Kyivan Rus’ as an Ancient Ukrainian State

22 January 2013, 13:21

The historical heritage of Kyivan Rus' is a key problem in the history of Eastern Europe. It is undeniable that the Ukrainian lands governed by Kyiv played a leading role in the formation of the Eastern Slavic world and its statehood (see Figure 1). Whether real or imagined, the heritage of Kyivan princes not only legitimized the very existence of young East European states (above all, Muscovy) in the late Middle Ages, but also provided the basis for their expansion into the rich territories of Southern Rus'-Ukraine. That is the reason why, as Russian historian Alexander Pypin put it, “the dispute between the southerners and the northerners” (i.e., Ukrainians and Russians) over Kyivan heritage has shown no signs of slacking in the five centuries since the formation of Muscovy. For obvious reasons Ukrainians (“Little Russians”), as “the younger brother” in the empire of Great Russians, found it hard to argue their case. The “older brother” had at its disposal a totalitarian government apparatus with a wide range of “weighty” arguments ranging from financial incentives and promotions for supporters to camps on the Solovky Islands and execution of its opponents.


The framework for identifying the ethnicity of the people who lived in princely Kyiv and figuring out Ukrainian ethnogenesis is defined by the universal laws of ethnohistorical development in medieval Europe. The following are the fundamental postulates of contemporary European ethnology:

1. Approach ethnic groups as ethnocultural organisms that are born at a certain point, go through a life cycle and inevitably disintegrate as they dissolve among their neighbours.

2. The age of an ethnic group is determined retrospectively with the help of methods from various disciplines (history, archaeology, linguistics, ethnography, anthropology, etc.) which are used to identify the starting point of the people’s continuous ethnocultural development.

3. Most European peoples (the French, the English, Germans, Spaniards, Czechs, Serbs, Croatians, Poles and others) who live in the territory of cultural and historical influence of the Roman Empire emerged in the early Middle Ages, i.e., the 5th through the 7th century A.D.

4. The tribal stage in the development of peoples populating the European middle belt began when Europe entered the Middle Ages and ended in the 9th-10th century when these ethnic groups united to form their own states (English, French, Czech, Serbian, Polish, etc.). These often covered the territories of neighbouring peoples and took the form of medieval empires (British, Spanish, French and Polish).

5. As backward provinces were colonized by their metropolises, young post-imperial ethnic groups were born. They emerged out of a synthesis between local traditions and the ethnic culture of the conquerors and began their own historical existence at the moment they split off from the respective empire. For example, the barbarian frontiers of the Roman Empire were home to Romanic peoples (Spaniards, Portuguese, French, Romanians, etc.). The Spanish Empire gave rise to Spanish-speaking Mexicans, Chileans, Argentineans, Peruvians, Venezuelans, Cubans, etc. The British Empire was the motherland of English-speaking Americans, Canadians and Australians. The Portuguese Empire brought forth Portuguese-speaking Brazilians and the French Empire the Quebecois. As the Kyivan Rus' Empire colonized the forested northern parts of Eastern Europe, it gave rise to Belarusians, Pskov-Novgorodians and Russians.

Contemporary ethnology distinguishes between several stages in the ethnic development of large peoples in medieval Europe. The origins of European ethnic groups populating the territory that fell under the cultural and historical influence of the Roman Empire go back to the Middle Ages. The fall of the empire caused well-known upheavals (the Barbarian Invasions), after which the situation stabilized. Ethnographic, archaeological, linguistic and anthropological evidence, as well as written sources, enable us to retrospectively trace the continuity of ethnocultural development in the ethnic territories populated by a large group of the Romanic peoples (Spaniards, Portuguese, Catalonians, French, Provençals, Italians, Sicilians and Romanians), Anglo-Saxons, Slavs (Poles, Czechs, Slovaks, Serbs, Croatians, Bulgarians and Ukrainians) and others back to the late 5th-7th century A.D. This provides a foundation for describing the development of the aforementioned ethnocultural groups in these territories. In particular, notable Russian archaeologist Valentin Sedov traced the origin of the abovementioned Slavic peoples (except Ukrainians) through the early Middle Ages.

The population in the European middle belt was in the tribal phase of its development in the 5th through the 9th centuries when it was composed of separate interrelated tribes or ethnic groups with their own ethnonyms. For example, the Angles, Saxons and Jutes are considered proto-English tribes. Likewise, there were proto-Polish and proto-Czech tribes, while Volhynians, Derevlianians, Ulychians, Tivertsians, White Croatians, Polianians and possibly Siverians could be viewed as proto-Ukrainian tribes (see Figure 2).

Related tribes consolidated and crafted their own states during the 9th and 10th centuries. This is how the Kingdom of England and the Kingdom of Poland emerged, as well as the Duchy of Bohemia and the first polities of Serbians, Croatians and Bulgarians, which sometimes expanded into neighbouring lands and took the form of medieval empires. On the same reasoning, the medieval state of Rus', which was formed when the abovementioned proto-Ukrainian tribes united, should be viewed as an ancient Ukrainian polity. The first polities that arose in the lands populated by the Anglo-Saxons, Poles, Czechs, Serbians, Croatians, etc. are without reservation recognized as the medieval states of these respective peoples.


In line with the universal laws of ethnic development in medieval Europe, the Ukrainian ethnocultural entity emerged in the early Middle Ages and went through an intensive formative period in Kyivan Rus’.

There is no doubt that the Kyivan Rus' of the 10th through the 13th centuries was an empire spanning the lands of many Slavic, Baltic, Turkic, and Finnic ethnic groups. With the metropolis exerting sustained influence on the conquered provinces, the ethnic culture (and language) of the conquerors mixed with those of the subjugated peoples. Directly emerging from this process were young ethnic groups that inherited ethnocultural elements of both the ruling ethnicity and the indigenous peoples. These groups put themselves on the historical map as distinct entities when they freed themselves from their metropolises. This most often happened when empires declined and young peoples fought for their independence.

The Roman Empire, for example, spawned the Romanic peoples. After the fall of the British Empire, its descendant nations – Americans, Anglophone Canadians, Australians and New Zealanders continued their independent existence. The Spanish Empire gave rise to around 30 post-imperial ethnic groups in Latin America: Mexicans, Chileans, Bolivians, Argentinians, Cubans, Puerto Ricans, etc. Brazilians came from the Portuguese Empire and the Quebecois from the French Empire.

Much like the Romans Latinised their conquered provinces and triggered the formation of the Romanic peoples, ancient Ukrainians from the Kyivan Rus’ Empire Rusified (not Russified!) Baltic and Finnic peoples that inhabited the woodlands of Northeastern Europe and engendered a group of Rus’ ethnicities (Belarusians, Pskov-Novgorodians and Russians). Similar views on the genesis of East Slavic peoples have been expressed by Mykhailo Hrushevsky, Mykola Chubaty, Mykhailo Braichevsky and Yaroslav Dashkevych.

In their interpretation, the common Old Rus’ “cradle of brotherly East Slavic peoples” acquired a completely new meaning. Emergent peoples such as Belarusians, Pskov-Novgorodians and Russians lay in this cradle, rocked by their father, the proto-Ukrainian colonists centred around the metropolitan city of Kyiv. The Ukrainian people took form in the early Middle Ages, while Belarusians, Pskov-Novgorodians and Russians emerged from the body of the Old Ukrainian empire – Kyivan Rus’. Classical Russian historiographer Vasily Klyuchevsky wrote: “It was not until the time of Andrey Bogolyubsky that Great Russians came onto the historical stage”, which was in the second half of the 12th century. Therefore, there is no way Kyivan Rus’ could have been simply the first stage of Russian statehood – it was formed long before the Russian people emerged as such, and was a product of the efforts of Old Ukrainians at the medieval stage of their development.

Scandinavian fibulae from the Kyiv region, 10th-11th century

After the fall of the medieval empires, their formative ethnicities (the British, Spaniards, French, Portuguese, etc.) lived in ethnic states, while the emergent peoples began writing their own history. It most often began with a national liberation struggle against the centre of the empire. Think of the American War of Independence or many of the military conflicts in the Spanish colonies of Latin America during the 19th century. The demise of the Roman Empire came amid endless wars of independence waged by Roman provinces. One theory states that the so-called period of feudal fragmentation in the 12th-century Rus' consisted, in fact, of a series of wars waged by young proto-Belarusian, Pskov-Novgorodian and Russian ethnic groups in a bid to free themselves from proto-Ukrainian imperial Kyiv. These led to the decline of the Rus’ Empire, and the Mongols merely completed the process. The 12th-century feudal wars and the Mongol invasion made Southern Rus’ easy prey for Poland, Lithuania and later Russia. In this way, the direct ancestors of contemporary Ukrainians lost not only their empire but also their own ethnic state.


Some Soviet researchers denied that proto-Ukrainians were the creators of Kyivan Rus', referring to the well-known fact that Scandinavian Varangians were the first Kyivan princes. The important role Scandinavian commercial, aristocratic and military elements played in the formation of Rus' in the 9th and 10th centuries is undeniable and rests on convincing evidence from medieval written sources and archaeological finds along the Dnieper: typical ornaments worn by Vikings, characteristic burial rites, Runic inscriptions and so on.

However, the Scandinavian names of the first Rus' princes and their warriors – Askold, Olaf (Oleh), Ingvar (Ihor) and Helga (Olha) – were replaced with Slavic names such as Sviatoslav, Volodymyr, Yaroslav, Yaropolk and others as the Rus' state asserted itself in the second half of the 10th century. This seemingly formal indicator reflects the deep process of foreign noblemen being assimilated by the proto-Ukrainian population of Rus'. Similar occurrences were typical of European states in the early Middle Ages. Most European medieval ethnicities in the 8th through the 10th centuries that were mature enough to form their own states rallied precisely around foreign nobility, often Scandinavians, as was the case in Rus'. For example, the state-forming elite in France under Charlemagne was the military nobility of the Franks, a Germanic tribe. Just as in Rus', Vikings from Denmark and Normandy were the oldest kings and noblemen in England in the 10th and 11th centuries. The first Polish kings in the 10th century from the Piast dynasty actively engaged Scandinavian Vikings in order to consolidate lands around Gniezno, at that time the capital of Poland – exactly what the Kyivan princes did around the same time. Now the Kingdom of England is considered the first state entity of Anglo-Saxons, i.e., the English people at the early medieval stage of its ethnohistorical development. By analogy, we have every reason to believe that Kyivan Rus' emerged as a state of the Southern Rus' people, i.e., proto-Ukrainians.

Beginning with 19th century historian Mikhail Pogodin who was promoted the Normanist theory of Russian statehood, those opposed to granting the principality of Kyiv the status of a proto-Ukrainian city claimed that there was a break in the ethnohistorical development of the Middle Dnieper region under Mongol rule. However, archaeologists and historians proved during Soviet times that despite the Mongols having exterminated the residents of Kyiv, Pereiaslav and Chernihiv, no replacement occurred in the populations of the Middle Dnieper Region, Volhynia and Galicia. Thus, one and the same ethnocultural population, known as Ruthenians (Rusy) in the princely era and Ukrainians in recent centuries, has been developing in this territory since the early Middle Ages. Advocates of the view that Ukrainians emerged in the late Middle Ages maintain that Southern Rus' was populated by Ruthenians in the princely era, while the ethnonym Ukrainians gained currency much later, allegedly at the time when Ukrainians emerged as a people. This approach is clearly manipulative. Changing ethnonyms in the course of national history is common among European ethnic groups. The Polish people were known as the Lyakhs in the late Middle Ages, but prior to that it consisted of individual tribes, each with different names. Medieval Romanians went by the name Wallachians, and Russians were referred to as Muscovites. There is no doubt that the Lyakhs/Poles, Wallachians/Romanians and Muscovites/Russians are the same ethnicities known under different names during different historical periods. Why then doesn’t this rule apply to Ruthenians/Ukrainians?

The image of a trident on a silver coin of Volodymyr the Great and at the bottom of a clay pot from the Kytaiv Settlement near Kyiv, 10th century

In line with universal laws of the development of European peoples, the Ukrainian ethnocultural organism was known under several ethnonyms over its 1,500-year existence. In the first millennium A.D., it consisted, just like other young European ethnicities, of individual interrelated tribes, each with a different name – Dulibians, Antes, Sklaveni, Volhynians, Derevlianians, Polianians, Siverianians, Ulychians, Tivertsians and White Croatians. When they united to form Rus', a proto-Ukrainian state, one ethnonym, Ruthenian, was established. From the late Middle Ages until modern times, this was gradually replaced with the ethnonym Ukrainian. Traces of the older name survive in the Carpathians (Rusyns), a fact that is unjustifiably exploited by some politicians. The language of Bohdan Khmelnytsky (1595-1657) was not significantly different from modern Ukrainian, but he was known as a Ruthenian prince. The Polish population of Lviv referred to the urban residents of Galicia, who were, no doubt, Ukrainians, as Ruthenians and their language as Ruthenian in the interwar period. Therefore, tying the genesis of Ukrainians to the history of their latest ethnonym is unconvincing. Ethnonyms change, while ethnic essence remains the same, as we have seen through the examples of Poles, Romanians, Russians and Ukrainians.

This proposed version of the ethnic genesis of the Ukrainian people rests on universal principles of ethnic development in medieval Europe. It provides an answer to the key question in the history of Eastern Europe: what was the ethnicity of the residents of princely Kyiv and Southern Rus'-Ukraine from the 10th through the 13th century? The answer is that they were as much Ukrainian as their contemporaries in Gniezno, Paris and London were Polish, French and English, respectively. In terms of language, culture and consciousness, each of these peoples was vastly different from its modern-day descendants. Nevertheless, they clearly were Ukrainians, Poles, Frenchmen and Englishmen at the medieval stage of their historical development.

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