The Origin of "Rus"
by Omeljan Pritsak
The Russian Review (July 1977), 249-273 (abridged)

French translation by Valerie Bastiaan, "L'origine de la 'Rus'"

I. The Normanist versus Anti-Normanist Controversy

On September 6, 1749, Gerhard Friedrich Mueller (1705-1783), the offlcial Russian imperial historiographer and member of the Imperial Academy of Sciences in St. Petersburg, was to deliver an anniversary speech on the origins of Russia, entitled "Origines gentis et nominis Russomm." His talk was based on research published in 1736 by his older compatriot, Gottlieb Siegfried Bayer (1694-1738), who introduced sources like the Annaks Bertiniani and works by the Emperor Constantinus Porphyrogenitus into East European scholarship. From these, academician Mueller developed the theory that the ancient state of Kievan Rus' was founded by Norsemen, and it was this theory that he began to propound in his speech

Muller was never to finish this lecture. A tumult arose among the members of the Imperial Academy of Russian national background, who protested such infamy. One of them, the astronomer N. I. Popov, exclaimed, "Tu, clarissime auctor, nostrum gentem infamia afflcis! [You, famous author, dishonor our nation!]." The affair was brought before the president of the Academy, the future hetman of the Ukraine, Kyrylo Rozumovskyj (1750-1764; d. 1803), and the Empress Elizaveta Petrovna (1741-1762), who appointed a special committee to investigate whether Mueller's writings were harmful to the interests and glory of the Russian Empire. One of the referees was the famous author, Mikhail Vasilevich Lomonosov (1711-1762). His testimony was devastating: Mueller was forbidden to continue his research in Old Rus' history and his publications were confiscated and destroyed. The intimidated scholar eventually redirected his scholarly work to a more harmless subject—the history of Siberia.

Nevertheless, September 6, 1749 remains an important date in East European historiography. It marks the birth of the belligerent Normanist versus Anti-Normanist controversy that has continued to this day.

The Normanists believe (the word believe is used here to characterize the intellectual climate in question) in the Norse origin of the term Rus'. They consider the Norsemen—or, more exactly, the Swedes—as the chief organizers of political life, first on the banks of Lake Il'men and later on the shores of the Dnieper River.

On the other hand, the Anti-Normanists embrace the doctrine that the Rus' were Slavs who lived to the south of Kiev from prehistoric times, long before the Norsemen appeared on the European scene. To support this thesis, the names of several rivers are cited as evidence, for example, the Ros', a right-bank tributary of the Dnieper. The Anti-Normanists attribute to this "native" Slavic element a decisive role in the state-building process of that period, particularly that of Kievan Rus'. Official Soviet historiography adopted the Anti-Normanist position for the following "scholarly" reason: "The Normanist theory is politically harmful, because it denies the ability of the Slavic nations to form an independent state by their own efforts."

Let us now briefly examine the arguments advanced by the two schools. The arguments of the Normanists, the most important being A. L. Schlotzer, E. Kunik, V. Thomsen, A. A. Shakhmatov, T. J. Arne, S. Tomasivsky, Ad. Stender-Petersen, are essentially the following:

(1) The Rus' received their name from "Ruotsi" the Finnish designation for the Swedes in the mid-ninth century, which was derived from the name of the Swedish maritime district in Uppland, "Roslagen", and its inhabitants, called Rodskarlar (rodr= rowing or pulling). In a modified variant of this etymology, represented by R. Ekblom and Ad. Stender-Petersen, Rus' originated from "rodsbyggjar—the inhabitants of straits between islands (roder).

(2) The Primary Chronicle includes the Rus' among the Varangian peoples from beyond the sea, i.e., the Svie (Swedes), Urmane (Norwegians), Angliane (English), and Gote (Gauts or Goths).

(3) Most of the names of Rus' envoys who appear in the treaties with Byzantium (911, 944) are obviously of Scandinavian origin, e.g., Karly, Inegeld, Farlof, Veremud, etc. (911).

(4) The Annales Bertiniani, a contemporary source, says that c. 839 the Rhos envoys (Rhos vocari dicebant) who came from the Byzantine Emperor Theophilos to the Emperor Louis I in Ingelheim and whose ruler had the title Chacanus (Eagan, also appearing in contemporary Islamic and later Kievan Rus' sources) proved to be Swedes (eos gentis esse Sveonum).

(5) The Byzantine Emperor Constantine Porphyrogenitus, in his book De administrando imperio (written c. 950), quotes the names of the Dnieper cataracts in both Slavic and Rus'ian . Most of the Rus'ian names show derivation from the Old Norse language, e.g., Oulborsi, equal to Slavic ostrovni prax (the cataract of the island).

  (6) Islamic geographers and travelers of the ninth-tenth centuries always made a very clear distinction between the Rus and as-Saqdliba (Slavs).

In opposition to this, the Anti-Normanists, who include S. Gedeonov, M. Hrushevskyj, B. D. Grekov, S. Juskov, B. Rybakov, M. N. Tixomirov, V. T. Pasuto, N. V. Riasanovsky, and A. V. Riasanovsky, reply:

(1) The name of Rus' was not origimally connected with Great Novgorod or with Ladoga in the north, but with Kiev in the south. Moreover, the Rus' existed in the Kiev area from times immemorial. To support this thesis, two arguments are presented: first. the toponymic, i.e., the existence of the names of several rivers in that area such as the Ros'; second, the existence of "Church History" of Pseudo-Zacharias Rhetor, a Syrian source compiled in 555 A.D. (long before the appearance of the Norsemen), which mentions the Hros, or Rus', in connection with some North Caucasian peoples found south of Kiev.

(2) No tribe or nation called Rus' was known in Scandinavia, and it is never mentioned in any of the Old Norse sources, including the sagas.

(3) The Scandinavian names of the Rus' envoys who visited Ingelheim in 839 and signed the treaties with the Byzantine Empire in the tenth century do not prove that the Rus' were Scandinavians (Swedes). The Norsemen were only representatives of the Slavic Rus' princes, specialists who carried out commercial and diplomatic functions. For that reason, they were looked upon as men "of Rus' descent" (ot roda russkago).

(4) One of the oldest Islamic writers, Ibn Khurdadhbeh, who wrote c. 840-880, clearly calls the Rus a tribe of the Slavs.

(5) Archaeological material from the towns and trade routes of Eastern Europe indicates that few Scandinavians were present in this area.

  A critical examination of these arguments reveals both their weaknesses and why the debate has continued unresolved to this day. The connection of the Rus' with the Finnish Ruotsi and Roslagen is doubtful. Ruotsi goes back to Ruzzi, not Rus'. Also, the Anti-Normanists are correct in doubting the existence of a Scandinavian (Swedish) tribe called Rus', even if they were peasants and not empire-builders as formulated by Stender-Petersen. In the words of V. Mosin (1931), "one finds oneself in a quagmire when one begins to operate with terms derived from rus or ros."

The Syriac Hros (555 A.D.) found in the work of Pseudo-Zacharias Rhetor, and introduced into East European history by J. Markwart in 1903, proved to have no relation whatever to Rus'. In an addendum to Rhetor's "Church History" there is a very interesting report about the Christian mission of a certain Kardast among the Huns in the Northern Caucausus, including a list of Hunnic tribes. This report stimulated the learned copyist to quote an Amazon episode from a Middle Persian version of the Alexandersaga, in which the Greek term heros (hero) is used for the gigantic mates of the Amazons. In the Syriac adaptation, this Greek term assumed the form hros.

The Anti-Normanist explanation, which maintains that the possible existence of Scandinavian specialists at the court of some Rus'
princes does not necessarily prove the identity of the Rus' with the Scandinavians, cannot be easily dismissed. However, Ibn Khurdadhbeh does not identify Rus' with the Sagaliba (meaning "Slavs"). The Arabic term jins has the primary meaning of "kind" or "sort." It may be assumed that in introducing the name Rus into Arabic scholarship Ibn Khurdadhbeh was generalizing ("and they are a kind of Saqdliba") as to who these new trading partners on the horizon of the Abbasside empire were. Within the Arab cultural sphere (i.e., Mediterranean culture), the term Saqlab (Sclav), meaning "fair-headed slave," was known earlier (sometime in the sixth century) than the name Rus. Because the Rus came from the north and corresponded to the anthropological criteria of the term Saqlab (meaning "red-haired and ruddy-faced" in comparison with the peoples of the Near East), the author added this phrase by way of explanation. . . .

In summarizing the controversy, one must be criticaI of scholars who have considered the issue from a narrow perspective and an almost exclusive concentration on the term Rus'. Such an approach is about as useful as studying the etymology of the name America in order to understand the emergence of the Constitution of the United States.

That the debate has continued unresolved to this day is due, in my view, to the following reasons: historians have often substituted political (or patriotic) issues for improved techniques of historical methodology in their discussions; they have had limited knowledge of world history; and they have used source materials in a biased way. The work of the historians in question can be compared to mosaicists who piece together excerpts from sources of different provenance, and who often disregard the semantics of the original, since they have usually relied on simple translation instead of acquiring knowledge of the sources and their cultural sphere.

II. Proposed methodology [History]

The origin of Rus is foremost a historical question. In analyzing this problem, archaeology and linguistics are of secondary importance. The latter are certainly revered scholarly disciplines, but they have their own methods and goals, and their own spheres of responsibility. History begins . . . with written sources. It is impossible to extend history back to a period without such sources. . . .

From the period of the Roman Empire to the ninth century, three significant historical events, each producing chain reactions, took place that are relevant to the emergence of Rus in the ninth century:
(1) the desertion of the Roman Rhine-Danube line by the Roman legions (c. 400 A.D.);
(2) the organizatin of a new type of steppe empire, the Avar realm centered in present-day Hungary (c. 568-700 A.D.);
(3) the intrusion of the Arabs into the Mediterranean Sea (c. 650 A.D.)

The first historical event, the desertion of the Roman [northern border], provoked the migration of people and the organization of Germanic semi-civilized realms and nomadic Paces within imperial territory and/or regions closest to the Roman frontiers. The most important of these was the Germanic Frankish realm established first in the Netherlands and then in Gaul. . . .

[Second] in the middle of the sixth century a small band of young but enterprising adventurers from Inner Asia appeared in Europe. They called themselves Avars, a name which had belonged to a formerly strong steppe power. . . .

Having arrived in Central Europe, the pseudo-Avars chose the Slavs, a hitherto unknown people, to serve two purposes. First, they selected from the Slavs recruits for command posts, and, after thorough training, these recruits became the so called "fsu-pana," literally "shepherds of the (human) cattle." Second, they used the Slavic masses as cannon fodder. . . . The selection by the pseudo-Avars of the Slavs marked their discovery and at the same time their entrance into history.

From the eighth to tenth centuries there were only two types of trading settlements in Eurasia: in the East there was the "var;" in the West there was a permanent or semipermanent trading place for traveling merchants called in Germanic "vik." The frontier between the "var" and "vik" types of settlements was the river Elbe.

In both types there were local or foreign workers who served the merchants as guards, mercenaries, shoppers, etc. . . To the west of the Elbe these people were called "vikings." To the east of the Elbe, they were known as "varjag" [varangians]. . . . It is futile to attempt to establish the nationality of the "vikings" and the "varjag." They were, above all, professionals ready to serve anyone who needed their skills and could pay for their services.

III.  Eastern Europe Enters the Historical Scene (Ninth Century): Emergence of Rus.

Eastern Europe entered the historical scene, i.e., the era for which written records exist, in the ninth century as a result of its discovery by the civilization of the Mediterranean Sea, which created there its colonial "duplication," the economic-cultural sphere of the Mediterranean. One may ask the legitimate question: why did this occur in the ninth century and not in the fifth or twelfth? What incentive stimulated the culture of the Mediterranean to discover Eastern Europe shortly before the ninth century?

The emergence of the Arab Muslim empire around 650 had split the Mediterranean area into two independent parts, the Muslim southern and eastern littoral, and the Christian northern shore. . . . By 740 the Arabs had already conquered all the territory they could control. In the north, they had gone as far as Frankish Gaul, but Tours and Poitiers convinced them that the Pyrenees were a reasonable frontier. . . .

By 740 booty was no longer being captured, and it became imperative to exchange the war economy for a system of production. . . . The Abbasside government then confronted a problem that is familiar to all of us today--that of energy generation. Until the industrial revolution of the nineteenth century, the only profitable source of energy was slave labor. But where was one to get slaves at that time? Neither Muslims nor Christians were permitted by their religion to enslave their own believers. Wars waged between the Christians and Muslims produced prisoners of war whom both sides sought to exchange. But there was a vast territory beyond the cultural world of that time, east of the Elbe River and west and north of the Syr Darya River. This teritory was soon recognized as a reservoir of potential slaves, who were the "sclav." The idea of slave trade may be repugnant to us today, but we should not forget that in the Middle Ages, as in the days of the Roman Empire, slaves were regarded as an important commodity. The importation of slaves was a highly respected profession, requiring experience, expediency, and proficiency.

The territory called "Sclavia" now became (as did Africa from the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries) a hunting ground from which one could obtain the important commodity called "sclava," or slaves.  Arabic geographers during the classic period of Islamic science give a detailed description of how hunters from the Christian West and the Islamic East pursued their trade. Special factories whose purpose was the production of eunuchs were established in Verdun in the west and in Khwarizm in the east.

The ninth-century Arabic author Ibn Khurdadhbeh, who as the chief of the Abbasside intelligence system had expert knowledge of trade routes and trading companies visiting the Caliphate, informs us that only two international trading companies engaged in the Eurasian slave trade: the Jewish "Radhaniya" and the non-Jewish "Rus. . . ." Iban Khurdadhbeh's information, written sometime between 840 and 880, is the earliest mention of the "Rus" in existing sources.

Now we are faced with an unexpected phenomenon. The "Rus" who had just emerged from obscurity, were already skilled international merchants. Who were these "Rus"? There were certainly not a primitaive tribal group with no knowledge of geography, foreign languages, or economics. They must have possessed an idea of the law of the merchant and--a very important point--they must have attained creditability in the world of commerce. . . .

The Radhaniya and the Rus were both based in Roman Gaul, the Radhaniya around Arles and Marseille, and the Rus in a region of present-day south-central France near Rodez ("Rusi" in Middle French, and "Ruzzi" in Middle German).

The Radhaniya discovered Eastern Europe as a commercial base shortly after 750. . . .  It is clear why the Radhaniya were the first traders to enter Eastern Europe. With the division of the Mediterranean area about 660, neither Muslims nor Christians could travel and trade freely on the sea, since they were in a continuous state of war. Only former Roman subjects who were of Jewish faith could travel without danger from Marseille to North Africa and from there to Constantinople. Their destination was the capital of the Turkic Khazars [in south Russia] where it was easy to get slaves. The Volga and Don rivers soon developed into a highway of slave trade. . . As a result of the cooperation between the Radhaniya and the Khazars, the military and economic leaders of the Khazar state converted to Judaism. . . .

In the meantime, the non-Jewish merchants from Rodez (Rus) had determined to seek access to this eastern El Dorado. Since they could not use the Mediterranean route, they (like Christopher Columbus at a later date) decided to circumnavigate. . . .

The Scandinavian peninsula was soon circumnavigatted and . . . a route was discovered . . . on the Gulf of Finland to the Neva River. Both routes continued to the Volga basin. New routes to El Dorado followed, and along these the trading company "Rus" established settlements. The most important was located on the peninsula near Jaroslavl and the later Rostov, originally populated by the Fennic Merjans. It was managed by the charismatic Viking clan of Ynglingar. . . .

By the period 800-860 Eastern Europe had already been apportioned into two spheres of interests. While the south remained divided between Avars, Bulgars, and Khazars, northeastern Europe became the dominion of  a newly activated society led by agents of the "Rus" company.

Unhappily, no accounts of peoples who followed the routes established by the Rus-Viking cooperation have survived. But there is no reason to doubt that enterprising individuals and groups of seafaring people tried their luck in East European trade, regardless of their origin or ties to the aforementioned trading companies. . . . The Rus appear as international merchants. . . .

The Kabar revolution in Khazaria, described by Constantine Porphyrogenitus, was the struggle of the Khagan [Khazar monarch] and his supporters to free the realm from the supremacy of the majordomo and the Judaism he imposed. After his defeat the Khazar Khagan was forced to leave the country and found refuge in the Rus company's settlement near Rostov. . . . Since the Khagan had political charisma, his stay in the commercial settlement of the Rus company elevated it to the status of an imperial political center . . . . The result was the emergence of the Rus Khaganate, about which our first information is dated 839 A.D. . . . . Already during the 830s the Volga Rus were to eliminate the Radhaniya from competition in Eastern Europe.

IV. The Southern Impact on the Emerging Rus State

Up to this point we have observed the East European scene primarily from a northern perspective . . . . By the turn of the tenth century, however, two sets of developments had occurred in the Mediterranian area which affected [events], namely Charlemagne's conquest of the Avars and the Cyrillo-Methodian mission.

The first began with Charlemagne's conquest of the mighty East Central European Avar realm which resulted in . . . the "pacification" of the Slavs, the slaves of the former Avar empire. . . . By the 860s both Romes (even though they were on nonspeaking terms--I refer here to the alienation between Patriarch Photius and Pope Nicholas) decided to fill the vacuum left by the dissolution of the Avar realm by elevating the former slaves of the Avars, the Slavs. Their barbaric tongue was now to become a sacred language alongside Hebrew, Greek, and Latin. Since at that time only Constantinople had scholars who could create a new literary language and eventually translate Christian religious writing, the brothers Cyril and Methodius, friends of Photius, journeyed from the eastern capital of Christendom to Moravia, located on territory claimed by the Roman pope.

The paradox of the Cyrillo-Methodian mission was that the Moravian princes failed to take advantage of the extremely important cultural weapon they were offered. Having adopted Christianity [offered by the Greeks] they were angered to realize that they had chosen the wrong rite. The Moravians banished the Slavic missionaries and exchanged their "inferior" rite for the Latin faith. . . . .

The second half of the ninth century was also to be of basic importance for Eastern Europe, for during that time Kiev and the area of the present-day Ukraine entered the realm of history. The impetus for this development was the emergence of Constantinople as the economic capital of Eurasia. . . . Naturally, Constantinople then won the attention of the "vikings," the only society in Eurasia apart from Byzantium and the Arabs which maintained naval fleets during the ninth and tenth centuries. . . .

Soon after the Rus military encounter in Constantinople in 860, the famous "Route from the Varangians to the Greeks" came into being. The Dnieper River replaced the Volga, and Kiev, the former Khazarian garrison point on the Dnieper ford, emerged in the second hlaf of the tenth century as a promising satellite of the new economic capital of the world, Constantinople. Around 930, Igor of the Volga Rus Khagan dynasty conquered Kiev.

There are at least three periods in the history of the Khagans of Rus: the Volga stage (c. 839-930), the Dnieper stage (c. 930-1036), and the Kievan stage (1036-1169). During the first two, the Rus ruled over peoples rather than specific territories. They eliminated competitors when necessary, extracted tributes, and controlled the . . . trade routes. . . . The third, or Kievan stage marked the beginning of the cultural consolidation of Rus and an attempt at their nationalization.  During the first two, the Rus' ruled over peoples rather than specific territories. They eliminated competitors when necessary, extracted tributes, and controlled the marketplaces along the following two main international routes:  1) the Volga and Dvina trade routes, important during the ninth and the first half of the tenth centuryies, with their two branches of Islamic-centered commerce, the Bulgar and the Itil; and 2) the Dnieper trade route of the tenth century from the Varangians through Kiev to Greek Constantinople, then the center of international economy. The third, or Kievan stage marked the beginning of the cultural consolidation of Rus' and an attempt at their nationalization.

After 1036 the Kievan ruler Yaroslav routed the Pechenegs and established his own version of the Roman empire, centered now at St. Sophia at Kiev. He adopted Church Slavonic [which had been abandoned by European Slavs] as the realm's sacred language.

Yaroslav also began the transformation of Rus' into a territorial community consisting of the lands of Kiev, Chernigov, and Pereiaslavl. The terms "Rus" and "Russkaia zemlia" (Rus land) then appeared in the second half of the eleventh century and beginning of the twelfth century with the new specific meaning of Southern Rus' (the Ukraine of today). Only now, during this time, did a cultural revolution take place. Transformed from a multiethnic, multilingual, and nonterritorial community with a "low" culture, Kievan Rus' was endowed with a new "high" culture based on a foreign, written, and sanctified Slavic language (traditionally known as Church Slavonic) and as a result appeared on the stage of East European history  . . .

Up to that time the Rus' were only the foreign ruling class based on a primitive organization of [transient merchants] who periodically collected taxes for their prince but were not connected with any territory. . . .


The two-hundred-year-old Normanist versus Anti-Normanist controversy has been unable to solve the problem of the origin of Rus. Therefore, it has been replaced here by another theory based solely on historical criteria and in the broader context of universal development.

In the eighth and ninth centuries there emerged a multiethnic, multilingual, unified social and economic entity represented by the maritime and trading society of the Baltic sea and transplanted by the bearers of the culture of the Mediterranean. It took more than two centuries for the multiethnic and multilingual commercial ventures of some trading companies . . . to transform this into a Christian and linguistically Slavic high culture that became Kievan Rus.