Connecting threads of the past

The interwoven history of Ukraine and Norway

Photo: Zephyrka / Pixabay
Before the Russian invasion, Kiev was a bustling metropolis, a unique mixture of old and new. Kiev is located in north-central Ukraine along the Dnieper River and is the country’s capital.

Brooklyn, N.Y.

With the world reeling from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the time seems ripe to share with our readers Ukraine’s deep connections to Scandinavia. Full disclosure: About 15 years ago, it was one of my Ukrainian English as a Second Language students who revealed to me the shared history between her country and the Vikings. She was deeply proud of that fact.This set me on a quest to uncover Ukraine’s Scandinavian history.

As the country lies on a vast continent, bridging the Asian East and European West, many tribes passed through, settled, were absorbed or ruled, including, but not limited to, the Scythians, Sarmatians, Goths, Huns, Romans, Byzantines, Slavs, and Norse.

Varangian routes
mage: Brian Gotts / Wikipedia The Varangian routes led from the Scandinavian peninsula to what is today the country of Ukraine, a bridge between Asian East and European West.

The Rus

The Vikings who settled in this area were known as the Rus and originated from the eastern part of Scandinavia. Their name is believed to derive from Old Norse, meaning “men who row.” Drawn to the region by the trade possibilities along and around the Dnieper and Volga rivers, the ultimate prizes at the end of these two routes were two very wealthy and enticing cities, Constantinople and Baghdad.

Three Rus brothers are credited with establishing a sizable principality populated by Slavic tribes, yet ruled by Rus. Rurik, the oldest of the three, founded Novgorod, Russia’s oldest city, around 850. (Goths and Visigoths who hailed from Scandinavia had a presence here hundreds of years earlier and many other smaller Norse settlements preceded Novgorod.)

Rurik was succeeded by Prince Oleg of Novgorod, who started looking south to Kyiv. In 882, he conquered the city and moved the capital there with the help of his Varangian (Viking Rus) forces. Not satisfied, he expanded his lands further and made trade agreements with the Byzantium Empire. The result was the creation of Kyivan Rus’.

Like the Norse in western Europe, the Rus eventually converted to Christianity. At the end of the 10th century, under the orders of Vladimir the Great, Eastern Orthodoxy became the state religion. This was a systematic choice for Vladimir after he examined the religions that existed within and around his kingdom, including Judaism and Islam.

Being practical, the latter two religions would have prohibited the consumption of alcohol and pork, and he felt that would have been too much of a sacrifice for his people. “Drinking is the joy of all Rus,” he is said to have stated. “We cannot exist without that pleasure.”

Image: public domain
Vladimir Svyatoslavich, or Valdimir the Great, is credited with converting his land to Christianity,

Vladimir even sent emissaries to explore important sacred sites of these three religions. More impressed by the architecture of Constantinople than Germany, one described it to Vladimir: “We no longer knew whether we were in heaven or on earth.”

The Rus conversion afforded Vladimir a marriage to Anna, Emperor Basil II’s sister. The marriage between a barbarian king (recently converted) and a Byzantine princess was more than an aberration. Vladimir sent 6,000 Varangian warriors to Emperor Basil II in Constantinople. Wary of his own protectors, he dubbed them the Royal Guard of Byzantine. They held that title from the 10th to 14th centuries, allowing others to join this prestigious band.

The most famous Varangian king was probably Harald Hard-Ruler. He was injured in an unsuccessful battle waged to return his brother Olaf to the Norwegian throne. Defeated by Cnut the Great, Olaf was killed, and Harald was seriously wounded.

After recuperating, Harald headed east on a self-imposed exile, first serving as a mercenary for Yaroslav, the ruler of Kiev, and later for the Byzantine emperor. While serving in the Varangian guard, he hid his royal identity. How did he fare? He returned to Norway with boats laden with gold and was able to establish himself as co-ruler of Norway alongside Magnus the Good.

The Kyivan Rus kingdom began in the sixth century and ended in the 13th, encompassing modern Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, Finland, and part of Russia. Its demise occurred in 1240 with the invasion of the Mongols and their Kievan siege.

Photo: Wilson44691 / Wikimedia Commons Viking burial mounds from the eighth to 10th centuries are found along the shores of the Volkov River.

Unearthing the past

Do Ukrainians still value a connection that was cut nearly 800 years ago? Is my Ukrainian student’s pride in her country’s Viking history an anomaly? I would say “yes” to the first and “no” to the second.

First of all, any history I have read about Ukraine places a strong emphasis on its Kyivan Rus history and many of its leaders and acts are venerated.

Secondly, the country has an interest in archeological sites and artifacts from that time in their history. In 2018, an excavation at Vypovziv, on a tributary of the Dneiper River proved to be chock-full of treasures.

Uncovered were artifacts that included a woodworking ax on the site, a rare piece of antler with Viking Borre-style decoration, a silver acorn pendant, a silver Arabic Dirham dating between 805 and 903, worked antler and bone tools, a variety of knives, and a selection of glass beads.

The artifacts attest to how wealthy, skilled, and sophisticated the Kyiv Kingdom was. In 2019, the Lviv Museum became the caretaker of a 10th-century Viking sword recovered from smugglers. It is encased in a carved wooden box that depicts a Scandinavian legend about the making of Viking weapons.

The Vikings and their descendants were often a catalyst in developing where they settled, with their adept trading, maritime, and organizational skills. They adapted to their surroundings, whether in Ukraine, Ireland, or Constantinople. They easily absorbed the local culture and blended in with the existing society, while still adding their own unique flavor and their indelible mark. Through them, something new was born.

Interestingly, the Soviet Union and now Russia, two governments that subsumed this Norse history, established the Kinopark “Viking” Museum, which opened in 2016 in Alushta, Crimea, a Ukrainian land seized and annexed by Russia  just two years earlier. You may wonder why it is called kino—cinema. The park is a transported movie set from the film Viking. I found nine other movie sets transformed into this type of attraction in Russia.

Rated a top tourist destination, this palisade-enclosed borg (village), spans Rus life from the eighth to the 11th century. It includes residences from various strata of society, artisans at work, and a market. These types of attractions are intended to depict the military prowess of Crimean groups from various eras and origins.

Kyivan Rus is finally getting the recognition it deserves in other parts of Europe. In 2014, the British Museum sponsored an exhibit about them, “Vikings: Life and Legend.” (You can watch a tour of this exhibit on YouTube, “Vikings Live: a tour from the British Museum.”)

Why did it take so long? The museum suggests that the Cold War was not conducive to academic cooperation in research or to raising the necessary funds to create an exhibit. Moreover, the Soviets tweaked the region’s history to be Slavic-dominant and to diminish, if not eliminate, the Germanic influence.

Ties that bind

Today, new threads between the Norse and Ukraine are being woven. On March 2, about a week after Russia’s barbaric attack on the sovereign nation of Ukraine, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy thanked Norway’s Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre for supporting Ukraine against the Russian invasion through sanctions and cooperation at the United Nations Security Council.

Notably, after more than 30 years of investment in Russia, Equinor (formerly Statoil) is ceasing new investments there and pulling out from existing joint ventures. Norwegian society is now preparing for and expanding its capacity to give refuge to displaced Ukrainians,

This article originally appeared in the March 18, 2022, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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Victoria Hofmo

Victoria Hofmo was born, raised, and still lives in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, the historical heart of Norwegian New York. She is 3/4 Scandinavian: 1/2 Norwegian and 1/4 Danish/Swedish. Self-employed, she runs an out-of-school-time program that articulates learning through the arts. Hofmo is an advocate for arts and culture, education, and the preservation of the built and natural environment of her hometown, with a love for most things Scandinavian.