The Kievan Rus and its impact in the Modern World

Abigail Rebecca Williams

The Kievan Rus is a seemingly unknown and oft’ forgotten empire amongst the infamous empires of old.

It doesn’t conjure the romanticised imagery of the Roman and Byzantine Empires, or the bloody brilliance of Ghengis Khan and the Golden Horde of the Mongol Empire. Despite this, the medieval Kievan Rus has far reaching and lasting cultural and historical impact within the modern world. The Rus first appeared in primary sources as early as c. 850 CE with the Islamic Kitāb al-Masālik wa-l-Mamālik (The Book of Roads and Kingdoms), and then corroborated by Byzantine sources throughout the 10th century in works such as the De Administrando Imperio and De Ceremoniis (Byzantine Didactic Book for Succession and Book of Religious Customs and Ceremonies). The Rus at the time of its first mention in the Islamic sources referred to a settlement of people and not the kingdom of the Kievan Rus, that is mentioned in Byzantine sources that share accounts of Princess Olga, the Regent-Queen of the Kievan Rus visiting the Byzantine emperor. But how did the Rus become the Kievan Rus? How did this unorganised group of people become an empire whose leaders were guests at Byzantine court? After years of debate, it is generally accepted that The Rus originated from Scandinavian Varangians who settled in the northern Steppe. These Varangians, Vikings who ventured east to the Abbasid Caliphate and Byzantine Empire instead of west to Britain, found a wealth of natural resources in the forested steppe where the Balts, Finno-Urgic, Steppe Nomads, and Slavs lived. Honey, fur, wax, timber, and slaves were lucrative resources at Byzantine and Abbasid markets, and could be traded for Silver Dirhams: the first standardised weight of silver that was trusted and sought in all corners of the medieval world. However, the Varangians were not a unified people and competition for resources and trading monopolies created warring clans that led to a race to consolidate power in Kiev. Kiev was extremely important for trade, as controlling the Kievan settlement meant controlling all trade from the North, down the Dnieper River, towards the Black Sea and the trading opportunities there. As the 8th and 9th centuries progressed and the relative stability of trade remained lucrative, Varangian presence in the area intensified. Many trading bases became towns and permanent settlements, with Kiev at the forefront and capital of the Rus, ruled by the Riurikid clan, who had won the race to consolidate power. By the 11th century the Riurikid dynasty ruled over a territory of over 500,000 square miles and encompassed large areas of contemporary Eastern Europe from Russian Lake Ladoga in the north; to parts of current day Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania in the west; along the Rivers Dneiper and Dniester in the south, and concluding in the east with Russian cities of Suzdal and Murom. The importance of shared history between the countries that made up the former Kievan Rus cannot be overstated. Russians, Ukrainians, Belarusians share deep linguistic, historical, and cultural bonds. The Ukraine is symbolic for many, as the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv was the heart of the Kievan Rus. As such, much of the shared history, origins of culture, and religion originates from contemporary Kyiv. The Kenyan UN Ambassador, when speaking about the current Russian war against the Ukraine, says that [paraphrased] when states have formed from the collapse of empire there is to be an expected yearning for integration with people’s from neighbouring states, because who doesn't want to be joined with their brethren and make common purpose with them. The Kenyan Ambassador summarises the sentiment of shared history and the beauty of that which deeply connects people across sovereign borders.
The Kievan Rus and its impact in the Modern World
Location of the Kievan Rus

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However, the corrosion of Russian religious and cultural understanding during the Soviet period has led to a nostalgic, yet dangerous, yearning of many in Russia for a rich cultural heritage.

This yearning has come at the expense of Ukraine. The Kenyan ambassador so aptly states we must not allow this ‘yearning from being pursued by force. We must complete our recovery from the embers of dead empires in a way that does not plunge us back into new forms of domination and oppression.’ A poignant example of how this yearning has led to oppression is the way in which the Ukraine is referred to linguistically within the Russian Language. In Russian there are two ways you can refer to a country using the prepositions ‘в’ and ‘на.’ В refers to most sovereign countries, whereas на refers to islands and/or territories that have been annexed or are not part of the main landmass of a country. For example в is used for Alabama in the USA, but на for Alaska or Hawaii because they do not make up the same landmass despite being part of the USA. На is used when Russians discuss Ukraine. Using the на preposition instead of в degrades the sovereignty of the Ukraine, diminishes Ukrainian right to self determination, normalises oppressive sentiment that Russia and Ukraine are one and the same, and erodes the Ukraines culturally rich history that is separate to the history and culture of Russia, despite their shared history in the Kievan Rus. The embers of the Kievan Rus still burn, there is a quantifiable impact on the modern world seen in current affairs and Russian war against the Ukraine. But The Kievan Rus is not Russian centric. The religious, linguistic, cultural, and historical remnants of the Kievan Rus aren’t confined to the pages of Russian history. The Rus is a kingdom that’s complex legacy and heritage spans countless countries: Belarus, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Russia, and Ukraine. While this shared history was bound to make an impact on the modern world with regards to relations between neighbours as the Kenyan ambassador so fittingly described, and could have had the capacity for celebration of the shared commonalities, the medieval Kievan Rus has instead been viewed with a dangerous nostalgia and left a negative impact on the modern world.
Ancestry UK
The Kievan Rus and its impact in the Modern World

Abigail Rebecca Williams

Abigail Rebecca Williams is a recent graduate of the University of Nottingham, graduating with a degree in Russian Language and History, with specialisms in pagan (umbrella term) and Christian relations within the empires of Byzantium and the Kievan Rus. She is currently travelling Australia writing articles for the Historians Magazine from the beaches of the East Coast. You can find Abigail on LinkedIn and Instagram.
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