The city of Kiev, which is now the capital of the modern nation-state of Ukraine, was the most important of all the Rus’/Russ cities in the Middle Ages. Located on the Dnieper River about halfway between Constantinople and Scandinavia, Kiev became a great trading post and cultural center, where Slavs, Scandinavians, Greeks, and others merged to create medieval Russian culture. As kingdoms began emerging in Western Europe during the late ninth and early tenth centuries that would comprise the major states of the Middle Ages, the people of Eastern Europe also consolidated their cities in order to battle the Magyars and Turkish hordes that threatened them from the nearby steppe.
In the midst of this often turbulent period, the principality of Kiev became the most powerful of all the Rus’ states. According to The Russian Primary Chronicle, Kiev was founded by Varangians (the Slavic term for Vikings) from Novgorod. The legendary Rurik is credited with being the progenitor of a dynasty that ruled Kiev, who are often thought to have “brought civilization” to southern Russia. The reality is that the formation of the Kievan Rus’ state came about through a hybridization of Scandinavian warrior merchants and native Slavs, who by all accounts were already quite civilized. The groups contributed to create one of the most stable, powerful, and economically prosperous states in Eastern Europe through a combination of aggressive military action, diplomacy, and commerce.
The medieval Rus’ gave their name to modern Russia, but their origins are a bit enigmatic. In the past, modern scholars either argued that the Rus’ were almost entirely Scandinavian in their origins, or they were almost all Slavic. Both sides have made compelling arguments, and in the case of the pro-Slavic stance there was even official recognition by Soviet officials. The pro-Slavic advocates do not deny that Scandinavians were part of the Rus’ states, only that they played a very minor role as merchants and emissaries.