The Beginning of Russia
T HE conquest of England by the Northmen and their settlement in France, out of which arose the second conquest of England, are the most important results of the "Northman Fury" for western Europe. In eastern Europe the most important result was the founding of Russia.
About the middle of the ninth century some Northmen, Swedes in all probability, sailed east, just as their brethren sailed west and south, upon a marauding expedition. They made a settlement on the shores of the Gulf of Finland, and laid the Slavonic tribes along the coast under tribute. After a time, however, the Slavs succeeded in driving out these invaders. But having got rid of them the Slavs fell to quarrelling among themselves. "There was no more justice among them," says an old chronicle. "Family disputed with family, so that they fell to war." At length the turmoil and bloodshed became so great that some among them were fain to confess that the domination of the Northmen was more endurable than the misrule of their own princes.
"Let us seek a prince," they said, "who will judge us according to the right." Therefore they sent messengers to the Northmen, begging them to return. "Our land is large and fertile," they said, "but it is filled with discord and clamour. Come, then, and rule over us."
Rurick settles in Russia
In answer to this petition the Viking Rurick, with his two brothers, came to settle in what is now Russia.
These Northmen were often called Varangians or Varingars. No one is sure how they got this name, but it is
believed to be Arabian in origin. The Arabians, at least, called all the northern peoples Varangians, whether
they invented the name or not. But the people who lived in Finland called them the Rousses, and soon the Slav
subjects of Rurick came to be called Russians and their country Russia. Rous in Finnish
Rurick made his capital at Novgorod, and two years after his settlement there his brothers died, and he became sole ruler of the province. We know very little of his government or whether the people lived to regret having called in a foreigner to rule over them. But it is said that after a time two Viking warriors, one named Askold and one named Dir, became discontented with his rule. So, taking several companions with them, they left Novgorod, and set out to seek their fortunes at Constantinople. On their way they came upon a castle on the banks of the Dnieper, with a small town round it.
"Whose castle is this?" they asked of the inhabitants.
"It was built by three brothers," replied they, "but they are long since dead. We are their descendants, and pay tribute to the Khazars."
Hearing that, Askold and Dir took possession of the town, which was called Kief. They were soon joined by other Northmen, and thus a second Viking settlement was made in Russia.
This second settlement soon increased, and then, with true Viking audacity and love of adventure, they made up their minds to attack Constantinople. Dwelling far inland although they now were, these Northmen had not forgotten their skill as sailors. Soon two hundred dragon-headed boats went sailing down the Dnieper and out into the Black Sea, and ere long the terrified inhabitants of Constantinople saw, for the first time, the gay sails and long narrow boats of the dreaded Northmen.
The Greeks were paralysed with fear. Nothing but a miracle, it seemed, could save them from destruction. The miracle happened, for a sudden storm arose which shattered the Viking ships, only a miserable remainder of which, like wounded birds, crept slowly back to Kief.
Prince Igor and Oleg
For some time the two Northman settlements in Russia remained separate from each other. But after ruling for fifteen years in the northern settlement Rurick died. His son, Igor, was only a boy, so Rurick left his kinsman Oleg as regent.
Far more than Rurick, Oleg was filled with the desire of conquest, and he resolved to bring both the northern and southern settlements under one rule. He knew, however, that Askold and Dir were not likely to give up their kingship without a struggle, and he had recourse, therefore, to treachery.
With a great fleet of boats he sailed down the Dnieper. Then as they neared Kief, leaving his soldiers behind him, he went on with the young Prince Igor, and a few soldiers only, hidden in the bottom of his boat. Arrived at Kief, he sent messengers to Askold and Dir, saying that Northman merchants passing on their way to Constantinople desired to greet them in the name of the Prince of Novgorod.
Askold and Dir, suspecting no treachery, at once hurried to the river bank, only to find themselves surrounded by Viking warriors, and led captive before Oleg.
"You are no princes," he said to them, haughtily. "You are not even of noble birth. As for me, I am a prince." Then, taking Igor by the hand, he led him forward.
"Behold the son of Rurick!" he cried.
It was the signal agreed upon, and at the words the Vikings fell upon Askold and Dir and slew them. Then, his hands still red with blood, Oleg marched in triumph into Kief. Everything that he saw there delighted the old warrior. It seemed to him, with the Dnieper flowing by, a splendid point from which to lead his warriors forth to conquest, and he resolved to make his capital there. "This town shall be the mother of all Russian towns!" he cried.
Such is the more or less legendary story of the founding of Russia by the Vikings, and for many a long day the rulers traced their descent to the sea-king Rurick.
Meanwhile, more than twenty years passed during which Oleg extended his conquests all around, and added province after province to his kingdom. But he kept peace with the Eastern Empire, and a regular trade route was established from the shores of the Baltic to the Golden Horn. Along this route there came many a peaceful merchant, bringing furs from the snowy north, and carrying back with him in exchange the corn and wine of the south. Thus numbers of Russians came to know of Myklegaard or the Great City, as they called Constantinople. To these rude, northern giants the riches and luxury they saw there were a constant wonder and amaze, and they carried home with them strange tales of its marvels.
So at length, either driven on by his peoples' envy of the riches of the Eastern Empire, or desirous of finding a foeman worthy of his steel, Oleg decided to attack Constantinople, and gathering a great host of warriors, he set out. For many a mile the River Dnieper was covered with boats, two thousand in all, it is said, while vast squadrons of horsemen accompanied them along the banks. Seeing them come in such force the Greeks fled within their city, put a chain across the harbour, and left the wild Northmen to plunder and burn at will in all the country around. The desolation they made was truly terrible, for in becoming Russian the Northmen had lost none of their Viking fury.
But Oleg was bent on taking the city itself. So he ordered his soldiers to make wheels, and placing his boats upon them, he brought them overland right up to the walls of Constantinople. When the Greeks saw this strange sight their last vestige of courage gave way, and sending messengers to the Russians, they begged for peace. "Spare our city," they said, "and we will give you all the tribute you demand."
To this Oleg agreed, and having received an immense ransom, he made a treaty of peace with the emperor. As the emperor swore to keep the peace he kissed the Cross, but Oleg swore by his sword, for he was a heathen, as most of his people still were. Then, having hung his sword on the gates of Constantinople as a sign of his victory, he returned home, richly laden with booty.
But peace between the Empire and Russia did not last. For Constantinople had proved a rich and easy prey, and four times at least in less than two hundred years the Russians appeared before its walls, and forced the emperor to buy them off.
With all their growing power the Russian rulers did not take the regal title, but called themselves Grand Dukes. In 980 Vladimir I became Grand Duke. He was a fratricide, a heathen, and an evil liver. But he was a great soldier and a wise statesman. He desired, above all things to make his country great, and he believed that an alliance with the Empire would serve his purpose better than war. So he asked the emperors, Basil II and Constantine VII, to give him the hand of their sister Anne in marriage. But the emperors refused to give their sister in marriage to a heathen.
"Be baptized," they said, "and you shall marry our sister." Vladimir immediately promised to do as they wished, whereat the emperors rejoiced. But the Princess Anne wept bitter tears.
"You send me to slavery among a heathen people!" she cried. "It is worse than death."
"Not so, sister," replied the emperors, "it is by thee that God will lead the Russian nation to penitence, and thou wilt save the Empire from a cruel war."
So Vladimir was baptized, and the marriage between him and the Grecian princess was celebrated with great rejoicings and splendour. Then Vladimir caused every idol in Kief to be destroyed and cast into the river, and commanded all his people on pain of his displeasure to be baptized at once. Many obeyed him. "For," said they, "the religion must be good, or our prince would not have accepted it."
The Greek Church
Thus was Christianity introduced into Russia. For although many years before priests had come from Constantinople to teach the people about the true God, only few had listened to them. Thus, too, it comes about that the Russians, to this day, belong to the Greek and not to the Roman Church.
After this time there was great intercourse between the Empire and Russia, and the emperors formed a bodyguard of Northmen whom they called the Varangian guard, These Varangians were bound to the emperor by a special oath. They lived in the palace itself, one of their special duties being to guard the door of the emperor's bedchamber. They were accorded many privileges, and it was considered a great honour to serve in the guard of Myklegaard. Besides this special guard many Northmen were to be found among the soldiers and sailors of the Empire, and many Vikings of fame came to serve the emperor.
With Vladimir the Viking period of Russian history ends, and Russia begins to take a place among the Christian states of Europe. Besides the alliance with the emperor, the Grand Dukes of Russia soon made alliances with France and other of the great states of Europe. But the country was constantly torn asunder by civil wars. Rival princes claimed the title and authority of grand duke, little princedoms sprang up, and were crushed out of existence again. So instead of consolidating into a kingdom the country remained merely a conglomeration of rival principalities, until in the thirteenth century the Mongols, taking advantage of this disunion, conquered the country and held it in subjection for more than two hundred years.