Origins of the Russian People

Updated on August 6, 2018
Larry Slawson profile image

Larry Slawson received his Masters Degree in History at UNC Charlotte. He specializes in Russian and Ukrainian history.

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Introduction

Although much of the Russian people’s origins remain shrouded in mystery, recent historical and archaeological evidence suggests that the Russian people derived from a diverse network of tribes, cultures, and civilizations that emanated from the Black Sea, western Asia, and the Caucasus (MacKenzie and Curran, 11). Many scholars believe that the “western Eurasian plain…was inhabited by primitive peoples for hundreds of thousands of years before the arrival of the Slavs” (MacKenzie and Curran, 11). Yet, to this day, claims such as this, remain difficult to substantiate due to a lack of physical evidence.

First Recorded People

In the millennium prior to the Christian era, modern-day Russia served as a home to numerous migrant groups from the Middle East and Asia. One of the first “historically recorded people” to enter the region were known as the Cimmerians. Appearing around 1,000 B.C., this warrior-like group “entered the steppe region as conquerors,” and quickly subdued primitive tribes to their rule (MacKenzie and Curran, 12). Historical evidence suggests that the Cimmerian’s main strength lied with their use (and implementation) of iron. Iron proved to be highly effective against the stone-wielding indigenous tribes of ancient Rus, and gave the Cimmerians a distinct military advantage over those who chose to oppose their rule. Cimmerian rule was short-lived, however, as the Scythians quickly usurped power for themselves by the Seventh-Century B.C. (MacKenzie and Curran, 12).

Although their ethnic origins remain a mystery, many scholars have posited that the Scythians may have derived from Iranian, Mongolian, or Slavic descent (MacKenzie and Curran, 12). Upon entering into the western Eurasian plain, the Scythian people quickly established control through the establishment of a loose “confederation of related tribes…settled agriculturalists” and nomads (MacKenzie and Curran, 12). Each of these tribes shared a common set of customs, traditions, and languages that helped to solidify their base of support. According to historians David MacKenzie and Michael Curran, the multitude of tribes, cultures, and people in the west Eurasian plain allowed the Scythians to draw unity through a common connection and dependence on nature, weapons, art, and trade. This resulted in an extensive network of commerce across the region.

Other regions to the west and east of the Scythians were settled simultaneously by the Greeks, particularly in the Crimea and along the Black Sea coast. Rather than viewing their intrusion as a threat, however, the Scythians used the Greek presence to their economic advantage; engaging in regular trade with these local groups and, in turn, expanding the diversity of material goods that entered into the region (MacKenzie and Curran, 12).

Rise of the Sarmatians

By the Third Century B.C., the Sarmations began to rapidly advance into the west Eurasian plain, replacing the Scythians as the dominant cultural group by mid-century (MacKenzie and Curran, 13). This warrior-like people (believed to be from Iranian descent) were nomadic by nature, but adopted many of the Scythian traditions and customs into their own culture and rule (MacKenzie and Curran, 13). The Sarmatians encouraged greater trade practices, particularly with the Greeks and the surrounding Mediterranean.

Migrations abounded once more by the First Century A.D. as the Goths began to arrive in the northern sectors of the west Eurasian plain from Scandinavia. This Germanic-based collection of people “conquered and plundered” many Sarmatian tribes, but were incapable of fully subduing them; instead, the Goths chose to adopt many of the Sarmatian policies for themselves, leading, as historians MacKenzie and Curran proclaim, to “a general [sense of] cultural continuity in the Eurasian plain…from roughly 500 B.C. to A.D. 500” (MacKenzie and Curran, 14).

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Arrival of the Huns, Avars, and Khazars

In the latter years of the Fourth Century A.D., the western Eurasian plain underwent numerous migrations and changes following the arrival of the Huns from Asia. Their arrival, effectively, forced the Goths out of the Eurasian plain, with the arrival of Attila. Following his death in 453 A.D., however, the Huns’ control over Europe quickly dissipated as the Avars (a mixture of Turks, Mongolians, and Chinese) rapidly took control of the region with the aid of Slavic tribes (MacKenzie and Curran, 15). The Avars only held control for a short period, as the Khazars – “a people of Turkic origin” – entered the Eurasian plain by the Eighth Century (MacKenzie and Curran, 15). Unlike prior cultures/civilizations, the Khazars remained highly interested in the development of trade, but managed to maintain “a healthy respect for the military prowess of the Slavs;” thus, allowing the Slavic tribes, as well as other cultures in the region a chance to develop unabated and to thrive culturally, politically, and socially (MacKenzie and Curran, 16). As a result, historians argue that “by the eighth century Slavic tribes had settled permanently in the Dnieper River region and the nucleus of the future Kievan state had been established (MacKenzie and Curran, 16-17).

Were you aware that the Russian people derived from numerous ethnic backgrounds?

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Conclusion

As a result of the western Eurasian plain’s cosmopolitan nature, scholars remain sharply divided over how Kievan Rus, “the first state on Russian soil, came into being” (MacKenzie and Curran, 17). Was it established by Normans/Vikings? Or did it result from the Slavs, entirely? Due to the lack of written materials from this time period, scholars may never know the answer to these questions with any certainty. What research does prove, however, is that Russia derived from a multitude of people(s) across its early history; a fact that is still evident in Russian culture and society to this day.

Works Cited

Books:

MacKenzie, David and Michael Curran. A History of Russia, the Soviet Union, and Beyond. 6th Edition. Belmont, California: Wadsworth Thomson Learning, 2002.

Images:

"Attila." Wikipedia. August 03, 2018. Accessed August 06, 2018. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Attila.

Samuels, Brett. "Russia Vows 'painful' Response to Any US Sanctions." TheHill. April 18, 2018. Accessed August 06, 2018. http://thehill.com/policy/international/383693-russia-vows-painful-response-to-any-us-sanctions.

Questions & Answers

    © 2018 Larry Slawson

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      • Larry Slawson profile imageAUTHOR

        Larry Slawson 

        4 months ago from North Carolina

        @Liz Haha, I'm glad you liked. I actually used quite a few of my old university notes to write this article.

      • Eurofile profile image

        Liz Westwood 

        4 months ago from UK

        This article reminds me of some of my university studies, learning about Russian history.

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