New Podcast Available! Who Were the Rus?

Who were the Rus? Host Valur Gunnarsson speaks with Dr. Sverrir Jakobsson, one of the worlds’ leading authorities, about all things Rus. Where did they come from, and how did they impact the Middle Ages as well as the world we know today? (In English)

Part 2 of the Legends of the Eastern Vikings Podcast.

Spotify – Legends of the Eastern Vikings: Who were the Varangians and the Rus, with Dr. Sverrir Jakobsson – Legends of the Eastern Vikings | Podcast on Spotify

(see also the Podcast Page for Part 1)

Ukrainians March to Commemorate St. Volodymyr

This week, Ukrainians celebrated 1033 years since the adoption of Christianity. According to tradition, this took place in the summer of 988. Prince Volodymyr (or Vladimir or Valdimar), soon to become a saint, decided he needed organised religion to hold his vast realm together. To this end, he summoned emissaries representing the major monotheisms to his court. The great prince found Judaism to be too complicated while Islam banned alcohol which was an obvious no-no. This left the two major strains of Christianity at the time, the Catholic and the Orthodox.

Volodymyr went with Orthodoxy, no doubt the promise of marriage to a Byzantine princess having sweetened the deal. Had he opted otherwise, the history of not just Ukraine, Russia and Belarus, but perhaps also of Europe as a whole, might have been very different. However, Orthodoxy was probably always the front-runner, despite this rather amusing story. The Byzantine Emperor was still the regional great power and Volodymyr’s grandmother Olga had converted, although this did not extend to her subjects.

The day has been an official holiday in Ukraine since 2008. However, it can still be cause for contention. 34 percent of Ukrainians see themselves as belonging to the Kyiv patriarchate which became separate from Moscow in 2019, while 14 percent still look to the Moscow patriarchate. The rest see themselves are being Orthodox of no particular denomination or belonging to other Christian sects.

Putin has emphasised the Christianisation of Rus as an event that unites Russia and Ukraine and came to Kyiv to celebrate in 2013, before the present war started. Ukrainian president Zelensky, however, asked people to stay home to avoid contagion. The mayor of Kyiv did allow the Moscow-led event to take place on July 27th, with tens of thousands of people attending. The next day, the Kyiv patriarchate also held a march. There is now worry that the marching may have been a superspreader event, but participants claim to have faith that God will protect them.

Remembrance of St. Volodymyr of Kyiv and the Day of baptism of Rus celebrated in Ukraine - RISU


Zelensky criticizes Klitschko for allowing religious mass event amid pandemic | KyivPost – Ukraine’s Global Voice

BBC World Service – The Fifth Floor, Kyiv march: ‘Eucharist is our vaccine’

Origin Stories: The Kyivan Rus in Ukrainian Historiography

A new paper is now available in our dissertations segment. Written by your humble editor while on location in Kyiv and having to prolong his stay because of covid, 2020 turned into a very productive period. The stay formed the backdrop to the nr. 1 best-selling non-fiction book Bjarmalönd, now back in the Icelandic charts. The dissertation, which was part of my master’s degree, can be found below. The opening reads:

“The Russians and the Ukrainians, and indeed the Belarusians too, share an origin myth which reaches back to the legendary Rurik’s founding of the kingdom of the Kyivan Rus However, rather than reaching fruition in the early 20th century, as was the case in much of Central Europe, the origin story was subsumed into the Soviet experiment, and only remerged after 1991. It is still very much a work in progress.
Here we will look at how the founding myth of the Rus has been used in the Ukrainian
nation building project, which will unavoidably lead to comparisons with Russia and, to a
lesser extent, other neighbouring countries such as Poland, Belarus and Lithuania. From the Normanist debate of the mid-18th century to the rise of nationalism in the 19th century and the use of the Rus in the the Soviet Union, we turn to the present with its all its historical complexity and political ramifications regarding the relationship between Ukraine and Russia.”

Lokaverkefni: “Origin Stories: The Kyivan Rus in Ukrainian Historiography” | Skemman

New Russia/Ukraine Book at Number 1 in Iceland

The latest work by your humble editor, Bjarmalönd, which is about Russia, Ukraine and surrounding countries, is now out. Written over a 20 year period starting as a Russian Studies student at the University of Helsinki and concluding in Chernobyl during Covid, it is part travelogue, part bildungsroman with a lot of history thrown in for good measure. While the book primarily deals with the post-Soviet sphere in the 21st century, it does go back to the 9th to explore the common origins of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus. And perhaps how different takes on the origin story still influences people today.

Bjarmalönd is currently at number 1 on the Icelandic non-fiction charts and can be bought here in ebook and hardcopy (Icelandic only).

Bjarmalönd – Forlagið bókabúð (

Rus Family Dramas

The Rus may not have looked upon themselves as Russians, Ukrainians or Swedes, but how did they self-identify? And perhaps more importantly, to whom did they owe allegiance. Our podcast with dr. Þórir Hraundal (see under the podcast section) we discussed how various groups of Rus may have competed, fought and even enslaved one another rather than forming one cohesive group that saw themselves as distinct from the locals. When the different groups of Rus formed kingdoms centred on Novgorod and later Kyiv, did they see themselves as a tribe or a proto-nation of sorts? Or were different dynasties competing? What held the kingdoms together, and why did they so often tear themselves apart?

Dr. Daniel Ostrowski and Christian Raffensberger of the Ukrainian Studies department at Harvard University claims that the people who mattered most to the Rus were in fact the immediate family rather than larger dynasties. In a description of their forthcoming book, they say:

“If dynasties are difficult to discuss in the medieval world, where does this leave us? The answer is with families. Families are the building blocks of dynasties and it is through studying families – fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, and spouses of both – that we are able to better understand the human face of history. Families, in turn, are part of more extended kin entities that we call clans, which themselves can comprise multiple families which may, or may not, always share the same overarching objectives.”

They will be discussing this further at a live zoom session on Wednesday, March 24th, at 16.00 UTC (Greenwich Mean Time)

To register, click the following link. Registration required. Also available on youtube.
The Ruling Families of Rus’ | Ukrainian Research Institute at Harvard University

Belarus: He Who Controls the Present Controls the Past

History is being made these days in Belarus and inevitably whoever comes out on top will have his own of history canonized. The current conflict between Westernizers and Pro-Russian groups goes back over 100 years, each faction viewing historical events in very different terms. The difference between the two is recounted in an article late last year by Moscow-born University of Radford Professor Grigory Ioffe called “Split Identity and a Tug-of-War for Belarus’s Memory.”

For the pro-Russians, the history of Belarus goes back to the Polotsk principality, which was subservient to the Kyivan Rus, the precursor to both modern day Ukraine and Russia. For centuries after the collapse of Kyiv, most of Belarus was occupied by Lithuanians and Poles before being liberated by the Russians in the 18th Century (and again during World War II). The official view, quite neatly, sees Kyiv, Novgorod and Polotsk as separate ancestors of the three eastern Slavic states of Ukraine, Russia and Belarus.

For the Westernizers, the county’s history also begins with Polotsk but here the connection with Kyiv is downplayed. St. Volodymyr is seen to have incorporated the principality against the wishes of the populace (as related in the Primary Chronicle) and so a heritage of resistance to foreign authority is established. Conversely, the union with the Lithuanians and the Poles in the later Middle Ages is seen as having been on equal terms, making Belarus a full member of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. In this narrative, Russia comes the main enemy and the many uprisings of the Poles against the Russians in the 19th Century are seen as joint Polish-Belarusian affairs.

According to Belarusian philosopher (and Westernizer) Valantsyn Akudovich, the former view appeals more to Belarusians as it allows them to be a part of the glory of Russian and Soviet Empires rather than its victims.

Svetlana Tikhanovskaya’s move to Lithuania and Lukashenko’s calls for assistance to Russia can be the seen as the latest chapter in the long running debate about whether Belarus’ history runs through the Grand Duchy of Lithuania or Muscovy, and whether its future belongs to the Westernisers or pro-Russians.

St. Vladimir and Comrade Stalin

Celebrations in Kyiv Rus Park

Despite restrictions, Kyivans celebrated the holiday of Ivan Kupala on July 12th. The holiday is analogous to St John’s Day, known in Scandinavia as Midsommar, Sankthans or Johannus. Ivan is a Slavisation of John and the word kupala probably comes from the proto-slavic “kump,” which means gathering. In the Nordic and Baltic countries, it is celebrated on June 24th but for countries that use the orthodox liturgical calendar such as Ukraine, Russia and Belarus (and even Poland which does not), it is celebrated on July 6-7. or the weekend after, which explains the late date this year.

The occasion is connected with fertility. Young women are supposed to make flower wreaths and float them on the water. If they float, love will come, but if it sinks, it will not. Alternately, men may attempt to capture the wreaths to catch the attention of the woman in question. The celebration is also connected with water and children play pranks, mostly involving pouring water on people.

The main celebrations in Kyiv this year were held at the at Pyrohiv Outdoor Museum of Folk Architecture and at the Kyivan Rus Park. The latter is situated 35 kilometers south of the city and attempts to recreate the ancient town of Kyiv as it stood in the 10th century on a 1 to 1 scale. Only a small part has yet been completed, but it is open to the public on weekends in the summer, with events taking place in full Rus regalia.

“Ukraine is not a 26-year-old country; it is a great state with a history longer than a millennium. It has always been admired and its enemies have always feared it,” says park director Nataliia Koval in the Kyiv Post.

Park founder and “Knyaz of Ancient Kiev” Vladimir Vladimirovich Yanchenko says on its website: “Ancient Kiev became the center of gravity in the process of creation of states of Eastern Europe … Lately, this Rus’ galaxy gave birth to such countries as Ukraine, Russia, Belorussia. So, if we want to strengthen and develop our country – Ukraine, it is necessary to save and protect this gravity of the Kievan Detinets.”

Ukrainian history is still a work in progress and like the Park itself, a stout edifice is being built upon much that remains conjecture. What we know about the Kievan Rus is gleamed from incomplete and sometime contradictory sources, and much is open to debate, whereas the process of nation-building tends to prefer clearer narratives. Nevertheless, leading specialists such as Petro Tolochko of the NASU Institute of Archaeology of Ukraine have been consulted for the recreation. Not everything here may look exactly as it did a thousand years ago, but there is no faulting the ambition.

For more information, see:

The Wise Woman

Ready to read your fortune: The Wise Woman

What’s in a Name? The K-Word in Modern Ukraine

You say Kiev, I say Kyiv. Let’s call the whole thing off. No, the Kiev/Kyiv debate is not the lost verse to a Cole Porter song but rather a very loaded political question in Ukraine these days. Following the Leninopad and the demolition of the 2000 or so Lenin statues remaining during the 2014 Euromaidan revolution (bar two in Chornobyl deemed too radioactive), various cities and towns in Ukraine have undergone a change in spelling to better reflect the Ukrainian language rather than Russian. Odessa has become Odesa, Kharkov switched to Kharkiv and Dnipropetrovsk is now simply Dnipro. The separatists in the Donbass have gone in the other direction, labelling Donetsk with the older name Stalino on ceremonial days. For most of the rest of the country, Kiev has become Kyiv. No more Chicken Kiev. And no more Kievan Rus.

For the Medievalist or Icelander, this should be a matter of scant concern. One can simply go with the ancient moniker Kænugarður, as it is known in the old Norse. Benoît Humbert, is his PhD thesis at the École Pratique des Hautes Études, seems to firmly establish what to the Icelander may seem self-evident, that the name comes from Kæna for ship and garður for town (garden in modern Icelandic), hence ship town.

The Russian Scandinavianist Tatjana N. Jackson says in her article “The North of Eastern Europe in Early Nordic Texts: the Study of Place-Names” that “Kænugarður” was rarely used in the oldest Norse texts from 12th and 13th Century texts compared to Hólmgarður, og Novgorod, no doubt reflecting the direction of Nordic penetration from north to south.

The Ukrainian name is in fact older. Down by the banks of the river Dniepr (or Dnipro) as it passes through K-town is a statue of four people in a boat. At the bow is a woman stretching her arms out, somewhat resembling Kate Winslet doing the same in the film Titanic. Behind her stand three stern-looking men, two carrying spears, the last one a bow. The woman is Lybid and her brothers are Shchek, Khoryv and Kyi. According to tradition they settled in these parts in 482. The three hills were named after each of the brother but the town eventually became known as the namesake of the eldest.

The ship faces downstream from whence they came, which also explains why the right bank of the river as seen on a map is called the left bank by locals and vice versa, which was to become of importance later when all of left bank Ukraine (the right side on the map) was dominated by the Russian Empire and the right bank by the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, a division that reverberates to this day. But it is accounts of people sailing down the Dniepr during the Rus era that our modest website hopes to illuminate.

“The Boat,” as it is sometimes called, has become an emblem of the city, reproduced on countless postcards and was unveiled on the 1500th anniversary of settlement in 1982. One could argue that in some ways this resembles Iceland more than other Nordic countries. Whereas the Norwegians, Swedes and Danes trace their roots deep into the post-ice age past, the Icelanders traditionally claim a definite starting point in 874 as mentioned in the Sagas. In downtown Reykjavíok there is a statue of the first settler Ingólfur Arnarsson dating back to 1924 and portrays the “Father of Iceland” at the helm of a dragon-ship.

Yet whereas Iceland was most probably uninhabited when the Norse first came there, what is now present-day Ukraine most decidedly was not. But more on that later. For now, let us merely establish, out of respect for Kyi and the gang, that we will pander to Ukrainian sensibilities by settling for Kyiv and even Kyivan Rus rather than Kiev. Not everyone writing on this site will do so. And that is fine too.

Valur Gunnarsson