Rus’ Khaganate – “the men who row”

The Rus’ Khaganate, also Russkiy Khaganate (Belarusian: Рускі каганат, Ruski kahanat, Russian: Русский каганат, Russkiy kaganat, Ukrainian: Руський каганат, Ruśkyj kahanat), is the name applied by some modern historians to a polity postulated to have existed during a poorly documented period in the history of Eastern Europe, roughly the late-8th-century and early-to-mid-9th-century AD.

It was suggested that the Rus’ Khaganate was a state, or a cluster of city-states, set up by a people called Rus’ (characterised in all contemporary sources as Norsemen) somewhere in what is today European Russia, as a chronological predecessor to the Rurik Dynasty and Kievan Rus’. The region’s population at that time was composed of Slavic, Turkic, Baltic, Finnic, Hungarian and Norse peoples. The region was also a place of operations for Varangians – eastern Scandinavian adventurers, merchants, and pirates.

The sparse contemporaneous sources refer to the leader or leaders of Rus’ people at this time using the Old Turkic title Khagan, hence the suggested name of their polity.

Documentary evidence

The title of “Khagan” for a leader of some groups of Rus’ people is mentioned in several historical sources, most of them foreign texts dating from the 9th century, while three East Slavic sources date from the 11th and 12th centuries. The earliest European reference related to the Rus’ people ruled by a khagan comes from the Frankish Annals of St. Bertin, which refer to a group of Norsemen who called themselves Rhos (qui se, id est gentem suam, Rhos vocari dicebant) and visited Constantinople around 838. Fearful of returning home via the steppes, which would leave them vulnerable to attacks by the Magyars, these Rhos travelled through the Frankish Empire accompanied by Greek ambassadors from the Byzantine emperor Theophilus. When questioned by the Frankish Emperor Louis the Pious at Ingelheim, they stated that their leader was known as chacanus (hypothesized to be either the Latin word for “Khagan” or a deformation of Scandinavian proper name Håkan), that they lived far to the north, and that they were Swedes (comperit eos gentis esse sueonum).

The scholarly consensus is that the Rus’ people originated in what is currently coastal eastern Sweden around the eighth century and that their name has the same origin as Roslagen in Sweden (with the older name being Roden). According to the prevalent theory, the name Rus’, like the Proto-Finnic name for Sweden (*Ruotsi), is derived from an Old Norse term for “the men who row” (rods-) as rowing was the main method of navigating the rivers of Eastern Europe, and that it could be linked to the Swedish coastal area of Roslagen (Rus-law) or Roden, as it was known in earlier times. The name Rus’ would then have the same origin as the Finnish and Estonian names for Sweden: Ruotsi and Rootsi.

Thirty years later, in spring 871, the eastern and western emperors, Basil I and Louis II, quarreled over control of Bari, which had been conquered from the Arabs by their joint forces. The Byzantine emperor sent an angry letter to his western counterpart, reprimanding him for usurping the title of emperor. He argued that the Frankish rulers are simple reges, while the imperial title properly applied only to the overlord of the Romans, that is, to Basil himself. He also pointed out that each nation has its own title for the supreme ruler: for instance, the title of chaganus is used by the overlords of the Avars, Khazars (Gazari), and “Northmen” (Nortmanno). To that, Louis replied that he was aware only of the Avar khagans, and had never heard of the khagans of the Khazars and Normans. The content of Basil’s letter, now lost, is reconstructed from Louis’s reply, quoted in full in the Salerno Chronicle, and it indicates that at least one group of Scandinavians had a ruler who called himself “khagan”.

Ahmad ibn Rustah, a 10th-century Muslim geographer from Persia, wrote that the Rus’ khagan (“khāqān rus”) lived on an island in a lake. Constantine Zuckerman comments that Ibn Rustah, using the text of an anonymous account from the 870s, attempted to accurately convey the titles of all rulers described by its author, which makes his evidence all the more invaluable. Ibn Rustah mentions only two khagans in his treatise – those of Khazaria and Rus. A further near-contemporary reference to the Rus’ comes from al-Yaqubi, who wrote in 889 or 890 that the Caucasus mountaineers, when besieged by the Arabs in 854, asked for help from the overlords (sahib) of al-Rum (Byzantium), Khazaria, and al-Saqaliba (Slavs). According to Zuckerman, Ibn Khordadbeh and other Arab authors often confused the terms Rus and Saqaliba when describing their raids to the Caspian Sea in the 9th and 10th centuries. But Ibn Khordādbeh’s Book of Roads and Kingdoms does not mention the title of Khagan for the ruler of Rus’.

Hudud al-Alam, an anonymous Persian geography text written in the late 10th century, refers to the Rus’ king as “Khāqān-i Rus”. As the unknown author of Hudud al-Alam relied on numerous 9th-century sources, including Ibn Khordādbeh, it is possible that his reference to the Rus’ Khagan was copied from earlier, pre-Rurikid texts, rather than reflecting contemporary political reality.

Finally, the 11th century Persians geographer Abu Said Gardizi mentioned “khāqān-i rus” in his work Zayn al-Akhbār. Like other Muslim geographers, Gardizi relied on traditions stemming from the 9th century.


Extant primary sources make it plausible that the title of khagan was applied to the rulers of the Rus’ during a rather short period, roughly between their embassy to Constantinople (838) and Basil I’s letter (871). All Byzantine sources after Basil I refer to the Rus’ rulers as archons (Greek for “ruler”).

The dating of the Khaganate’s existence has been the subject of debates among scholars and remains unclear. Paul Robert Magocsi and Omeljan Pritsak date the foundation of the Khaganate to be around the year 830. According to Magocsi, “A violent civil war took place during the 820s. … The losers of the internal political struggle, known as Kabars, fled northward to the Varangian Rus’ in the upper Volga region, near Rostov, and southward to the Magyars, who formerly had been loyal vassals of the Khazars. The presence of Kabar political refugees from Khazaria among the Varangian traders in Rostov helped to raise the latter’s prestige, with the consequence that by the 830s a new power center known as the Rus’ Kaganate had come into existence.” Whatever the accuracy of such estimates may be, there are no primary sources mentioning the Rus’ or its khagans prior to the 830s. Omeljan Pritsak noted that the leader of those Kabars was Khan-Tuvan.

Equally contentious has been the discussion about the date of the khaganate’s disintegration. The title of Khagan is not mentioned in the Rus’-Byzantine treaties (907, 911, 944), or in De Ceremoniis, a record of court ceremonials meticulously documenting the titles of foreign rulers, when it deals with Olga’s reception at the court of Constantine VII in 945. Moreover, ibn Fadlan, in his detailed account of the Rus (922), designated their supreme ruler as malik (“king”). From this fact, Peter Golden concluded via an argumentum ex silentio that the khaganate collapsed at some point between 871 and 922. Zuckerman, meanwhile, argues that the absence of the title “khagan” from the first Russo-Byzantine Treaty proves that the khaganate had vanished by 911.


The location of the khaganate has been actively disputed since the early 20th century. According to one fringe theory, the Rus’ khagan resided somewhere in Scandinavia or even as far west as Walcheren. In stark contrast, George Vernadsky believed that the khagan had his headquarters in the eastern part of the Crimea or in the Taman Peninsula and that the island described by Ibn Rustah was most likely situated in the estuary of the Kuban River. Neither of these theories has won many adherents, as archaeologists have uncovered no traces of a Slavic-Norse settlement in the Crimea region in the 9th century and there are no Norse sources documenting “khagans” in Scandinavia.

Soviet historiography, as represented by Boris Rybakov and Lev Gumilev, advanced Kiev as the residence of the khagan, assuming that Askold and Dir were the only khagans recorded by name. Mikhail Artamonov became an adherent of the theory that Kiev was the seat of the Rus’ Khaganate, and continued to hold this view into the 1990s. Western historians, however, have generally argued against this theory. There is no evidence of a Norse presence in Kiev prior to the 10th century. Troublesome is the absence of hoards of coins which would prove that the Dnieper trade route – the backbone of later Kievan Rus’ – was operating in the 9th century. Based on his examination of the archaeological evidence, Zuckerman concludes that Kiev originated as a fortress on the Khazar border with Levedia and that only after the Magyars departed for the west in 889 did the middle Dnieper region start to progress economically.

A number of historians, the first of whom was Vasily Bartold, have advocated a more northerly position for the khaganate. They have tended to emphasize ibn Rustah’s report as the only historical clue to the location of the khagan’s residence. Recent archaeological research, conducted by Anatoly Kirpichnikov and Dmitry Machinsky, has raised the possibility that this polity was based on a group of settlements along the Volkhov River, including Ladoga, Lyubsha, Duboviki, Alaborg, and Holmgard. “Most of these were initially small sites, probably not much more than stations for re-fitting and resupply, providing an opportunity for exchange and the redistribution of items passing along the river and caravan routes”. If the anonymous traveller quoted by ibn Rustah is to be believed, the Rus of the Khaganate period made extensive use of the Volga route to trade with the Middle East, possibly through Bulgar and Khazar intermediaries. His description of the Rus’ island suggests that their center was at Holmgard, an early medieval precursor of Novgorod whose name translates from Old Norse as “the river-island castle”. The First Novgorod Chronicle describes unrest in Novgorod before Rurik was invited to come to rule the region in the 860s. This account prompted Johannes Brøndsted to assert that Holmgard-Novgorod was the khaganate’s capital for several decades prior to the appearance of Rurik, including the time of the Byzantine embassy in 839. Machinsky accepts this theory but notes that, before the rise of Holmgard-Novgorod, the chief political and economic centre of the area was located at Aldeigja-Ladoga.


The origins of the Rus’ Khaganate are unclear. The first Norse settlers of the region arrived in the lower basin of the Volkhov River in the mid-8th century. The country comprising the present-day Saint-Petersburg, Novgorod, Tver, Yaroslavl, and Smolensk regions became known in Old Norse sources as “Garðaríki”, the land of forts. Around 860, the Rus’, a group of Vikings perhaps from Roden, Sweden, began to rule the area under their leader Rurik. Gradually, Norse warlords, known to the Turkic-speaking steppe peoples as “köl-beki” or “lake-princes”, came to dominate some of the region’s Finno-Ugric and Slavic peoples, particularly along the Volga trade route linking the Baltic Sea with the Caspian Sea and Serkland.

Omeljan Pritsak speculated that a Khazar khagan named Khan-Tuvan Dyggvi, exiled after losing a civil war, settled with his followers in the Norse-Slavic settlement of Rostov, married into the local Scandinavian nobility, and fathered the dynasty of the Rus’ khagans. Zuckerman dismisses Pritsak’s theory as untenable speculation, and no record of any Khazar khagan fleeing to find refuge among the Rus’ exists in contemporaneous sources. Nevertheless, the possible Khazar connection to early Rus’ monarchs is supported by the use of a stylized trident tamga, or seal, by later Rus’ rulers such as Sviatoslav I of Kiev; similar tamgas are found in ruins that are definitively Khazar in origin. The genealogical connection between the 9th-century Khagans of Rus’ and the later Rurikid rulers, if any, is unknown at this time.

Most historians agree that the title “khagan” was borrowed by the Rus from the Khazars, but there is considerable dispute over the circumstances of this borrowing. Peter Benjamin Golden presumes that the Rus’ Khaganate was a puppet state set up by the Khazars in the basin of the Oka River to fend off recurring attacks of the Magyars. However, no source records that the Rus’ of the 9th century were subjects of the Khazars. For foreign observers (such as Ibn Rustah), there was no material difference between the titles of the Khazar and Rus’ rulers. Anatoly Novoseltsev hypothesizes that the adoption of the title “khagan” was designed to advertise the Rus’ claims to equality with the Khazars. This theory is echoed by Thomas Noonan, who asserts that the Rus’ leaders were loosely unified under the rule of one of the “sea-kings” in the early 9th century, and that this “High King” adopted the title “khagan” to give him legitimacy in the eyes of his subjects and neighboring states. According to this theory, the title was a sign that the bearers ruled under a divine mandate.


Writing in 922, Ibn Fadlan described the Rus’ ruler as having little real authority like the Khazar khagan. Instead, political and military power was wielded by a deputy, who “commands the troops, attacks [the Rus’ ruler’s] enemies, and acts as his representative before his subjects.” The supreme king of the Rus’, on the other hand, “has no duties other than to make love to his slave girls, drink, and give himself up to pleasure.” He was guarded by 400 men, “willing to die for him … These 400 sit below the royal throne: a large and bejewelled platform which also accommodates the forty slave-girls of his harem.” Ibn Fadlan wrote that the Rus’ ruler would almost never leave his throne and even “when he wants to go riding his horse is led up to him, and on his return the horse is brought right up to the throne.” Ibn Rustah, on the other hand, reported that the khagan was the ultimate authority in settling disputes between his subjects. His decisions, however, were not binding, so that if one of the disputants disagreed with the khagan’s ruling, the dispute was then resolved in a battle, which took place “in the presence of the contestants’ kin who stand with swords drawn; and the man who gets the better of the duel also gets the decision about the matter in dispute.”

The dichotomy between the relative powerlessness of the nominal ruler and the great authority of his subordinate reflects the structure of Khazar government, with secular authority in the hands of a Khagan Bek only theoretically subordinate to the khagan, and it agrees with the traditional Germanic system, where there could be a division between the king and the military commander. Moreover, some scholars have noted similarities between this dual kingship and the postulated relationship between Igor and Oleg of Kiev in the early 10th century (compare Askold and Dir in the 9th century). The institution of separate sacral ruler and military commander may be observed in the reconstructed relationship between Oleg and Igor, but whether this is part of the Rus’ Khaganate’s legacy to its successor-state is unknown. The early Kievan Rus’ principalities exhibited certain distinctive characteristics in their government, military organization, and jurisprudence that were comparable to those in force among the Khazars and other steppe peoples; some historians believe that these elements came to Kievan Rus’ from the Khazars by way of the earlier Rus’ Khagans.

Decline and legacy

Soon after Patriarch Photius informed other Orthodox bishops about the Christianization of the Rus, all major settlements in North-Western Russia which could have been centres of the khaganate were destroyed by fire. Archaeologists found convincing evidence that Holmgard, Aldeigja, Alaborg, and Izborsk were burnt to the ground in the 860s or 870s. Some of these settlements were permanently abandoned after the conflagration. The Primary Chronicle describes the uprising of the pagan Slavs and Chudes (Baltic Finns) against the Varangians, who had to withdraw overseas in 862. The First Novgorod Chronicle, whose account of the events Shakhmatov considered more trustworthy, does not pinpoint the pre-Rurikid uprising to any specific date. The 16th century Nikon Chronicle attributes the banishment of the Varangians from the country to Vadim the Bold. The Ukrainian historian Mykhailo Braichevsky labelled Vadim’s rebellion “a pagan reaction” against the Christianization of the Rus’. A period of unrest and anarchy followed, dated by Zuckerman to ca. 875–900. The absence of coin hoards from the 880s and 890s suggests that the Volga trade route ceased functioning, precipitating “the first silver crisis in Europe”.

After this economic depression and period of political upheaval, the region experienced a resurgence beginning in around 900. Zuckerman associates this recovery with the arrival of Rurik and his men, who turned their attention from the Volga to the Dnieper, for reasons as yet uncertain. The Scandinavian settlements in Ladoga and Novgorod revived and started to grow rapidly. During the first decade of the 10th century, a large trade outpost was formed on the Dnieper in Gnezdovo, near modern Smolensk. Another Dnieper settlement, Kiev, developed into an important urban centre roughly in the same period.

The fate of the Rus’ Khaganate, and the process by which it either evolved into or was consumed by the Rurikid Kievan Rus’, is unclear. The Kievans seem to have had a very vague notion about the existence of the khaganate. Slavonic sources do not mention either the Christianization of the Rus in the 860s nor the Paphlagonian expedition of the 830s. The account of the Rus’ expedition against Constantinople in the 860s was borrowed by the authors of the Primary Chronicle from Greek sources, suggesting the absence of a vernacular written tradition.

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