Russia: Tsarist and Communist

By Anatole G. Mazour | Go to book overview

2
The Appearance of the Varangians

THE PLAINS of Russia invited many an invader from the east; none left a deep imprint upon history, though each left something behind as he moved westward or merely vanished from the scene. The result has been a fusion of races and cultures over a long period of time. The geography of the area settled by a given people generally determines its occupation. The Russian plain, for example, was especially suited for agriculture, and Russians, like their Scythian predecessors, were farmers. Trapping was also an important occupation, and by the eighth century a considerable development of trade is noted.

The network of rivers permitted the early traveler to journey with relative ease from the Scandinavian and Baltic areas to the northern shores of the Black Sea. From here he would be tempted to try his luck across the sea and to reach the city of Constantinople, capital of the fabulously wealthy Byzantine Empire and emporium of intercontinental trade. Lured by the glitter of wealth, potential trade profits, or sheer adventure, Norsemen became instrumental in pioneering the ties between the northern peoples and Byzantium. The appearance of the Varangian had special significance for the eastern Slavs, the Russians.

The Swedes, Norwegians, and Danes of today are a far cry from the Norsemen who terrorized the continent of Europe, but from about the end of the eighth until the middle of the tenth century their forefathers were the dread of western Europe. During this period the western coasts, including the British Isles and Ireland, were subjected to systematic and most devasting raids. Though backward in every respect, the Norsemen were superb and courageous seamen and shipbuilders. They sailed their sturdy boats south as far as southern Italy in the Mediterranean and westward to Greenland; they were the first to reach the continent of North America. On land they proved equally skillful as horsemen, and were thus able to raid the countryside almost with impunity. Of all the countries Britain, France, and Spain suffered most from these Nordic invasions.

Yet along with devastation the Norse incursions brought commerce and trade. The Varangian route that ran from the Baltic and the Gulf of Finland by river and portage is famous in history. From the mouth of the Dvina on the Baltic coast Norsemen descended the Dnieper to the Black Sea; or from the southeastern shore of the Gulf of Finland they followed the Neva to Lake Ladoga and then by way of the Lovat and portages

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