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  • Reimagining Europe: Kievan Rus’ in the Medieval World by Christian Raffensperger
  • Eugene Smelyansky
Christian Raffensperger, Reimagining Europe: Kievan Rus’ in the Medieval World, Harvard Historical Studies 177 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press 2012) 329 pp.

Christian Raffensperger opens his study—to a somewhat disarming effect—with an admission about the virtual impossibility of making any firm claims about the history of Kievan Rus’. Indeed, the problem of sources available for this period, of their paucity and questionable origins, could render any study of early medieval Rus’ problematic. To Raffensperger’s credit, having made his [End Page 324] disclaimer, he proceeds to make an argument that is as substantiated—given the available evidence—and persuasive, as it is ambitious. This study attempts to do exactly as its title claims, namely to reimagine medieval Europe by including Kievan Rus’ as its easternmost part, “the last Christian kingdom before the pagan steppe tribes and Muslims on the Volga and in Central Asia” (188). Revising Dimitri Obolensky’s classic The Byzantine Commonwealth, Raffensperger traces important “connections in a few key areas, specifically dynastic marriages and religious and trade connections, to show the engagement of Rus’ with Europe” (3). This thesis challenges the understanding of Rus’ (and of Russia in the centuries to come) as a principality on the margins, both geographically and in terms of its importance to the development of the rest of Europe. Moreover, Raffensperger devotes his first chapter to demonstrating that Byzantine culture and the political weight of the Roman Empire exerted their influence throughout Europe and therefore one must re-think the very idea of the “Byzantine commonwealth,” perhaps even expand its borders to include all of Christendom (to say nothing of the impression the Byzantine Empire left upon the early Islamic Caliphate).

The book is organized around the three sub-arguments that support Raffensperger’s thesis: prevalence of dynastic marriages between Rus’ and European nobility (chapters 2 and 3), trade connections between Rus’ and Europe (chapter 4), and, finally, the formation of Rusian semi-independent micro-Christendom that cultivated relationships with both the Byzantine Empire and Latin Christendom (chapter 5). Working with a relatively thin source-base pertaining to Rus’ itself, Raffensperger draws masterful analogies and provides examples from contemporary texts to support his point. His analysis of primary sources written about Rus’ is particularly impressive, as it demonstrates that the Kievan principality and Kiev itself were viewed by European merchants and chroniclers as part of the European realm and even as a gateway to more exotic lands to the east.

Two chapters on dynastic marriages stem from a peculiar fact that forty out of fifty-two known dynastic marriages joined Rus’ to the royal houses of Europe (112). After contextualizing the practice of dynastic marriages during the period, Raffensperger proceeds to demonstrate that these were not merely a way to avoid the prohibition on consanguineous unions, but rather means to important political ends. Dynastic marriages between Rus’ and Europe were ways to resolve conflicts, create a long-distance alliances, or even support an exiled ruler with a view to his eventual return to power (this strategy, for example, underpinned the marriages of the daughters of Prince Iaroslav the Wise to Harald Hardrada and Andrew of Hungary). No less interesting, although perhaps somewhat speculative, is Raffenperger’s discussion of the fact that Rusian princesses influenced European naming practices—the best known example being the introduction of the name Phillip into the Capetian family tree—which may suggest that they possessed certain agency, perhaps as “virtual embassies” (83) of Rus’ at foreign courts, although there is too little evidence to argue anything beyond that.

Chapter 4 is devoted to east-west trading connections between Rus’ and the rest of Europe. This chapter is the shortest, but it provides a fascinating glimpse of the diversity of economic ties that focused on Kievan Rus’. As [End Page 325] Raffensperger points out, in addition to a well-discussed north-south trade routes through the Dnieper and the Volga river systems, Rusian traders were plugged into the European trading networks via Poland and Bohemia, as well as the Baltic. European merchants, on the other hand, viewed Rus’ as a gateway into the...


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pp. 324-326
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