Following the Varangians

While traveling in the environs of Saint Petersburg and Veliky Novgorod you can all of the sudden find yourself having got back in time and touch the history of the most mysterious tribe of the ancient Rus. There is not much left after the Varangians, the ancestors of the first legendary Russian princes, but what remains is definitely worth seeing it.

It doesn’t take to be an expert in history to know the name of Rurik. Russia’s Primary Chronicle or The Tale of Past Years says that this legendary Varangian (Nordic) prince was invited together with his brothers to reign over Novgorod. This milestone event, also known as ‘summoning of the Varangians’, is considered to be point of departure of Russian statehood.

It is still discussed whether these facts are reliable or not: Who was Rurik? Where did he come from? Did he exist at all? The theory of summoning of the Varangians has many ideological opponents and their number increases manyfold during the wars: at different times the Swedes and the Nazi tried to invade Russia. Under these conditions the racial superiority theories grow by leaps and bounds.

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However, the scientists have long time ago established that the Varangians did exist and that they exerted considerable influence on the Rus and that their heritage survived the Mongol-Tatar invasion and saw the states rise and fall. Archaeologists are sure that the Old Russian culture borrowed much from the Scandivanians, like, for example, smithcraft, gold work, and sepulchral rites. As for the ordinary people who do not spend most part of their lives at the dig sites, they can see the Varangian traces even in the language like, for example, many popular names, e.g. Olga, Oleg, Igor, and Gleb are of Nordic origin. For those willing to touch the Varangian heritage with their own hands Veliky Novgorod and Staraya Ladoga are a must-see.

For those willing to touch the Varangian heritage with their own hands Veliky Novgorod and Staraya Ladoga are a must-see

This is where the origins are…

A 10th century Novgorod citizen would have been very much surprised to hear that he was Russian. Just like the Ancient Greeks would have been surprised to know that in fact that are the Ancient Greeks. According to the then Novgorodians, the Rus were the Varangians, i.e. the Scandinavians, the Nordics who lived in almost another country: i.e. in Kiev, in Chernigov or in Pereslavl. In other words, in a state that we now call the Ancient Rus where the territory of Novgorod did not belong. This is why a 12th century Novgorodian would normally write in a birch-bark letter that he “went to Rus” which means that he travelled to Pereyaslavl.

This being said, the Novgorodians were quite comfortable with the fact that Rurik came to rule them. In fact, the traces of glorious Rurik may be found just 3 km (1.9 miles) away from the city center.

Technically, to find the traces of Rurik at the Rurikovo Gorodische one will have to dig in the proper sense of these words: the 9th century occupation layer is several meters beneath the surface, whereas the from the surface the place looks like a small-size hill crowned by the ruins of Annunciation Church constructed in the 12th century and having nothing to do with the Varangians. However, this indeed was a Varangian place. Archaeologists have found Scandinavian munitions and clothes, torques with little Thor’s hammers, pendants with runic inscriptions and a silver Valkyria figurine. All these things are signs of the Western presence. This is not a surprise. Chronicles say that the residence of the first governors of the Ancient Rus was located in Rurikovo Gorodische, the then administrative, political and military center.

In the course of Rurikovo Gorodische excavations, archaeologists have found Scandinavian munitions and clothes, torques with little Thor’s hammers, pendants with runic inscriptions and a silver Valkyria figurine.

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The location if this important site is very well chosen. It stands where the Volkhov River takes off from Lake Ilmen. The place on the hilltop is protected by the water and is close to the ancient trade route. However, these were not only the Varangians who noticed the strategic advantages of the place. In the 18th century, they have dug the Sievers channel right through Rurikovo Gorodische, much to the distress of the modern archaeologists. Though, the channel does not spoil the overall romantic ambience of the place. So, if you wish to visit the place of the Russian land origin, Rurikovo Gorodische is the best choice for you.

Rurik's Castle

However, there is no shared vision of the Russian state origins. Novgorodians, who are absolutely sure that Rurik set up his state within their lands, refer to the Laurentian Codex. However, their northern neighbors of Staraya Ladoga refer to Hypatian Codex stating that the Varangians settled in Staraya Ladoga. Modern historians took up the challenge of settling these controversies and after long deliberations came to a conclusion that Staraya Ladoga is a better match for the criteria of initial Varangian settlement.

Today, there is not much left of the ancient glory: a little settlement with a population of about 2,000 people and the proud name of the ‘ancient capital of the Northern Rus’. However, the status of a capital implies some disadvantages as well. Many tried to capture and sack it. The numerous excavations revealed that it is pretty hard to identify who was the first to be kicked out of Staraya Ladoga. Being an important point on the trade route from the Varangians to the Greeks, the town attracted the Slavs, the ancient Germans as well as the local Finn and Baltic tribes, i.e. everyone. The chronicles say that the local people got tired of all this mess and summoned the Varangians to put things right.

Today, there is not much left of the ancient glory: a little settlement with a population of about 2,000 people and the proud name of the ‘ancient capital of the Northern Rus.’

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As part of putting things right, Rurik caused a small wooden fort just enough to accommodate the prince and his druzhina (armed troops) to be built and left for Novgorod. The wooden structures did not last long and were replaced with the stone ones by one more Varangian Oleg of Novgorod (also known as Oleg the Prophet). After that the fort was burnt, captured and destroyed for countless times. But every time it was rebuilt again. So it stands till date right in the center of the town of Staraya Ladoga. And the only name local people have for it is Rurik’s Castle.

By the way, the legendary burial place of Oleg the Prophet is located cross-village just 1.5 km (0.9 miles) down the Volkhov River. A 10 meters (33 ft) high hill, also known as “Oleg’s Grave” in the open fields is unlikely to remain unnoticed. We will hardly ever know whether the legend is true and this is here that Prince Oleg died bitten by a snake that slithered from the skull of his favorite horse. But why not?

This distant history gives free scope to imagination. But in modern Russia there is as well a place where you can literally touch the Varangians, see how they live and what they do.

Bows, Arrows and a Lunch

Viking village of Svargas fully re-enacting the Medieval ambience is constructed on the shores of Lake Petrovskoe, near Vyborg, Leningrad Region. This little settlement was created in the 21st century by a group of eager beavers who have brought back to life an ancient Russian settlement of the 10th century. Legends say that the Varangians indeed lived here. That makes sense as up to 1710 Vyborg area was a part of Sweden.

Today the dwellers of the Varangian Court lead almost the same life as people in ancient Rus did. So anyone who feels like it may enjoy the old lifestyle for several hours. For example, you will be offered to put on the medieval clothes and learn how to throw axes or do archery and, having won the day, have a triumphal feast. Those who do not feel like being in a warlike mood, will enjoy other activities, like studying the ancient runes, forging themselves some kind of artifact at the local blacksmith’s shop, cooking on woodfire, and many other things. But still you will have to watch the battle. Vikings are primarily warriors.

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