Medieval Russia compared to the rest of Europe

The Russian heartland could sustain limited population because of too little arable land and harsh climate.

Russia is situated on the edge of the climatic zone where traditional European agriculture such as grain production, can be practiced. During the continental warming in the late-Middle Ages, bumper crops happened more often. Still, harvests failures because of weather were a much more serious factor than in territories further west and south.

Most of Russian peasants up to the Imperial times practiced migrational single-field agriculture. It could give up to 10x the input the first year, only to drop to a fraction of that the second year. Which defined the precarious nature of living in the Russian woods.

In the East Slav territories in the time of Varangians and Kievan Rus (IX-XIII centuries), there was another major challenge: no roads. Almost all transportation required access to rivers. This made delivery of excess produce to other areas very problematic. Russia got permanent markets, and the mercantile class in the cities several centuries later than the countries to the west. (The Hanseatic enclaves in Novgorod and Pskov, later destroyed by Moscovy dukes, were the few exceptions). No wonder the Russian word yármarka (seasonal market) came from German, torgóvlya (trade) from Scandinavian, bazár (local market), déngi (money) and tavár (goods) from Turkic.

Russian dukes and their gangs lived primarily from taxing the cargo passing between the Black, Caspian and Baltic Seas—before the XIII century a very lucrative trade—as well as from occasional conquests.

To sum it up, the elites lived much like now, in habitual opulence, often surpassing the luxury of the Western aristocracy, yet punctuated by occasional blows of misfortune. The rest of the population had to struggle against harsher realities of East European nature and weather.

It required the spread of two-field and three-field agriculture brought to us by German settlers, as well as the annexation of fertile steppe lands in the south in the XVIII century, to create the economic base for larger swathes of population comparable with more benign areas in the Central and Western Europe.

arable land former European part of USSR
The map shows how little arable land there was in the Russian heartland north of the Cumanian prairies. The subsistence farming was a serious constraint for the population growth until the Russian Empire managed to conquer the fertile areas in Ukraine and southern Russia.

Since Kievan Rus (modern day Ukraine) gave birth to Russia, how come Russia and Ukraine are different countries?

How come Russia and Ukraine are different countries?

The Kievan Rus emerged as a major power and prospered on the back of the trade transit from the Baltic Sea to Black Sea. During the XIII century, the Black Sea trade collapsed, due to the sacking of Constantinople by Crusaders, and the subsequent weakening of the Byzantine Empire. This was exacerbated by an increasing deficit of silver in the Arab principalities farther south.

This major decay in the economic base resulted in eastern principalities (the future Muscovy) being subjugated by Turkic ethnicities that controlled the trade route from the Baltic sea toward Iran along the Volga river. The pivot to Asia included also the northern regions of Novgorod and Pskov, even though the Turkic influence there was more balanced by Swedish and German business interests.

The Kievan Rus’ heartland along Dnieper was included into the domain of Poles and Lithuanians. Before the arrival of modern agricultural techniques, they never managed to recover the economic strength of the old Rus, and remained a large, but not very significant periphery of Lithuania-Poland, and later the Polish Kingdom. Until the XVII century, Poles dominated here economically and culturally. As a result, two new ethnicities took shape: Ukrainians and Belorussians, both with their own identity and language, different from what formed in Russia farther east and north.

Simply put. Those who lived along river routes toward the Caspian Sea, became Russians. Those who lived along river routes toward the Black Sea, and further west, became Ukrainians and Belorussians.