Kyiv Rus

According to most official histories, the great medieval state of Kyiv Rus was founded by a group of Viking trader-adventurers who were invited to bring law and order to the potentially prosperous but disordered and chaotic lands of far eastern Europe. These Viking state-builders are believed to have originally come from Scandinavia, which would make the Swedes the first expat managers in Ukrainian history. The alleged connections between medieval Ukraine and Vikings certainly make for an intriguing tale, but how much of it is true?

Statues of Kyi, Shchek and Khoryv the three legendary brothers along with their sister Lybid who, according to the Primary Chronicle, were the founders of the medieval city of Kyiv located in Maidan Nezalezhnosti or Independence Square in the center of Kyiv capital of Ukraine.

Inviting the Vikings

Our creation myth begins on the Dnipr River. On the river, a boat, and in the boat, three brothers – Kyi, Shchek and Khoryv – and their sister Lybid. They chose a site along the river that struck them with its particular, hilly beauty and named it after the eldest brother, Kyi. And so Kyivan Rus – the embryo of what would eventually grow into a preeminent world power – was born.

Conventional understanding of the foundation of the Kyiv Rus state comes almost exclusively from the ‘Tale of Bygone Years’, which is an ancient chronicle composed in Kyiv in the early twelfth century – nearly 300 years after the events which are traditionally depicted as the starting point of Kyiv Rus history. The ‘Tale of Bygone Years’ is the sole source of the legend that the state’s Viking founders were ‘invited’ to establish a government in the region. This invitation allegedly came from the tribes living in what today make up parts of Belarus and European Russia. The chronicle claims that these rival tribes had grown tired of their endless infighting and decided to seek outside help, addressing the Vikings thus, “our land is great and rich, but there is no order in it. Come to rule and reign over us.”

These claims sound suspiciously like the work of apologist historians seeking to retrospectively justify the aggressive expansion of the Vikings into eastern Europe. There are very few historic examples of groups voluntarily ceding their sovereignty in the manner, and many believe the claims of an invitation being issued are convenient way of explaining the growing influence of the Vikings.

Though mythologized in art and monuments, the siblings likely never existed. So how did it really all begin?

Prior to the 9th century, the region was made up of a patchwork of tribes: East and West Slavs originating around the area that is now Western Ukraine, Avars, Khazans, Baltic and Finnic hunter-gatherers. These groups suffered regular incursions by steppe nomads from the southeast and Scandinavians from the northwest. The region was intersected by major waterways and, later, trade routes so it has been from the very beginning exposed to varied and various cultures.

The first East Slav state was, in fact, Kyiv and its location was deliberately chosen. It lies between the steppes and a broad forested region, wooded but easily cleared, with good, fertile soil. Unfortunately, constant attacks by steppe nomads which continued on a regular basis all the way through to the collapse of the Golden Horde in the 14th century, made this fruitful region unsafe and forced many to migrate northeastward, where Moscow would eventually originate.

Vikings in Ukraine