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The Invitation of the Varangians: Rurik and his brothers Sineus and Truvor arrive at the lands of the Ilmen Slavs at Staraya Ladoga.

Vikings in Byzantium: The Varangians and their Fearless Conquests

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It is relatively well known that the Vikings were some of history's greatest travelers, traders, and mercenaries.  Their reach extended far, as they are credited with finding North America and Greenland, their names drove fear into the hearts of many European mainlanders.  What is sometimes less known, however, is exactly how far the arm of the Vikings reached.  In actuality, their culture stretched as far east as Turkey and Russia, culminating in their direct influence in the creation of the Kievan State of Rus', lasting well into the thirteenth century.

According to the Russian Primary Chronicle, one of the foremost texts documenting the Viking influence on Russia, the Varangians—as dubbed by the Greeks and Eastern Slavs—settled in Ladoga, Russia in the mid-750s, and then later in the nearby Novgorod.  Not unlike the tracks of the Scandinavian Vikings, their settlements were not initially peaceful as they demanded tribute from the people they had conquered, the Baltic Finns and the Slavs.  Because of this, they were initially driven out of Novgorod for a period of time.  However, the intriguing twist is that the Finns and Slavs soon began to appreciate the regulations the Varangians had brought to their community and so the Varangians were begged to come back and bring those same regulations with them.  It was then that the leadership of Rurik (830-870), from whom a Russian lineage extends, was first recorded.

Painting of the leader Rurik dated 1672.

Painting of the leader Rurik dated 1672. (Wikimedia Commons)

Rurik's cousin Oleg was responsible for expanding the Varangians from Novgorod further south, eventually capturing Kiev in 882 and forging a seat of Varangian power there.  That seat became the capital of a federation of Slavic states, dubbed the Kievan State of Rus'.  Following Oleg, Vladimir the Great's reign saw the introduction of Christianity to the Varangians and their subsequent conversion. Rurik and Oleg's descendants continued to remain in charge of the Kievan State, eventually leading to the foundation of the Tsardom of Russia.

The Baptism and Christianization of Kievans, a painting by Klavdiy Lebedev. Painted Prior to 1916.

The Baptism and Christianization of Kievans, a painting by Klavdiy Lebedev. Painted Prior to 1916. (Wikimedia Commons)

Now, it is no surprise that the Varangians were as aggressive as their northern predecessors.  While the named Vikings' desire was to expand their land and wealth across the Atlantic and down into England, one of the main priorities of the Varangians was obtaining the untapped riches of the eastern world.  They were so forceful and persistent that they intentionally started wars with the people of Byzantium so that they could pilfer in the event of their victory.

The Varangians were a force to be reckoned with because they controlled the two main trades from the east to the west.  The Volga Trade was a ninth century route connecting Northern Russia, known to the Varangians as Gardariki, and the Middle East, called Serkland.  The trade route was known for transferring goods and wealth from the Baltic Sea to the Caspian Sea, and remained the primary form of transportation and trade until the eleventh century decline in silver.  At this time, the Dnieper Route, stretching from the Black Sea to the capital of Byzanitum, Constantinople, took its place, as its directness to the capital provided protection from the Turks.

Map of European territory inhabited by East Slavic tribes in 8th and 9th century.

Map of European territory inhabited by East Slavic tribes in 8th and 9th century. 2010. By: SeikoEn. (Wikimedia Commons)

When the Viking Age ended, the east saw a conclusion to the influx of Scandinavians to their region, and the Varangians began to assimilate and intermarry with the natives.  By the time of the fall of Kievan Rus' in 1240 at the hands of the Mongols, the Varangians became relatively indistinguishable from the native Slavs.  Despite this fusion of ethnicities, it is important to create a distinction between the Vikings and the Varangians for a better understanding of their impact on the history of Russia.

Featured Image: The Invitation of the Varangians: Rurik and his brothers Sineus and Truvor arrive at the lands of the Ilmen Slavs at Staraya Ladoga. Painted prior to 1913 by Viktor.M.Vasnetsov. (Wikimedia Commons)

Read Part 2 – The Varangian Guard: Berserkers of the Byzantine Empire

By Riley Winters


Cross, Samuel Hazzard and Olgerd P. Sherbowitz-Wetzor. The Russian Primary Chronicle: Laurentian Text (Medieval Academy of America: NY, 2012.)

D'Amato, Raffaele and Giuseppe Rava. The Varangian Guard 988-1453 (Men-at-Arms) (Osprey Publishing: Oxford, 2010.)

Davidson, H.R. Ellis. The Viking Road to Byzantium (George Allen & Unwin Ltd.: London, 1976.)

Duczko, Wladyslaw. Viking Rus: Studies on the Presence of Scandinavians in Eastern Europe (Brill: Leiden, 2004.)

Winroth, Anders. The Age of the Vikings (Princeton University Press: Princeton, 2014.)

"Suggested Chronology of Events in the pre-Kievan and early Kievan Periods." University of Washington. Accessed May 20, 2015.



Pete Wagner's picture

Some believe that the historical depiction of Vikings and other fair-haired invaders is mostly propaganda, and a diversion. The fact is that the Semitic or dark-haired tyrants from the south were raiding fair-haired villages to the north, from very early on and all through the centuries, for fair-haired concubines, and also boy eunuchs.  There is no other plausible explanation for the presence of the fair-haired in the tyrant kingdoms. So think about it.  What if your son or daughter or young wife was taken while you were out on the hunt.  You come back, they are gone, and the battered old folks tell what happened.  What do you do?  Well, you round up all brothers and strong cousins in leave in rage to go get them back, if you possibly can.  But you expect to be severely outnumbered and maybe not come back yourself.  

But now with genetic analysis we can confirm some things and can determine hair color and gender of human remains.  Where there are mostly only fair-haired females in some place (no equivalent numbers of fair-haired males), we can assume they were taken from the lands to the north.  Where there are fair-haired men down south, in a mass grave, with battle gear, we can assume they were defeated in battle.  That type of analysis needs to be pursued in order to understand the truth and correct the propaganda.

Nobody gets paid to tell the truth.

These kind of theories have been subject to strong criticism and some researchers argue that it was rather the fennic warrior-traders who were the real varangians and the personal guards of the emperor of the byzantine, supported by the fact that the vikings woud have had to go through finnish controlled lands and trading outposts, river routes etc.. the fact that there are finnish tribes speaking fennic languages scattered to this day along the volga trade route. Just doesn't make sense that it would have been (just) the vikings, although the have had contact possibly by making trade deal with finnish tribes controlling those areas. There is talk of 2 waves of different kinds of varangians..

>Russian Primary Chronicle

There is no such a thing as "Russian" Primary Chronicle. Russia didn't exist in times of Kyivian Rus. Ruthenian is a world you should use here, not Russian.

>Vking influence on Russia,

There was no Viking influence on Russia, as Russia didn't exist at that time.

>settled in Ladoga, Russia in the mid-750s
For 3rd time I repeat there was no Russia back in those times.

Who the heck wrote this text? Some illiterate historician? Russia was created on the base of Dutchy of Muscovy, not Kyivian Rus. And in times when Rus was formed there was most probably not even city of Moscow even yet. Teritory of Moscovia was inhabited by Ugrofinnic tribes, not by Ruthenians.

This is so well written and ballancing in also the Finn Ugrian peoples into the picture, which is unsusual. There are old so called Finn areas in Sweden and Norway as well, which are supposed by Swedish historians to be early migrations of Finns into areas allready populated by “Swedes”. This is probably twisted by nationalism and the truth of the matter probably is that the Finns were there before any of the “Swedish" peoples came to Scandinavia. Do you know the Finnish name for Sweden and Swedes?  It is Ruotsi, meaning the pale ones.    


Riley Winters's picture


Riley Winters is a Pre-PhD art historical, archaeological, and philological researcher who holds a degree in Classical Studies and Art History, and a Medieval and Renaissance Studies minor from Christopher Newport University. She is also a graduate of Celtic and Viking... Read More

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