Funny how things come together. I’ve just been to a preview of the British Museum’s new blockbuster show on the Vikings, which opens later this week just as the world is focussed on Ukraine. A side-bar to the exhibition, which naturally focusses on the Viking invasions of Britain – is the less well-known Viking progress east, when ‘the Rus’ travelled down to Novgorod and Kiev in their longships and founded what became Russia.
The Viking leader Rurik and his dynasty established their base in Kiev from about 862 on – the same time as ‘the great army’ landed in East Anglia, martyred King Edmund and put Alfred the Great’s kingdom to the sword.
The difference is that in Russia the Vikings won. Kiev is as a consequence as central to Russian identity and history as Winchester or Canterbury to England. Hardly surprising they should take a proprietorial interest in what happens there; or that the descendants of the Vikings should value the navy at Sevastopol enough to protect their Crimean base.
The Vikings themselves travelled on past Kiev and down through the Russian river system to reach Constantinople. Now that must have been a clash of civilisations. Islamic commentators of the time were impressed by the Vikings’ fighting spirit, but less by their personal habits, reporting that they did not wash after urinating, or after sex, or indeed much at all.