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Monument to Bohdan Khmelnytsky in front of St. Michael's Cathedral in Kyiv. Photo: oregonlive.com.Monument to Bohdan Khmelnytsky in front of St. Michael's Cathedral in Kyiv. Photo: oregonlive.com


Last updated: 19.05.2015 // Relations between the territories of present-day Ukraine and Norway can be traced more than a thousand years back in time.

This article, prepared by historians from the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine, gives an insight into these relations from the foundations of Kievan Rus and the Kingdom of Norway in the ninth century until the establishment of independent Ukraine in 1991.


Varangians in Kievan Rus.

Northmen took part in formation of the first Kievan state (Norse: Gardarike). In VIII-XIX centuries the Scandinavian population – Swedes, Norwegians and Danes were referred to as the Northmen. The 862 period of the famous chronicle ”The Tale of Bygone Years” contains a poetic legend about the elders of the Slavic tribes inviting the Varangians to come to Rus and become its rulers. The legend then tells about three brothers – Rurik, Sineus and Truvar who came to Rus from overseas and began reigning in the Slavic cities of Novgorod, Bilozer and Izborsk. Later on, the younger brother died, and all the power over the Northern Eastern Slavic tribes of Slavs and Kriviches was transferred to Rurik. The historians have long come to a conclusion about the mythical nature of Rurik’s brothers. However, there is no doubt about the historical existence of Rurik, and, as the Tale says, he came to Rus with his relatives and wife. Hence, according to ”The Tale of Bygone Years”, Rurik was the founder of the princely dynasty in Rus.


Recently the researchers of the legend, which has many times been a subject of heated debates, have come to the conclusion that Rurik’s establishment in the northern Rus resulted from an agreement he (or the three Varangian brothers) concluded with the tribes of the Novgorod confederation. The content of the agreement is in full agreement with the practice of regulating relations with the Varangians in Rus.


It is known that the Varangian retinues used to be summoned to the southern Rus for participation in military campaigns. The military assistance was needed mainly for external military actions of the Kievan Rus (campaigns of Oleg, Igor and Vladimir to Bysantium; the war of Yaroslav the Wise with the Pechenegs), but was also used for sorting out relations between the princes. Moreover, the texts of the 907, 911 and 944 treaties between Rus and Bysantium bear witness that among the Rusian envoys were people with Scandinavian names. The Scandinavians in Rus were not only employed as hired warriors but also as diplomats.


Several versions exist in the historical science regarding considerable involvement of Danes and Swedes in the Rus-Scandinavian medieval ties, with the Danes prevailing at a certain historical stage. There are also some, although less numerous, facts of the relations between Kievan Rus and Norway. An example of this are archaeological finds, such as silver coins found in Nesbu, Norway, that were minted in the Kievan Rus in the times of Vladimir and Yaroslav.


Economic relations.

The economic ties between Rus and Norway were probably less extended than those with Denmark and Sweden due to Norway’s geographic remoteness, and are poorly reflected in written sources. The Icelandic sagas contain only two direct records of commercial voyages of Norwegians to Rus. One of them mentions a Norwegian merchant sailor Gudleik of Agda, who ”often travelled to Rus and was therefore called Gudleik Rusian”. The saga about Olav Tryggvason tells about a large cargo of silk that he probably bought in the Rusian lands and brought on his ship to Norway. Kievan Rus was mainly used by the medieval Norway as a transit territory for goods from the Middle East. 


There are reasons to believe that the Baltic voyages of Norwegians to Rus continued in the XII and XIII centuries. The municipal law issued by King Magnus in 1276 says that at the time of creating the document Norwegians continued commercial voyages to the countries situated along the Baltic seashore, including Gardarike (Rus).


Another evidence of existence of certain economic relations between Rus and Norway is that, of the 19 Norwegian small coins found in 10 sites located in the Eastern Europe, 15 coins were found in 7 sites on the territory of Kievan Rus. Ten coins belong to the times of Harald III (1047-1066), another two were minted during the reign of Olav Kyrre (1066-1093), the rest are undated (XI cent.)


Political relations.

Of a considerable interest is the history of relations between the Kievan prince Vladimir the Great (980-1015) and Norway. According to existing data, he may have fought the Norwegian prince Erik. The juvenile prince Olav Tryggvason, the nephew of Vladimir’s grandee Sigurd, and his mother were given refuge in Kiev. Sigurd rescued the 9-year old Olav, who was held captive in the Baltic land, and brought him to the court of Grand Prince Vladimir. Prince Olav was a loyal servant to Vladimir, but fell a victim to slander and was forced to resign. A few years later, possibly with Prince Vladimir’s help, he dethroned Erik, making him flee to Sweden, and became king of  Norway. Later on he began fighting with Prince Vladimir over the North-Western lands of Rus. The war lasted four years and resulted in the aggressor being driven away.


The maintenance by Prince Vladimir of traditionally good relations with the Scandinavian countries appears quite logical, as the Rurik dynasty, to which he belonged, had Scandinavian origin. Among Vladimir’s numerous wives was a Scandinavian-born – Rogneda – whom he married in 977. Good relations with the Scandinavian states ensured to Prince Vladimir the stability on the north-western borders of Rus and served primarily his local tactical purposes.


According to ancient Scandinavian sources, Olav Haraldsson (Saint Olav, 995-1030), the Norwegian King from 1014 till 1028 who introduced Christianity in Norway, lived in Rus from autumn 1029 till spring 1030. His political opponents in Norway took the side of the King of England and Denmark – Knut the Great – who also sought power in Norway. Olav was defeated in the war against Denmark and was forced to flee to Sweden, then onwards to Kievan Rus. Olav was married to Astrid, the sister of Yaroslav the Wise’s wife  Ingigerda. It is known that Ingigerda persuaded her husband to foster Olavs’ son Magnus, who was left in Kiev when Olav left Kievan Rus.


Thus, Magnus Olavsson, the future king of Norway (1035-1047) and Denmark (1042-1047) Magnus the Good, spent at least five years of his life in Kievan Rus. Later, members of Norwegian nobility came to Kiev and took him back to Norway. Some sagas contain an evidence of Yaroslav and Ingigerda’s active involvement in raising Magnus to the Norwegian throne.


The sagas also tell us of the Norwegian King Harald Hard Ruler’s (1046-1066) two visits to Kievan Rus. In 1031 he started his ”voyage eastwards to Gardarike, to King Jarisleiv”, where he lived for several years (ca 1034-1043) in Kiev, at the court of Yaroslav the Wise and, according to Snorri Sturluson, served as a retinue chief. Later Harald spent several years serving the Byzantine emperor Konstantin IX Monomachus. Upon his return to Kievan Rus in 1043 he married Elizabeth, the daughter of Yaroslav the Wise. 


Harald wrote the Song of Joy dedicated to ”Elizabeth, the daughter of King Jarisleiv, whom he sought in marriage”. It should be noted that this kind of love lyric poetry is not typical for the works of Scandinavian scalds. A translation into Ukrainian was made by the famous Ukrainian poet Ivan Franko.


Harald and Elizabeth had two daughters – Maria and Ingigerda. This marriage strengthened ties between Kievan Rus and Norway and resulted in a temporary alliance between Harald and the mighty Earl Svein Ulfsson, the future Danish king. Books of the sagas, as well as the Knytlinga Saga emphasise that this union was based not solely on Harald and Svein’s common claims for Norway and Denmark, but also on family ties that emerged from the marriage of Harald and Elizabeth.


The assistance provided by Yaroslav the Wise to Harald, namely preserving his treasure, offering a temporary refuge and helping Harald prepare his trip to the homeland, on the one hand, and furthering a political alliance between Harald and the enemies of King Magnus through the marriage with Elizabeth, on the other hand, resulted in an agreement between Magnus and Harald to divide the rule of Norway.


Elizabeth remained the Norwegian queen for over 20 years – from the winter 1043/1044 until the death of Harald on 25 September 1066 during the battle of Stamford Bridge. Later she married the Danish king Svein.


The fact that Rusian written sources of information about the Scandinavians presence in Rus do not mention names of the Norwegian kings which served the Rusian princes, nor their sons who were brought up there, reveals a strong overstatement in the sagas of their role in Rus. Moreover, the life of Norwegian kings in Rus is pictured rather concisely in sagas – a few general words. It may well be due to lack of specific information, as well as tendency of the authors of sagas to exaggerate the importance of Scandinavian noblemen in Rus. Yet, despite the lack of information in the Rusian sources, there exists an evidence of their presence in Kievan Rus. The reason for such an assertion are verses of Scalds, laconic in content yet offering reliable factual information.


The relations between Kievan Rus and Scandinavia were particularly strong during the grand duchy of Mstislav Vladimirovich (1125 – 1132). By his mother he was a descendant of a famous English royal family. His first wife Christina was the daughter of the Swedish king Ingi Steinkelsson. Mstislav’s daughters were married to Sigurd Norwegian (Sigurd Jordsalsfare), Erik the Dane, and Knut Obodritsky respectively. Malmfrid was probably no more than 15 years old when she came to Norway with Sigurd. After Sigurds death she married the Danish prince Erik Ermune and thus later also became the queen of Denmark.


When describing Ukrainian-Norwegian ties during late Medieval Ages, one must take into consideration that after the Kalmar union of 1397 Denmark, Sweden and Norway formed a triunion state, ruled by the Danish kings. In 1523 Sweden withdrew from the union, after which the union consisted of Denmark and Norway. Moreover, in 1536 Norway lost its internal autonomy and turned into a powerless part of the Danish kingdom. Yet, despite its political subordination to Denmark, in the XV-XVII centuries Norway continued to be in fact a separate state with its own economy and merchant class which pursued their own interests. At the same time, it should be noted that over the mentioned period of time there were practically no relations between the Ukrainian and Norwegian lands.


Norwegian and Ukrainian lands: social-political relations during 1762-1917 

In the this period the situation in both regions was much alike: the area with the centre in Kristiania (future Oslo) was part of the Danish-Norwegian kingdom, while the lands along the upper part of the Dnieper basin belonged to the Austrian (later Austro-Hungarian) and Russian Empire. In 1814 after a brief period of independence, Norway joined Sweden in a union, but retained its democratic cionstitution of 17 May 1814. Only in 1905 was the union dissolved and the relations between Norway and Sweden regulated thorugh the so-called Treaty of Karlstad. The Danish Prince Carl, after having been elected in a Norwegian referendum, ascended the Norwegian throne under the name of Haakon VII. Some 10-15 years later state-formation processes began in Ukraine, around “the Mother of the Russian cities”.


The above processes had a definite impact on the overall status of the relations between the two countries. Until the end of the XIX century ethnic Norwegians placed their primary interest in the water area of the White and Kara Seas, the then Russian subject Grand Duchy of Finland and Arkhangelsk province.     


Norwegians in Ukraine 

In 1853 a Ukrainian town of Izmail was visited by the director of the Norwegian Geographical Department, Prof. Hansten, who was at that time working on the measurement of the Earth meridian arc.


It is also necessary to mention the Norwegian cultural influence in the region. In particular, in 1874 the audience in Odessa and Yalta had an opportunity to enjoy Johan Svensen’s (1840-1911) opera ”Carnival in Paris” and the symphonic legend ”Zorahaida”.


Twenty-five years later the southern provinces were visited by the future Nobel prize winner  and author of the book ”In Fairyland” Knut Hamsun during his trip to the Caucasus.


In 1910 Christian Sinding arrived in Odessa, in which connection the Russian Musical Paper wrote the following in its issue #12: ”On 29 January the Imperial Russian Musical Society held the VII symphonic gathering led by the outstanding Norwegian composer and conductor Christian Sinding with the participation of the pianist Karl Nissen. The program consisted solely of the music written by the famous guest, namely symphony de-bemoll #1, the piano concert D-major with the orchestra, variations of ”Fatum” and ”Rondo infinito” for a grand orchestra. Sinding was warmly received by the audience, and was given a long standing ovation.”


Another Norwegian man is worth mentioning - Colonel Petersen, a participant of the Russian-Turkish wars of the end of XVIII century, as well as a witness and historiograph of signing the Kuchuk-Kainarji peace treaty that initiated inclusion of Crimea to the territorial possessions of St Petersburg of that time.


And, of course, special attention should be paid to the person of Joseph Igelstrom, a Swedish-Norwegian by background, which was in charge of the Tavria province. During his trips along the Black Sea coast he attracted the major part of the local magnates to  the side of Ekaterina II. Igelstrom collected, catalogued and described a huge collection of Tatar-Arabic charts, and was the author of comprehensive letters to Count Grigoriy Potemkin regarding living conditions of the population and the climate of Crimea.


The members of the Baggovut noble family, a family of Norwegian descent, beside being the owners of breweries and estates in Eastland and having relation to the descendants of the chancellor of the Uppsala University Svebelius (Julia Fedorovna Baggovut), also took part in the Ackendorf battle in May 1807 against the Napoleon army. One of the streets in Kiev was named Baggovutivska.

And, of course, special attention should be paid to the person of Joseph Igelstrom, a Swedish-Norwegian by background, who was in charge of the Tavria province. During his trips along the Black Sea coast he attracted the major part of the local magnates to  the side of Ekaterina II. Igelstrom collected, catalogued and described a huge collection of Tatar-Arabic charts, and was the author of comprehensive letters to Count Grigoriy Potemkin regarding living conditions of the population and the climate of Crimea.


Consequently, we can affirm that over the above-mentioned period of time Norwegian-Ukrainian relations gradually acquired certain strength and dynamism.


The famous Norwegian author Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson had extensive contacts with Ukrainian writers and journalists for instance Roman Sembratovich, Yaroslav Fedorchuk and Volodymyr Kushnir. In Taras Shevchenko Academy of Sciences in Lviv there was a large collection of Bjørnson’s writing in Russian, German and Czech. But famous writers like Ivano Franko and Mykhailo Pavlyk also translated his writings into Ukrainian language. Bjørnson wrote a number of articles in the European press where he spoke for the sake of Ukraine. He strongly condemned a decree issued by Tsar Aleksandr II, which introduced a ban on the use of Ukrainian language in literature, in translations and in theatre.


The Twentieth Century

In the first days of the First World War (1914-1918) in the Galician city of Lviv, which was at that time part of the Austrian-Hungarian empire, a group of emigrants from the upper regions of the Dnieper basin formed a non-party political organisation ”Union for the Liberation of Ukraine”. The national-political platform of ULU was Ukraine’s independence, with the constitutional monarchy as a government form. ULU believed it necessary to inform the public opinion in the war-neutral Balkan and Scandinavian states about the issues of Ukraine and liberation of other enslaved nations of the Russian Empire. The ULU Presidium aimed at enlisting as many foreigners as possible to advocate the Ukrainian issue and gain the support of the international community. The ULU representatives were therefore recommended to publish communications and informational articles about the Union in the foreign press, become acquainted with politicians, columnists and public persons, find out their attitude toward Ukraine, organise Ukraine support committees abroad and, most importantly, persuade them to declare their protest to Russia.


To this end ULU assigned to Norway its envoy Osyp Nazaruk, who had meetings with the president of the Storting J. Løvland and the Minister of Foreign Affairs Ihlen, and discussed with them the war and the attitude of Ukrainians towards it. Owing to Osyp Nazaruk a number of articles on the Ukrainian issues appeared in the Norwegian Morgenbladet.

Norway’s stand towards the liberation activities in Ukraine in 1917-1921 was determined through the prism of England’s policy on the Ukrainian People’s Republic. Norway’s own position was limited to mere recognition of Ukrainian passports and receiving of cipher telegrams. It is also known that the Ukrainian State of the Hetman Skoropadsky period (1918) maintained diplomatic relations with Norway at the ambassador level.


Ukrainian-Norwegian relations during the Soviet Union period.

The first constitution of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic of 10 March 1919 read: ”Relations with foreign states lie within the competence of the central authority in Ukraine...”. This enabled Ukraine, from 1920, to begin establishing direct connections with foreign countries and enhance its international activities. The guiding function was delegated to a special foreign department – the People’s Commissariat for Foreign Affairs, which was formed in 1920.


This research has succeeded in establishing very few facts and evidence of the Ukrainian-Norwegian relations of the Soviet time. The 1921-1922 famine in Ukraine evoked the movement of solidarity with the starving people in the Scandinavian countries. In Norway this movement took shape of public agitation, the so-called ”charity weeks and months”, the proceedings from which were then directed to the starving population in Ukraine and Volga region. The charity included one-off fundraisings, individual donations, as well as systematic subscriptions from the individuals’ incomes. A total of 400 committees of workers’ assistance operated in the Scandinavian countries during the time.


Yet, creation in 1923 of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics virtually brought to an end Ukraine’s communication with the world community – individual diplomatic missions of Ukraine were closed, and the entire international activity was taken over by the People’s Commissariat for Foreign Affairs of the Soviet Union.


The Norwegian polar explorer, scientist and humanist Fridtjof Nansen served as a high commissioner of the International Red Cross, which provided relief for famine stricken Ukraine in 1921-23. Nansen did a lot to inform Europe about the famine in Ukraine and he collected money for the relief work. He also used money he earned from the Nobel Peace Prize for the aid work. On 23 January 1923 Nansen came to the city of Kharkiv to discuss with the Soviet government of Ukraine the plans for fighting the famine. Nansen's mission established a number of orphanages, and provided scholarship for students and teachers at Kharkiv University. Nansen also established a number of model farms – the most famous of them in the town of Mykhailovka between Kharkiv and Dnipropetrovsk. In these farms he introduced modern technology and principles for farming.


Later, during World War II in 1944 Ukraine regained its lost status by passing the law On Establishment of the People’s Commissariat for Foreign Affairs in the Ukrainian Soviet Republic (from 1946 – Ministry of Foreign Affairs). In compliance with this Law, the Constitution of Ukraine was amended by Article 15-b, which established the right of the Ukrainian Soviet Republic to be directly involved in international relations. However, due to the totalitarian nature of the political regime existent in the Soviet Union, the above documents proved to be a mere formality.


During World War II a considerable number of Ukrainian prisoners of war ended up in Nazi-German labour camps in Norway. Many of these people established contact with or were helped in various ways by Norwegian civilians. Soviet troops took part in the liberation of Norway in 1944-45.


Only in 1991, after Ukraine gained independence and entered the international scene, did the relations between Ukraine and Norway begin to improve. In 1992 Ukraine and Norway established diplomatic relations.


This article was prepared by members of the Institute of Ukrainian History at the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine, and then translated and edited by the Royal Norwegian Embassy in Kyiv.