Varangians (from Norse waering ‘one who has taken an oath of allegiance’ or war ‘oath, sworn fidelity’; Ukrainian: variahy). Nordic warrior-traders who established themselves in Rus’ after first appearing there in the early 9th century. Known as Normans or Vikings in other parts of Europe, those adventurers were called Varangians in Eastern Europe and the Byzantine Empire. In the 9th to 11th centuries Varangians served as key mercenary troops for Rus’ princes (eg, Prince Ihor, Volodymyr the Great) and also hired themselves out to Byzantine emperors (eg, Basil II). They occupied key administrative positions in Kyivan Rus’ and engaged in trade in the towns. The Varangians are associated particularly with the use of the Varangian route, which provided an eastern access for traders from Scandinavia through Kyivan Rus’ to the Byzantine Empire.
The extent of Varangian influence in Rus’ has been debated for several centuries in connection with the controversial Normanist theory. The kernel of the debate is accounts of contemporary chroniclers that credit the Varangians with establishing a state structure in ancient Rus’. Certainly the Varangians assumed a leading role in the running of the Rus’ state; the Riurykide dynasty, in fact, is descended from a Varangian. But the extent of their influence beyond that is difficult to ascertain, notably because the Varangians assimilated rapidly with the local population; their influence in Rus’ was particularly evident in military organization and in personal names. In Novgorod the Great they built a church which is mentioned in chronicles as the Varangian Church. Later archeological expeditions unearthed large Varangian grave sites in the Kyiv region and Chernihiv region (see Shestovytsia fortified settlement and burial site) containing well-preserved caches of grave goods and weapons.
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Encyclopedia of Ukraine