Sharing more than borders

Scandinavia and Russia have deep ties

Varangian trade routes

Photo: WIkimedia
Map showing the major Varangian trade routes, which allowed for exchange of goods and ideas. The Volga trade route goes from Uppsala through Bulgar to Baku, and the route from the Varangians to the Greeks covers much of Eastern Europe (the darkest lines on this map).

Victoria Hofmo
Brooklyn, N.Y.

The connection between Scandinavia and Russia extends far beyond the borders they share. The very name Russia is derived from Rus, a tribe of the Viking group known as Varangians, who settled the area from the north of Russia to Kiev. The first city in Russia, Novgorod, was established by a Rus leader, Rurik, in 862 CE. The Rus were driven out by Slavic and Finnic tribes. But not long after that, the Rus were invited back to rule, as there had been so much infighting without them.

Twenty years later, farther south, Oleg, a relative of Rurik, founded Kiev, a strategically vital trading post, due to its proximity to the Byzantine Empire with its rich and influential capital, Constantinople.

The Rus excelled at navigation for the purpose of trade, creating the Volga Trade Routes. From the map at right you can see how extensive, influential, and lucrative these routes were. Within 200 years, the Norse had been assimilated into the Slavic culture, but not before they had been able to unify the area and establish systems of trade that would have an impact upon this region until the present day.

I have also wondered if the Vikings influenced construction in this part of the world. Russia’s traditional dachas look similar to Nordic construction in the use of wood and whimsical decorative trim. I was wondering if there is any evidence to support this, when I discovered an article, “Russian History in Architecture: A Photo Tour of Russia’s Historic Buildings,” on

wooden Russian church

Photo: Druschba 4 / Wikimedia
A Russian wooden church from the 16th century, preserved in an open-air-museum near Veliky Novgorod.

Novgorod was originally constructed of log homes. You can see similarities between Norwegian stabburs and Russian dachas.

On homes in both counties you can also see attention paid to decorative carved details. The patterns are not the same, but the intricate attention to the windows and doors have much in common, as well as the use of complicated interwoven designs where the end and beginning are imperceptible.

Norwegian  stave church

Photo: Wikimedia
Stave Church, originally from Gol, at the Norwegian Folk useum in Oslo.

The island of Kizhi, in the northern Russian Republic of Karelia is renowned for its collection of preserved log buildings spanning from the 14th to the 18th century. It’s so unique that it has been designated a UNESCO site. These traditional buildings are organized into an open-air museum, similar to the Norsk Folkemuseum in Oslo or Skansen in Stockholm; it was the first open-air museum in the world. Many of the edifices here bear a striking resemblance to structures built in the Nordic countries. According to Wikipedia, “Since at least the 14th century, the island was part of the exchange route between Novgorod and the White Sea.” This exchange between a city settled by the Norse and the further reaches of Russia need not have been limited to goods. In all probability it could also have included ideas and customs, such as construction techniques.

Wooden structures became more elaborate as churches were created in both regions. You can see how in the northern part of Russia, they began to stack and multiply the A-frames, from larger to smaller ones, much like the Norway’s stave churches. However, in Russia the onion dome begins to replace the pointed top. The onion dome is believed to have been adapted from the Byzantine style. 

You will also notice that the Russian use of shingles, in terms of shape and overlap, creates a similar texture to that seen in stave churches. The Church of All Saints in Surgut was rebuilt in 2002 using orthodox architecture—it’s a wooden structure without a single nail. Using wooden rivets rather than metal nails for construction is also something shared by the traditional Norse and Russian styles.

In more modern times, a tense situation often percolates, distrust in evidence where the Norwegian and Russian borders meet. One can only hope that the deep historical connections between Norway and Russia will supercede their disagreements and create an atmosphere where diplomacy prevails.

This article originally appeared in the November 2, 2018, 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.