Chapter 2 of the history course A New Imperial History of Northern Eurasia is titled “Mechanisms of Political and Cultural Self-Organization of the First Polities in Northern Eurasia: Formation of the Rous Land.” It introduces the unconventional spelling of the name of the first polity that had emerged between Novgorod and Kiev in the ninth−tenth centuries CE: the Rous Land. This is the actual spelling used in the first Russian chronicles, customarily replaced by the neologism “Kievan Rus” in the dominant contemporary historical narrative. This formal linguistic measure is a first step toward the deconstruction of the familiar and absolutely fantastic semantic entity equating the ancient Novgorod-Kievan polity with latter-day Russia, the “Russians” with the “Slavs,” and a polity with a specific territory and ethnicity. On the basis of recent archaeological studies, new research on the history of the Normans in Eastern Europe, and the history of medieval political culture, this chapter reconstructs a more fascinating picture than the one based on Romantic nationalist mythologies of the nineteenth century (the foundation of the grand Scheme of Russian History). Two primitive political organizations upholding crude socioeconomic practices entered into a symbiosis that unexpectedly yielded the revolutionary effect of producing the state-like grand political system.
A Norman commune of professional warriors led by their charismatic konung, and a loose confederation of multicultural and multilingual forest tribes inhabiting the waterways between the Volga River and the Baltic Sea joined forces, to their mutual benefit. The military organization of the Normans was required to protect and coordinate the complex caravan route that served as the main source of silver for Northwestern Europe for more than a century. It is estimated that from the late ninth to the early eleventh centuries, at least 2,000 tons of silver had been transported along this route (of which about 1,200 tons was left along the way between the Volga and the Baltics). Different Finno-Ugric, Slavic, and Baltic tribes controlling individual segments of the caravan route needed an impartial “manager,” and were ready to recognize a supreme political authority that was not claiming a right to their land (in contrast to the emerging feudal system in Carolingian Europe). The corporation of Norman warriors continued their economics of raiding, only they did not attack the peoples and lands that recognized their authority. A combination of the two primitive socioeconomic systems produced the phenomenon of pure politics, unmediated and not masked by kinship or property relationships. The polity that emerged was named the Rous Land after the self-description of Norman rowers on warships ( roths in the modern English transcription). The name of the multicultural polity would become the name of its polytechnic population, and later interpreted as the designation of a single “people” and even ethnicity. In the nineteenth century, Russian historians would invent a thousand-year-long history of the evolution of this single ethnicity from time immemorial, from the ancient Slavs, heading toward the ideal of the monoethnic nation-state.