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The Rus are a people described in historical documents as traders and chiefs who were instrumental in the formation of the ancient Russian state between a.d. 750 and 1000. Historians and archaeologists have studied the Rus and their role in the development of early Russian towns and the Russian state.

historical and linguistic evidence

The term "Rus" first appeared around a.d. 830 or 840 in western and eastern historical sources as a designation for traders. Linguistic studies indicate that the word is derived from the Finnish Ruotsi, meaning "Swedes." Ruotsi, in turn, is loaned from the word that seafaring Swedes used to describe themselves during the pre-Viking period. The sailors used the Old Scandinavian rodr, characterizing themselves as a "crew of oarsmen."

From the beginning, then, Rus had both an ethnic and a social (or professional) meaning—indicating both "Scandinavian" and "seafarer." In eighth- and ninth-century historical documents, the ethnic significance of Rus appeared predominant. For example, an entry by Prudentius, bishop of Troyes, for the year 839 in the Annales Bertiniani records a diplomatic mission from Theophilus of Byzantium to Louis the Pious of Ingelheim, explaining that men who called themselves "Rhos" were "Swedes by origin." Similarly, Liutprand, Bishop of Cremona, after a visit to Constantinople in 968, mentioned in his Antapodosis the "Rus, whom we call by another name: Northmen."

By the mid-tenth century, the term "Rus" had changed in meaning to refer to the ruling class who were instrumental in the establishment of the Russian state in Kiev. Scandinavians were present among the retainers of the early Russian state, but Rus now could be used to refer to all individuals belonging to this elite warrior group, Scandinavian or not. An example of the new social meaning of Rus is found in the Byzantine document De administrando imperio from around 950, which describes the Rus in terms of their trade routes and the peoples who owed them tribute. Once Rus lost its ethnic significance, a new term, Varangian, was used to specify Scandinavians. The Russian Primary Chronicle, compiled about a.d. 1110, identifies Rurik, the first ruler of Russia, as a Varangian, or Swede.

On the basis of historical sources, eighteenth- and nineteenth-century scholars concluded that elite Scandinavians founded the Russian state, held high rank and status in Russian society, and served as mercenaries in Russia and Byzantium. Later scholars, both historians and archaeologists, have taken a more moderate view, arguing that Scandinavians had a significant role in early Russia but that Slavic, Finno-Ugric, and Baltic peoples who settled in the region also participated in the creation of the early Russian state.

archaeological evidence

Excavations of early Russian towns provide evidence of the social, political, and economic development of the early Russian state, contributing significantly to our knowledge of the Rus and their activities in eighth- to eleventh-century Russia. The archaeological evidence does not prove the claims of the Russian Primary Chronicle that Swedes founded Staraya Ladoga, Novgorod, and other early Russian towns, but it does suggest that Scandinavians may have had a significant role in their early development. Like the historical data, the archaeological data show a gradual assimilation of the Rus into the multiethnic society of the emerging Russian state.

Archaeological evidence indicates that early Russian towns, such as Rurik Gorodishche and Staraya Ladoga, had multiethnic populations, who participated in an economy focused on long-distance trade and craft production. During the ninth and tenth centuries Rurik Gorodishche, for example, imported goods from the Mediterranean, the Baltic Sea, and Scandinavia. Scales and weights indicate trade, and tools, production debris, and raw materials suggest craft production. Early Russian towns had a function and nature similar to those of other contemporary Baltic trade towns, including Hedeby and Ribe in Jutland, Birka in central Sweden, and Wolin in modern-day Poland.

Archaeologists have devoted much effort to investigating the ethnic identity of the traders and crafts producers who lived and worked in early Russian towns. Their research shows that Slavic, Scandinavian, Baltic, and Finno-Ugric residents lived side by side and engaged in similar activities, including agriculture, craft production, trade, and military service. Excavated burial sites associated with early Russian towns imply significant cultural contact among the various ethnic groups in ancient Russia. This is seen in the mixture of Baltic, Finno-Ugric, Scandinavian, and Slavic material in cemeteries of the eighth to eleventh centuries—and even within individual graves.

Because of the linguistic and historical evidence suggesting that the Rus were Swedish, careful attention has been paid to the timing and nature of the Scandinavian presence in early Russian towns. Scandinavian artifacts are found in the earliest layers of Staraya Ladoga and Rurik Gorodishche and comprise items that probably came to the town as personal possessions, not trade goods. Examples of such finds include humble objects inscribed with runes and characteristically Scandinavian ornaments, combs, footwear, and gaming pieces. One of the most interesting features excavated at Staraya Ladoga is a late eighth- or early ninth-century smithy, containing tools and a bronze figurine of Scandinavian style, hinting that the smith may have been a resident Scandinavian.

Scandinavian graves have been reliably identified in many early towns, among them, Staraya Ladoga and Novgorod on the Volga trade route and Gnezdovo/Smolensk and Kiev on the Dnieper trade route. Based on their burials, the majority of Scandinavians who were active in ancient Russia appear to have been traders and warriors. A limited number of graves include both men and women, intimating that at least some Scandinavians were settled in Russia, living a stable, domestic life. Comparisons of the Scandinavian finds with other graves in Russia and Sweden give the impression that Scandinavians were among the wealthier residents of Russia (but not as wealthy as the elite class of Scandinavia).

the rus in early russia

Altogether, the historical and archaeological evidence suggests that the Rus were traders and crafts producers, who were important to the economic and political development of early Russian towns. The cultural, social, and political processes of early state development in Russia are reflected both in the changing meaning of "Rus" through time and the increasing homogenization of the material culture. Originally referring to Scandinavian traders, the name "Rus" soon came to mean any member of the urban ruling class, who collected tribute from the peoples settled in early Russia. Both the early Rus traders and the later Rus chieftains were active in and associated with towns. Archaeological finds from burials and towns indicate that these traders and chieftains included Scandinavians, together with other ethnic groups. Both the historical and archaeological evidence show that the legacy of the Rus—the development of towns and a specialized, urban economy—were critical to the formation of the early Russian state, unified under Kiev c. a.d. 1000.

See alsoRussia/Ukraine (vol. 2, part 7); Staraya Ladoga (vol. 2, part 7).


Melnikova, Elena A., and Vladimir J. Petrukhin. "The Origin and Evolution of the Name Rus: The Scandinavians in Eastern-Europe Ethno-political Process before the Eleventh Century." Tor 23 (1990–1991): 203–234.

Rahbeck-Schmidt, K., ed. Varangian Problems. Scandoslavica supplement 1. Copenhagen, Denmark: Munksgaard, 1970.

Vernadsky, George, ed. A Sourcebook for Russian History from Early Times to 1917. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University, 1972.

Rae Ostman