Rurik of Rus: Varangian Rule in Early Medieval Russia

From The Rurik Dynasty Exhibition / Visit St. Petersbug

The Rurik dynasty (or Rurikids) went on to rule the Kievan Rus’, and ultimately the Tsardom of Russia, until 1598.

Curated/Reviewed by Matthew A. McIntosh
Public Historian


Rurik (c. 830 – 879), according to the 12th-century Primary Chronicle, was a Varangian chieftain of the Rus’ who in the year 862 gained control of Ladoga, and built Novgorod in the same year. This legendary figure was considered by later rulers to be the founder of the Rurik dynasty, which ruled the Kievan Rus’ and its successor states, including the Kingdom of Ruthenia, the Principality of Tver, Grand Duchy of Vladimir, the Grand Duchy of Moscow, the Novgorod Republic and the Tsardom of Russia, until the 17th century.[1]

Rurik on the monument “Millennium of Russia”. / Wikimedia Commons

The only information about Rurik is contained in the 12th-century Primary Chronicle written by one Nestor, which states that Chuds, Eastern Slavs, Merias, Veses, and Krivichs “…drove the Varangians back beyond the sea, refused to pay them tribute, and set out to govern themselves”. Afterwards the tribes started fighting each other and decided to invite the Varangians, led by Rurik, to reestablish order. Rurik came in 860-862 along with his brothers Sineus and Truvor and a large retinue.

According to the Primary Chronicle, Rurik was one of the Rus’, a Varangian tribe separated by the chronicler from the Swedes and Gotlanders.[2] Historians generally accept such an origin for Rurik in preference to an alternative giving him a Slavic origin.[3] Sineus established himself at Beloozero (now Belozersk), on the shores of lake Beloye, and Truvor at Izborsk (or at Pskov). Truvor and Sineus died shortly after the establishment of their territories, and Rurik consolidated these lands into his own territory.

Image of Rurik in the “Tsar’s titularnik”. / Wikimedia Commons

According to the entries in the Radzivil and Hypatian Chronicles[4] under the years 862–864, Rurik’s first residence was in Ladoga. He later moved his seat of power to Novgorod, a fort built not far from the source of the Volkhov River. The meaning of this place name in medieval Russian is ‘new fortification’, while the current meaning (‘new city’) developed later.

Rurik remained in power until his death in 879. On his deathbed, Rurik bequeathed his realm to Oleg, who belonged to his kin, and entrusted to Oleg’s hands his son Igor, for he was very young. His successors (the Rurik dynasty) moved the capital to Kiev and founded the state of Kievan Rus’, which persisted until the Mongol invasion in 1240. A number of extant princely families are patrilineally descended from Rurik, although the last Rurikid to rule Russia, Vasily IV, died in 1612.

Historicity Debate

Archaeological Evidence

In the 20th century, archaeologists partly corroborated the chronicle’s version of events. It was discovered that the settlement of Ladoga, whose foundation has been ascribed to Rurik, was actually established in the mid-9th century, although doubt is now cast on this by the dendrochronological evidence that Ladoga existed by the mid-8th century.[5] Earthenware, household utensils, and types of buildings from the period of Rurik’s purported foundation correspond to patterns then prevalent in Jutland. However, the excavations denied most of the chronicle’s data about Rurik’s arrival when it was apparent that the old settlement stretched to the mid-8th century and the excavated objects were mostly of Finno-Ugric and Slavic origin, also dated to the mid-8th century, which showed the settlement was not Scandinavian from the beginning.[6]

Hypothesis of Identity with with Rorik of Dorestad

Rorik of Dorestad, as conceived by H. W. Koekkoek / Wikimedia Commons

The name Rurik is accepted to be a form of the Old Norse name Hrærekr. This has been taken as evidence that Rurik was in some way ethnically Scandinavian.[7] The only similarly named figure described in the Carolingian Annales Fuldenses and Annales Bertiniani was Rorik of Dorestad (also spelled Rørik, Rörik, Roerik, Hrörek, etc.), a Germanic king from the royal Scylding house of Haithabu in the Jutland Peninsula. Since the 19th century, there have been attempts to identify him with the Rurik of Russian chronicles.

Rorik of Dorestad was a member of one of two competing families reported by the Frankish chroniclers as having ruled the nascent Danish kingdom at Hedeby, and was likely nephew of king Harald Klak. He is mentioned as receiving lands in Friesland from Emperor Louis I. This was not enough for him, and he started to plunder neighbouring lands: he took Dorestad in 850, attacked Hedeby in 857, and looted Bremen in 859, yet his own lands were ravaged in his absence. The Emperor was enraged and stripped him of all his possessions in 860. After that, Rorik disappears from the Western sources for a considerable period of time, while only two years later, in 862, the Russian chronicle’s Rurik arrives in the eastern Baltic, builds the fortress of Ladoga, and later moves to Novgorod.

Rorik of Dorestad reappeared in Frankish chronicles in 870, when his Friesland demesne was returned to him by Charles the Bald; in 882 Rorik of Dorestad is mentioned as dead (without a date of death specified). The Russian chronicle places the death of Rurik of Novgorod at 879, three years earlier than the Frankish chronicles. According to Western sources, the ruler of Friesland was converted to Christianity by the Franks. This may have parallels with the Christianization of the Rus’, as reported by Patriarch Photius in 867.

The idea of identifying the Rurik of Nestor’s chronicle with Rorik of Dorestad of the Carolingian chronicles was revived by the anti-Normanists Boris Rybakov and Anatoly H. Kirpichnikov in the mid-20th century,[8] while modern scholars like Alexander Nazarenko object to it.[9] The hypothesis of their identity currently lacks support among scholars,[10] though support for a “Normannic” (i.e., Norse, rather than Slavic) origin of the Rus’ has increased.

Folklore and Legacy

Rurik and his brothers Sineus and Truvor arrive at Ladoga by Viktor Vasnetsov. / Wikimedia Commons

In Estonian folklore there is a tale of three brothers, who were born as sons of a peasant, but, through great bravery and courageousness, all later became rulers in foreign countries. The brothers were called Rahurikkuja (Troublemaker), Siniuss (Blue snake) and Truuvaar (Loyal man) (estonianized names for Rurik and his brothers Sineus and Truvor), names given to them by their childhood friend, a blue snake.[11]

The Rurik dynasty (or Rurikids) went on to rule the Kievan Rus’, and ultimately the Tsardom of Russia, until 1598, and numerous noble Russian and Ruthenian families claim a male-line descent from Rurik. Vasily Tatishchev (a Rurikid himself) claimed that Rurik was of Wendish extraction and went so far as to name Rurik’s wife, Efanda of Norway (Edvina); mother, Umila; his maternal grandfather, Gostomysl; and a cousin, Vadim (apparently basing his account on the lost Ioachim Chronicle).[12]


  1. Christian Raffensperger and Norman W. Ingham, “Rurik and the First Rurikids,” The American Genealogist, 82 (2007), 1–13, 111–19.
  2. Hypatian Chronicles 1962:13
  3. Joshua J. Mark, Kievan Rus
  4. Ipat’ievskaia letopis’ 1962:14; Radzivilovskaia letopis’ 1989:16
  5. Kuzmin, Sergey L. (2008). “Ladoga in the early middle ages (mid-VIII -early XII centuries)” (PDF). Nestor-History. Retrieved 14 October 2015.
  6. Kirpichnikov, Anatoliy N. (2004). “A Viking Period workshop in Staraya Ladoga, excavated in 1997” (PDF). Journal of Swedish Antiquarian Research. Retrieved 17 September 2015.
  7. Omeljan Pritsak, “Rus'”, in Medieval Scandinavia: An Encyclopedia, ed. by Phillip Pulsiano (New York: Garland, 1993), pp. 555-56.
  8. Kirpichnikov, Anatoly H. “Сказание о призвании варягов. Анализ и возможности источника”. Первые скандинавские чтения, СПб; 1997; ch. 7–18.
  9. Nazarenko, Alexander. “Rjurik и Riis Th., Rorik”, Lexikon des Mittelalters, VII; Munich, 1995; pp. 880, 1026.
  10. Andrei Mozzhukhin (5 October 2014). «Рюрик — это легенда» [“Rurik – is a legend”] (in Russian). Russian Planet. Retrieved 12 November 2014. Interview with Igor Danilevsky.
  11. Kampmaa, Mihkel. Majaussi kaswandikud. Tähelepanemise wäärt Eesti muinasjutt. Sakala, no 20, 09.06.1890
  12. Manaev, G. (2019-07-08). “Who founded Russia and ruled it before the Romanovs?”. Russia Beyond the Headlines. Retrieved 2020-01-29.

Originally published by Wikipedia, 01.18.2002, under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.



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