Rus' (people)

From Academic Kids

The material from this article should be included into Etymology of Rus and derivatives.

The origins of the Rus (or Rus' , Русь) are controversial. Whereas most Western historians tend to give credence to the Normanist theory, many Slavic scholars are strongly opposed and work to find other origins.

Culture and heritage is what is ultimately at stake in this controversy. The question is whether East Slavic civilisation owes an element of its cultural origin to the Scandinavian rulers of the 9th to 11th centuries, as suggested by the Normanist theory, or whether that heritage can excusively attributed to the Slavs, as held by the Slavists.

The question is emotionally charged. In the 1770s, one imperial Russian historian presenting the Normanist theory in St. Petersburg was forced to curtail his lecture by shouts from the audience and forced to cease his work on the issue. His work was destroyed (Source: Davies).


The Normanist theory

Missing image
The Varangian world.

This theory is called the Normanist theory, as it suggests that Kievan Rus' may have been named after its Scandinavian overlords just as Normandy. According to the Primary Chronicle, a historical compilation attributed to the 12th century, Rus was a group of Varangians who lived on the other side of the Baltic sea, in Scandinavia. The Varangians were first expelled, then invited to rule the warring Slavic and Finnic tribes of Novgorod:

The four tribes who had been forced to pay tribute to the Varangians - Chuds, Slavs, Merians, and Krivichs drove the Varangians back beyond the sea, refused to pay them further tribute, and set out to govern themselves. But there was no law among them, and tribe rose against tribe. Discord thus ensued among them, and they began to war one against the other. They said to themselves, "Let us seek a prince who may rule over us, and judge us according to custom. Thus they went overseas to the Varangians, to the Rus. These particular Varangians were known as Rus, just as some are called Swedes, and others Normans and Angles, and still others Gotlanders, for they were thus named. The Chuds, the Slavs, the Krivichs and the Ves then said to the Rus, "Our land is great and rich, but there is no order in it. Come reign as princes, rule over us". Three brothers, with their kinfolk, were selected. They brought with them all the Rus and migrated (The Primary Chronicle).

Later, the Primary Chronicle tells us, they conquered Kiev and created Kievan Rus'. The territory they conquered was named after them (see Etymology of Rus and derivatives) as were, eventually, the local people (cf. Normans).

The Normanist theory is also based on Ibn Fadlan who uses the name Rusiyyah for a group of people who are usually interpreted as Vikings near Astrakhan, and on the Persian traveler Ibn Rustah who allegedly visited Novgorod and described how the Rus' exploited the Slavs.

As for the Rus, they live on an island ...that takes three days to walk round and is covered with thick undergrowth and forests; it is most unhealthy....They harry the Slavs, using ships to reach them; they carry them off as slaves and...sell them. They have no fields but simply live on what they get from the Slav's lands....When a son is born, the father will go up to the newborn baby, sword in hand; throwing it down, he says, "I shall not leave you with any property: You have only what you can provide with this weapon." (Ibn Rustah, according to the National Geographic, March 1985)

When the Varangians arrived in Constantinople, the Byzantines considered and described the Rhos (Greek Ρωσ) as a different people from the Slavs. In De Administrando Imperio[1] ( is given the names of the Dniepr cataracts in both Rhos and in Slavic. The Rhos names:

  • Essoupi (Old Norse vesuppi, "do not sleep")
  • Oulvorsi (Old Norse holmfors, "island rapid")
  • Gelandri (Old Norse gjallandi, "yelling, loudly ringing")
  • Aeifor (Old Norse eiforr, "ever fierce")
  • Varouforos (Old Norse varufors, "cliff rapid" or barufors, "wave rapid")
  • Leanti (Old Norse leandi, "seething", or hlaejandi, "laughing")
  • Stroukoun (Old Norse strukum, "rapid current").

It is also due to the annals of Saint Bertan which relate that Emperor Louis II' court in Ingelheim, 839 (the same year as the first appearance of Varangians in Constantinople), was visited by a delegation from the Byzantine emperor. In this delegation there were two men who called themselves Rhos (Rhos vocari dicebant). Louis enquired about their origins and learnt that they were Swedes. Fearing that they were spies for their brothers, the Danes, he incarcerated them.

This theory claims that the name Rus, like the Finnish name for Sweden, is derived from an Old Norse term for "the men who row" (rods-) as rowing was the main method of navigating the Russian rivers, and that it is linked to the Swedish province of Roslagen (Rus-law) or Roden, from which most Varangians came. The name Rus would then have the same origin as the Finnish and Estonian names for Sweden: Ruotsi and Rootsi.

In contemporary Scandinavian sources Eastern Europe was occasionally called Greater Sweden or Sweden the Cold beside a much popular name Gardarike (the land of cities). A similar way of naming an area of colonies has been used for southern Italy, Magna Graeca (Greater Greece).

It has been suggested that the Vikings had some enduring influence in Rus, as testified by loan words, such as yabeda "complaining person" (from aembaetti "office"), skot "cattle" (from skattr "tax") and knout (from knutr, "a knotty wood"). Moreover three Nordic names of the first Varangian rulers also became popularized, i.e., Oleg (Helgi), Olga (Helga) and Igor (Ingvar).

The proponents of the so-called "Normanist theory" of the Russian state - including Nikolai Karamzin and, later, Sergey Pogodin - wrote about the claims of the Primary Chronicle that the Varangians were invited by East Slavs to rule over them and bring order. The theory was not without political implications. In Karamzin's writing the normanist theory formed the basis and justification for Russian autocracy, and Pogodin used the theory to claim that the Russian state was immune to social upheavals and revolutions, because people's submission to their rulers was voluntary from the very beginning.

The Antinormanist theories

Scholars from Eastern Europe have criticised the Normanist theory. Already in the 19th century the "Normanist theory" was disputed by the more liberal sectors of Russian society and by some Polish historians. Even earlier, Mikhail Lomonosov had written about how problematic he felt the Normanist theory to be.

Some non-Normanist origins for the Rus have been expounded:

  • From the Old Slavic name that meant "river-people" (tribes of fishermen and ploughmen who settled near rivers Dnieper, Don, Dniester and Western Dvina and were known to navigate them). "Rus" root preserved in modern Slavic and Russian words "Ruslo" (river-bed), "Rusalka" (mermaid) etc.
  • From one of two rivers in Ukraine (near Kiev and Pereyaslav), Ros' and Rusna, whose names are derived from a postulated Slavic term for water, akin to rosa (dew) (related to the above theory)
  • A Slavic word rusy (refers only to hair color - from dark ash-blond to light-brown), cognate with ryzhy (red-haired) and English red.
  • A postulated proto-Slavic word for bear, cognate with arctos and ursus.
  • The Iranian tribe of the Roxolani (from the Persian, rokhs ‘light’; R русые волосы /rusyje volosy/ "light-brown hair"; cf. Dahl's dictionary definition of Русь /rus/: Русь ж. в знач. мир, белсвет. Rus, fig. world, universe [белсвет: lit. "white world", "white light"]).

The fact that Vikings used a particular name for the area, Gardar ("Cities"), is presented as an argument against the Normanist theory. The Norse sagas demonstrate that the Vikings' knowledge of Eastern Slavic lands was slight. For instance, they usually considered not Kiev ("Kaenugardr") but Novgorod ("Holmgardr") as the capital of Rus.

According to F. Donald Logan (The Vikings in History, cit. Montgomery, p. 24), "in 839, the Rus' were Swedes. In 1043, the Rus' were Slavs." The Scandinavians were completely absorbed and, unlike their brethren in England and in Normandy, they left little cultural heritage in Eastern Europe.

This almost complete absence of cultural traces (besides several names, as discussed above, and arguably the veche-system of Novgorod, see ting) is remarkable, and the Slavicists therefore call the Vikings "cultural chameleons", who came, ruled and then disappeared, leaving little cultural trace in Eastern Europe. This seems to suggest that these Rus' were a small group, less than a people in the nation sense of the word; less than an ethnos.

This conclusion leads Slavicists to deny or reinterpret the Primary Chronicle, which claims that the Danish (or Swedish) Rus' were "invited". They claim that Nestor, a putative author of the Chronicle, was biased against the pro-Greek party of Vladimir Monomakh and supported the pro-Scandinavian party of the ruling prince Svyatopolk. They cite Nestor's factual inaccuracies as pro-Scandinavian manipulations and compare his account of Rurik's invitation with numerous similar stories found in folklore around the world.

Boris Rybakov, a prominent Soviet historian, felt that the cultural level of the Varangians could not have warranted an invitation from the equally culturally advanced Slavs.


  • Pavel M. Dolukhanov. The Early Slavs: Eastern Europe from the Initial Settlement to the Kievan Rus. New York: Longman, 1996.
  • Omeljan Pritsak. The Origin of Rus'. Cambridge Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1991.
  • Norman Davies. Europe: A History. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.
  • The Annals of Saint-Bertin, transl. Janet L. Nelson, Ninth-Century Histories 1 (Manchester and New York, 1991).

Related articles

External link

Ibn Fadlan and the Rusiyyah, by James E. Montgomery, with full translation of Ibn Fadlan (

An overview of the controversy ( ru:Русы sv:Ruser uk:Русь


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