Rurik and the Foundation of Rus’


Rurik (also spelled Riurik) was a Varangian chieftain who arrived in the Ladoga region in modern-day Russia in 862. He built the Holmgard settlement near Novgorod in the 860s and founded the first significant dynasty in Russian history called the Rurik Dynasty. Rurik and his heirs also established a significant geographical and political formation known as Kievan Rus’, the first incarnation of modern Russia. The Rurik rulers continued to rule Russia into the 16th century and the mythology surrounding the man Rurik is often referred to as the official beginning of Russian history.

Primary Chronicle

The identity of the mythic leader Rurik remains obscure and unknown. His original birthplace, family history, and titles are shrouded in mystery with very few historical clues. Some 19th-century scholars attempted to identify him as Rorik of Dorestad (a Viking-Age trading outpost situated in the northern part of modern-day Germany). However, no concrete evidence exists to confirm this particular origin story.

The debate also continues as to how Rurik came to control the Novgorod region. However, some clues are available from the Primary Chronicle. This document is also known as The Tale of Bygone Years and was compiled in Kiev around 1113 by the monk Nestor. It relates the history of Kievan Rus’ from 850 to 1110 with various updates and edits made throughout the 12th century by scholarly monks. It is difficult to untangle legend from fact, but this document provides the most promising clues regarding Rurik. The Primary Chronicle contends the Varangians were a Viking group, most likely from Sweden or northern Germany, who controlled trade routes across northern Russia and tied together various cultures across Eurasia.

The various tribal groups, including Chuds, Eastern Slavs, Merias, Veses, and Krivichs, along the northern trade routes near Novgorod often cooperated with the Varangian Rus’ leaders. But in the late 850s they rose up in rebellion, according to the Primary Chronicle. However, soon after this rebellion, the local tribes near the Novgorod region began to experience internal disorder and conflict. These events prompted local tribal leaders to invite Rurik and his Varangian leaders back to the region in 862 to reinstate peace and order. This moment in history is known as the Invitation of the Varangians and is commonly regarded as the starting point of official Russian history.

Development Of Kievan Rus’

According to legend, at the call of the local tribal leaders Rurik, along with his brothers Truvor and Sineus, founded the Holmgard settlement in Ladoga. This settlement is supposed to be at the site of modern-day Novgorod. However, newer archeological evidence suggests that Novgorod was not regularly settled until the 10th century, leading some to speculate that Holmgard refers to a smaller settlement just southeast of the city. The founding of Holmgard signaled a new era in Russian history and the three brothers became the famous founders of the first Rus’ ruling dynasty.

Rurik died in 879 and his successor, Oleg, continued the Varangian Rus’ expansion in 882 by taking the southern city of Kiev from the Khasars and establishing the medieval state of Kievan Rus’. The capital officially moved to Kiev at this point. With this shift in power, there were two distinct capitals in Kievan Rus’, the northern seat of Novgorod and the southern center in Kiev. In Kievan Rus’ tradition, the heir apparent would oversee the northern site of Novgorod while the ruling Rus’ king stayed in Kiev. Over the next 100 years local tribes consolidated and unified under the Rurik Dynasty, although local fractures and cultural differences continued to play a significant role in the attempt to maintain order under Varangian rule.