Early East Slavic Tribes in Russia

Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught middle and high school history, and has a master's degree in Islamic law.

Before the Grand Duchy of Moscow or even Kievan Rus, the East Slavs settled in what is now Western Russia. But who were they? Where did they come from? And what was their connection with the Vikings? This lesson answers those questions and more.

Separation of the Slavs

The Slavs are one of Europe's largest ethnic groups, but despite that, their origins are shrouded in mystery. In fact, the first we really know about them comes from the time that they had already split into three groups. However, most scholars now believe that they came from somewhere in western Central Asia, close to the shores of the Caspian and Black seas. By far the largest of these was the Eastern Slavs, ancestors to today's Russians, Belarusians, and Ukrainians. These early Eastern Slavs arrived in modern-day Ukraine, Belarus, and western Russia sometime during the middle of the first millennium AD. This was about the same time that many other previously Central Asian groups were moving west as a result of the Great Migration, which saw many nomadic groups move from Central Asia into Europe and the Middle East from 400 to 600 AD.

Range of the Eastern Slavs
Eastern Slavs

How we know about them

But how do we know all this? Is it all conjecture? Surprisingly, starting about the time that the Kievan Rus began to be a real political power in Eastern Europe during the 9th century, they started to write down their history. Known as the Primary Chronicle, it told of the movements west of the Slavs, as well as a great deal about their daily lives.

How they lived

For modern historians, it can be difficult to separate some element of savagery from the early Slavs. After all, any writer from Western Europe or Constantinople was likely to portray them as lesser, simply because they had not been exposed to the Greeks or Romans. Meanwhile, the Slavs themselves liked the fact that they were so tough. After all, this is a group that managed to drive off the Vikings! However, despite having defeated the Vikings and having a reputation of worshipping fierce gods, the early Eastern Slavs lived just about how you'd expect them to. They worked hard on their farms, taking advantage of the fertile land during the summers to prepare for cold winters. Surrounded by forests, they heavily used slash and burn agriculture, simply chopping down trees when new land was needed to farm. Comprised of many small cities, the Slavs fought each other, but still managed to establish an important system of trade routes connecting much of their region.

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