If you're seeing this message, it means we're having trouble loading external resources on our website.

If you're behind a web filter, please make sure that the domains *.kastatic.org and *.kasandbox.org are unblocked.

Main content
Current time:0:00Total duration:9:53

Video transcript

- [Instructor] What we're going to talk about in this video are the origins of the Russian people. And in particular, we're going to talk about the eastern Slavs who not just modern Russians, but also Ukrainians and Belorussians view as their ancestors. So let's think about the world in the ninth century. The early ninth century, we see the reign of Charlemagne that we talk about in some depth in other videos. As we get into the 10th century, you see the reign of Otto the Great, Holy Roman Emperor over the Germanic kingdoms. The ninth century is also the time of Tang China. You have the Abbasid Muslim Caliphate in control over most of the Middle East and North Africa. And it is also the Viking age. So we have here in this magenta color, this would be modern day Sweden, but it was also the home of the Varangians, or whom we later would refer to as the Vikings, and we know them to be great seafarers. In Western Europe, they're viewed as raiders of towns along the coast. But you have to remember, these histories are often written by the western Europeans, not by the Vikings themselves. But they were also known as traders. What you see here are two of the major centers of power and trade in the ninth century. You have Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire, and you have Baghdad, the capital of the Abbasid Caliphate. You also see these major waterways in eastern Europe, in particular, the Dnieper and the Volga Rivers. And so you have these significant trade routes going from the Baltic Sea either via the Dnieper, crossing the Black Sea to Constantinople, or going from the Baltic to the Volga all the way to the Caspian Sea and eventually making their way to Baghdad. And this is well documented. There is archeological evidence of Viking jewelry along these routes. There's evidence of artifacts from these far off lands in Viking territory, and we believe what the Varangians traded were first they hunted in this area of northern Europe. Now, the people who lived in this area were known as the Slavs. And there were several broad groups of Slavs that you will hear historians refer to. You have the Western Slavs, who you could view as some of the ancestors of modern Poles, Czechs, and Slovaks. You have the Southern Slavs in what would eventually be referred to as the Balkans. And then you have the Eastern Slavs in what will eventually be Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine. Now to be clear, they weren't unified groups. There were many many many, for example, Eastern Slavic tribes. Our best account of the early history, especially in the period as we get into the ninth century comes from what is known as the Russian Primary Chronicle. And keep in mind, this was written at a much later period. It was written in the early 12th century. It is sometimes ascribed to the Kievan monk Nestor. So at previous times, it was known as Nestor's Chronicles, but we don't even have surviving accounts of this. We have surviving accounts of copies of this, or what we believe are copies of this. What I'll share is a version of the Russian Primary Chronicle known as the Laurentian Text from 1377. And this is, of course, an English translation. It gives us some of the earliest accounts of the relationship between the Varangians and the Eastern Slavs and how what we have come to identify as the Russian people and the Ukrainian people and the Belorussian people, how they got their start. So right before this passage, it talks about how the Varangians tried to get tribute from some of the Eastern Slavic tribes. And it says the tributaries of the Varangians drove them back beyond the sea and, refusing them further tribute, set out to govern themselves. So they pushed them back beyond what we now call the Baltic Sea, and they decided to govern themselves. There was no law among them. Tribe rose against tribe, and they began to war one against another. They said to themselves, let us seek a prince who may rule over us and judge us according to the law. They accordingly went overseas to the Varangian Russes. So they went back to the Russes, and they said, these warring Eastern Slavic tribes said, our land is great and rich, but there is no order in it. Come to rule and reign over us. They thus selected three brothers. The oldest, Rurik, located himself in Novgorod. Right over here. Novgorod literally means new town. Gorod means town. The district of Novgorod became known as the land of Rus'. So a lot of really interesting things going on. The Varangians, first, are trying to get tribute from these tribes, which is a way of saying tax them, making them subservient to these Vikings. And even though these Eastern Slavs were able to push them back, according to the Primary Chronicle, they said hey we need your help. We want you to rule over us. There's very few times in history where people are asking a foreign group to rule over them. And so this is an interesting question. Remember, this history is written under the rule of one of the descendants of Rurik. So do you think it was actually this way? Or do you think the Varangians maybe forced themselves on the Eastern Slavs and later created this narrative, that they were invited to come in? But according to the Primary Chronicle, we have Rurik coming from Scandinavia to Novgorod and establishing the land of Rus'. Now the word Rus is really interesting. Most historians believe it to be the source of what we now say Russia, or even Belarus, which means white Rus. Some historians think it comes from the name of Sweden at the time. Some believe that the Rus were a subgroup of Varangians, of Vikings. Some believe that the word is derived from those who row. But either way, the Primary Chronicle goes on to tell us from 870 to 879, on his deathbed, Rurik bequeathed his realm to Oleg, who belonged to his kin, and entrusted to Oleg's hands his son Igor, for he was very young. And then from 880 to 882, Oleg set himself up as prince in Kiev and declared that it should be the mother of Russian cities. So Rurik's immediate successor is Oleg. And in the early 880s, he goes and establishes himself in Kiev, expanding the land of Rus'. This is Kiev right over here, and because Oleg was able to take Kiev, the state that emerges from Rurik and Oleg not only is it known as the Land of the Rus', but it's also known as the Kievan State, and they're often known as the Kievan Rus'. And you can see here how that state expands over the next few hundred years. As we get to the year 900, you have this off-white color, and you can see, it is in control of both Novgorod and Kiev. As you get to 1015, it's taken even more territory, and by 1113, which is near the peak of the Kievan state, you see that it has taken control of a good chunk of Eastern Europe. And as the state expands, its character changes as well. As you get to the end of the 10th century, you have a major event in one of Rurik's descendants, Vladimir, often known as Vladimir the Great, he decides to convert to Eastern Orthodox Christianity. And in a future video, I might talk about his rationales, or what historians view as his rationales for conversion. And as we will see, over time, and because of not only his conversion, but essentially the conversion of the entire Kievan state, over time, especially with the eventual decline of the Byzantine Empire, what would eventually be Russia becomes a center of Eastern Orthodox Christianity. Now the Kievan state lasts as an independent state until we get to the 13th century. And from many other videos, you might be guessing what happens in the 13th century. You have Genghis Khan and then his descendants emerge out of Central and Eastern Asia, and in 1240, you have the Mongol invasion, at which point, many of the principalities within the Land of Rus' become tributaries to the Mongolians. And they would be so for the next, roughly, 200 years until Ivan the Great comes along and is able to exert independence from the Mongols for the Rus, but we will cover that in a future video.