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Kievan Rus: Formation & Major Events of the Early Years

Instructor: Kevin Newton

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

During the ninth and tenth centuries, a massive state grew to dominate much of Eastern Europe. Ancestors to Russians, Belarusians, and Ukrainians, the Kievan Rus were a combination of Slavic and Viking influences.

Who were the Kievan Rus?

During the ninth century AD, the area that now makes up much of Ukraine, Belarus, and Western Russia was having some administrative troubles. A few years prior, the people of this region, known as the Slavs ,had managed to throw out their Viking overlords, but now it was clear that they were too busy fighting each other to effectively rule themselves. Somewhat reluctantly, they sent invitations for the Vikings to come back as rulers, but also as partners. When the Vikings, also known as the Varangians, returned they intermarried with the Slavs. The resulting people are known as the Rus. Centered on the city of Kiev, the state established by the Rus, known as Kievan Rus, would prove to be one of the largest in Europe at the time.

Inviting the Vikings to rule
Inviting the Vikings

Trading and Raiding

Given the Viking ancestry of many people who called themselves Rus, it is no surprise that much of their early economic activity involved trading and raiding, favorite pastimes of the Vikings. A natural target was the Byzantine Empire, especially its capital city of Constantinople. In 907, a large fleet of more than 2,000 Viking ships raided the city, making the Byzantines open trade routes with the Rus. Additionally, the Byzantines paid the Rus a cash payment to keep their military away. Instead of raiding ships, trading vessels would now sail south from Kiev to Constantinople. However, the real conquest had only begun.

Neighbors to the South

Despite the fact that the Rus had been the ones to raid Constantinople, the Byzantines ended up conquering the Rus with culture. The latest fashions of Constantinople became must-haves in Kiev, as merchants made fortunes connecting Kiev and its lands to the Byzantine capital. Meanwhile, other cultural practices filtered to the north. The Rus started to write in the Cyrillic Alphabet, itself heavily based on the Greek of the Byzantines. However, the real cultural conquest came from Christianity. By 988, less than 100 years after that first raid, Constantinople had convinced the Kievan Rus to convert to Christianity, meaning that the wild people that had once raided Constantinople were now firm allies.

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