Historiebloggen: Early russian historiography

Previous to the 17th century, Russian history must be based on limited Chronicles, legal codes and tales written by foreign travelers. Many sorts of sources, such as contemporary writings by local observers, simply don't exist for the early periods. The nature of the documents and their scantiness mean that certain historical questions will continue to be unanswered. This is often the case with the early history of any people, who generally have more pressing objectives than leaving a paper trail of their actions.

Our understanding of the very earliest Russian history, in the time even before Kyivan Rus, is constrained by the twin problems of native illiteracy and foreign disinterest. The tatar-mongols and other finn-ugric peoples of what became the Russian lands unfortunately have left us only archaeological evidence of their existence and even that is rather sketchy. The most we have in the way of contemporary texts are certain Greek works, including Herodotus, which while useful for the Scythians (Ukrainians' ancestors), even there are sometimes confusing. Because of these factors, we largely have to depend on works such as The Primary Chronicle , which often include sections written long after the fact. Such is the case with sections treating the origin of the Slavs and the coming of the Varangians.

It is important to look at these first two sections from "The Primary Chronicle" as printed in Dmytryshyn with a fair amount of depth, both for being representative of the Chronicles in general, and also to see how this nature can result in major historiographical disputes.

Selection One concerns the distribution of the early Slavs and how they came to be distinguished as many different groups, and how they came into contact with the Varangians. It begins with almost a grocery list of different tribes and where they lived; Moravians by the river Morava, Lyakhs by the Vistula, Derevlians in the forests and so on and so forth. It goes on to state that while "the Polyanians lived by themselves among the hills, a trade route connected the Varangians with the Greeks."1 This transition leads one to wonder whether the Varangians were Slavs; if so why did they had trade connections and the others didn't, and if not who were they and where did they come from. The passage goes on to say that this connection is through the Dnipro, across a portage, includes the river Lovat, two great lakes Ilmen and Nevo, the latter of which feeds into the Varangian Sea. This still doesn't answer either question. Then through the auspices of Dmytryshyn's editing we find ourselves learning that their were three brothers named Kyi, Shchek and Khoriv, and they were Polyanians and had a sister named Lybed. The brothers each lived on separate hills, two named for the respective brothers who lived on them, while the eldest brother had a town named after him. This was the town of Kyiv. It is to be noted that by the time this was being written down, there were some who thought Kyi was but a ferryman, while the chronicler contends that Kyi traveled to Tsargrad (Constantinople) and was done honor there by the Emperor, neither of which would have been possible had he been a mere ferry man.2 One can but wonder if the story isn't one of those "just so stories" that takes a question and gives a 'reasonable answer'. It then goes on to delineate which Slavs were among the Rus: the Polyanians, Derevlians, the people of Novgorod, Polotians, Dregovichians, Severians and Buzhians (Volhynians) and which merely paid tribute. Somehow this leads into how the Derevlians were immoral, unlike the Polyanians, who respected their various relatives. Why does this seem rather, 'convenient', that the supposed origin people, people who the author presumably is one of, are the virtuous ones, while the people who killed Olga's husband are slime? This is a very natural human tendency to paint oneself and ones enemies in the best and worst possible lights. This is as true in the past as it is now, with the difference that in periods where not many documents are written it is much easier to make sure all present the best face; there simply is not the mass of internal materials to contradict the publicity campaign.

According to the entry for 860-862, The Varangians were driven "back beyond the sea" by their tributaries. Now, as an interesting point, these tributaries were the Chuds, Slavs/Slovenes, Merians/Mers, Ves/Veps, and Krivichians, and these were the people who supposedly then requested the Varangians to return when they could not peaceably rule themselves. The first question is, when they say Slavs, what does the term refer to, since they said that there were many different tribes of Slavs. Then secondly, they refer to the Varangians as Varangian Russes3; that they were called Russes, as other "Varangians" were Swedes, Normans, Angles and Goths. So, what does "Rus" or "Russ" refer to? When the chronicle says "For the Slavic race in Rus includes only the Polyanians ..."4, are we to take it to mean that there was a land called Rus that then gave the name of Russ to a group of Varangians, or instead is it that the land were the Russ settled came to be called after them? Thirdly, while the Polyanians, and Severians are included in those of the Slavic race in Rus, they are clearly not included in those people who called the Varangians to rule over them again. This inconsistency may be the result of either scribal error or faulty oral history transferred to the written page. Another possibility is a writer at some temporal distance was trying to tie up all the loose historical ends and didn't quite manage to get them into a neat bow. Any of the above, singly or in combination, would seem to match the discrepancies in question. The chronicles note that with Rurik, the eldest of the three Varangian brothers, were two boyars not of his kin. These men, Askold/Oskold and Dir, found the city of Kyiv and learned of its domination by the Khazars, and with a force of Varangians "established their domination over the country of the Polyanians at the same time that Rurik was ruling at Novgorod."5 It goes on to state that in 880-882 Oleg lured these two into the open and had them killed for they were " not princes nor even of princely stock, but I[Oleh] am of princely birth."6 Let's suppose we are to consider that pretty good justification, at least that is the way the chronicler seems to intend it.

In just a few pages worth of material from "The Primary Chronicle" it is easy to see what sorts of difficulty such documents can present to the historian trying to reconstruct events. One has to consider biases of the writer/writers, the spans of time between the occurrence of events and the writing of them, as well as scribal error and various types of "corrections". As a result, it becomes surprisingly easy to interpret passages any way you want. It takes little imagination to see how either side of the Normanist/Anti-Normanist debate could assert that the evidence is in their favor, by seeing any material that supported the other view as questionable and that for their own untainted. 

As noted in Harcave, "[t]he Normanists accepted the Chronicle verbatim, concluded that the Rus were a Scandinavian tribe or group, and proceeded to identify the Rus-Ros-Rhos of other sources with the Scandinavians"7 This led to various difficulties, not the least of which included not being able to find any mention of the Rus in Scandinavia or anywhere else in the West. In addition, while the Chronicle dealt mostly with Novgorod, the word Rus was associated with the Kyivan state, and was used by "some Byzantine and Oriental writers long before A.D. 862, and was evidently located in southern Russia."8 While the evidence on careful consideration requires the Normanists to pull back from many of their assertions, it is also true that the archaeological record does not support the contention of some Anti-Normanists that there were no Vikings involved in Rus. Armor has been found in a style that is Scandinavian in style, and there is little hard evidence with which to out and out deny that the dynasty of Igor, Volodymyr and Yaroslav was of Ruthenian/Ukrainian origin. Furthermore, as Riasanovsky points out, the problem could be a confounding of the Rus with the Varganians by some later editor, which would leave the story of the calling of the Varganians yet unchallenged.

Another kind of source we have for early Russian history are legal codes and other sorts of official documents. In Dmytryshyn we have "Russian Justice: The Short Version" (Rus'ka Pravda), "A Treaty between Novgorod and the Hanseatic League, 1270", "Restrictions on Peasant Movement", as well as some correspondence between England and Moscovia during the time of Ivan the Terrible and Elizabeth I. If we first look at the material from Russian Justice, it is to be noticed how specific the laws are, to the point of repetition.9 For example, in the very first article where the fine for unavenged murder is set at forty grivnas, it has to note each category of person to which it applies. Similarly, in article three all the various weapons with which a person striking another must pay twelve grivnas are listed out, instead of saying something like "blunt weapons". From these laws, under the principle that people don't make laws concerning things nobody does, it seems that theft and battery were popular hobbies, with some of the more interesting points including that the fine for the damage of either mustache or beard was four times that for a severed finger, and there seems to have been some question on whether burning a prince's bee hive counted as damaging it.

If we then turn to the Treaty between Novgorod and the Hanseatic league, we note that many articles concern themselves with retaining rates for services at previous levels, presumably so the cost of doing business could stay more or less constant. Furthermore, the rest of the regulations deal with various other sort of contingencies, from theft of goods, reneging on agreements, battery and murder, and other issues for which if there was not a speedy and unified answer could damage the trade. It also answers such questions of where jurisdiction begins and ends. It seems that the breaking of gates and fences must have been a somewhat common problem in the context of trade, because otherwise an article would not be devoted to it. We can only think of scenarios of how this would happen, for it says no more on the issue.

As we enter into the period of Ivan the Terrible, we start to have official correspondence between the Tsar and the Queen of England. Again, the major concern is trade and the handling people from the others territory. Yet, with the introduction of such documents, we move into a very different sort of milieu in regards to historiography. Instead of short articles of the previous document, the "First Privileges Granted by Ivan the Terrible to English Merchants, 1555" is written as prose coming from Ivan Vasilevich. Together with the other writings between Moscovia and England, it is clear that Moscovia is on the way to producing a paper trail for at least certain kinds of affairs. For the first time we can get a sense of the man behind the name, fleeting and somewhat shadowy to be sure, but there.

If we now backtrack, and look at the third type of source we have for Russian history prior to the 17th century, we get about as close as it is likely for us to get to social history. Travelers accounts often provide us with the kinds of details we are curious about, yet one has to be careful about believing ever word from these early tabloid writers. Two of these writings are actually regarding the Mongolians and are pretty much our only source concerning them other than the understandably biased Chronicle accounts. Through the accounts of John of Pian de Carpine and William of Rubruck, we can see aspects of Mongolians that in later years were to become traits of the Russians. As an example, the need to give presents to officials at nearly every turn.

We also are possessed of accounts from Contarini, Herberstein, and Chancellor, which represent views of Moscovy during the period of the late 15th century through mid sixteenth century. According to Contarini, who writes of 1476, the land he visited was a rich one in grain, flesh and fur, but difficult not only because of the weather but also because the people are of a brutal race and are drunk as often as possible.10 He further goes on to gives some details regarding the Duke and his family, the fineness of the banquets he attended, and the kindness done to him and the honor done to the Doge of Venice. He also describes some of the peculiarities brought on by the climate, such as the constant usage of sledges because of mud if not snow, how meat can be kept frozen for three months and how sani are designed to make winter travel possible.

Herberstein, who twice visited Moscovy, once in 1517 and again in 1526, includes in his account the power of Ivan Vasilievich and how he treats his nobles, an explanation of the Orthodox church, as well as the general state of slavery among the people. He states that the people only believe they are loved when they are beaten, and gives as an example of this the story about the German blacksmith Jordan and his wife. He also notes the low place of women in Moscovian society, how they have no authority in their homes and they are considered lacking in virtue if they are seen about. He also includes information about the nature of law and the unpleasantness of the weather, noting some particularly disastrous bouts of it. Chancellor mostly just notes how in their general condition all the Moscovities live poorly, including the nobles, but they also can put on great show at banquets and at war.

So, how do the materials for early Russian history compare to those of other peoples? If we compare them with the materials available for the earliest years of Islam, we find certain similarities. In both cases the material covering the origin period are written after the fact, and the question of self-serving additions and deletions is raised. Yet there is a is a very important difference in that Islam developed reasonably early a method of critical historiography, to try to deal with such issues. They wished to get down the words of Mohammad accurately, and developed an entire system for checking different oral accounts against each other. This same process was used for compiling an authoritative form of the Quran. Thus, Islamic history has a shorter temporal span of questionable and scanty sources than is true of Russian history.

In conclusion, the study of early Russian history is constrained by a long period in which little material is available. That which is available is often of questionable accuracy, and rarely subject to collaboration through other sources. As time flows forward we get more different kinds of material, with different biases and reasons for being written. It is not however until the 17th century that we start getting the breadth of materials that we often possess for other peoples.


1 Dmytryshyn, pg. 4
2 Ibid. pg. 6
3 Ibid. pg. 9
4 Ibid. pg. 6
5 Ibid. pg. 9
6 Ibid. pg. 10
7 Riasanovsky, pg. 133 of Hardcave.
8 Ibid. pg. 134.
9 As an aside it is also interesting to note for how many offenses three grivnas is the appropriate fine. 10 Dmytryshyn, pg. 156.

From: angelfire.co/pq/philologos/RussiaHistorio.html

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