Numerous remains indicate that Russia was inhabited in the Paleolithic period. By the VIIth cent. B.C. the northern shore of the Black Sea and the Crimea were controlled by the Scythians (see under Scythia); in the IIId cent. B.C. the Scythians were displaced by the Sarmatians (see under Sarmatia).
Later the open steppes of Russia were invaded by numerous peoples, notably the Germanic Goths (IIId cent. A.D.), the Asian Huns (IVth cent.), and the Turkic Avars (VIth cent.). The Turkic Khazars built up (VIIth cent.) a powerful state in S Russia, and the Eastern Bulgars established (VIIIth cent.) their empire in the Volga region.
By the IXth cent. the Eastern Slavs had settled in N Ukraine, in Belarus, and in the regions of Novgorod and Smolensk, and they had established colonies to the east on the Oka and upper Volga rivers. The chief Slavic tribes in S Russia were dominated by the Khazars.
The origin of the Russian state coincides with the arrival (IXth cent.) of Scandinavian traders and warriors, the Varangians. Tradition has it that one of their leaders, Rurik, established himself peaceably at Novgorod by 862 and founded a dynasty. The name Russ or Rhos possibly originally designated the Varangians, or some of them, but it was early extended to the Eastern Slavs and became the name of their country in general. Rurik's successor, Oleg (reigned 879-912), transferred (882) his residence to Kiev, which remained the capital of Kievan Rus until 1169. He united the Eastern Slavs and freed them from Khazar suzerainty, and signed (911) a commercial treaty with the Byzantine Empire. Under Sviatoslav (reigned 964-72) the duchy reached the peak of its power.
Christianity was made the state religion by Vladimir I (reigned 980-1015), who adopted (988-89) the Greek Orthodox rite. Thus Byzantine cultural influence became predominant.
After the death of Yaroslav (reigned 1019-54), Kievan Rus was divided in a rotation system among his sons. Political supremacy shifted, passing from Kiev to the western principalities of Halych and Volodymyr (see Volodymyr-Volynskyy and Volhynia) and to the northeastern principality of Suzdal-Vladimir (see Vladimir).
In 1169, Kiev was stormed by the Suzdal prince Andrei Bogolubsky (reigned 1169-74), who made Vladimir the capital of the grand duchy. In 1237-40 the Mongols (commonly called Tatars) under Batu Khan invaded Russia and destroyed all the chief Russian cities except Novgorod and Pskov. In S and E Russia the Tatars established the empire of the Golden Horde, which lasted until 1480.
Belarus, most of the Ukraine, and part of W Russia were incorporated (XIVth cent.) into the grand duchy of Lithuania. Thus NE Russia became the main center of economic and political life. At the end of the XIIIth cent. Tver was the most important political center, but in the XIVth cent. the Muscovite princes of the grand duchy of Vladimir, although still tributary to the Tatars, began to consolidate their position.
Under Ivan I (Ivan Kalita; reigned 1328-41), Moscow took precedence over the other cities. After the victory of Dmitri Donskoi (reigned 1359-89) over the Tatars at Kulikovo in 1380, the grand duchy of Vladimir was bequeathed, without the sanction of the Golden Horde, to his son Vasily (reigned 1389-1425), and its rulers began to be called grand dukes of Moscow or Muscovy (see Moscow, grand duchy of).