Norman Theory

Norman Theory


a tendency in historiography, whose supporters regard the Normans (Varangians) as the founders of the state of ancient Rus’.

The Norman theory was formulated by German scholars, including G. S. Bayer and G. F. Miller, who worked at the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences in the second quarter of the 18th century. A. L. von Schlözer, who came to Russia at a later date, also supported the theory. Evidence for the Norman origin of the ancient Russian state was provided by The Tale of Bygone Years (The Primary Chronicle), which contains an account of the summoning of the Varangian princes Riurik, Sineus, and Truvor to Rus’ in A.D. 862.

The political intent of the theory was to portray ancient Rus’ as a backward country incapable of self-government and to present the Normans as a force that, from the very beginning of Russian history, influenced the economic and cultural development of Russia.

In the middle of the 18th century, the theory was criticized by M. V. Lomonosov, who pointed out that it was untenable from the standpoint of scholarship, and that it was politically biased against Russia. In histories written during the 18th and 19th centuries by members of the nobility and by monarchists (for example, N. M. Karamzin), the theory served as the official version of the origin of the Russian state. To a greater or lesser extent, the majority of bourgeois historians were Normanists. Although he did not reject the historical validity of the summoning to Rus’ of the Varangian princes, S. M. Solov’ev refused to regard this as evidence of the backwardness of the Eastern Slavs. He declined to apply to the ninth century the concept of national dignity, which is relevant only to modern times.

The struggle between the Normanists and anti-Normanists and between the Slavophiles and Westerners became particularly intense in the 1860’s in connection with the celebration in 1862 of the 1,000th anniversary of the Russian state. At that time many problems in Russian history were the subject of heated polemics of a distinctly political nature.

Some historians from the nobility and the bourgeoisie, including D. I. Ilovaiskii, S. A. Gedeonov, and V. G. Vasil’evskii, opposed the Norman theory. They criticized certain aspects and hypotheses but were unable to expose the theory’s unscholarly character.

In the 1930’s and 1940’s, Soviet historiography overcame the influence of the Norman theory. A number of Soviet historians and archaeologists, including B. D. Grekov, B. A. Rybakov, M. N. Tikhomirov, S. M. Iushkov, and V. V. Mavrodin, wrote works of decisive importance, based on Marxist-Leninist methodology. Soviet scholars established that among the Eastern Slavs of the ninth century the obshchina (peasant commune) system had declined to such a degree as to permit the development of the internal prerequisites for the emergence of the state. The presence in ancient Rus’ of princes of Varangian origin (Oleg, Igor’) and of Norman-Varangians in the princely retinues (druzhiny) does not contradict the fact that the state in ancient Rus’ took shape as the result of an independent socioeconomic evolution. The’ Norman-Varangians left almost no imprint on the rich material and spiritual culture of ancient Rus’. Those who settled in Rus’ merged with the native population and became slavicized.

Since the 1920’s the Norman theory has been part of the bourgeois conception of Russian history, to which some American and Western European historians adhere. In capitalist countries, many mongraphs and articles have been published on certain problems related to the theory. On the whole, contemporary Normanism is characterized by a defensive position toward the works of Soviet scholars. Supporters of the theory strive to defend positions on particular topics, which include the makeup of the ruling class in ancient Rus’ the origin of large-scale land-ownership in Rus’, trade and trade routes in ancient Rus’, and archaeological remains of the culture of ancient Rus’. In each of these topics, the Normanists consider the Norman element to be decisive. Contemporary supporters of the theory also maintain that the Normans colonized Rus’ and that Scandinavian colonies served as the basis for the establishment of Norman hegemony. They believe that ancient Rus’ was politically dependent on Sweden. Sorely lacking in historical evidence, the Norman theory is untenable.


Shaskol’skii, I. P. Normanskaiateoriia v sovremennoi burzhuaznoi nauke. Moscow-Leningrad, 1965.
Łowmiański, H. Zagadnienie roli normanów w genezie państw stowiańskich. Warsaw, 1957.