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Origin and Formation of the Old Russian State
April 3, 2006 14:23

In the beginning of a new millennium the Slavs came from the modern territory of northern Ukraine and southern Belarus and quickly outspread along the eastern European plain. These Slavic tribes were the ancestors of the modern Slavic peoples, and the Russians represent the eastern branch of this group.

A legend says that Gostomysl, the leader of the Novgorod Slavs, who was afraid that discord and anarchy would set in after his death, left it as precept for Slavonic rulers to call Varangians leaders to take the power over their lands. So the Slavs sent their ambassadors overseas to invoke the Varangians with the words: “Our land is spacious and fertile, but there is no order in it: so come to rule over us”.

In 882 a single ancient state of Rus was formed when the two territories – the southern with its center in Kiev and the northern with its center in Novgorod – were united under the reign of the House of Rurik, the Scandinavian chief invited from Jutland to stop internecine wars. Another version tells that the Varangians were not invited, but seized the power in Novgorod taking advantage of the Slavonic tribes’ discord. The state got the name “Rus”, which possibly originated from the region of river named Ros. The Ruriks remained a ruling dynasty till the end of XVI century.

Rurik’s successors – the princes Oleg (882-912), Igor (912-945), Svyatoslav (965-972) and Vladimir (978-1015) - waged wars against neighboring tribes and managed to enlarge considerably the territory of the Old Russian state.

One of the most interesting legends depicted in chronicles concerning those times is connected with the wife of Oleg’s successor, Prince Igor. Igor was killed when he tried to get an extra tribute from one of Slavonic tribes submitted to Kiev, the Drevlyans. When Olga learned about the death of her beloved husband, she was overwhelmed with despair and rage. The princess buried alive Drevlyans’ ambassadors that offered her a dynastic marriage with their prince, but it was not enough, to heal Olga’s pain. The princess culminated her revenge in burning to the ground Drevlyans’ capital city, Iskorosten’. The way she did that startled chroniclers of the time so much, that we have a detailed description of those events. Olga asked the Drevlyans to bring her 3 pigeons and 3 sparrows from each of their houses as a token of reconciliation. However, her intentions were far from peaceful: the princess ordered to tie burning branches to the legs of the birds and let the poor creatures go. The birds returned to their old nests bringing killing flames to all the houses. All Drevlyans’ territories were finally incorporated into Rus. However precise the legend is, Olga left the state notably extended and the system of tributes thoroughly reorganized.

In order to promote trading and political relations with Byzantium Princess Olga visited Constantinople in 955 to be baptized. Olga was canonized by the Russian Orthodox Church and is one of the most honored saints of the Russian people.


One of the key points, which determined the following development of Rus, was the introduction of Christianity as the official religion of the Russian people, carried out by Prince Vladimir in 988. The state religion was aimed at strengthening and unifying the newly created Russian state. According to The Russian Primary Chronicle (Povest' vremennykh let) Vladimir sent his most well trusted vassals to inspect three world religions - Judaism, Islam and Christianity. As a result, Christianity of Byzantine was chosen as the social and political organization of Byzantine Empire was the closest to the Old Russian State organization.

There is an old joke that Vladimir chose Christianity because he did not like the idea of circumcision (Judaism) and he could not imagine life in Russia without alcohol drinks (Islam), even with several wives. That is why he chose the third religion, Christianity.

Tags: Russian history     


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