The East Slavs are the ethnic group that evolved into the Russian, Ukrainian and Belarusian peoples. Each of the many nationalities of Russia has a separate history and complex origins. The historical origins of the Russian state, however, are chiefly those of the East Slavs and the assimilated Finno-Ugric peoples of the North-Eastern Europe.
Inhabitants of the East European Plain
Relatively little is known about East Slavs prior to approximately 9th century AD. The reason for this lies mainly in the apparent absence of written language (Cyrillic was created around 863 specifically for adoption by Slavs) and remoteness of East Slavic lands from more civilized areas. What little we know comes from archaeological digs, accounts of foreigners who occasionally visited Rus', and results of comparative analyses of Slavic languages by linguists. Except for the controversial Book of Veles, very few native Russian documents dating prior to 11th century (and none prior to 9th century) were ever discovered. The earliest known major manuscript with information on Russian history is the Primary Chronicle, written in late 11th - early 12th century.
Based on archaeological and linguistic evidence, historians theorize that the Slavs formed as an ethnic group in the middle of 2nd millennium BC in the area that is now split between Poland, Czech republic, Slovakia, western Belarus and northwestern Ukraine. By 8th century BC Slavs had entered the Iron Age and started their gradual expansion to the east and to the south.
In the centuries to follow, Slavic settlers met multiple other ethnic groups that either lived or moved to the East European Plain. The best known of these groups were the nomadic Scythians, who occupied the region of modern Ukraine and southwestern Russia from about the 6th century BC to the 2nd century BC and whose skill in warfare and horsemanship is legendary. Scythians largely disappeared by 1st century BC, but this term was sometimes used in later Roman documents as a reference to eastern Slavs. Between the 1st century AD and the 9th century, Goths, nomadic Huns, Avars, and Magyars passed through the region in their migrations. Although some of them subjugated the Slavs in the region, these tribes left little of lasting importance. More significant in this period was the expansion of the Slavs, who were agriculturists and beekeepers as well as hunters, fishers, herders, and trappers. By the 6th century, the Slavs were the dominant ethnic group on the East European Plain. By 600 AD, the Slavs split linguistically into southern, western, and eastern branches. The East Slavs settled along the Dnieper river in what is now Ukraine; they then spread northward to the northern Volga valley, east of modern-day Moscow and westward to the basins of the northern Dnestr and the Western Bug rivers in present-day Moldova and southern Ukraine. Their location allowed them to control the trade route between Scandinavia and the eastern remnants of the Roman Empire, particularly the Byzantine Empire and the Grecian colonies on the northern coast of Black Sea. They had trade relations with both Vikings and Byzantians. Kiev - the future capital of Rus' - was likely established in 5-6th century AD as a fortress which controlled Dnieper river and was used to collect taxes from boats returning from Byzantia. Many other cities were built in the subsequent 500 years.
In the eighth and ninth centuries, many East Slavic tribes paid tribute to the Khazars, a Turkic-speaking people who adopted Judaism in the late eighth or ninth century and lived in the southern Volga and Caucasus regions.
East Slavs and the Varangians
By the ninth century, Scandinavian warriors and merchants, called Varangians (more commonly known as Vikings), had penetrated the East Slavic regions. See Kievan Rus' for continuation.
Last updated: 08-15-2005 06:25:12