What Up, Nerds?
So we had the Khazar Khaganate. It was a Jewish feudal state that dominated the pontic steppe of south Russia for maybe a hundred to a hundred and fifty years. And for that century and a half, there was peace. But like all things, that would eventually come to an end.
The Khazar peace was built on the same principle that most national stability is based on: overwhelming power. The Khazars could whip any of the other steppe tribes who tried to cause trouble. And to protect their trading wealth, the Khazars did whoop anybody who seemed like they were going to disturb the peace. So nobody in south Russia was willing to make trouble, and things were tranquil.
|The Khazar Khaganate at around 850 AD is at the top.|
To the south are surrounding Empires, and around Khazaria are the tribes who the Khazars dominated.
And then in the late 800's,there was a revolt among some of the Khazars. The revolt was put down, but the Khazar war drove the Pecheneg tribe off their traditional land in the Khazar orbit. The homeless Pechenegs in turn drove out the Magyars. The Magyars wandered around eastern Europe and stirred up trouble until they eventually settled in modern Hungary and became today's Hungarians.
Still, the first dominos had fallen, and the vassal tribes had begun to slide towards turmoil. More and more tribes were buffeted and forced to move around. The peace and the stability of Khazaria began to break apart. As certainty fell away, the people began to think that the Khazars might not stay in charge forever. And people started to think they could take the Khazars' power for themselves.
Then the Eastern Romans decided to go after the Khazars too. They might as well seize what they could since the Khazars were getting weak. After a war, subterfuge, and a sponsored rebellion the Eastern Roman Empire walked away with the Crimean peninsula.
But the final destruction of the Khazars was coming from another direction.
We start in the late 700's and 800's AD. The Viking age was already in full swing in western Europe. Danish and Norwegian bands were ravaging and settling Ireland, Great Britain, and the Carolingian empire. But the Vikings on the Baltic shore of Scandinavia decided to go the opposite direction. These were the inhabitants of modern Sweden, the Swedes, the Goths, and other less well-known tribes. While the western Scandinavians became famous for pillaging the west, the eastern Scandinavians decided to trade to the east.
The viking way of trade was not what you might call peaceful.
Scandinavian settlers sailed up and down the river systems of Eastern Europe. They searched out good places to both settle and to trade.
Who were they trading with? With the great Eastern Roman Empire and Islamic Caliphate to the south. Then they went back out the Baltic rivers and traded with other Scandinavians as far away as Ireland and Britain. On top of all this, they could extract valued trade goods like amber and furs from the natives of the east European forests.
When they found a good place to build one of their trading towns they would construct well defended commercial forts like Novgorod and Beloozero. Then they struck out from these forts with fire and swords. They subjugated the native peoples and exploited them as best they could to turn an even larger profit. They didn't just take amber and fur, they also took food and slaves.
|Rough extent of Scandinavian settlement at the time of initial Rus' colonization.|
The Eastern Romans called these trading Vikings the Varangians. But the more famous name of their tribe is the Rus.
This Russian civilization started out relatively weak. We think the early Rus lacked a real central authority, and that as a consequence they were a fairly weak group. The Khazars may have ultimately been the ones who imparted a stable government to them. In any case, a Rus Khaganate eventually arose.
The new Russian Khagans lead several attacks south across the black sea against the Eastern Roman Empire. The Romans were busy fighting off the sudden rise of Islam at the time. So the Russian Vikings got as far as Constantinople without a fight. They took a look at the city's impressive Theodosian Walls, pillaged the suburbs and then headed back to Russia. So Russia became something of an international power. Briefly.
|Well, visiting Constantinople's been nice but I think it's about time we go home.|
The Russian ascendancy was short because a rebellion of the native Slavic people took down the Rus Khaganate and drove them back to Sweden in AD 862. The trading forts and viking towns were gone. Russia was almost a very short story.
According to the Russian records, a power vacuum followed the Russian retreat back to the Rus homeland in Sweden. Many Slavic, Baltic, and Finno-Ugric tribes immediately launched wars against and amongst each other. And in the ensuing chaos, a few of the tribes began to wish the old Russian overlords would come back and put things back to the way they used to be. So some of them went to Sweden and asked.
|Of course the Rus were invited into Russia.|
There were more then a few Rus who were happy to oblige. The possibly mythological viking leader Rurik (this is all still according to those Russian records) assembled a force of fighting traders and settlers and sailed a Russian invasion right back up the rivers into Slavland. When Rurik's troops landed they whooped the fractured native tribes, and they reestablished some of the old Rus cities. The great hub at Novgorod was rebuilt and was made the new Russian capital.
The Russians traded out around the north and west of the Khazar Khaganate, going right back to their old commercial ways, but this time they were less eager to sack and ravage the empires than to trade with them. Arab and Roman traders noted the return of their old trading-partners, and wrote about them. The Arabs particularly called the Rus "smelly and unwashed". But they also thought the Russian men were built spectacularly strong and tall. They had ruddy faces and striking blonde hair. They were, in short, stereotypical vikings.
Plus, like most vikings, they shared a particular sense of style. In western Europe they were considered to be dandies and fops. They combed their hair regularly and bathed significantly more often then the few times a year that the English, French, Spanish, or Italians did. So they didn't seem as barbarous as they might have, and the rival imperials were still happy to trade with them in any case.
|Hägar the Hawtness|
Around AD 880 prince Oleg of Novgorod succeeded to Rurik's old position as Prince of Russia. He was eager to extend the borders of his domain, so he led his warriors on a campaign south from Novgorod. They conquered native cities like Smolensk, subjected native tribes, and made their way down the Dneiper River. City after city fell, until in 882 he conquered the great city of Kiev and made it his new capital.
After taking Kiev he spent a few years completing the conquest of all the tribes around his new capital and between it and the old capital at Novgorod. Then he led a war against the Eastern Romans with eighty thousand warriors and two thousand ships. There was no conquest, but he managed to impose a tribute upon the Romans, as well as a commercial treaty, before he eventually died in 912.
|Prince Oleg's campaign to conquer Kiev.|
The view is facing towards western Europe from central Russia.
Oleg's new Kievan Russia would survive his death and even thrive on the land's rich resources and trade. These Russians even began to assimilate to Slavic Culture.
Then Sviatoslav the Brave rose to the throne of Kiev.
Prince Oleg had undoubtedly encroached on Khazaria. Kiev used to be well within the Khazar sphere of influence, and was just across the river from the Khazar Khaganate proper when Khazaria was at its height. But Khazaria had been weakening and retreating, leaving Kiev fairly open to Oleg's conquest. And now the new king Svitoslav had designs on the rest of the country.
Sviatoslav's ultimate objectives were the rich trade routes all the way down the Volga. If the Khazar capital happened to sit on the Volga, that was just too bad.
As his name suggests, Sviatoslav was a Slavicized ruler of Russia, possibly the very first one. He used this identity to his advantage. His first step in taking on Khazaria was to bring all the Khazars' subject Slavs to his banner. He sent out the call and received the backing of the Slavic tribes with only a little bit of difficulty.
He next aimed his warriors at Volga Bulgaria, which was the Bulgarian Kingdom dominating the upper Volga River above Khazaria. The Volga Bulgars had been vassals of the Khazars, but were not overly attached to their masters. After all the Khazars had destroyed their former kingdom of Old Great Bulgaria. Nevertheless, they fought alongside the Khazars. Then when the Khazar-Bulgar coalition lost they began to send Sviatoslav tribute. The Russians had conquered the Upper Volga, and they were ready to head downriver.
|The extent of Kievan Russia when Sviatoslav came to the throne is in dark green.|
Sviatoslav's campaign to crush the Khazars is marked by the arrows.
But first Sviatoslav made a short detour across Khazaria to the Don river. Here he laid siege to the Khazar Fortress of Sarkel, which lay at the heart of the former great Kingdom of Khazaria. He destroyed old Sarkel but left behind Russian Settlers to establish a new fort, which he called Belaya Vyezha. In the Khazar language, "Sarkel" had meant "White Tower," and Belaya Vyezha was the Slavic translation. Sviatoslav intended to re-settle and remake the pontic steppe to his benefit.
Only one target remained for Prince Sviatoslav.
By the time the Russian army reached the Khazar capital at Itil, the Khazar Army was totally beaten. The Russians attacked the city, and they destroyed it. A visitor to the site a short while later said that after the Russians attacked there was no grape or raisin or leaf on a branch remaining in the city. The capital of the Khazars—the heart of the Khazar Khaganate—was dead.
Sviatoslav had secured the Volga River for Russia, and he headed home after the destruction of Itil. He made a stop to conquer the Ossetians on his way home, but he declined to mop up and occupy every corner of Khazaria. Subsequently small Khazar kingdoms would pull themselves and putter along for a few more years, but would eventually fall prey to Pecheneg and Cuman conquerors.
The Khazars had been great rulers and traders at the height of their power barely a century before. But they had been shaken by war and broken by the Viking Russians in quick succession. And so the story of the second Jewish nation in history came to an end.
Of course, the history of the Russian nation had only just begun.
Britannica Online Encyclopedia
Larry Gonick's Cartoon History Series
and of course, Wikipedia
Fun fact: If you google "Rus," you will find a million links to "Toys R' Us." Dammit.