Swedish Vikings: Who Were the Rus?

As I explained in my previous blog about the difference between the Danish, Norwegian, and Swedish Vikings, we know the most about the Danes because of the breadth of primary sources written about them by Frankish and English Chroniclers. Archeologically speaking, the Scandinavian culture of the time was distinct and fairly homogenous, although it diverged into distinct groups by the end of the Viking Age. Yet for all we know about the Danes, there is far less information on their Swedish cousins called the Rus who, despite how little we know about them at the outset of the Viking Age, left an incredible legacy for themselves in Eastern Europe. Here I will briefly overview what we know about the Swedish Vikings who were called the Rus, and the narrative, as best we know it, about their early activities across the vast lands that are today Russia, Ukraine, Bulgaria, and even Turkey.

Primary sources for the early societal structure, culture, and activities of the Rus are practically non-existant. They did not leave any writings behind for us to find, and until the embassy of the missionary Anskar to Birka in the mid-9th century, primary sources are devoid of any substantive information about them. The Rus were, as far as we can tell, as active in raiding and foreign trading as the Danes, if not more. The people they attacked—chiefly those in Finland, then Slavs further east—were not literate like those the Danes terrorized, which further explains why sources are so sparse about their early activities. The earliest mention of the people called the Rus traveling outside of Sweden may be found in the Annals of Saint Bertin in which it is written that a group of traveling Rus visited the court of Louis the Pious, emperor of the Carolingian Empire, as part of a larger group of envoys from the Byzantine Empire.

The Rus’ arrival was marred by the fact that Anskar had already visited and returned from Birka (though this was not yet explicitly chronicled), and his testimony about the Swedes led the emperor to distrust his unexpected guests. In the annals it is said that Louis learned the Rus were, in fact, “people of the Swedes.” He detained the group to verify their claim that they only wished to travel peacefully, and from there the annals cease to mention what happened next. We do not know if they were allowed to return home, or worse, executed. While we are left in permanent suspense about the fate of these Rus, what this account tells us is that the Swedish Vikings had, by the mid-9th century, traveled far enough to the east to have established relations with the Byzantines. How, or why, or how long it took to arrive at this point is still not well understood.

How the Rus got their name is also somewhat of an enigma. Like the name “Viking” itself, the name Rus has several possible sources. In the Annals of Saint Bertin, and indeed in several other sources, they are referred to as the “Rhos” which has led historians to hypothesize a connection with their tribal home of Roslagen. Others think the name was given to them by the Finns, who today still call the Swedes Ruotsi, a word meaning, “those who row.” Again, there is no certainty as to the true origins of the name, but it is the name they would lend to one of the most powerful nations in modern history, Russia. If the second origin theory of the name Rus is correct—the theory tying it to the Finnish word Ruotsi—the name Russia may actually mean “the land of those who row.”

There are also arabic sources which chronicled embassies by eastern scholars to visit the Rus, and who refer to them as such. They also referred to the Vikings as Majus, but this was a name they tended to use in the West, in Al-Andalus (Spain). The sources are used sparingly and carefully where the Rus are concerned because academics are not entirely certain that they were referring to Vikings. What makes their writings somewhat unreliable are observations that were made that are not consistent with what we know about Viking Age Scandinavians from both written and archeological sources. But, even if there is a kernel of truth in the arabic writings, it underscores an easy and prevalent awareness of the Rus in the east, as well as proof of enduring contact.

Snorri Sturluson in his work titled Ynglingasaga, which recounts at a broad level the history of the kings of Sweden (it also recounts the history of the kings of Norway), gives us some insight into the early activities of the Rus on the Baltic. It is widely accepted that Snorri’s works are semi-legendary because he wrote his account several centuries after the fact, drawing his sources mostly from oral tradition, and as such he is not particularly reliable as a source.

There are, however, certain aspects to Snorri’s accounts that have proven useful insofar as they have spurred archeologists to search for evidence to support broad story themes in his work. In 1929, for example, the archeologist Birger Nerman discovered the remnants of a colony in Latvia of Swedish origin. His conclusions were that the colony had existed since the mid 7th century and likely had formed as a result of the expulsion of one third of the inhabitants of Gotland due to famine, a story that was told in Snorri’s Gutasaga. The discovery was the Viking equivalent of the discovery of the city of Troy, whose existence belonged to mythology until its discovery by Heinrich Schliemann in 1870.

Birger’s discovery has indeed proved paramount to help piece together the narrative of the early activities of the Rus in the east. The colony he discovered, known as the Grobin Colony, uncovered significant evidence in the form of burial mounds directly linking the inhabitants there to the Swedes of Gotland. Among the artifacts were picture stones in the shape and style of the Gotland stones, and further artifacts found within the burials were also of the style and construction known to have been common in Gotland. What is most interesting about the site is the progression of types of burials found. The oldest burials contained women, indicating that the colony had begun precisely as that, a colony. The younger of the burials, dating to the late 8th century, contained men with the typical weaponry of the day, indicating a change in the colony’s demographics where the ambitions of the Rus shifted toward traveling east for raids and trade rather than settlement on the Eastern Baltic. Grobin is not an isolated archeological find. Distinctly Scandinavian artifacts have also been found in Ladoga, which date back to the mid-8th century.

There is no doubt that the achievements of the Rus in the east were among the most impressive of their day. From the establishment of their first colonies on the shores of the baltic and Lake Ladoga, they established trade routes that made use of the complex interweave of river networks present in the eastern steppes. From there, they established trade with the Byzantines. Among the goods they brought were honey, wax, amber, blubber, furs, walrus tusks, and most importantly, slaves. They traded these goods for silver, and from an arabic coin minted in 786 (it says so on the coin) at Ladoga, we understand that trade between the Rus and the East was already well established by the end of the 8th century. This stands in contrast to the Danes and Norwegians whose exploits had barely begun by this period.

Massive hordes of arabic silver coins found in Sweden and Gotland over the years are evidence of how extensive their trade was. These hordes contained silver coins numbering in the tens of thousands in some cases, a massive fortune even by today’s standards. The sheer volume attests to a long term relationship between Sweden and the Byzantines, and one which endured several centuries.

From here, the story of the Rus shifts focus. The Russian Primary Chronicle, which tells of the early foundations of the modern country of Russia, tells of an event whereby the Slavs invited the Rus to rule over them. According to the account, the Slavs admitted to being unable to rule themselves, and so resorted to asking the Rus, considered strong leaders, to establish law and order. Similar to Snorri’s account, the Russian Primary Chronicle is considered semi-legendary. Therefore, the event commonly dubbed “The Invitation of the Rus” may not have ever actually happened. Instead, it may be an allegorical account to describe a process of usurpation that took much longer.

Whatever the true story, the Rus went on from this event to establish the principalities of Kiev and Novgorod, at which point they ceased to act in a manner we would today associate with Vikings. They took on the role of autocrats rather than raiders, and established dominion over the Slavs, and assimilated into slavic culture. The Rus’ conflicts with the Byzantines, as related through the Russian Primary Chronicle, and their conversion to the Christian Orthodox Church, all became part of the narrative of the founding of the Muscovy state, which would become Russia. And so as far as the “Viking” history of the Swedes and their eastern exploits are concerned, the story more or less ends there. Anything that came after is the subject of the early history of Russia.