kama river

KIEVAN RUS: TRAVEL BY LAND AND SEA

This is an excerpt from: KIEVAN RUS: PART 1 – NORTHERN ENIGMA OF THE MIDDLE AGES.

The realm of Kievan Rus was riddled with rivers that worked as superhighways for fast and easy travel: routes connecting the Rus to the Balts, Finns, Ugrians and Scandinavians to the north; ones leading east into the domains of the infamous steppe nomads and the rich Islamic world; south to the Black Sea which gave access to the Bulgarian Empire and the Byzantines. While land travel was possible it was made all the more difficult for large armies as the ground would become muddied in the spring and autumn due to rainfall and winter snows melting. However, in the winter it was actually easier to traverse on foot than it was during the warmer seasons as the rivers would freeze and the Rus would also employ the use of sleds, snowshoes, skis and ‘frost nails’ (spikes on the bottom of shoes or horseshoes for traction; think of cleats).

^ Frost Nails. 

The Rus that sailed these rivers had to avoid obstructions and shallow rapids so they (portaged) carried or pulled their ships onto land, dragged them over logs until they passed around these obstacles then pushed their ships back into the river at another location. This was also done to move boats from one river to another since the whole of their realm was a patchwork or web of waterways. This process of portaging could prove to be a dangerous one as the Rus would become susceptible to being ambushed or assaulted by various nomadic steppe peoples.

To combat this Rusians constructed ports, garrisons and forts along the rivers to give temporary refuge, shelter, aid and protection. Another safe refuge for the Rusians were the many islands that dotted the rivers they traversed. Since the Rus typically dominated rivers they used these islands as pit stops to keep the bandit horsemen of the steppes at bay. The Rus also hired and allied themselves with some steppe nomads to ward off other hostile invaders. The Druzhina (imperial guards) and these nomad allies rode on land alongside the vessels sailing these rivers and guarded them while they portaged.

Nor can the Russians come at this imperial city of the Romans, either for war or for trade, unless they are at peace with the Pechenegs, because when the Russians come with their ships to the barrages of the river and cannot pass through unless they lift their ships off the river and carry them past by portaging them on their shoulders, then the men of this nation of the Pechenegs set upon them, and, as they cannot do two things at once, they are easily routed and cut to pieces…” – De Administrando Imperio (“On the Administration of the Empire”) by Byzantine Emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus c.950.

Though the many rapids that peppered the great rivers of the Rus were a hassle, they were also just as much of a curse as they were a blessing. Enemies attempting to lead a naval invasion of Kievan Rus were constricted by the fact that they could only use smaller vessels capable of sailing shallow rivers and in effect, send less men up at a time. Enemy vessels were also equally at risk of being attacked while portaging as the Rus were. Another advantage of the previously mentioned portages was that these points, and the fortified structures often stationed near them, became advantageous for traders and merchants and boat repairmen. 

Osprey - ‘Men-at-Arms’ series, issue 491 - Armies of the Volga Bulgars
& Khanate of Kazan, 9th–16th Centuries.
 “Reconstruction of an ushkuy as used by the ushkuyniki river-pirates, and probably by many other peoples on the Volga and Kama river system. Clinker-built from pine planks, these craft had a length of 12–14m (39–46ft), a beam of perhaps one-fifth that length, a shallow draught of approximately 0.5m (20in) below the water, and about 1m (39in) of freeboard. This design gave the uskhuy considerable speed for a medieval vessel. (A.S. Sheps)

The Rus used a type of dugout boats called a monoxyla, (Greek “single-tree”) which were able to sail shallow waters. According to the ‘De Administrando Imperio’, written by Byzantine Emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus around c.950, the Slavic Krivichians and the Lenzanenes would go into the mountains during the winters where they would cut down trees for the crafting of monoxyla and by spring time they traverse down the now thawed Dnieper River and sell the monoxyla to the Rus. The Rus themselves added oars, rowlocks and tackle and when the Rus neared more easily traversable lakes and seas they made use of their masts, sails and rudders. Another ship used in the north was the easily portaged Finnish ushkui (uisk, “snake”) which was made famous by the Novgorodian pirates referred to as the Ushkuiniks who are seen as both heroes and villains depending on one’s perspective.

^ Osprey - ‘Men-at-Arms’ series, issue 491 - Armies of the Volga Bulgars
& Khanate of Kazan, 9th–16th Centuries. Plate E: THE USHKUYNIKI MENACE, 14th–15th CENTURIES - E2: Archer, 14th–15th centuries
: “This Volga Bulgar foot-soldier wears gear practically identical to his Russian ushkuyniki foes. The spired steel helmet has an aventail divided at both sides, covering his neck back and front but not the shoulders. The mail hauberk is short-hemmed but has sleeves to below the elbow. Note that the long-sleeved, quilted coat-armour is much shorter at the back than at the front, where it is divided from hem to belly. The slung shield and the archery equipment also resemble Russian styles, though the signalling whistle attached below his arrowhead may have been confined to the Mongols and their Volga Bulgar vassals.

If there are any errors please privately inbox me so I can update it. As always, if you’d like to read or learn about any specific historical subjects just let me know what they are and I will take note of them.

See Also:

  • KIEVAN RUS: PART 1 – NORTHERN ENIGMA OF THE MIDDLE AGES:  In this post I will be covering the early portion of the medieval realm known as Kievan Rus (pronounced ‘Roos’); a multiethnic and cultural realm incorporating the Norse, Slavs, Turks, Balts and Finno-Ugrians. A realm centered around the many rivers that were riddled throughout its domains and led them to the riches of the Byzantine Empire, Silverland (Islamic Middle East) and the Baltic Sea. The culture, battle tactics and armaments of the ancient Slavs are addressed as well as the Druzhina (personal bodyguards and standing army). Also mentioned are some of the conflicts the Rus had with one another, the Greeks (Byzantine Empire), Bulgarians and Turkish steppe nomads. 
  • KIEVAN RUS: PART 2 – DYING LIGHT IN A DARK AGE: In this post I will cover some of the civil wars, wars of succession and familicide that plagued Kievan Rus; their peak under leaders like Vladimir the Great (who unified the Rus and made Orthodox Christianity their official religion) and Yaroslav the Wise (while Europe was in a dark age, he made Kievan Rus a beacon of knowledge, literacy, trade and faith); Kievan Rus’ shattering into various feuding states, their clash against the Mongols and their rarely spoken of religion. The Chernye Klobuki (Turkish mercenaries) and the Varangian Guard (Norse, Slavic, Germanic, etc.) are also noted; the latter were warriors employed by the Byzantine Empire to act as the Emperor’s trusted personal guard and on occasion they acted as pirate hunters, policemen, jailers, prison guards, torturers and interrogators.