Rus: A Brief Overview
Rus: A Brief Overview

By Christian Raffensperger Wittenberg University

Historical Overview

The kingdom of Rus was the largest kingdom in medieval Europe by territory. It stretched from the Gulf of Finland in the north, where cities such as Ladoga and then Novgorod provided bases for trade and power; to Polotsk on the Dvina, which provided another route from the Baltic to the interior of eastern Europe; the territory’s capital was at Kyiv on the Dnieper, which was centrally located on the north-south Dnieper trade route, as well as the east-west land trade route. Its power extended to the southwest into the newly forming areas of Galicia and Volhynia, stretching across the headwaters of the Pripyat, Vistula, Dniester, and Bug Rivers. The region not only had natural salt deposits, but easy access to a variety of other areas, though with no natural borders, it was prone to conquest, as would be seen in its history. Rus also stretched to the northeast, especially the areas between the Volga and Oka rivers, which would eventually form the heartland for Muscovy, a potential successor state. This area was well known for fur gathering, but especially for fur transshipment down the Volga to the world of Central Asia. Its distance from the rest of Europe did not preclude contact with western and central Europe, but it did make it more difficult (and less common) than for areas located closer, such as Kyiv, Novgorod, or Galicia-Volhynia.

The political unity of the kingdom of Rus fractured over the course of the 12th century, which left it in multiple kingdoms, often called principalities, in the 13th century. The different kingdoms centered in places as diverse as Novgorod in the north, Vladimir-Suzdal in the northeast, Smolensk on the Dnieper, and Galicia-Volhynia in the southwest. Each had their own policies, chronicles, ecclesiastical authorities, and so forth. 

The arrival of the Mongols in the middle of the 13th century dramatically changed the entirety of Rus for the rest of its history. The Mongols overran, sacked, and subsequently controlled the majority of Rus, excepting only Novgorod in the north beginning ca. 1236–41, most likely due to the surrender of the city under Alexander Nevsky (r. Novgorod 1236–59 [with interregna]). Though the Mongols continued west to sack Poland and Hungary as well, the death of Khan Ogedei (d. 1241) resulted in the establishment of a rough border of Mongol control on the eastern perimeter or Rus, with the Galician-Volhynian territories of modern left-bank Ukraine, passing in and out of Mongol, Hungarian, Polish, and later Lithuanian control. 

The traditional story of the rise of Russia follows the translation of power from Kyiv, the center of the kingdom of Rus, to Vladimir-Suzdal in the northeast during the 12th and 13th centuries, and then to Moscow in the 14th century. Moscow’s first well-known ruler was Daniil (d. 1303), son of Alexander Nevsky. Daniil began the struggle for regional dominance with Moscow’s rival – Tver. His signal success was keeping Moscow independent, gathering additional territory, and passing it all intact to his son Iurii (r. Moscow 1303–25). Iurii is the first of the rulers of Moscow to convince the Mongol khan, Uzbeg (d. 1341) in this instance, to give him the iarlyk, a patent to rule and collect taxes, as well as what named him Grand Prince of Vladimir. The wealth generated by this fueled Moscow’s rise, and their continuing conflict with Tver, and their wealth generation came to a head with Iurii’s son Ivan (r. Moscow 1325–41), nicknamed Kalita or moneybags. The wealth gathered by Ivan Kalita put Moscow on an unalterable path to victory over its regional rivals, though there would be, of course, bumps in the road ahead. The path of Muscovy though was largely one of alignment with the Mongol world, which took it farther from connections with the rest of Europe, leading to the eventual arrival of British explorers in the 16th century in Muscovy who felt that they were “discovering” new territory. 

This is not the only story of Rus, however, as has been alluded to thus far. The Dnieper region as well as the territory of Galicia-Volhynia began to go their own ways during the period following the arrival of the Mongols in the mid-13th century, if not before. Galycia-Volhynia in particular presents an interesting example as it maintained robust negotiations with the Mongols to their east, the Hungarians to their southwest, the Poles to their north and northwest, as well as with distant powers such as the Lithuanians farther north. These interactions led, following the extinction of the Volodimerovichi / Riurikid ruling line, to claimants for power from both Hungary and Poland, and the eventual incorporation of this territory into both kingdoms at different times in the 14th century. The rise of Lithuania and the unification of Poland and Lithuania in the late 14th century, and especially closer cooperation in the 15th century led to their expansion down the Dnieper and the absorption of much of the Dnieper and Galician-Volhynian territory into Poland-Lithuania during the 15th century. This is where it would stay for the remainder of the period under discussion, though Muscovy would expand closer and closer to the Dnieper in the 16th century. 

The sources available for the study of Rus in this period are both many and few, as odd as that may seem. The source base is largely dependent upon which location one chooses to study and what languages one wishes to study. The focus on Muscovy and the northeast of Rus is typically conducted in Russian, and Old East Slavic. There exist multiple chronicle accounts that start with the Povest’ vremennykh let (tale of bygone years) as the base, and extend from its conclusion in the early 11th century with regional chronicles. The Laurentian is the most well-known of these, though there are multiple others for the northeast. By the 14th and 15th centuries, there is a marked increase in record keeping and we see copies of religious texts abound, including the Komchaia kniga (Pilot Book), charters of all kinds (religious and secular), as well as other documents. If one chooses to study the southwest, the basic chronicles, such as the Galician-Volhynian chronicle, are in Old East Slavic, but one also has recourse to information about this part of Rus in multiple Latin sources, from Poland, Hungary, and Lithuania – all of which dealt with and even controlled this area at one time or another. Additionally, this area had increased interaction with Byzantium, and so we see its mention more frequently in Byzantine and Balkan sources as well. 

Key Issues and Debates

One of the most interesting and long-lasting debates about this region in the period under discussion is how to classify or categorize Rus in relation to regions and other polities. In the 1970s, Dimitri Obolensky codified the idea of the Byzantine Commonwealth in which Byzantium (the medieval Roman Empire) ruled over a nebulous polity extending beyond its conventional political borders and was inclusive of areas that were “Orthodox” and shared Byzantine culture. This idea went largely unchallenged until the 21st century when Anthony Kaldellis (Hellenism in Byzantium: The Transformations of Greek Identity and the Reception of the Classical Tradition, 2007), and Christian Raffensperger pointed out multiple problems, including that there were multiple religious connections between the “Orthodox” and “Latin” worlds, indicative of the idea that people did not think in those terms in the High Middle Ages; as well as the fact that there is no positive evidence from Byzantium to demonstrate that the Byzantines ever thought about such a supra-national entity. Such critiques, of course, have not kept the idea from persisting, and even flourishing in scholarship.

As noted, Obolensky’s idea, while articulated in an innovative fashion, was merely the codification of a long-standing view of the place of Rus (the focus of this article) in relation to the rest of the medieval world. As far back as the end of the 19th century, N. M. Karamzin and Mykhailo Hrushevsky, reflecting respectively the traditional Russian, and nascent Ukrainian perspectives, debated over the place of Rus in regard to Europe. Karamzin’s Rus was merely the foreground to Russia and so after the arrival of the Mongols in the 13th century, the centers of power shifted from the Dnieper region to the northeast and the Volga-Oka region, specifically to Moscow. Karamzin paid less attention to the Crimea and modern Ukraine until those territories were conquered by the Muscovite state much later in time. Hrushevsky instead focused on what he called “Ukraine-Rus” and on the Dnieper territory, as well as the areas watered by the Bug, Dniester, and other southern rivers. In his writing, Rus was part of the larger medieval European world – in some ways quite literally as parts of Rus were absorbed by Poland, Hungary, and almost all of historic Rus was eventually taken over by the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth by the 15th and 16th centuries. 

Despite this discussion well over one-hundred years ago, very few people in the Anglophone world read Hrushevsky’s work because it was only published in Ukrainian (barring volume 1), and so such conversations about the place of Rus continued and took many different avenues. One of the most common is the relations between Rus and the Mongols from the 13th century onward. Russian scholars historically dealt with this period by referring to it as the “Tatar Yoke,” a period in which the Russian people suffered under Mongol cruelty (referred to as Tatars in Russian literature). They suggested that little to nothing was learned from the Mongols and there was almost no contact between the two groups. American scholars Charles Halperin and Donald Ostrowski challenged this perspective in different ways in the late 20th century. Halperin articulated an idea that Russian sources consciously chose not to mention the Mongols and any influence they might have – the “ideology of silence.” Ostrowski took a different tack, and utilizing a plethora of non-Russian sources demonstrated the enormous connections and manifold appropriations by Muscovy from the Mongols. Though the two American scholars do not entirely agree, their work has advanced the scholarship in such a way that now very few assume that there was no influence or interaction.

One of the most recent issues, following the end of the Cold War and the demise of the Soviet Union is how to fit Rus into Europe. While this is an issue that Karamzin and Hrushevsky debated a century ago, it is being refought by a new generation of scholars in a much changed environment. Polish scholar Jerzy Kłoczowski has advanced the term “Younger Europe” to describe the areas that were not part of the Roman Empire, and were Christianized later. Though Rus, Christianized in 988/989, should fit into Younger Europe, it is often left out because of its relationship to Byzantium. Proponents of Central Europe as a term often define their work in clear ways to connect themselves to the West. A recent example is Nora Berend, Przemysław Urbańczyk, and Przemysław Wiszewski’s Central Europe in the High Middle Ages (2013). This excellent work begins with an overview chapter that defines the focus area of Bohemia, Poland, and Hungary as Central Europe not (explicitly) Eastern Europe. This leaves Rus in the unwanted category of Eastern Europe. The same is true of the proponents of another geographic term – East-Central Europe, which also covers Bohemia, Poland, and Hungary, though can also cover the Balkans; but again, not Rus. The legacy of the 20th century is that “Eastern Europe” is bad and no one wants to be identified with that. Rus pays the price for that legacy and is thus difficult to associate with other geographic groupings. 

There is a very recent movement in Anglophone scholarship though to attempt to connect Rus into the larger medieval world. Christian Raffensperger began this for the High Middle Ages with his Reimagining Europe: Kievan Rus in the Medieval World, and it has been continued and expanded upon by the work of Yulia Mikhailova and Natalia Zajac. For later periods, there is less work focusing on the inclusive interactions between Rus and the rest of medieval Europe, but there are signs that this is changing. In just the last year, books have been published by Vitaliy Mykhaylovskiy and Márta Font and Gábor Barabás covering such interactions in the 13th to 15th centuries. There is hope then that this trend will continue and Rus can be fully integrated into a larger European world in the scholarship.

The modern implications of this scholarly debate are self-explanatory. If Rus can be part of medieval and early modern Europe, perhaps then Ukraine at least, and Russia possibly, can be part of modern Europe. This argument has been made explicit even in regard to Ukraine’s possible association with the European Union. History can be used by modern states, but also by modern historians – and perhaps we can use it to build bridges not just walls. 

Further Reading

Hrushevsky, Mykhailo. History of Ukraine-Rus’. Vol. 3, To the Year 1340. Translated by Bohdan Strumiński, ed. Robert Romanchuk, with Uliana Pasicznyk (and Marta Horban-Carynnyk). Toronto: Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies Press, 2016.

Though one hundred years old, the work of Hrushevsky is a classic, and still in many ways unparalleled treatment of Rus. Volumes 3, 4, 5, and 6 all deal with the period under discussion here and cover religion, history, politics, and relations with the neighbors of Rus in this period.

Majeska, George P. Russian Travelers to Constantinople in the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries. Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 1984.

Extensive discussion of the interactions between Rus (Russia in the author’s discussion) and Byzantium in this period, covering a great deal of political and religious history via those discussions of travelers. The main focus is primary source accounts of travel and interaction which have been translated into English.

Martin, Janet. Medieval Russia, 980-1584. 2nd Edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

Though a textbook, this has one of the most thorough treatments of the region of Rus as a whole, inclusive of Novgorod in the north, Moscow (and Vladimir-Suzdal) in the northeast and Galicia-Volhynia in the south. Though it has a Russian history centered focus, it maintains the unity of discussion on Rus for the first part of the period under discussion.

Mykhaylovskiy, Vitaliy. European Expansion and the Contested Borderlands of Late Medieval Podillya, Ukraine. Leeds: Arc Humanities Press, 2019.

The most recent addition to this list, this book covers the incredibly diverse intersections of one region in late medieval Rus. Lithuanians, Poles, Tatars, Germans, Armenians, and many more are covered in this excellent book.

Obolensky, Dimitri. The Byzantine Commonwealth, Eastern Europe 500-1453. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1971.

The classic work which shaped the idea of the Byzantine Commonwealth. Though much challenged in recent decades, and outmoded in art history, for instance, it is still widely cited.

Raffensperger, Christian. Reimagining Europe: Kievan Rus’ in the Medieval World. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012.

A new challenge to the contemporary view of eastern Europe, Rus’ in particular, as separate from the rest of the medieval European world. It covers areas as diverse as dynastic marriage, religion, and trade.


Christian Raffensperger, "Rus: A Brief Overview," Mapping Eastern Europe, eds. M. A. Rossi and A. I. Sullivan, accessed June 10, 2024,