- Franks, Northmen, and Slavs: Identities and State Formation in Early Medieval Europe, and: Pokhodzhennia Rusi, and; Liudi i kniaz´ v drevnerusskikh letopisiakh serediny XI–XIII vv
In 2002, Grigorii Iakovlevich Perel´man solved, in three widely acclaimed papers, "Poincaré's Conjecture," which had troubled mathematicians since 1904. In two little-noticed volumes that appeared between 1981 and 2003, Omeljan Pritsak (1919–2006) did much to resolve the so-called "Varangian problem," which has challenged historians since 1749.1 Mathematicians, however reclusive, work much faster than do historians.
Although it may seem strange to review, in 2011, a work that first appeared in English in 1981—and in translation 8–14 years ago—I believe that Pritsak's sophisticated analysis has not received the attention it deserves. The conclusions that Pritsak reached are: yes, what we call Ruś was established by merchant warriors from Scandinavia; yes, the evidence is there—in a wide variety of sources; and yes, we should acknowledge that the germ of the Kyivan state, like those of [End Page 501] the French and English kingdoms, was introduced by what we call (somewhat carelessly) Vikings.
Pritsak—a Slavist, Orientalist, and Scandinavianist—marshaled his evidence from a vast array of times and places. We should not be surprised: he had been investigating matters concerning the peoples of Eurasia—first in Germany, as editor of the Ural-Altaische Jahrbücher, more recently in the United States and his native Ukraine—since the 1950s.
Pritsak's research is far-reaching, profound, and for practical purposes universal. His bibliography and source base contain works in a vast array of Western and Eastern languages, including what appear to be all relevant sources, accessed in the original. He declares: "What has been presented here is another theory…. In the eighth and ninth centuries a multiethnic, multilingual, unified social and economic entity (of low culture) emerged, represented by the maritime and trading society of the Mare Balticum and transplanted by the bearers of the culture of the Mare Nostrum." In his view, this new entity was "transformed into a Christian and linguistically Slavic high culture that became Kievan Rus´" (33).
For all its tendency to overreach, Pritsak's is a stunning achievement.2 It does incline to repetition; at times he takes us a bit fast on the curves; volume 2 includes a few typos (for which he is not, presumably, responsible).
It may seem imprudent to attempt to summarize a work that already runs to 2,400 pages, with several volumes apparently yet to come. Pritsak himself, however, provided a systematic overview in volume 1 ("Exposition to the Entire Work," 3–33; 1:67–98 of the Ukrainian translation), upon which the following remarks are based.
Pritsak begins his story (3) with the familiar 1749 scandal involving Gerhard Friedrich Müller (Fedor Ivanovich Miuller, 1705–83), Nikita Ivanovich Popov (1720–82), and Mikhail Vasil´evich Lomonosov (1711–65), and Müller's contention that the Kyivan state was founded by Norsemen.3 Having listed the views of the various parties, Pritsak concludes, "historians have too often substituted political (or patriotic) issues for improved techniques of historical methodology … and they have been biased in their use of source materials … [disregarding] the semantics of the original, relying … on translations, instead of acquiring knowledge of the sources and the cultures from which they come" (7). [End Page 502] (The...