prince Oleg with Igor' by Ilya Glazunov

When Prince Ryurik died in approximately 874 his son Igor was just a child and so he appointed a kinsman called Oleg to rule over Rus until Igor was old enough to rule by himself. Oleg was a great warrior and was said to have had the ability to tell the future. In 882 Oleg went on a campaign firstly capturing Smolensk and then capturing the great city of Kiev from Askold and Dir, showing the people of Kiev the infant Igor and stating he is their real prince. Oleg subsequently moved his capital to Kiev and founded the state known as Kievan Rus. Now Kiev is the capital of Ukraine, but is still referred to as the 'Mother of Russian Cities'. Oleg then persuaded the other southern Slavic tribes to pay tribute to him and not to the Khazars.