What Are the Origins of Medieval Kiev?

Map Showing the Geographical Distribution of the Rus’ and Their Major Cities

The city of Kiev, which is now the capital of the modern nation-state of Ukraine, was the most important of all the Rus’/Russ cities in the Middle Ages. Located on the Dnieper River about halfway between Constantinople and Scandinavia, Kiev became a great trading post and cultural center, where Slavs, Scandinavians, Greeks, and others merged to create medieval Russian culture. As kingdoms began emerging in Western Europe during the late ninth and early tenth centuries that would comprise the major states of the Middle Ages, the people of Eastern Europe also consolidated their cities in order to battle the Magyars and Turkish hordes that threatened them from the nearby steppe.

In the midst of this often turbulent period, the principality of Kiev became the most powerful of all the Rus’ states. According to The Russian Primary Chronicle, Kiev was founded by Varangians (the Slavic term for Vikings) from Novgorod. The legendary Rurik is credited with being the progenitor of a dynasty that ruled Kiev, who are often thought to have “brought civilization” to southern Russia. The reality is that the formation of the Kievan Rus’ state came about through a hybridization of Scandinavian warrior merchants and native Slavs, who by all accounts were already quite civilized. The groups contributed to create one of the most stable, powerful, and economically prosperous states in Eastern Europe through a combination of aggressive military action, diplomacy, and commerce.

The Early Rus’

The medieval Rus’ gave their name to modern Russia, but their origins are a bit enigmatic. In the past, modern scholars either argued that the Rus’ were almost entirely Scandinavian in their origins, or they were almost all Slavic. Both sides have made compelling arguments, and in the case of the pro-Slavic stance there was even official recognition by Soviet officials. The pro-Slavic advocates do not deny that Scandinavians were part of the Rus’ states, only that they played a very minor role as merchants and emissaries. [1] Other scholars have pointed out that unlike the British Isles, which were heavily influenced by the Norse/Vikings, few places in Russia have Norse derived names. Pro-Slavic advocates also argue that “Viking/Varangian” was more of a title or job description in the Middle Ages than it was an ethnic marker: Slavs, Germans, Finns, and others could and did engage in Viking activities. [2]

The pro-Nordic view of the Rus’ origins, which began with German scholars in the late 1700s and is still popular in some circles, interprets the The Russian Primary Chronicle literally, arguing that the Rus’ rulers were all from or directly descended from Vikings from eastern Sweden. They argue that since the names of the early Rus’ rulers were all Norse derived, then the Rus’ elite were Swedes. The pro-Nordic viewpoint is somewhat bolstered by the fact that hundreds of Viking graves have been excavated in Russia, which demonstrates that Norse presence was more than just an ephemeral elite Viking occupation. [3]

The reality is that the Rus’ were descended from Swedes and Slavs, and were influenced by Greek/Byzantine cultural, especially later. Although it is true that there are very few Norse words in the Russian lexicon, it is also true that the first princes of Kiev were Scandinavian in origin, which can be seen in their names: Rurik, Oleg (Helgi), and Igor (Ingvar). [4] Once this unique cultural group began forming in the ninth century, it was not long before they exerted their political influence in the region.

It is important to know that medieval Rus’ were divided into several city-state type principalities that aligned and fought each other from time to time. There was no central Rus’ government, although several of the principalities would form federations that were led by the more powerful states. From an early point, it was clear that Novgorod was the preeminent force in the north while Kiev dominated the south.

Kiev was blessed by geography, being located on a navigable river that connected the Rus’ to the Black Sea to the south and the Baltic Sea to the north. The Dnieper River route grew in importance after the Khazar Khanate collapsed in 850, as the Volga River became a chaotic location due to raiding nomadic tribes and generally lawlessness. [5] As the Dnieper trade route grew and became more important in the late 800s, so too did the Rus’ principalities and Rus’ culture became more defined. The exact origin of the term remains elusive, but it was used extensively by the Greeks and Arabs to refer to everyone in southern Russia, regardless if they were of Slavic or Norse ancestry. [6] According to The Russian Primary Chronicle, the term Rus’ was first used when they raided Constantinople (Tsar’grad).

“In the year 6360 (852), the fifteenth of the indication, at the accession of the Emperor Michael, the land of Rus’ was first named. We have determined this date from the fact that in the reign of this Emperor Russes attacked Tsar’grad, as is written in the Greek Chronicle.” [7]

As the Rus’ cities grew in stature, the unique elements of the people’s culture, especially in government, became standardized. The rulers of the Rus’ cities were princes, and later grand princes, not kings or emperors, and the structure of their society was very different than that of Western Europe. Instead of imposing a feudal society over their dominions as the kings of Western Europe did, the princes of the Rus’ ruled over a society that was very Slavic with some Norse influence. The princes and their families were at the top of the political and social hierarchy and just below them was the upper class, known as the muzhi. An important merchant class called the liudi comprised the “middle class,” while the smerdy were free peasants who worked the land. [8] The composition of the Rus’ system was very Slavic, but the princes had many of the same responsibilities as Norse jarls and kings. Rus’ princes were expected to be wise and brave and to lead their men in Viking raids yearly and to defend their cities and any cost.

Rurik’s Dynasty Comes to Power in Kiev

Modern Depiction of Prince Oleg

According to The Russian Primary Chronicle, Kiev was anarchic and in total disarray in 862. In response to the problems in their principality, the Slavs of Kiev approached the Vikings of Novgorod to give them a king and order.

“They thus selected three brothers, with their kinsfolk, who took with them all the Russes and migrated. The oldest, Rurik, located himself in Novgorod; the second, Sineus, at Beloozero; and the third, Truvor, in Izborsk. On account of these Varangians, the district of Novgorod became known as the land of Rus’. The present inhabitants of Novgorod are descended from the Varangian race, but aforetime they were Slavs.” [9]

The text interestingly notes that although the Rurik and his descendants began as Norse, they eventually became Slavs. The stability that Rurik was supposed to bring to Kiev, though, did not immediately happen. Rurik’s young son Igor, the crown prince, was usurped, so his regent Oleg (ruled 879-912) captured Kiev on his behalf. [10] Oleg was a vigorous ruler who laid the groundwork for a solid Kievan state that was built on the pillars of a strong military, active diplomacy with the other Rus’ states and Byzantium, and free commerce.

Oleg decided to establish Kiev’s power through the sword before extending the olive branch. In order to gain the respect of the other Rus’ principalities, as well as other Eastern European kingdoms, Oleg put together an army of Slavic and Varangian warriors and conducted a large-scale Viking raid on Constantinople in 907.

“He arrived before Tsar’grad, but the Greeks fortified the strait and closed up the city. Oleg disembarked upon the shore, and ordered his soldiery to beach the ships. They waged war around the city, and accomplished much slaughter of the Greeks. They also destroyed many palaces and burned the churches. Of the prisoners they captured, some they beheaded, some they tortured, some they shot, and still others they cast into the sea. . . Retiring thus a short distance from the city, Oleg concluded a peace with the Greek Emperors Leo and Alexander, and sent into the city to them Karl, Farulf, Verumund, Hrollaf, and Steinvith, with instructions to receive the tribute.” [11]

It is likely that Oleg knew his force could never hope to penetrate the walls of Constantinople and that his true intention was to be recognized by the Byzantine Empire. The peace with Byzantium was renewed in 911, which left Igor (reigned 914-945) in a strong position when he finally assumed the throne.

Kiev Becomes the Dominant Rus’ Power

Mosaic of Igor of Kiev
Prince Sviatoslav

The transition from Oleg to Igor was relatively smooth, which further helped stabilize the nascent Kiev state. There were no rival claimants to the throne and Igor was apparently content to learn the nuances of statecraft and warfare from Oleg. Igor observed the peace with Byzantium for most of his reign, but in 941 he led a major Viking raid against Constantinople with 10,000 men. The long ships had the early advantage, although they were eventually routed when the Byzantine forces used their mysterious “Greek fire.” [12] The defeat forced Igor to revaluate his position, so he signed a new peace treaty with Byzantium in 945. The treaty left Igor’s son and successor, Sviatoslav I (ruled 945-972) in a solid political position. By the time Sviatoslav I became the Prince of Kiev, the geopolitical situation was changing rapidly throughout Europe.

The Scandinavian Vikings were slowly but surely becoming Christianized in Western Europe and the Rus’ too were beginning to adopt Christianity. Although Sviatoslav I was a pagan just as his predecessors were, due to the influence of Byzantium more and more Rus’ were converting to Orthodox Christianity. Although Sviatoslav I retained his pagan beliefs and continued to do Viking raids, his rule marked the beginning of a transition for Kiev. Unlike his predecessors, Sviatoslav I’s name was purely Slavic and while he was not afraid to use force, and did so against numerous peoples in Eastern Europe, he was more of a “merchant prince” [13] than a Viking warlord when it came to the Byzantine Empire. The Byzantine Emperor Constantine VII noted in his history of Eastern Europe how Sviatoslav I controlled the Dnieper River and Rus’ commerce.

“The ‘monoxyla’ which come down from outer Russia to Constantinople are from Novgorod, where Sviatoslav, son of Igor, prince of Russia, had his seat, and others from the city of Smolensk and from Telituza and Chernigov and from Vyshegrad. All these come down the river Dnieper, and are collected together at the city of Kiev, also called Sambatas. . . And since these lakes debouch into the river Dnieper, they enter thence on to this same river, and come down to Kiev, and draw the ships along to be finished and sell them to the Russians. [14]


The principality of Kiev was one of the most important Eastern European states during the Middle Ages. It would become a center of commerce and high culture and later spread Orthodox Christianity north to Moscow and other Russian cities. Kiev became important when Viking raiders and Slavic natives combined to form the Rus’ ethnic group in the ninth century and then built a powerful, stable political dynasty. The early Kiev princes established their reputation and foothold in Eastern Europe by carefully balancing warfare, diplomacy, and commerce with the older and more powerful Byzantine Empire.


  1. Pritsak, Omeljan. “The Origin of the Rus’.” Russian Review 36 (1977) p. 252
  2. Harris, Zena, and Nonna Ryan. “The Inconsistencies of History: Vikings and Rurik.” New Zealand Slavonic Journal 38 (2004) p. 87
  3. Rosedahl, Else. The Vikings. Translated by Susan M. Margeson and Kirsten Williams. Revised Edition. (London: Penguin, 1998), p. 288
  4. Riasanovsky, Nicholas V. A History of Russia. Fifth Edition. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), p. 24-27
  5. Pritsak, p. 270
  6. Rosedahl, p. 286
  7. Cross, Samuel Hazzard, and Olgerd P. Serbowitz-Wetzor, eds, and trans. The Russian Primary Chronicle: Laurentian Text. (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Mediaeval Academy of America, 2012), p. 58
  8. Riasonaovsky, p. 49
  9. Cross and Serbowitz-Wetzor, pgs. 59-60
  10. Riasonovsky, p. 27
  11. Cross and Serbowitz-Wetzor, p. 64
  12. Cross and Wetzor, pgs. 71-72
  13. Riasonovsky, p. 44
  14. Porphyrogenitus, Constantine. De Administrando Imperio. Edited by Gyula Moravcsik. Translated by Romilly J. H. Jenkins. Revised Edition. (Washington: Dumbarton Oaks Center for Byzantine Studies, 2016), IX, 1-15