Russia’s early history is of migrating peoples and ancient kingdoms. Early Russia was a collection of cities that gradually grew into an empire. In the early part of the ninth century, a Scandinavian people known as the Varangians crossed the Baltic Sea and landed in Eastern Europe. There leader was the semi-legendary warrior Rurik, who led his people in 862 to the city of Novgorod on the Volkhov River. From Novgorod, Rurik’s successor Oleg extended the power of the city southward. In 882, he gained control of Kiev, a Slavic city. Oleg’s rule over Kiev marked the first establishment of a unified, dynastic state in the region. Kiev became the centre of a trade route between Scandinavia and Constantinople, and Kievan Rus’, as the empire came to be known, flourished for the next three hundred years.

Rapid expansion on the part of the Kievan Rus in the 10th century, notably under Igor in the 940’s, enlarged the territories over which they had control at the expense of their Polish and Khazar neighbours. Wealth had much to do with the political expansion of Kievan Rus, but the cultural links formed in the wake of mercantile connects were also crucial for political development as Rus interests increasingly focused to the west and south towards the end of the 10th century. The formal conversion of Vladimir and the Rus to Greek Orthodox Christianity after 987 provided an essential connection with Byzantium of great importance for Russia’s future development. It is said that Vladimir decided against Islam partly because of his belief that his people could not live under a religion that prohibits hard liquor
By 1054 Kievan Rus was rife with internecine strife and had broken up into regional power centers. Internal divisions were made worse by the depredations of the invading Cumans. It was during this time that Yuri Dolgorukiy, one of the regional princes, held a feast at his hunting lodge atop a hill overlooking the confluence of the Moskva and Neglina Rivers. A chronicler recorded the party, thus providing us with the earliest mention of Moscow, the small settlement that would soon become the pre-eminent city in Russia.

By the 11th century, the two most important towns in Russia were Kiev and Novgorod. The seats of the grand-prince and the metropolitan of the Orthodox Church were in Kiev, where all the splendours of Constantinople were recreated. Novgorod was the northern commercial and religious centre. Even though Russian culture was greatly influenced by Byzantium, it took many years to spread the new religion through the pagan states of the north.

Kievan Rus’ struggled on into the 13th century, but was decisively destroyed by the arrival of a new invader–the Mongols. In 1237 Batu Khan, a grandson of Ghenghis, launched an invasion into Kievan Rus’ from his capital on the lower Volga (at present-day Kazan). Over the next three years the Mongols (or Tatars) destroyed all of the major cities of Kievan Rus’ with the exceptions of Novgorod and Pskov. The regional princes were not deposed, but they were forced to send regular tribute to the Tatar state, which became known as the Empire of the Golden Horde.

The Mongol invasion devastated large areas. The northern principalities of Rus were overrun in 1233-9; Kiev was stormed and razed in 1240. To the west the Teutonic knights overran Prussia. There advanced on Pskov was stopped by Prince Alexander Nevsky of Novgorod, who then defeated them on the frozen surface of Lake Peipus (1242). Rus now had a new problem to their west. Lithuania under Gediminas (1316-41) was emerging as an important power. For the next century or so, very little seems to have happened in Russia. In fact, given the tribute demanded by the Tatars, there wasn’t much money available for building, campaigns, or anything else of that sort.

With the Tatars off to the southwest, the northeastern cities gradually gained more influence–first Tver, and then, around the turn of the 14th century, Moscow. As a sign of the city’s importance, the patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church was transferred to the city, making it the spiritual capital of Russia

Moscow became the seat of a growing Russian principality, while Lithuania also expanded to its west overrunning the areas of Galich, Vladimir, Kiev 1362-3, Chernigov, Pereyaslavl, and Novgorod-Severski in 1363. The Lithuanians thus expanded up to the lands of the Golden Horde. The Horde were then pushed back, so that in 1392 the Lithuanians had reached the Black sea.