If you take a moment to look up famous quotations about the Russians, one of the most oft noted is the line from the Russian Primary Chronicle, "Drink is the joy of the Rus'," uttered by Prince/Saint Vladimir as he debated which religion to choose for his subjects. (So he rejected Islam because of its prohibitions against the consumption of alcoholic beverages.)
It has always been difficult to study the history of early Kievan Rus'. Problem one is simply a lack of sources. There are not that many surviving documents from say, 500-1200, and for a long time there was not much archaeological work being done in the field. There are many reasons for the lack of documents, including the back and forth nature of who controlled the area, the wars and invasions, natural disasters, etc. For example, much was destroyed in the repeated Mongol invasions and the lengthy periods of civil strife after the eleventh century. There are also not a lot of documents from Russia's neighbors. Remember that the Byzantine Empire came to an end in 1453, although there are some surviving Byzantine sources that shed some light on early Rus'. The Mongols (and before that the different peoples from Central Asia) left little in the way of surviving documentation. As for Poland/Lithuania, that commonwealth was not a treasure trove of accurate record-keeping. For Russia, there was little or no relationship to western Europe until much later in the Middle Ages. So, in reality, not much in terms of written sources survive.
The other problem with the study of early Russian history has been what one might call ideological. On one level, was the creation of the first Kievan Rus' state a product of internal Russian developments? Or was it brought to Russia by the conquest of the Vikings or other mercenary marauders from Western Europe?. The answer to that question depended on how one interpreted fragmentary documents that we have, especially the Primary Chronicle. Look, does anyone in their right mind, think that a people would "invite" the Vikings to come and rule over them? It just does not make sense. Maybe the Russians later "invited" the Mongols too.
The other aspect of the ideological problem of studying early Russian history involved the exact nature of "Russia" and "Ukraine" or "Kiev." Was this first state Russian or was it Ukrainian (or Kievan)? Does it make a difference which it was? Realistically, there are not that much in the way of ethnic, linguistic or religious differences between Ukrainians and Russians, and it is pretty clear that there was not much in the way of an organized society in northern or northwestern Russia at the time when Kiev emerged as an organized entity; and technically much of Ukraine did not become part of Russia until the seventeenth century. So one is left with the question of whether Kievan Rus' was Russian or Ukrainian. How a scholar, historian, or anyone for that matter, answers depends a lot on one's present political connections.
OK, so you understand that it is really difficult to say with any degree of certainty the specifics of what happened in early Rus'. What we can say for sure is that an organized political state, centered on Kiev, emerged in the tenth century. Scholars for years remarked at how late that political formation happened in Russia as compared to Western Europe, but with the exception of the short-lived Carolingian empire from about 775 to 840, there was also not much existing in the way of effective state organization in Western or Eastern Europe from about 300 to 1000.
Back to history, I would say that the history of Russia through the eighteenth century was pretty comparable to contemporary Western European states:
The Kievan state lasting really only from about 950 to maybe 1100 began to decay quickly, especially in comparison to what was going on in western Europe in the eleventh century where an agricultural revolution was taking place that greatly increased productivity and boosted trade. Although, for example, both France and England continued to have problems of succession to the thrones of their countries, both countries managed to survive hereditary problems; not Russia.
In Russia, the external issues included the serious pressures that came from tribes in Central Asia such as the Polovtsy (Polovetsians). Also the Russian ties to Byzantium suffered as a result of first the split between Eastern and Western churches (finalized in the eleventh century) and then the shift of trade routes away from Constantinople as a result of the Crusades and the 1204 sack of Constantinople.
More important for Kiev were internal considerations. There were continued problems with succession to the throne of Grand Prince. Princely succession in theory was to move from elder to younger brother and then from uncle to nephew as well as from father to son. This made an almost unsolvable problem of who was to succeed whom to the throne. The result was almost continuous internecine war and then the splintering of the unity of the state into regional components. This was also a problem throughout Europe at the time, and most of those areas survived intact in one way or another. Russia would probably have been okay too and eventually managed to put everything back together again if it had not been for the appearance of the Mongols who clearly put an end to the Russian experiment.
The final remnants of Kievan Rus'
were destroyed by the Mongol invasions of 1237-1240.
Some recommended websites
All materials on this site
are copyright © 2011-20, C.T. Evans
For information contact firstname.lastname@example.org