Where was the Rus’ Khaganate?

Having established in a previous post that there was a Rus’ khaganate, at least to my own satisfaction, the question must be asked: where was it? There’s a lot of literature about this – a staggeringly large amount, in fact, relative to the paucity of the sources. This is what happens when – unlike, say, England or Frisia – the Vikings are either the origins of your national history or very definitely not… Anyway, I haven’t got through it all, but I have noticed a certain degree of consensus emerging. 

Originally, scholarship tended to place the Rus’ khagan (if the scholar in question thought it existed) in Kiev. Kiev was – as the name suggests – the hub of the later Kievan Rus’. The first real history of Russia, the Primary Chronicle, dates Rus’ control of Kiev from the latter part of the ninth century, too late for it to be the home-base of the khagan of 839, but the Primary Chronicle is a highly legendary source. However, we also have a letter from the Jewish community of Kiev, datable to the early part of the tenth century, which was signed off on by an official using the Khazar language, which would seem to imply that the city was under Khazar control at this time. 

Instead, more recent historians’ eyes have turned north. The best-known ninth-century Scandinavian settlement in Russia is at Staraya Ladoga, on the river Volkhov just south of Lake Ladoga and a bit east of modern-day St Petersburg. Archaeological finds show that it was inhabited by people using a Scandinavian-derived material culture from the eighth century. With that said, it doesn’t show many signs of social stratification or fortification until at least the latter ninth century, so some historians have questioned whether it could be called the centre of any kind of well-organised or especially hierarchical polity. Others point towards the centre of Rurikovo Gorodishche, on the outskirts of modern-day Novgorod, which does have this kind of fortified and hierarchical settlement structure: to paraphrase Shepard and Franklin, its location seems to have been chosen for purposes of domination as much as trade. However, it has been questioned whether the dating fits. The site’s beginnings seem to date back to the middle of the ninth century at the earliest – rather too late for a polity that was seemingly a going concern by 839. 

Personally, these arguments seem to be straying a bit closely towards ‘pots = peoples’ territory for my liking. The unspoken assumption is that the Rus’ khagan, evidently being Old Norse speaking and from a Scandinavian background, must necessarily have had a Scandinavian material culture; ergo, where we can’t find Scandinavian material culture we can presume we haven’t found the khagan. However, the most significant thing we know about the khagan is that he came from a political culture which had been very heavily influenced by Turkic-speaking steppe groups. I don’t want to push this point too far – in the early tenth-century, Ibn Fadlan’s account of Rus’ on the Volga described a group with both evidently Khazar-influenced political culture and no few elements of Scandinavian material culture – but it does seem to me that a particularly adaptive group of Northmen might well be archaeologically invisible. 

So what about our written sources? One obvious place to put the Rus’ khagan would be Scandinavia. This suggestion is less nutty than it sounds – given the Annales Bertiniani’s Rus’ identification as Swedes, and the material-culture similarities between eastern European settlements and the major Swedish emporium of Birka, Birka has actually been proposed as the khagan’s home-base. However, we have a very good Frankish source on Sweden for these years – Rimbert’s Life of St Anskar – which refers to a couple of Swedish kings, all of whom are called rex without being glossed as ‘khagan’. Presumably, if a Swedish ruler did have this unusual title, it would have merited some note from Rimbert, who visited Scandinavia often himself.

The Kälversten runestone, commemorating a man who died (with characteristic vagueness) ‘in the East’ (source)

Our other sources are notably vaguer. Probably the most precise geographical information – and I use the word precise loosely – comes from Ibn Rustah, writing at the very start of the tenth century. Ibn Rustah puts the Rus’ in the general proximity of the lands of the saqaliba (there is some debate as to whether this should be understood as ‘Slavs’ or more generically as ‘Northerners’; in this case, the former aspect is clearer). However, he has a very wide idea of where the Slavs/saqaliba are: he puts them in the sixth and seventh ‘climes’ (i.e. zones of the world), which depending on how you read it could go from the northern shores of the Black Sea to the very north of modern-day Russia. Elsewhere, he names the Slavs’ ruler as Sviatopluk, evidently the Moravian ruler, which could put them as far west as modern-day Poland or the Czech Republic. Ibn Rustah does say they live on a large island or peninsula, which has been used as support for Staraya Ladoga; but the precision of his information has also, I think reasonably, been questioned. Other Arabic authors are even vaguer: Ibn Khurdadbeh and his followers put their origins at the furthest point of the northlands, and Ibn Faḍlān simply says that they have territory but doesn’t say where it is. This is echoed by our Byzantine sources: Patriarch Photius of Constantinople refers to the Rus’ as coming from the unheard-of reaches of the far North as well.

That’s all pretty unclear, especially since it could refer to Scandinavia rather than their more proximate origins (think of how William the Conqueror was still being called a ‘North-man’ despite coming from France). So what can we do? There are two things which give us clues. The first is that there are a whole knot of sources emphasising the wide-spread nature of their trade routes. Ibn Khurdadbeh describes the route of the Rus’ to Constantinople and the Caspian Sea – some of them went as far (allegedly) as Seville, China and Baghdad. In the very early tenth century, the document known as the Raffelstetten Toll Inquest describes Rus’ coming to trade on the Middle Danube, on the Bavarian border. (In fact, it describes ‘the Slavs who come from the Rus’, which is interesting in terms of how far south we think Slavic groups are at this point.)

The second is that we have many sources, notably in Arabic and Latin, emphasising the Rus’ association with the Khazars and Volga Bulghars. Ibn Rustah is one of them, as are Ibn Khurdadbeh and Ibn Faḍlān. We already know one of them, the source known as the Bavarian Geographer, from this very blog – that author seems to put the Rus’ between the Khazars and a people called the Uuizunbeire, who have often been argued to be the Bulghars. Moreover, the Tactica of Emperor Leo VI refers to the Rus’ in a very general fashion, as ‘Northern Scythians’, and emphasises their military similarities to the Magyars and the peoples of the northern steppe. Ibn Faḍlān describes the Rus’ ruler spending his time on an enormous golden throne which has striking similarities to Menander Protector’s description of the sixth-century Western Goktürk ruler Istämi. Photius’ sermons on the Rus’ note they are nomadic. The letter of Louis II implies the Rus’ are lumped in with steppe or immediately steppe-adjacent peoples such as the Khazars, Avars, and Bulgars (in this case probably the ones in the Balkans).

I recently read Lakota America by Pekka Hämäläinen, and one of its most interesting points that I keep thinking about is that the deep-rooted assumption that different polities won’t share overlapping territories is a modern assumption. I wonder, then, if the Rus’ khaganate wasn’t anywhere in particular; or, rather, if it was diffused at least partially through the same physical space as the Khazars and their neighbours. This would explain why archaeological traces of Scandinavian presence do not, quite, match up to written sources describing where the Rus’ were. It also implies that the big growth in Scandinavian artefacts found in eastern Europe at the start of the tenth century may have been a cultural change amongst pre-existing populations with some kind of tie to Scandinavia rather than evidence for migration or population spread. Of course, the tenth century is also when references to the Rus’ khagan quite quickly peter out – perhaps the first Kieven Rus’ princes were living in the recently dismembered corpse of this shadowy ninth-century khaganate? 

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