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Early Russian History Key Issues - ( 030400 ) 2005 2 - ( 10 23 2005 ).


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3 Chapter 1 BIRTH OF THE RUSSIAN STATE Read the text:

"Scratch a Russian and you'll find a Tartar." That is a shibboleth which is still heard occasionally in this prejudiced modern world. It is intended as an epithet and a comment on the racial origins of the Russian people. There are no similar slogans about the origins of Americans because there were no original Americans aside from the Indians. "Scratch an American and you'll find an Indian" is not a common saying. This fact points up the difficulty in dealing with the origin of European and Asiatic states. America came prepackaged from Western Europe.

There is no ancient or even medieval America. We have no problem in tracing the origin of the American state system. The colonists brought it with them in their baggage from England.

Not so the Russians. The development of the Russian state was a cumbersome and difficult process, accompanied by severe and bloody birth pangs. The womb was the great Russian steppe - the modern-day Ukraine.

A variety of barbaric tribes inhabited those undulating plains and the littoral of the Black Sea between 1000 B.C. and 600 A.D. None of them formed a permanent, sedentary state or a recognizably organized society. Nomads do not do such things.

The steppes do not lend themselves to permanent settlements very well. They are practically indefensible for one thing and ancient peoples were not too thrilled by the arts and demands of agriculture. So they rode, hunted, fought, slaughtered and ravaged. It was not only their idea of fun - it was a way of primitive life. Further north in the forest zone things were different. The Finno-Ugrian tribes did set up semi-permanent abodes under the trees and near the many rivers of European Russia.

Eastern Slavs and Varangians: a question of political and cultural influence The Slavs, an Indo-European group of barbarians first found somewhere near the Pripet marshes in Western Russia, were the first to form a loose tribal organization in the sixth century A.D. They began to settle on the land and gradually consolidated into a single body. This process was hardly done by the time Rurik seized power and created the first Russian state. It is indeed with Rurik that Russian, as opposed to tribal, history begins. The Ruriks created a Russian state based on conquest and slavery, and conquest and slavery remained an essential feature of early Russian society up to the time of Vladimir I.

There are two important facts about early Russia: the fusion of the Eastern Slavs into a coherent body in the seventh century; and the appearance of the Normans and Vikings or Varangians, as the Greeks called them, in the ninth century. These stormy invaders from the murky northern forests were called Rusi by the East Slavs.

This is how Russia received its name. It was a Scandinavian import like America is an Italian import. The Rusi Rurik and Amerigo Vespucci have that much in common.

Russia should really be called Eastern Slavonia and America should be called Indiana. But, unfortunately, history and those who make it are not always particularly conspicuous for scientific logic.

Nobody knows when or how the slavs separated themselves into West, East, and South Slavs. And certainly no one knows why this division occurred. In the fifth and sixth centuries we read in contemporary accounts about Slavs existing and in the sixth we have evidence that they lived between the Carpathian mountains and the Dnieper river. By the seventh century they had evolved a higher form of social organization consisting of families, clans and tribes under a prince or "kniaz". They settled mostly along river basins. They were held together by a vague kind of religious mysticism which gave them tribal consciousness. Evidence of this is found in the early chronicles, which tell the story about the famous and controversial "Rurik invitation." According to the monks who wrote these chronicles the event took place in the year 862. "Clan rose up against clan, and there was strife between them. Our land is great and rich, yet there is no order in it." So the Eastern Slavs appealed to the northern Varangians: "Come, bring order to us and dispose over us." Many scholars today are challenging the credibility of this legend. Some even doubt the existence of Rurik. They believe the Chronicle may be wrong about 862 as the beginning of the Russian state. It existed long before that date. The god-fearing chronicler was either ignorant or else sought to gloss over the brutal facts of early Slav history. The Norse certainly played a role in the early commerce and the establishment of military fortifications in this general area. And they probably did so before 862. There certainly was much rivalry and warfare throughout the sixth, seventh, and eighth centuries. The Vikings took part in this strife, usually as defenders of one tribe or another and thus gradually came to dominate the tribes. This led to their expulsion from Novgorod, an early Slav center in the north. But tribal struggles brought renewed chaos and thus led to the "invitation" of a new group of Norsemen in 862.

Whether Rurik, who was the leader of this new group, used force or not to establish his control is problematical. The contractual character of the origin of his rule is admitted by most scholars. Rurik, however, was only one among several Varangian princes who came to rule the fighting Slavs. His family relationship to two other well-known Viking characters, Askold and Dir, is not clear. The chief function of these foreign princes was not administration and the keeping of order as the Chronicle would have it, but rather that of defense and maintenance of commerce on the river routes. Florinsky and Kluchevsky agree on this. This defensive function led to a shift of the center from further south to Kiev, which is a better position from which to defend the north-south and east-west trading routes. Kiev thus became a bulwark against invaders from the east like the Pechenegs and their ilk.

In the final analysis it does not really matter whether the Varangians came by invitation or not unless you are a super-nationalistic Russian, of course. The fact is they came and they established the first Russian state. This should not be surprising.

The Slavs were engaged in primitive agriculture and forest clearing at the time, whereas the Vikings were a seafaring people, pirates and traders at the same time.

They were warlike trading fraternities who boldly pursued old and new trading routes, including the one across Russia. Contemporary authorities call the route "from the Varangians to the Greeks." The main route started at the Western Dvina, forded to the Dnieper and than led to the Black Sea and Constantinople, taking the rapids near present-day Zaporoshe in stride.

The Vikings were Germanics but they did not Germanize the Slavs. There were too few of them for that. Over the centuries they were completely absorbed by the Slavs. But they did leave certain important traces behind. They certainly created or helped create the first Russian state. They left a variety of words and names behind.

They paved the way for the formidable trading activity of Kievan Russia. They stimulated growth of towns and left their mark on the class structure, on various legal concepts and institutions. One of these was the "druzhina", the body guard on which the military supremacy of the rising princely power was based. The "druzhina" later developed into the famous "boyar" nobility.

First Russian Princes Kiev eventually overshadowed Novgorod as a political capital, especially under prince Oleg (d. 912) who brought greater unity between north and south. Oleg expanded the territory further south towards Constantinople, which he visited in and with which he concluded a trading agreement in 912. Russia was born on the route between two seas, and foreign trade was, from the beginning, a major factor in its rise. Thus the cradle of the new realm was in the southwest, on the left bank of the Dnieper, in the so-called Ukraine, a term meaning marshland or frontier. From the end of the ninth century, thanks to its excellent location, Kiev became "the mother of all Russian towns" and the center of the first Russian state.

It was Vladimir I (980-1015) who first, by force and conquest, created a state out of the tribal groupings. He was one of those rare men of ancient times driven by a vision of vast political dominion. Like Alexander the Great and his relative contemporary Charlemagne he used force and trickery to unite a large territory which collapsed after his death because it lacked the necessary political machinery and network of communications. Modern dictators have the advantage of these instruments of power and seem to survive longer. Although Vladimir's personality is not as well known as Charlemagne's his achievements and accomplishments were much the same. He was far ahead of his time in his conception of a political structure, which envisaged the replacement of traditional society characterized by family, clan and tribe. He wanted a real state held together by force and subjugation. From the Kievan center he spread his power to the middle reaches of the Dnieper, westward to the Prut, the San and Carpathians, northeast to the Moskva and the headwaters of the Don; north as far as Lake Byelo, Lake Ilmen, the western Dvina and the region of Novgorod; and southward at least as far as the rapids of the Dnieper, which the traders of Kiev managed in his day to navigate down to the Black Sea and thence to Constantinople. He left his people with the concept of political unity of the Russian lands and he reinforced this idea by compelling them to accept Christianity in its Greek Orthodox form in 988.

But like other great empires which rise rapidly Vladimir's soon collapsed.

Brother struggled against brother for possession of land, all of which was considered to be the private property of the ruling family. The oldest member of the dynasty, the so-called vyeliky kniaz or "Grand Duke" resided in Kiev and was supposed to be the supreme ruler with the rest of his male relatives as his subordinates. The next oldest member of the family was to succeed the Grand Duke, instead of his son, but it did not always work that way. Ambition and greed interfered.

So there was nearly constant warfare among the princes. Yaroslav I (1019-54) and Vladimir Monomakh (1113-25) managed to consolidate their positions temporarily, but after their death political chaos arose again. This chaos was also promoted by external threats and invasions by the Khazars, Pechenegs, Polovtsians and others. These tribes on horseback ravaged the steppes and left Kiev frequently helpless. These factors brought the Kievan period to an end.

Rulers of principalities moved into the remoter forest regions and stayed away from Kiev. The population soon began to move northeast as well. Clearing the forest as they went, they pressed on towards a new kind of life which was hard but safer than before. This colonization, which began around 1100 and lasted until 1300, played a major role in shaping the course of Russian history. In many ways parallel to German colonization in the period 1150-1350, it marked the beginning of the Moscovite state. So the power of Kiev fell.

In the west Galicia and Volhynia became independent and in latter centuries these areas became continuous bones of contention among Russia, Lithuania and Poland. This whole area was not fully embraced again by mother Russia until 1945.

In the north, Novgorod also reasserted its independence. Kiev itself was conquered by the Tartars in 1240. It never again recovered its political importance, although it remained a vital commercial and religious center.

Life in Kievan Russia What was life like during the Kievan period Hunting, fishing and forestry were the everyday occupations of most people. They also farmed, mostly organized by village communes (mir, obshchina), although this is now disputed by some scholars. From the very beginning there were towns where the merchants and traders dealt in honey, wax, furs and even wood. The towns also served as forts in time of war. But a primitive bourgeoisie as it were did not yet really exist despite what Marxist historians would have us believe.

During the winter months produce was exacted by the prince and his "druzhina" from the peasant population and large quantities were stored in Kiev. In the spring these goods were carried down the Dnieper, unloaded and reloaded at the rapids, and then taken to Constantinople and bartered for other goods or exchanged for money. The Russians frequently stayed in Constantinople for as long as six months and kept a considerable permanent trading organization there. All this was carefully arranged by treaty with the Byzantine emperor. Important as this trade was it was only secondary to the major activity of most people - that of primitive agriculture.

Between 850 and 1200 the old tribal organization gave way to a stratified society. At the top stood the military caste, the druzhina, originally Viking now largely slavified, next came the merchants, followed by the artisans in the towns.

These were all free men. The broad base was provided by the free peasants and hired workers. At the very bottom were the slaves. The institution of slavery was accepted by the Russians without question as was the case by most ancient societies. Although no opposing classes had yet appeared there was a definite division between the ruling, land-owning warriors and the laborers. It was the beginning of feudal society.

Yet Kievan Russia was not essentially an absolute state. Democratic elements did exist. Meetings of tribal elders and of town folk (veche) originally administered and enforced the law. The prince eventually superimposed his power over these primitive assemblies, except in Novgorod were the veche maintained its power for a long time until crushed by Moscow absolutism.

Kievan Statehood: did it exist A fundamental question is raised by all these facts. Was Kiev actually a state Florinsky, a well-known historian of Russia, denies it. He argues that the frontiers of Kiev were uncertain, the tribes still in a state of flux with many nomadic habits, the powers of the grand dukes of Kiev imprecise. He still had to contend with princes "under him" (treaty of 907) who frequently had more land and power than he did and whose representative he still was. In the 9th and 10th centuries what we have, according to Florinsky, is a loose federation of autonomous city states in process of extension. The Grand Duke merely delegates members of his druzhina to control the principalities and cities.

Local centers were under a "possadnik" or governor who collected tribute, served as judge who collected fines and shared them with the prince. The families were large - Vladimir had 12 sons, each of whom was a possadnik, forming the basis of the Rurik dynastic claim. Local interest, however, were often stronger than the claims of the Veliki Kniaz. So discord and violent internal struggle was endemic.

Aside form staying in the family no rule of succession existed until 1054.

Kluchevsky agrees essentially with Florinsky but he puts greater emphasis on the unity which existed and the domination which the princes enjoyed. This was primarily due to the fact all depended on the Grand Duke to arrange and conduct the trade.

Grekov, a Soviet historian, believes Volhynia, rather than Kiev was the first state. Since a state means, according to Grekov, there is authority to collect regular taxes. This first occurred in Volhynia.

No matter who is right and how the state is defined, it seems quite obvious that some primitive form of it existed in Kievan Russia. So Kiev is the mother of Russian cities and the first political entity we can call Russian.

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