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As the title says, when did the Varangian rulers become culturally more Slavic? I presume that among the elites there was cultural borrowing from Byzantium too, so I am not claiming a Viking-Slavic binary distinction.

If, then when, did the mother tongue of the Kievan rulers switch from Old Norse to Slavic?

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    If you track their names, in few generations slavic first names started to appear instead of norse names. It is not the same knowing what was their mother tongue, but it is easier to find records.
    – Luiz
    Feb 4, 2023 at 21:26
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    What research have you already done?
    – SPavel
    Feb 4, 2023 at 21:30
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    The short answer is that the Rus were not organized nor prepared for their own cultural identity. They were purely driven by economics, since they found good business in running forest products and slaves from north to south, and that they (usually) had the force of arms to keep the steppe passage open. But they fought terribly amongst themselves and had no regard for politics, and so over time they dissolved into the locals.
    – Smith
    Feb 6, 2023 at 15:13
  • Twice the tags Russia, Ukraine and Belarus have been removed from this post by other editors. First time medieval-russia was added. But no tags for BY or UA. Both are culturally, linguistically and territorially successor states to Kiyvan Rus. @SPavel, Rodrigo any comments?
    – Markku P.
    Sep 9, 2023 at 11:57
  • I've rolled the edits back to before the edit war started 2 days ago, and locked this post for a week. If anyone wants the tags edited from the current form, please discuss the issue our meta first. Comments have been moved to chat; please do not continue the discussion here. Comments continuing discussion may be removed.
    – T.E.D.
    Sep 11, 2023 at 14:30

2 Answers 2

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The mainstream historical view, delivered by historian Francis Donald Logan: "in 839, the Rus were Swedes; in 1043 the Rus were Slavs". That's perhaps an overly cautious view, but in between, it does get kind of fuzzy. Let's see if we can narrow it down some.

There have been two big problems dealing with this question out in recent years. One is the fact that we don't have a lot of first-hand written records of the period in question (requiring us to resort to archeology and linguistics). The other has been that area identity issues got caught up first in Nazi/anti-Nazi propaganda, and later in nationalist propaganda.

The (Norse) Varangians were largely traders and raiders, setting up their towns on good river sites, and extracting tribute from neighboring Slavic and Finnish tribes, who likely always outnumbered them.

This is very similar to the situation ongoing at the same time on the other end of the Norse world, where French-speaking Normans were in charge of England, while most of their subject people were Anglo-Saxons. Given that both kingdoms reached the same cultural result, it seems reasonable to expect a similar path, where the ruling-class was eventually absorbed, with the Kings being perhaps the last Norse-speakers to become completely assimilated to the local language (and culture).

The rulership line to look at here is the house of Rurik. There is no real (mainstream) debate that the Rus founder (b. 872) was an Old East Norse speaking Varangian prince. He would have been capable of conversing comfortably with the Danes living at that time in England.

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Rurik's grandson Sviatoslav (b. 943), was the first Rurik with a name of Slavic origin, and he worshiped the old Slavic gods, so it appears we may already be there. Sviatoslav did however spend a lot of his time collecting "tribute" from neighboring East Slavic tribes, which seems to indicate the two groups still felt some cultural separation.

His son Vladamir (b. 958?) apparently still had enough cultural ties to the Norse homeland to enable him to go back there and recruit mercenaries to take the throne back from his brother, but everything else about the guy looks Slavic. He had a Slavic name, worshiped Slavic gods, and after assuming the throne mostly only needed to campaign against non-Old East Slavic territory, such as the Poles, Volga Bulgars, Croats, and of course Byzantines. There was mention of conquering the East Slavic(?) Radimiches, and a rebellion among the Baltic Yotvingians. (The fact that we're thinking in terms of "rebellion" rather than "refusing tribute" is pretty telling here)

By the time of Vladamir, large numbers of his (mostly Slavic) subjects had converted to Christianity. Vladamir followed suit in 987, dragging the rest of the country with him. Vladamir's son Yaroslav is accepted by pretty much everyone as fully slavic*, although he did ally himself with Sweden, and married a Swedish princess.

So the answer is that the first fully Old East Slavic Rus' ruler was likely Vladamir, and possibly his father Sviatoslav, but almost certainly his son Yaroslav could be considered fully Slavic.


* - Given that Yaroslav, along with his next 3 successors and his grandfather had names ending in "-slav", the temptation is to say "It's right there in the name!". However, the etymology of the "-slav" ending (Old Slavic for "Glorious") is completely separate from the English word "Slavic". Still, you may notice that's an Old Slavic word, which makes it still a decent point.

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    @SPavel - Yeah, you can see from the answer I didn't even consider Oleg a candidate. Far too much speaks against it. I just find it intriguing how quickly he publicly abandoned the Norse gods for the Slavic. Perhaps he mentally was doing the Roman trick of equating their pantheon to his?
    – T.E.D.
    Feb 5, 2023 at 4:14
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    Perun was essentially Thor and Veles was essentially Loki, so it was not a huge leap of faith (if you'll pardon the pun)
    – SPavel
    Feb 5, 2023 at 4:19
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    @MarkkuP. - That's already been addressed in the answer: "Reliably" we know nothing. However, what happened in a nearly identical situation with another Norse people at the same time in a much better-documented corner of the world can serve us as a useful real-world experiment in how this process works. There's no good reason to believe it may have happened significantly differently in the Rus' domain.
    – T.E.D.
    Feb 5, 2023 at 14:29
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    Good answer. But, OTOH of Markku's comment, deriving from Sviatoslav collecting tribute from East Slavic that he himself was not Slavic seems a little flimsy; history is plenty of countries who have extracted tribute (and worse) from culturally close neighbours.
    – SJuan76
    Feb 5, 2023 at 23:00
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    @SPavel identifying Thor & Perun isn't especially tricky, but identifying Veles & Loki seems like a stretch, especially as we have no unambiguous evidence of Loki prior to the Poetic Edda (best we have are some stones showing men with scarred or sewn lips). There's also no evidence of Loki ever being an object of worship before the rise of modern neo-paganism, whereas there is ample evidence of Veles' worship
    – Tristan
    Feb 6, 2023 at 9:58
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As TED points out, there is a lot of modern "scholarship" on the topic that attempts to backdate Slavic identity to Oleg or even Rurik. But the best sources we have for that time period remain the Primary Chronicle and observations of Arab, Latin, and Byzantine emissaries, so these are the sources I cite:

Possibly Svyatoslav I of Kiev

The chronology of Varangian Rus rulers is well-established: Rurik was succeeded by Oleg (Helgi) who took Kiev, then Rurik's son Igor (Ingar).

Things get a little bit interesting when Igor is killed by Drevlians and his wife Olga (Helga) takes the throne. While Helga is usually considered to be of Varangian origin, some scholarship places her as Bolgar :

Игорѧ жє ожєни [Ѻльгъ] въ Българѣхъ, поѧтъ жє за нєго кнѧжну Ѻлгу

Igor was married [by Oleg] among the Bulgarians, to the duchess Olga

Either way, their son Svyatoslav notably has a Slavic name (Svyato - holy or arguably Sveto - bright, Slava - glory). He famously spurned his mother's conversion to Christianity (source: Tale of Bygone Years aka the Primary Chronicle):

Он же не послушался матери, продолжая жить по языческим обычаям.

He did not listen to his mother, continuing to live by pagan tradition.

However, the chronicle does not mention which pagan tradition he followed (Norse or Slavic), as the monk writing it would not have given the distinction much thought.

Certainly Vladimir the Great

Also named in the Slavic fashion, Svyatoslav's son Vladimir (Vlad - rule/possession, mir - world) was raised by Dobrynia, a Volhynian Slav. Vladimir is famous for baptizing the Rus people, thereby cutting any remaining traditional links to Varangian culture. Notably, Scandinavian names disappear from the chronicle past this point. The heroes and notables of Rus, from Vladimir onwards, are Orthodox Slavs rather than Norse Varangians.

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    There are some subtle differences between the upshot of this answer and the one I gave. Nevertheless I consider this answer equally correct (within the fuzzy bounds of what sources we have to work with), and have upvoted it.
    – T.E.D.
    Feb 5, 2023 at 4:28
  • Thank you, great answer! I raised the question of whether name origin and worshipping Slavic gods is enough to consider the rulers to absorbed into the Slavic culture in the comments of TED's answer.
    – Markku P.
    Feb 5, 2023 at 10:21
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    This answer could be helped by adding some years so that it can be compared to TED's answer (especially given some spelling differences between the answers). Feb 6, 2023 at 14:58
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    I'm not disputing this, but the idea occurred to me that do we really know when they had a Slavic or Varangian name (as used day to day in their household)? A Chronicle or other record by a non-Varangian might list the person's name in their (the Chronicler's) own language or a transliteration or translation or other variant, for the benefit of the readers, when mentioning that person. It says nothing of how that person referred to themselves.
    – chadbag
    Feb 6, 2023 at 20:24

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