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Ancient Rus: Trade and Crafts
December 20, 2006 14:42

Ancient Russia (Rus) occupied the territory of Eastern Europe and lay on trade routes running from Christian West to Muslim East and back. So far treasures have been found on the ways where caravans moved along.

Western travelers thought Medieval Rus as a country of vast woods and plains with settlements and villages widely separated, though Vikings took Rus differently: the most popular Volga Trade Route connecting countries lying to the North and the South was called the Trade route from the Varangians to the Greeks. Old Scandinavian sagas mention 12 big towns of Ancient Rus, among them: Novgorod, Kiev, Polotsk, Smolensk, Murom and Rostov.

Town crafts

At that time towns were ruled by warrior princes, whose will, military and economic power determined the fate of a settlement. A town’s economic and cultural value depended greatly on deft craftsmen living there – architects, stone- and metalworkers, icon painters, etc. Wares by Russian town craftsmen were famous far beyond Russian borders. Quaint padlocks along with complicatedly designed keys were very popular in adjacent countries under the name of “Russian” padlocks. The German writer Teophil acknowledged fineness of silver- and gold workers’ wares. Thus, in XI century jewelers-craftsmen made gold-filled tombs for the first Russian saints – brothers Boris and Gleb.

The Mongol invasion fatally impacted Russian handicrafts, as lots of people were killed or drawn away. Many techniques were forgotten, it was an oblivious time for Russian crafts.

However, the middle of XIV century witnessed a new rise of craft production. Today the ancient gate of Sofia Cathedral of Novgorod still keeps the image of a common craftsman of that time: it is a bearded man wearing an overknee belted caftan and boots, his main labour instruments are a hammer and a bender.

In the second half of XIV c. production of riveted and hammered cannons along with sheet iron commenced. The craft of foundry was developing, especially bells and bronze cannons founding.

Trade in Ancient Rus

One of the reasons why towns attracted so many people was a good opportunity to bargain a necessary thing. Merchants, moving from place to place, brought not only various goods, but latest news, as well. They told of foreign countries, customs and traditions. Rus had operated three main trade routes: eastern, west-european and Mediterranean ones. Persia supplied Rus with silk, leather and goatskin, dyes, expensive oriental arms, etc. However, spices such as pepper, canella, ginger, Muscat and saffron as well as sweets such as raisins, prune, almond, sugar and nuts were good value for money.

The towns of Pskov and Novgorod maintained a busy trade route running to Western Europe through north-German towns. Materials for craftwork and cloth found a market in Rus. For instance, a square of cloth produced in Ieper in Flanders considered to be a fine and valuable present. Two whole clothes from Ieper could be bartered for a thousand of gilt-edged squirrel furs. In XIV-XV cc. Rus dealt with expensive and prestige glass – goblets and bowls for grand people’s feasts. Venice was known as one of the chief suppliers. Apart from articles of luxury merchants traveling to Western Europe brought products of overwhelming importance – metals, which Rus lacked that time. Archeological excavation under Novgorod provided scientists with a 150kg bar of lead, which was produced in Poland during the reign of Kazimir the Great.

Additionally, Rus conducted trade across the Black Sea with Mediterranean countries. Basically, Venetian, Turkish, Egyptian and damascene cloth were firstly delivered in Surozh (modern Sudak in the Crimea), the biggest trading center at the seaside, and only after that they appeared in Russian towns. The most popular foreign goods at Russian markets happened to be jewellery (silver vessels, icons, Byzantine crosses), nobles could afford buying basil rich in quality and Italian paper.

As for the Russian goods exported in exchange, furs and leathers, wax and honey should be mentioned. Squirrel fur ranked first on the list, it was classified according to the place of habitation and transported in tuns. Sable, otter, marten and beaver were regarded as more valued sort of peltry. Wax export played an important role in Russian trade; wax was widely used at courtyards of European monarchs and in church.


     Olga Pletneva

Tags: Russian crafts Russian business history of Russian business Russian entrepreneurs  


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