A new study published in the journal Russian History has revealed some surprising details about economic, political, and cultural developments in medieval and modern Russia. It seems that the Russian versions of the Vikings, the famed Scandinavian conquerors and marauders who profoundly influenced societal development throughout Eurasia more than 1,000 years ago, had an outsized impact on Russia´s subsequent history. Even today, the author of the new study states, Russian society is still feeling the impact of its pillaging-and-plundering past, which ended much later than the Scandinavian era it copied.
The new study argues that modern-day Russia has been profoundly affected by its Viking style past. ( Nejron Photo / Adobe Stock)
The Long History of Viking style Pillaging and Plundering in Russia
At the dawn of the 12th century, the Viking era of European history had already ended. Or at least, this is what the traditional storyline claims. In fact, the ravages of the Scandinavia-based Vikings and their Viking style culture of pillaging and plundering were part of a wider cultural trend. In Eurasia, pillaging, plundering, and piracy predominated in many areas in the late first millennium and beyond, before more centralized kingdoms arose to suppress such activity.
In Russia, rule by kings and aristocratic families was slow to materialize. In some parts of the country, it never materialized at all. Consequently, the eastern Russian version of the Viking style plunder-based culture and economy continued to control local politics in certain areas well into the late Middle Ages.
Even after Scandinavian’s Vikings had met their demise, Russia’s Viking style plunderers maintained their power for centuries, specifically in the eastern part of the nation. As late as the late 17th century, Russian gangs and warlord clans following the Viking model were still sailing their ships up the rivers of Siberia, gaining access to remote lands where local populations remained vulnerable to their predations. Such out-of-the-way locations allowed Viking style raiders to establish their own small fiefdoms, where they were free to pursue their dastardly methods for accruing wealth without fear of disruption.
Even in more heavily populated areas of Russia, raiding activity was still practiced centuries after it had ended elsewhere. It continued through the early stages of Russia’s medieval political consolidation, adding a contradictory element to the society’s development.
“The difference between princely power and independent raiders wasn’t always clear,” explained Professor Jukka Korpela , the author of the new Russian History article, in a press release from the University of Eastern Finland (Korpela’s employer). “For example, the Novgorodian chronicle speaks about Grand Prince Yuriy Danilovich in official terms, so Western historiography considers him one of the founders of Moscow. Yet, in an entry from 1325, he is also described as a raider.”
Vikings Heading for Land, by Frank Bernard Dicksee. ( Public domain )
The Shift to Centralized Power in Russia, or Was it?
But by the 15th century, the political situation had clearly shifted. Aristocrats in Moscow had begun to assert their absolute dominance of the political scene in the western and central areas of Russia. After assuming the title of Grand Prince of all Rus’ (as Russia was known at that time) in 1462, Ivan III, or Ivan the Great , took multiple steps to consolidate his rule and bring the entire nation under his authority.
Some leaders of the various Viking style raiding bands chose to support the increasingly powerful central regime at this time, while others defied the kingdom to continue their raiding and pillaging for as long as they could. At last, it seemed, supreme royal authority had come to Russia, meaning political life would be permanently transformed. But it proved difficult for Moscow to manage such a large and unwieldy country.
In the east of Russia, Central Asian clan societies resisted the advance of centralizing authority. In the Volga, Caucasus, and Caspian regions, independent warlords continued to pursue a solitary course, raiding and plundering as they always had, despite Moscow’s determination to reign them in. The riches these warlords brought to local economies gave them broad-based support in their homelands, and the central authorities ultimately lacked the reach and the manpower to force them to submit.
“Raiding by private warlords was beneficial to local economies,” Professor Korpela confirmed . But he points out that this resistance to reform had a more lasting consequence. “This system became integrated into the structure of Eastern princely powers, because the European sovereign realms and their legal structure did not materialize in the East,” he continued. “It’s vital to realize this in order to understand contemporary Russia.”
In other words, the princes in eastern Russia were the independent warlords, even if they didn’t think of themselves as royalty. In some peripheral areas of Russia, raiding activity actually lasted into the 19th century, which reveals just how much power the warlords had in certain areas of the country.
Ivan III, or Ivan the Great, took multiple steps to consolidate his rule and bring the entire nation under his authority. (DJcrowie181 / CC BY-SA 4.0 )
Scandinavia and Russia and their Alternative Timelines
In Scandinavia, events in the early second millennium brought about a rapid decline in Viking style culture. During this time new kingdoms arose in Denmark, Norway, and Sweden, and the rulers of these states increasingly sought integration into the greater European Christian alliance of nations.
Christianity was a late arrival to Scandinavian lands, with only sporadic efforts to Christianize the region in evidence from the eighth through the 10th centuries. But eventually the conversion process picked up steam. Between 1104 and 1164 the kingdoms of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden established their own separate archdioceses, responsible directly to the Pope, and this represented a decisive milestone that officially verified the political union of Scandinavia with the rest of the European Christian world.
This cultural sea change dramatically altered the expectations of political leaders in Viking strongholds. They no longer saw themselves as separate from European society and culture as a whole. From their perspective, Viking raiders increasingly became an anachronism, a relic from another time when more wealth could be gained from plunder and forced trade that from legitimate alliance building. It was inevitable that the Viking Age in Scandinavia would come to an end as a result of these society-altering changes, and that’s what happened in the 12th century.
The timeline in Russia was totally different. The forces that helped subdue the Russian version of the Viking raiders only began to accelerate in the 15th century, and its scope and influence proved to be limited. If Professor Korpela is right, this unique history significantly influenced Russia’s historical arc.
In 1917 Russia experienced the most monumental revolution of the past 200 years, the Bolshevik Revolution, which may not have happened if its ruling aristocracy had established a firmer grip over the entire nation at an earlier period. And following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia soon degenerated into a mega-corrupt society run by super-wealthy Russian oligarchs who have been guilty of their own version of looting and pillaging. These individuals would seem to have a lot in common with the warlords of Russia’s past, and perhaps that parallel is more than a coincidence.
Would this history have been different if Viking style rule had disappeared completely from Russia 800 or 900 years ago? There is no way to say for sure, but Professor Korpela’s thesis remains intriguing and provocative, nonetheless.
Top image: Viking style conquest had a profound impact on Russia’s history. Source: Iobard / Adobe Stock
By Nathan Falde