Russia before the Russians

The Scythians were both expert horsemen as well as fearsome warriors
The Scythians were both expert horsemen as well as fearsome warriors

The land that we today know as Russia has many positives: ample natural resources, navigable rivers into its interior and plenty of room for settlement. However, a few things that it lacks are natural barriers to protect it from invasion. Russia is open to potential invaders from the west, east and the south. If you count the icy arctic winds, then count the north as well. Invasions of all kinds and by all sorts of people have occurred throughout the centuries, from the devastating hordes of the Mongols, Napoleon’s invasion in the early 1800s, to Hitler’s savage armies storming into the Soviet Union during World War II. Invasion, like the cold, has been a fact of life. Russia’s very beginnings even start with invasion, specifically that of the Eastern Slavs, the ancestors of today’s Russians, Ukrainians and Belarusians. With such a history, it’s not hard to see why many Russians are cautious in their dealings with foreigners, especially those who attempt to intervene in their internal affairs.

Early Peoples of the Russian steppe

While the very vastness of modern Russia leaves no doubt that prehistoric man crisscrossed throughout this region over several thousands of years, the country’s civilized history really starts around the first millennium BCE. This is when a group of people known as the Cimmerians arrived into the region above the Black Sea from the Balkans. The little that we know of these people comes from the Greek historian Herodotus (484–420 BCE) who wrote of their ability to make iron tools. Their realm extended from the Black Sea all the way to the Caucasus mountains. It is however quite possible that the Cimmerians were only one group of many, perhaps the dominant one that ruled over other tribes and peoples in the region. Due to lack of empirical evidence, such things are difficult for archaeologists and historians to confirm. What is known is that they were eventually displaced around 700 BCE by a nomadic Iranian people known as the Scythians, who came from what is today Central Asia. The Cimmerians were driven southward by the Scythian invaders and moved southward where they came into contact with the Assyrian empire. Not wanting them around, the Assyrians repulsed Cimmerian advances and sent them further into Anatolia. There, the Cimmerians conquered several kingdoms in the area until they themselves were finally defeated by the king Alyattes of Lydia. After that, there is no real mention of the Cimmerians and they essentially disappear from history. However, unlike the Cimmerians, there is a good deal of information about the Scythians, the people who eventually came to dominate the Russian steppe.

Russian steppe near the Mongolian border
Russian steppe near the Mongolian border

The Scythians, Samatians and peoples of the steppe

Scythian art - archers
Scythian art – archers

Much of what we know about the Scythians comes from Greek and Persian sources. They were quite possibly the finest horseman of the ancient world, at least in and around 1000 – 600 BCE. They were also feared warriors who fought on horseback as archers and with swords. They were also infamous for their custom of beheading their enemies and using their skulls as drinking cups. Recent excavations, including one of a 2,700-year-old tomb in Siberia near Russian-Mongolian border, reveal that the Scythians were skilled goldsmiths and jewelers who created exquisite objects and ornaments what were used to decorate their weapons, tools and saddles. Many of these works of art included animals that were common on the steppe such as horses, reindeer, ibex, wolves and various birds of prey. 1

Scythian lands...
Scythian lands…

Scythian control of the Russian steppe lasted until roughly 200 BCE when they were defeated by another tribe from Central Asia, the Sarmatians. Like the Scythians, the Samatians were also fine horsemen, but with better weapons. The Samatians were driven out roughly four hundred years later by a Germanic people known as the Goths. The dominance of the Goths also didn’t last very long as they were overrun by the Huns in 370 AD. These Huns are believed to be of the same group as the infamous warrior Atila the Hun, known throughout history as the leader of the barbarian horde that brought the Roman Empire to its knees. Around the mid 6th century, another Turkic people known as the Avars conquered the region north of the Black Sea.

The Khazars

The 7th century was an interesting time in Central Asia and the southern Russian steppe. A new and powerful state of a Turkic-speaking people known as the Khazars emerged onto the scene. This state, which we will call Khazaria, was unlike any other of its time. For one, it was relatively well-organized and peaceful for much of its existence, especially during a time when a lot of chaos was raging through much of the world. Khazar lands extended from the Dnieper River in the west to the Volga River in the east and from the lands north of the Black and Caspian seas to Caucasus Mountains. Their capital was the city of Itil on the Volga River, which became a thriving trading and commercial hub on the Silk Road, helping to make Khazaria very wealthy.


Another interesting aspect of the Khazar state was that it was very tolerant of ethnic and religious diversity. Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, pagans and other religions and peoples were allowed to practice their respective faiths and live according to their own traditions without any harassment or interference from the state. Many of those fleeing persecution from other lands, especially in Europe and the newly created Islamic empire, came to seek refuge in Khazaria. It is also interesting to note that the Khazar ruling class adopted Judaism as their religion in the 8th and 9th centuries, something very odd since most civilizations were caught between Christianity and Islam.

Svyatoslav I and council of war - sketch by Boris Chorikov
Svyatoslav I and council of war – sketch by Boris Chorikov

Khazaria survived as the leading power on the Russian steppe until it was defeated in 966 by the Kievan Russian prince Sviatoslav I. This proved to be both a boon as well as a curse for the emerging Russian state. On one hand, they were able to expand and control part of the ancient and profitable trade routes of Silk Road. On the other, the destruction of Khazaria removed the only real buffer between the advancing Islamic armies south of the Caucasus and, probably the most fearsome scourge of all time, the Mongol hordes of Genghis Khan.

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