The history of the Russian Eagle, or more precisely the Double Eagle, dates back to 23 BC. It was in this year that representations of this mystical animal first appeared on the flag of the Byzantine Empire, remaining a state symbol for Byzantium for many years.
How did the Double Eagle of Byzantium become the imperial emblem of Russia? In the ninth century, Swedish and Finnish Vikings invaded the land around the rivers Volga and Dnepr, which they began to settle, finally uniting the different principalities into one large kingdom.
The Rus, as these Vikings were now called, were simultaneously frightening warriors and exceptional businessmen and merchants. In order to define the religion of their new kingdom, they sent commissioners to leaders of different religions to evaluate and later report on each religion. When the commissioners got to Byzantium, they were convinced that they had found the exact image of paradise. Only Byzantium, they thought, could be the source of true religion, glory, and civilization. And so, in the year 988, the kingdom of the Rus converted to Orthodox Christianity.
After the fall of the Byzantine Empire in 1453, czarist Russia took over most of the ceremonies of the Orthodox Church of Byzantium. When Ivan III married the niece of the last emperor of Constantinople, he soon found himself to be the only legitimate heir. Thus, in the sixteenth century, he integrated the insignia of Byzantium, the Double Eagle, into the coat of arms and flag of the Russian Empire.
Today, the Double Eagle is once again the traditional symbol of Russia’s state coat of arms—interesting how time sometimes literally flies.