The establishment of the Kievan State—the precursor to the great Muscovite Empire—occurred when the Varangians were called upon by the lawless Slavic tribes in 862 CE to settle their internal disputes. The particular Varangian tribe in question were known as the Rus’—which is where the later name for the “Russians” came—and their settlement of Kiev by the semi-legendary figure of Rurik marked the beginning of the Kievan Russia. Kiev was a town that lay along the flow of the Dnieper River, which extended southward all the way down to the Black Sea. It was a major artery of trade that connected the Rus’ with Byzantine capital of Constantinople, and the position of Kiev led to the famous expression of Dnieper as being the road “from the Varangians to the Greeks.” The kingdom of Rus’ would maintain its contact with the Byzantine Empire for the entirety of its existence.
Early political and military contact between the two empires occurred during the reign of prince Oleg (882–913) and his son, Igor (913–945). Both of these princes engaged in successful warfare against the Byzantine Empire, extracting beneficial trade privileges from it. The Russian Primary Chronicle, for example, relays the campaign of Oleg in 907, when he supposedly nailed his shield to the gates of Constantinople. Igor’s subsequent campaign in 941 was not as successful as that of his father, but the resulting treaty still gave the princes of Rus’ significant privileges in the city. Russians, for example, were subject to their own courts, but could be drafted into Byzantine service. Because of the intermixing of Russian and Byzantine peoples, the connection between the two empires guaranteed a significant level of economic cooperation and cultural borrowing.
The most obvious example of the latter would be adoption by prince Vladimir, known by the Russians as Saint Vladimir, of Christianity, and the accompanying “baptism of Russia.” The theretofore tolerated polytheistic religious practices in the Russian countryside were made illegal by Vladimir’s conversion. Historians of the ancient period have commented on how Vladimir sent authorities into the countryside to confiscate all of the pagan idols they could find and throw them into the Dnieper River. Vladimir’s conversion was not merely a religious statement, however. By the beginning of the eleventh century, Russia lie at a cultural crossroads. The kingdom of Rus’ was flanked on its eastern side by the Muslim state of the Volga Bulgars as well as the Jewish Khazars to the southeast. Therefore, Vladimir’s decision represented a strategic geopolitical decision as well. Instead of becoming a further extension into Eastern Europe of non-Christian peoples, Rus’ became the eastern-most bulwark of Christendom, preventing the spread of Islam into Europe. In return, Rus’ acquired a unified religion, the creation of a religious language translated into a vernacularized Russian script, the makings of a national culture, and much of the material wealth that the resplendent Byzantine Empire had to offer. It was, in short, the zenith of the kingdom of Rus’.