22 August 2011
The Russ - From intrepid explorers to drunk students
The westwards exploratory journeys of the Vikings are well known. From their base in Scandinavian they raid, traded and eventually conquered most of the UK, the Faroe Isles, Iceland, Greenland. They even reached NE America (Vinland) 500 years before Columbus.
Their eastern travels are equally as impressive although less well popularized. Vikings from the Roslagen region of eastern Sweden headed east, through the Baltic and the Gulf of Finland, entering the continent by the modern day St Petersburg. Then via a series of rivers, lakes and overland hauls they reached the Volga River which flows south to the Caspian Sea. From there they managed to reach Persia and Bagdad. A second group headed south westwards to the Black Sea and into Turkey. Once the routes were established they routinely traded with Islamic and Turkish merchants.
As they trading routes become more used some of the Vikings stayed behind to settle riverside trading towns, they interbred with the local Slavic peoples. It has been suggested that these people gave their name “Rus” to the modern day region we call Russia.
Fast forward 700 years to the 18th Century and Norwegian students arriving in Danish universities (Norway was ruled by Denmark and had no universities of its own) were humiliated by the more sophisticated locals and made to endure an initiation ceremony. Part of this involved them being called Russ which came from the Danish word Rus for yokel.
Fast forward another 200 years and Norwegian high school students spend the last 17 days of their school career dressed in red overalls getting very drunk and pulling “wacky” stunts. From the start of May to the 17th, distinctive looking gangs maraud around the town centre, drinking and misbehaving. The majority of this is very good natured and no shops are burnt or looted. While the sensibilites of the older generation are occasionally upset everyone sees it as a harmless tradition.
It’s an interesting cultural lineage from warrior-explorers who named a nation to drunk kids flashing their boobs and shouting a lot.
(To learn more about the Volga Vikings I suggest listening to this podcast from the BBC. It’s fascinating.)