Normanist Controversy

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The Normanist Controversy is the most tendentious issue in early Russian history. It centers on the degree of influence Scandinavians had on the foundation of Kievan Rus and early Rus law, government, language, paganism, and trade. Normanist scholars argue for varying degrees of Scandinavian influence, and their opponents are anti-Normanists.

The controversy's origins date to the mid-eighteenth century, when historians, many of ethnic German background, began to publish the medieval Russian sources. It initially focused on the ethnic attribution of the Rus tribe (Greek Ros, Arabic ar-Rus ), the name for Rurik and his clan, who were allegedly invited by a confederation of Slavic and Finnic tribes to rule over them in 862. The first Normanist scholars (Bayer, Müller, Schlötzer) argued that the Rus were a tribe deriving their name either from their homeland, Roslagen in central Sweden, or from the Finnic word for Swedes, Ruotsi. Further, they noted the Norse personal names in the 911 and 940 treaties between the Rus and Byzantium, Constantine Porphyrogenitus's listing of both Slavic and Norse names for the Dnieper cataracts, and more than fifty Norse words in the Russian language. Norse origins were also ascribed to early Rus law and the pagan Slavic pantheon. Mikhail Lomonosov and other early anti-Normanists argued that the Rus were Slavs who were named after a right-bank tributary of the Dnieper, the Ros River.

Nineteenth-century debates were shaped by German and Russian nationalism and the publication of more sources on the Rus, such as the medieval Arab and Persian geographical accounts (Ibn Khurdadbheh, Ibn Rusta, Ibn Fadlan), which mention a people called the ar-Rus who traded along the Russian river systems. The ar-Rus differed from other fair-skinned peoples of the north, including the Slavs (Saqalib). Although this theory is compelling, the medieval Islamic authors appeared to use ar-Rus as an occupational descriptive rather than an ethnic indicator, since they had not been to Rus themselves and could therefore not distinguish a Scandinavian from other peoples of the north. Nineteenth-century research also showed no more than sixteen Norse words in Russian, the independent development of Rus law and Scandinavian law, and a common Indo-European origin of both the Scandinavian and Slavic gods and languages.

Having exhausted the written texts, the Normanist and anti-Normanist schools stood firmly entrenched in the early twentieth century. The new scientific archaeology and innovations in the methodology of historical numismatics, however, revealed fresh source material, and henceforth the Normanist Controversy became an archaeological and numismatic question. In 1914, Swedish archaeologist T. J. Arne argued for a mass Vikingage Scandinavian colonization of Eastern Europe. Arne's theories remained largely unchallenged until the 1940s, when anti-Normanism, in part a reaction to the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, was proclaimed official Soviet state dogma. Postwar USSR witnessed a golden age for Soviet archaeology, with the state sponsorship of thousands of archaeological excavations. Key to the anti-Normanist position were the excavations at Gnezdovo and Staraya Ladoga, near Smolensk and Novgorod respectively. Normanists considered both to be Scandinavian settlements, but Soviet archaeologists (Artsikhovsky, Avdusin, Ravdonikas) claimed minimal evidence for Scandinavian residence at these sites. Soviet scholars did not deny the passage of Scandinavians through Russia for purposes of international trade between northern Europe and the Islamic caliphate; they simply rejected that a mass Scandinavian colonization took place or that the colonists founded the Kievan state.

The 1970s onward has witnessed a convergence between the extremes of the Normanist and anti-Normanist positions. More recent excavations at sites with Scandinavian material and long-distance trade goods (Islamic silver dirhams, Eastern beads), indicate that Scandinavians maintained an active exchange network in the late eighth and ninth centuries with the Near East and, in the tenth century, mainly with Central Asia. Based on the current state of research, therefore, it is possible to reconstruct the following chronology of Scandinavian activity in eastern Europe. From the 760s, Scandinavians lived part of the year at Staraya Ladoga on the lower Volkhov River, where goods were reloaded from large seagoing vessels to smaller craft more appropriate for the journey along eastern Europe's often-treacherous rivers. By the early ninth century, when trade with the Near East was fully underway, other settlements formed to the south of Ladoga along the entire Volkhov River, which serviced the north-south trade. In the 860s, Rurikovo gorodishche, the Volkhov's largest settlement, with strong Scandinavian and West Slavic elements and precursor to Novgorod, was founded. To the west, a second albeit less archaeologically discernible trade route with a few Scandinavian finds begins to the south of Lake Peipus at Izborsk, Kamno, and Pskov, possibly from the beginning of the ninth century. Both routes connect to the south and east, to the watersheds of the Western Dvina, Dnieper, and Volga rivers.

Archaeological and numismatic evidence implies that the 860s and 870s were a turbulent period: the burning down of Staraya Ladoga and Pskov, a smaller fire at Rurikovo gorodishche, and a marked increase in the deposition of coin hoards, suggesting times of danger. At the same time, the written sources speak of the invitation to Rurik and the unsuccessful Viking attack on Constantinople in 860. Finally, in the 880s and 890s there occurred a major decline in the import of silver and beads from the Near East. However, in around 900 new routes were opened with Central Asia, which provided an unprecedented new source of silver and other goods. Additionally, at this time Staraya Ladoga and Rurikovo underwent expansion, Scan-dinavian-style graves appeared to the southeast of Lake Ladoga, and the Lake Peipus trade was concentrated at a reconstructed Pskov.

A strong Scandinavian presence has become evident to the south, with the beginning of settlement and the cemeteries at Gnezdovo, and further south at Shestovitsa on the middle Dnieper River. Such phenomena are contemporary with the Russian Primary Chronicle's account of the Rus expansion to Kiev beginning in the late ninth century and Rus attacks on Byzantine territories including Constantinople in 907/911 and 940. The revival of the Rus trade with the Islamic East is seen also in the hundreds of hoards of mostly Central Asian dirhams deposited in eastern Europe's soil during the tenth century. Thomas Noonan estimates that during the tenth century more than 125 million dirhams from Central Asia alone were exported to northern Europe, which were exchanged for products of the northern forests, such as furs, honey, wax, sword blades, walrus ivory, and slaves. From the 950s, however, a silver crisis in Central Asia and the subsequent decline in the export of silver initiated a reorientation in Rus trade, with silver thenceforward coming to Kievan Rus from western and central Europe. By the late tenth century, archaeological signs of Scandinavian activity diminish, even though the Russian Primary Chronicle and Icelandic sagas speak of Scandinavians enlisting as mercenaries in the courts of Kievan Rus and Byzantium throughout the eleventh century. One must bear in mind, however, that there were never many Scandinavians on the territory of eastern Europe at any given time, with no more than two hundred Scan-dinavian graves found there for a more than two-hundred year period.

Taken as a whole, the archaeological, numismatic, and textual evidence clearly shows Scandinavian influence during the pre-Kievan and Kievan periods. The main question, however, remains: What role did the Scandinavians actually play in the Kievan state-building process? Prior to the arrival of Scandinavians and Slavs to northwestern Russia in the eighth and ninth centuries, the region was sparsely populated by small groups of Finno-Ugric hunters and gatherers. There were simply no wealthy peoples to colonize or raid, in contrast with the burgeoning Anglo-Saxon or Carolingian states. In this light, it is more prudent to place Scan-dinavian activity in an inclusive model of inter-ethnic economic cooperation, such as one of regional survival strategies developed by Noonan. Early medieval European Russia was home to many ethnic groups, all practicing different survival strategies, all of which were essential to the development of the Kievan Rus economy and state. The Finno-Ugrian tribes of the northern Russian forests were consummate hunters who supplied the furs sought after by foreign and domestic markets. The Slavic agriculturalists, migrating from the fertile lands of southwestern Ukraine, brought advanced farming techniques and tribal administrative experience. Nomadic Turkic pastoralists residing in the Rus steppe zone introduced mounted-fighting tactics to the Slavic population. Finally, the Scandinavians contributed the long-distance shipping, commercial practices, and a military organization (including weapons) that facilitated the Islamic and Byzantine trade. Using older, more localized routes, the Scan-dinavians helped to create a commercial system that united all of European Russia for the first time in its history. Thus, the joining of these diverse economic strategies created conditions for the emergence of a powerful state in a territory that was both geographically and climatically daunting to maintain given the rudimentary communication and transportation systems of the early Middle Ages.

The Scandinavians, therefore, played an important role in the creation of the Kievan state, but they were only part of a complex ethno-cultural process. Normanists and anti-Normanists have benefited progressively from nineteenth-century advances in Indo-European linguistics, studies in comparative religion, and modern archaeological and numismatic research. The Normanist Controversy is placed into proper perspective by moving away from the emphasis placed on this one group by the medieval chroniclers and, instead, viewing it in the light of modern research that examines the development of eastern Europe as a whole.

See also: gnezdovo; kievan rus; novgorod the great; primary chronicle; vikings


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Heidi M. Sherman

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Normanist Controversy

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