The roots of Russia: from the early East Slavs to the Grand Duchy of Moscow (I)

Today we start publishing a series of essays on the Russian history produced by the French political and financial analyst Julien Paolantoni. Originally published by the Global Research two years ago, this piece may acquire a new reading now  when the whole world got inspired or indignated (not indifferent anyway) by the Russian policy in Crimea, Ukraine or elsewhere. What these chapters present is not merely a millenium-long history of Russia, but the whole Russian civilization in its plentitud and socio-cultural connections. We believe it is important to renew this publication on a Russia-affiliated source after careful perusal by a Russian historian. These essays,  abundantly and exclusively furnished with the links to relevant sources and visual material, may serve as an entry gate to the magnificent palace of the Russian civilization for every interested individual.

Each part deals with the political, economic and intellectual context of a specific time frame.


This series is aimed at shedding light over contemporary Russian affairs, as I firmly believe that in order to analyze properly current international relations, one must get a strong historical background.

Part 1 will be dedicated to the foundation of the Russian state, and the process, as we will see, began way before 862. Indeed, a political embryo emerged with the state of Gardaríki, centered in Novgorod, which included the areas inhabited by Votes, Veps and Ilmen Slavs. It was set up by the Varangian chief Rurik in 862, marking the traditional beginning of Russian history (according to latest DNA analysis of surviving male descendants of Rurikovic dynasty, they most likely have belonged to South Baltic Y-DNA haplogroup N1c1, and have no connection with Varangian roots – OR)

But before the creation of Gardaríki, many nomad tribes settled the land, and their influence over the early Russian state will be further discussed. Then, Rurik’s successor, Oleg of Novgorod founded Kievan Rus’, the first united East Slavic state. Christianity became the official religion of the state in 988, after extended commercial ties with the Bizantine Empire. This crucial event is considered as the beginning of the synthesis between Byzantine and Slavic cultures, which would define Russian culture until the advent of the Empire.

Kievan Rus’ was finally torn apart by the Mongol invasion between 1237 and 1240. In the meantime, regional powers such as Novgorod and Pskov fought to inherit the cultural and political legacy of the former state. However, after the 13th century, Moscow asserted itself as the political center of Russia until tsarism.

The conquest of the land by Pre-Slavic inhabitants and early East Slavs


In classical antiquity, the Pontic Steppe was known as Scythia and the term Scythian, like Cimmerian, was used to refer to a variety of groups from the Black Sea to Central Asia and southern Siberia. Archeological evidence of these civilizations were found during the 20th century in places like Arkaim, Sintashta, Ipatovo, and Pazyryk.

The Early East Slavs settled Western Russia by moving from Polotsk towards Novgorod and Rostov, and also by heading to Suzdal from Kiev. From the 6th century heretofore they constituted the majority of Western Russia’s population and gradually assimilated the native Finno-Ugric tribes, such as the Meshchera, the Merya and the Muromians.

Traditionally, the changes which took place in eastern Europe during the 6th century are explained through the demographic expansion of Slavic peoples, who carried with them their language and customs.

An ancient Slavic town (reconstruction)
An ancient Slavic town (reconstruction)

But given the extreme diversity of origins among Slavic tribes, there is no consensus regarding the precise location of the Slavic homeland, although a majority of scholars consider the northern Carpathian Mountains as a probable place. The protection of the forest steppe kept most of their culture safe from assimilation. That is true for their languages (except for phonetic) and agricultural techniques.

Basically, when the Hun Empire collapsed, a distinct Eastern Slavic culture emerged and spread to eastern and central Europe. According to Gimburtas:

“Neither Bulgars nor Avars colonized the Balkan Peninsula; after storming Thrace, Illyria and Greece they went back to their territory north of the Danube. It was the Slavs who did the colonizing; . . . entire families or even whole tribes infiltrated lands. As an agricultural people, they constantly sought an outlet for the population surplus. Suppressed for over a millennium by foreign rule of Scythians, Sarmatians and Goths, they had been restricted to a small territory; now the barriers were down and they poured out”.

Besides, Goffart argued that Slavic expansion has been furthered eased by the relative depopulation of Eastern Europe, with significant emigration of Germans, and also by the lack (or ineffectiveness) of state defences in the related territories.

Slavic tribes

However, this point of view has been contested by Nichols:

“Ethnic spreads can involve either the spread of a language to speakers of other languages or the spread of a population. Massive population spread or demographic replacement has probably been a rarity in human history…. There is no reason to assume that the Slavic expansion was a primarily demographic event. Some migration took place, but the parsimonious assumption is the Slavic expansion was primarily a linguistic spread”.

Furthermore, Dolukhanov asserts that the Slavs were able to gain substantial political and military experience thanks to their ties with nomads. That would be the way they emerged as a « dominant force » and established « a new sociopolitical network in the entire area of central and southeastern Europe ».

Yet another concept has been used to explain Slavic expansion: system collapse. According to its proponents, the fall of the Roman Empire on the one hand and the Hun Empire on the other hand enabled some minority groups to take over the land and impose their customs and language.

Moreover, Barford noted that Slavic tribes might have existed in a large area of central-eastern Europe, comprising territories lying between Zarubintsy-Przeworsk and Chernyakov, even prior to the Slavic migrations of the 6th to 9th centuries mentioned above. Then, Geary pointed out that the Slavic outstretch was an addition of local processes resulting in the assimilation of scores of people. It was carried out by small groups of “soldier-farmers” who shared common traditions and language. This decentralized movement was probably what protected Slavic people and their emerging unity from foreign aggressors.

This opinion is strongly upheld by Pohl, stating:

“Avars and Bulgars conformed to the rules of the game established by the Romans. They built up a concentration of military power that was paid, in the last resort, from Roman tax revenues. Therefore they paradoxically depended on the functioning of the Byzantine state. The Slavs managed to keep up their agriculture (and a rather efficient kind of agriculture, by the standards of the time), even in times when they took their part in plundering Roman provinces. The booty they won apparently did not (at least initially) create a new military class with the greed for more and a contempt for peasant’s work, as it did with the Germans. Thus the Slavic model proved an attractive alternative . . . which proved practically indestructible. Slav traditions, language, and culture shaped, or at least influenced, innumerable local and regional communities: a surprising similarity that developed without any central institution to promote it. These regional ethnogeneses inspired by Slavic tradition incorporated considerable remnants of Roman or Germanic population ready enough to give up ethnic identities that had lost their cohesion”.

Greek amphoras found at Taman peninsula (currently Krasnodar region, Russia).
Greek amphoras found at Taman peninsula (currently Krasnodar region, Russia).

Also important is the fact that in the latter part of the 8th century BC, Greek merchants brought classical civilization to Tanais (a city located in the Don River delta) and Phanagoria (which was the largest Greek colony on the Taman peninsula and was chosen by the kings of Bosporus as their capital in Asia). Then, between the 3rd and 6th centuries AD, the Bosphoran Kingdom, which succeeded the Greek colonies, was erased after several invasions carried out by nomad.

Therefore, Greek culture had a significant impact on the initial Slavic culture (it will be discussed later in this article).

Although the study of all those peoples’ culture and history is a major topic from an anthropological point of view, it won’t be further studied here, because their influence on the emerging Russian state has been limited, unlike the one of the Khazars, a Turkic people (not to be confused with the Turkish people, which is just one among many ethnic groups composing the Turkic people). Thereby, this study must begin with an examination of the role held by the Khazars at that time.

To be continued…

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