As I crossed the Dnieper, I wondered if Putin really did have a claim to Ukraine, if, like Crimea, this river and its drainage basin were “part of the Russian fatherland,” and if so, notwithstanding, it deserved a chance to define itself anew.
I decided to find an answer based on the river system that runs through this city. I crossed the Darnyts’kyi Bridge and imagined the Sarmatians who lived here two thousand years ago; the Roman campaigns of Trajan that led his cousin, the future emperor Hadrian, to wage war in this taiga; horsemen being swept downriver around chunks of ice; heads stuck on poles; the barbarian chieftains whose language was a blend of Old Iranian, Sanskrit, and Greek, whose modern descendent is Ossetian, today spoken in the highlands of the Caucasus. Ukraine is a wild land filled with a history of virgin warrior women and koumiss, a drink of fermented mare’s milk, and breastplates made from the horse hooves.
Entering, the Vernadsky National Library I considered its imposing facade, a remnant of the stark Soviet yoke of the USSR. My research was limited to English books only, so the overwhelming number which I otherwise would have encountered was immediately reduced to a small fraction, a stack of books about waist-high.
Ukraine’s Early History
I began my research before the founding of Kiev, in the fourth century, when Constantine killed a hundred thousand Goths in his campaign in Sarmatia. The Sarmatians formed an alliance with the Romans against the Huns, and dispersed after their decisive win against Attila at Chalons, the last major battle of the Western Roman Empire. It was during this era that Kiev is said to have been founded.
Over the next few centuries a mix of Finnic, Norse, Turkic, Baltic, Slavic and Hungarian tribes lived around the Dnieper. They wore furs to defend themselves from the cold. They slept in earthen huts. They had no luxuries and their diet was without excesses. They were a hardy, rugged people, who enjoyed no bodily comforts or delicacies. They were distant subjects of the eastern Kingdom of Khazara. To the west was the Byzantine Empire, to the south the Umayyad Caliphate. From the north came the Vikings, the Varangians, who by the mid-9th century, came to rule much of Europe largely through trade.
The Viking Age began during Charlemagne’s Europe at a time when Christians traded fairly only with their fellows and took advantage of pagans. The Vikings’ culture strongly relied upon trade and principles of honor, and some scholars hypothesize that to experience injustice from Christians for their beliefs was reason enough to raid and pillage neighboring lands in revenge.
So came their ships, nearly a hundred feet long, rowed by scores of strongmen. Of oak, bows sealed with walrus fat, prows of fire-gilded dragon heads, scenes from Njaal’s Saga…Thud and bump, the boat has run aground in shallows. The sails are adjusted for stem to become stern as oarsmen jump into the water and pull the barque to deeper waters, splashing carelessly as they vault themselves back into rowing position…
We have relatively few records of what happened during Viking conquests in Eastern Europe compared to the conquests of France and Germany. This is due to the fact that both Vikings and Slavs were non-literate peoples. Those records we do have come from Muslims such as Ibn Rustah, an Iraqi sent on a delegation to the north in 913:
These men, tall in stature and ruddy in appearance, come ashore with onions, meat, milk and beer, and leave their boats to tie these offerings to a stake planted onshore. Here they prostrate themselves on the muddy banks and say, ‘O Lord, I have come from afar with these offerings, let these foreign peoples value my gifts and buy them without much bartering. For this I shall be grateful.’ Then he goes to market and if he does not find a ready buyer, he will return to the stake and present more gifts and offerings, saying, ‘I have brought all of these gifts in thy name, O Lord, please find me a willing trader so that I can return to my homeland with honor.’ Often trade improved and the Viking returned to his boat in the evening to sacrifice goats or cattle and distribute them as alms. The heads of these animals he staked upon poles dedicated to minor gods and the remaining carcasses he left for dogs and birds. The next morning, when the remains were gone he said, ‘My Lord is pleased with me, for he has devoured my offerings.’
Their women come with them, their fair hair tied in braids over their shoulders. They bear necklaces and rings of gold and silver, and the wealth of their men are indicated by how many rings the women have. Above all Northmen value green clay beads. Who knows why? They wear clothing that is clean and valuable, often lined with fur. They are good to their slaves, but are best to their king. He sits high upon a throne with a harem of forty beneath him and four hundred men below. These men are ready to give their lives for him. When he wants to go riding, his men bring him his horse, and when he is done he rides to his throne and makes love to his women.
From this record, a clear picture emerges of the people we know as Vikings, who came to rule over the Slavs. For them, the Dneiper was a primary trade route, from the Baltic to the Mediterranean. They crossed the Euxine to arrive in Byzantium with precious amber, gold of the north, to trade in the spice markets of Constantinople.
How big they are! Their red or fair hair differentiates them from the smaller, darker natives. Like the coasts of Normandy and Sicily provided wine, the spice markets held Persian and Chinese delicacies. Also like the way they did in France, the Vikings assimilated readily into this culture, the best becoming Byzantine emperors’ bodyguards. Though they sometimes battled those with whom they traded, it was usually for control of the waters, and for tithing principles.
We don’t know exactly why, but by 880 the tribes in Kiev refused to pay tribute to the Varangian Rus, driving them back across the sea, seeking to govern themselves. Soon thereafter, civil war erupted. The tribes’ internecine rivalries were insurmountable. Soon they sought intercession from their former rulers. It was then that Rurik came to Novgorod, initiating his eponymous dynasty. His successor Oleg moved the Slavic capital to the more strategic position of Kiev to better protect his kingdom from Khazar raids.
The Rise of Vladimir
Alliances between Kievan Rus, Byzantines and Khazars shifted constantly. At this time, the Khazars’ power was waning, despite the tributes they exacted as dominant power in the east. Their culture was very diverse, composed of Turkic nomads, Jews, Christians, Muslims and pagans. For about three hundred years they had control over the area once known as Scythia, between the Caspian and Black Seas, extending north into the Urals. The Khazars must have feared the Rus people for their raids, especially after the Rus pillaged the Muslims of the Volga. That river too was an important artery, leading the Vikings all the way to Baghdad. But when the Khazars prevented the Rus from sailing down the Volga, they effectively declared war.
In the 940s Byzantium was also at war with the Khazars, at the same time seeking an entente with the Rus people of the north. Rurik’s descendent, Sviatoslav I, battered the Khazar Crimean fortresses of Sarkel and Tamatarkha. By 968, he had sacked the Khazar capital, Atil.
Sviatoslav remained faithful to the Slavic pantheon—copper-bearded Perun, whose hammer always returned to him no matter how many evil spirits he threw it at, seemed a stronger divinity than the merciful Christ-figure. What sort of god was that for a warrior?
Sviatoslav headed east to fight the Bulgars next, but was killed. His son Yaropolk inherited the throne. Yaropolk had one natural brother, who he slew immediately after finding out his father’s death, and Vladimir, an illegitimate half-brother through Sviatoslav’s housemaid Malusha. Legend has it that she was a prophetess who was born in a cave and lived to be a hundred. Vladimir knew that if his brother Yaropolk found him, he would have him beheaded, so he fled to Scandinavia, where he stayed with his distant relation, the king of Sweden. In secret he planned a return to Kiev to reclaim the throne from his evil brother.
Years passed. When Vladimir returned, he was accompanied by Varingian mercenaries, who he had ask Yaropolk for a private meeting between himself as Prince of Sweden, and the King of Kievan Rus. Yaropolk flatly refused.
The next day, Vladimir wore his mercenaries’ costume and led them to Yaropolk bearing a message. As soon as his brother unfurled the paper, the mercenaries attacked Yaropolk’s guards and he revealed himself, stabbing his brother.
Christianization of the Rus People
At this time, Anatolia rose up against Emperor Basil II of Constantinople. For help, he turned to the King of Rus, whose territory stretched from the Black Sea to the Baltic, and the Vistula to the Volga. Vladimir knew what an alliance with Byzantium would yield, but he knew also that to make a true alliance he would have to convert to the Emperor’s religion.
Vladimir was a devout pagan. He erected statues of thunder-god Perun and kept eight hundred concubines. Most of his people followed his decrees, though Christianity was on the rise. When a mob killed two Christians for disrespecting their idols, Vladimir sent his boyars abroad to survey the religions of the world. When they returned they told him about the Muslim Bulgars and their prohibitions against alcohol, which Vladimir rejected, knowing that he could not prevent his people from giving into one of life’s greatest joys. They told him of the Jews from fallen Khazar and Jerusalem. Vladimir replied that their God must have deserted them if they could not even control their ancient capital. “But the Christians,” one of the boyars said, “have Hagia Sophia, and in it are all the mysteries of the world. I thought I was in heaven on earth when I saw this temple, such that now I have not even the words to describe it.”
Upon hearing this, Vladimir pledged the Byzantines six thousand men and assured the emperor that he would take on his religion on the condition that Basil II offer the hand of his sister. The Byzantines considered all northerners barbarians. It was unheard of for an imperial marriage to one of these tribes. Yet Basil II knew that he needed help and so he begged his sister to go, assuring her that she would be rewarded.
When Anna crossed the Black Sea, Vladimir met her in the Crimea for his baptism and marriage. Upon his return to Kiev, Vladimir exhorted all of his citizens, rich and poor, to bathe in the Dnieper and become Christians. Following this mass baptism, he hacked to pieces the statues of Perun and the other Slavic dieties, which he had erected a decade before, throwing them into the river and formally beginning the Christian era of the Slavic people.
It was another hundred years until the founding of Moscow.
I was distracted by a loudspeaker call that the library was closing. I decided to end my studies here, before I became overburdened with information, unable to digest what I had learned. I decided to return to the library tomorrow, to learn more about the Grand Duchy of Moscow, the Mongol yoke, and the territorial gains that led to Peter’s Russian Empire.
As I stepped outside, it was already dark. My seventh day in Ukraine was concluded, and in a sudden change of heart, I decided not to return to the library tomorrow, but to leave Kiev and proceed east. It seemed that the Slavs owed much to the Germanic Vikings who ruled them in the ninth century, and as I crossed that wide river again, this time to return to my hotel for the night, I felt justified in knowing that Putin’s fatherland did not have a historical claim to the Dnieper, that if anything, the Dnieper had a historical claim on Putin.