Russia: A Historyby Gregory L. Freeze
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'a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma' Churchill's assessment has for years typified many people's attitude towards Russia, this great land of bewildering contrasts. What other country has seen such extremes of imperial opulence and abject poverty, tyrannical power and subversive resistance, artistic achievement and economic crisis, glittering cities and desolate, frozen wastes? Where else has such dramatic political change occurred with such dizzying rapidity? Now, for the first time, the true story of this fascinating land is revealed. Russia: A History cuts through the myths and mystery that have surrounded Russia from its earliest days to the present, with startling revelations from classified archives that until recently were not even known to exist. Using the most recently available sources, with many pictures that have never before been published, a distinguished team of historians have stripped away the propaganda and preconceptions of the past to tell the definitive story of Russia, from Kiev and Muscovy through empire and revolution to communism and Perestroika, and the 'new order' of the present day. The result is an absorbing account of the rise and fall of a superpower, and its impact on the peoples both within and beyond its borders.
"Brings together the latest research into all aspects of Russian history and.... Lends itself to reading by the general public as well as the undergraduate."Contemporary Review
"A lavishly illustrated volume, with a heavy-weight text"Edward Acton, The European
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THE BEGINNINGS TO 1450
In these early centuries East Slavic tribes and their neighbours coalesced into the Christian state of Kievan Rus. Its ruling Riurikid dynasty oversaw increasing political complexity, territorial expansion, economic growth, and frequent warfare, but was defeated by Mongol invaders. During the ensuing Mongol era a junior dynastic branch extended its authority and laid the foundations for a new state--Muscovy.
The formative centuries of the Russian state are perhaps best divided into three main periods: the era of Kievan Rus from its roots in the ninth century to the Mongol invasion of 1237-40; a century of `Mongol dominance' from 1240 to c. 1340, during which Kievan traditions and structures lost their potency and the Rus principalities adapted to Mongol or Tatar suzerainty; and the period from c. 1340 to the mid-fifteenth century, when the foundations of the new state of Muscovy were laid.
The lands that made up Kievan Rus were located in the forest zone of Eastern Europe along a group of rivers, the Dnieper, the western Dvina, the Lovat-Volkhov, and the Volga, the headwaters of which all emanate from the Valdai hills. They were populated mainly by Slavic and Finnic tribes. The members of those tribes supported themselves, to some degree, by fishing, hunting, and gathering fruits, berries, nuts, mushrooms, honey, and other natural products in the forests around their villages. But the Slavs were primarily agriculturalists. In natural forest clearings or in those they created by the slash-and-burn method, they typically cultivated one or more cereal grains and also raised livestock as well as supplementary crops, such as peas, lentils, flax, or hemp.
Although each tribe followed its own leaders and worshipped its own set of gods, they interacted with one another, at times exchanging goods, at others fighting one another. The more adventurous among their members transported the most valuable goods their societies produced (for example, fur pelts and captive slaves) to the markets of distant neighbours--Bulgar on the mid-Volga, the Khazar capital of Itil at the base of the Volga, and the Byzantine outpost of Kherson on the coast of the Crimean peninsula. There they exchanged their goods for oriental finery and, most conspicuously, silver coin.
The transformation of these tribes into the state of Kievan Rus is shrouded in uncertainty. Legends and literature recorded much later, archaeological evidence, and the notations of foreign observers, however, suggest that by the early ninth century Scandinavian adventurers (known variously as `Varangians' and `Rus') had entered the Slav lands. Primarily attracted by the silver at the Volga market centres, they plundered Slav villages and carried their booty to the same markets that the Slavs themselves had visited. In the course of the ninth century the Varangians established more permanent ties to the native populace: each band of Varangians protected its own group of Slavs from competing Scandinavian pirates in exchange for regular tribute payments. Those stable relationships were mutually beneficial. The Slavs were relieved of the sporadic, violent raids, while the armed Rus bands received regular supplies of goods used in their exchanges for silver and oriental luxury products. Gradually, the Rus leaders acquired the character of princes, and the Slav populace became their subjects.
According to a legend in the Primary Chronicle (compiled during the eleventh and early twelfth centuries) one of the first Rus princes was called Riurik. The legend states that Riurik and his brothers were `invited' by Slav tribes to rule their lands. Tribes that dwelled in the general vicinity of the Lovat and Volkhov rivers and the lands to their east had ejected previous Scandinavian protectors, but then became embroiled in warfare among themselves. Unable to reconcile their differences, the chronicler explained, they called upon Riurik in 862 to restore peace and rule over them.
Riurik, the legend continued, survived his two brothers to become sole ruler until his own death in 879 or 882. A regent, Oleg, then ruled on behalf of Riurik's young son Igor. After Oleg's death (912) Igor reigned until 945; a tribe called the Drevliane killed him after he attempted to collect more than its standard tribute payment. Igor's wife, Olga, assumed the regency and took cunning revenge upon her husband's murderers. Their son, Sviatoslav, claimed his father's place in 962.
By that time the realm of the Riurikid clan had expanded substantially. According to the chronicle, the tribes subject to the Riurikids had increased to include the Krivichi (in the region of the Valdai hills), the Poliane (around Kiev on the Dnieper river), and the Drevliane (south of the Pripiat river, a tributary of the Dnieper). The Riurikids, furthermore, had taken command of the Dnieper, a major commercial artery. From the vantage-point of Kiev they could control all traffic moving down towards the Black Sea, the Byzantine colony of Kherson, and towards the sea route to the Don river and the Khazar Empire. Oleg in 907 and Igor, less successfully in 944, conducted military campaigns against Constantinople, which resulted in treaties permitting the Rus to trade not only at Kherson, but at the rich markets of Constantinople itself, where they mingled with merchants and had access to goods from virtually every corner of the known world.
Sviatoslav (962-72) continued to expand his forefathers' domain. He first subdued the Viatichi, who inhabited lands along the Oka and Volga rivers and had previously paid tribute to the Khazars, and in 965 he launched a campaign against the Khazars themselves. His venture led to the collapse of their empire and, subsequently, the destabilization of the lower Volga and the steppe, a region of grasslands south of the Slav territories. Although he did rescue Kiev from the Pechenegs (a nomadic Turkic population that occupied the steppe) in 968, Sviatoslav devoted most of his attention to establishing control over lands on the Danube river. Forced to abandon that project by the Byzantines, he was returning to Kiev when he was killed by the Pechenegs in 972.
Shortly after Sviatoslav's death his son Iaropolk became prince of Kiev, but conflict erupted between him and his brothers. After one died in battle against him, another brother, Vladimir, fled from Novgorod, the city that he governed, to raise an army in Scandinavia. Upon his return in 980, he first engaged the prince of Polotsk, one of the last non-Riurikid rulers of the East Slav tribes. Victorious, Vladimir married the prince's daughter and added the prince's military retinue to his own army, with which he then defeated Iaropolk and seized the throne of Kiev. Vladimir also subjugated the Radimichi (east of the upper Dnieper river), and in 985 attacked the Volga Bulgars; the agreement he subsequently reached with the latter was the basis for peaceful relations that lasted for a century. Vladimir's triumphs over competing rulers and neighbouring powers established him as the sole ruler of the East Slav tribes and gave his heirs a monopoly over the right to succeed him. His family, which traced its lineage to Riurik, the progenitor of the dynasty, ruled the lands of Rus until 1598.
Over the next generations Vladimir and his successors continued to extend their domain and to create an apparatus to govern it. The political structure they devised for Kievan Rus was based on the concept that its lands were the possession of the dynasty. Thus, as his father had done, Vladimir assigned a portion of his realm to each of his principal sons. Thereafter, the Riurikid princes continued to share the lands of Kievan Rus and the responsibilities for administering and defending them.
Princely administration gradually replaced tribal allegiance and authority. As early as the reign of Olga, officials representing the Kievan ruler began to replace tribal leaders. Vladimir extended this practice by assigning particular lands to his sons, to whom he also delegated responsibility for tax-collection, for protection of communication and trade routes, and for local defence and territorial expansion. Each prince also had his own military force, which was supported by tax revenues, commercial fees, and booty seized in battle. After Vladimir's son Grand Prince Iaroslav (d. 1054) issued a law code known as the Russkaia pravda, the Rus princes also became enforcers of Riurikid law. The administration of justice, which upheld both Riurikid authority and social order, yielded revenues in the form of court fees and fines. The Russkaia pravda, as amended by Iaroslav's sons and later provisions that continued to be added to it until the thirteenth century, remained in force long after the Kievan era; it was not formally replaced until the law code (Sudebnik) of 1497 was adopted.
Over the two centuries following Vladimir's death (1015), Kievan Rus became an amalgam of principalities, whose number increased as the dynasty itself grew. The main principalities in the centre of the realm were Kiev, Chernigov, and Pereiaslavl. Galicia and Volhynia (south-west of Kiev) gained the status of separate principalities in the late eleventh and twelfth centuries, respectively. During the twelfth century Smolensk (north of Kiev on the upper Dnieper) and Rostov-Suzdal (in the north-east) similarly emerged as powerful principalities. The north-western portion of the realm was dominated by Novgorod, whose strength rested on its lucrative commercial relations with Scandinavian and German merchants of the Baltic as well as on its own extensive empire that stretched to the Ural mountains by the end of the eleventh century. After 1097 each of these principalities (with the exceptions of Novgorod and Kiev) was identified with its own branch of the dynasty.
The Riurikid dynasty also converted Kievan Rus to Christianity and thereby provided it with a uniform religious and cultural framework. Christianity, Judaism, and Islam had long been known in these lands, and Olga had personally converted to Christianity. When Vladimir assumed the throne, however, he set idols of Norse, Slav, Finn, and Iranian gods, worshipped by the disparate elements of his society, on a hilltop in Kiev in an attempt to create a single pantheon for his people. But for reasons that remain unclear he soon abandoned this attempt in favour of Christianity. He thereupon gave up his numerous wives and consorts and married Anna, the sister of the Byzantine Emperor Basil. The patriarch of Constantinople appointed a metropolitan to organize the see of Kiev and all Rus, and in 988 Byzantine clergy baptized the population of Kiev in the Dnieper river.
Christianity was not confined to Kiev. When Prince Vladimir dispatched his sons to their portions of his realm, each was accompanied by clergymen and charged with establishing and defending Christianity as well as the dynasty's own authority. In some regions the introduction of the new religion and its clergy met overt resistance. When representatives of the new Church threw the idol of the god Perun into the Volkhov river in Novgorod, for example, their action provoked a popular uprising. Elsewhere resistance was passive; the populace simply continued to honour their traditional gods and practise their rituals in relatively private settings. Thus, although the lands of Rus formally entered the Christian world in 988, it was centuries before the population transferred their faith and loyalties to the Christian Church.
In the mean time, however, the Church, supported by the Riurikid princes, transformed the cultural face of Kievan Rus, especially in its urban centres. The change occurred first in Kiev, which was not only the seat of the senior Riurikid prince, but also the ecclesiastical centre of Kievan Rus. Vladimir removed the pagan idols he had previously erected and in their stead ordered the construction of Christian churches. The most notable was the Church of the Holy Virgin (also known as the Church of the Tithe), which was built in stone and flanked by two other palatial structures. The ensemble formed the centre-piece of `Vladimir's city', which was surrounded by new fortifications. A generation later Prince Iaroslav expanded this sector of the city by replacing the walls built by his father with new fortifications that encompassed the battlefield on which he defeated the Pechenegs in 1036. Inset into its southern wall was the Golden Gate of Kiev. Within the protected area he constructed a new complex of churches and palaces, the most imposing of which was the stone-built Cathedral of St Sophia--the church of the metropolitan and the symbolic centre of Christianity in Kievan Rus.
These projects brought Byzantine artists and artisans to Kiev. Following Byzantine architectural models, they designed and decorated the early Rus churches and taught their techniques and skills to local apprentices. The visiting artisans were most heavily concentrated `in Kiev, which became the centre of craft production in Kievan Rus during the eleventh and twelfth centuries. Native and visiting artisans--blacksmiths and stone-cutters, carpenters and potters, leather workers, goldsmiths and silversmiths, glassmakers and bone-carvers--produced an array of products, including stone blocks and brick for the new cathedrals, armour and weapons for the princes' retinues, fine jewellery for members of the elite, and pottery and buttons for commoners. The adoption of Christianity also stimulated an expansion of Kievan commerce: marble and glazed tiles, icons and silver frames, and numerous other items used in the construction, decoration, and rites of the churches were added to the silks and satins, wines and oils, and other staple imports from Byzantium.
The expansion of Kiev's commercial and craft activity was accompanied by an increase in its population. By the end of the twelfth century between 36,000 and 50,000 persons--princes, soldiers, clergy, merchants artisans, unskilled workers, and slaves--resided in the city. Kiev, the political capital of Kievan Rus, had become the ecclesiastical, commercial, and artisanal centre of the realm as well.
Other towns underwent similar, but less dramatic development. Novgorod was also influenced by Christianity and Byzantine culture. Although it had initially been a centre of violent opposition to Christianity, its landscape too was quickly altered by the construction of new, wooden churches and, in the middle of the eleventh century, by its own stone Cathedral of St Sophia. Although Novgorod's economy continued to be centred on its foreign trade, by the twelfth century some artisans were emulating Byzantine patterns in new crafts, such as enamelling and fresco-painting. Novgorod's flourishing economy supported a population of 20,000 to 30,000 by the early thirteenth century. Similar developments occurred in Chernigov, where the Church of the Transfiguration of Our Saviour (1035) had heralded the arrival of Christianity. The construction of the stone Church of the Mother of God in Smolensk (1136-7) and of the Cathedral of the Dormition in Vladimir (1158) proclaimed that wealth and Christianity were spreading across the Riurikid realm.
While architectural design and the decorative arts of mosaics, frescos, and icon-painting, all associated with church construction, were the most visible aspects of the Christian cultural transformation, new literary genres, including chronicles, saints' lives, and sermons, also appeared in Kievan Rus. Although much of the ecclesiastical literature was translated from Greek originals, the clergy of Kievan Rus also began to make their own contributions. The outstanding products of indigenous literature from this era were the Primary Chronicle or `Tale of Bygone Years' (compiled by monks of the Monastery of the Cave which was founded in the mid-eleventh century outside Kiev) and the `Sermon on Law and Grace', composed (c. 1050) by Metropolitan Hilarion (the first native Rus to be head of the Kievan Church).
By agreement with the Riurikids the Church also assumed legal jurisdiction over a range of social practices and family affairs, including birth, marriage, and death. Ecclesiastical courts had jurisdiction over church personnel and responsibility for the enforcement of Christian standards and rituals in the larger community. Although the Church received added revenue from its courts, the clergy were only partially successful in their efforts to convince the populace to abandon their pagan customs. But to the degree that they were accepted, the spiritual guidance, the promise of salvation, and the social norms and cultural forms of the Church provided a common identity for the diverse tribes comprising Kievan Rus society.
As the Riurikid dynasty and Christian clergy displaced tribal political and spiritual leaders, their political and religious-cultural structures transformed the conglomeration of East Slav tribes into a dynamic and flourishing state. The political system balanced a diffusion of administrative and military power against principles of dynastic sovereignty and seniority; it elevated Kiev to a position of centrality within the realm, and it provided an effective means of defending and expanding the realm.
Within this system each prince supported his own military retinue, and had the authority and the means to hire supplementary forces; he was also responsible for conducting relations with his immediate neighbours. Thus the princes who ruled Novgorod in the eleventh century pushed the Rus border west to Lake Peipus, provided security for the trade routes to the Gulf of Finland, and also participated in the creation of Novgorod's northern empire. Similarly, the princes of Suzdal in the twelfth century extended their domain to the north and east--at the expense of the Volga Bulgars. And, through the first half of the eleventh century, the grand princes of Kiev conducted relations with western neighbours (Poland and Hungary), Byzantium, and the Pechenegs on the steppe.
The dynastic system, however, also encouraged co-operation among the princes when they faced crises. Concerted action was prompted particularly by the Polovtsy, another population of Turkic nomads that moved into the steppe and displaced the Pechenegs in the second half of the eleventh century. Prince Vsevolod Iaroslavich of Pereiaslavl, who commanded the first line of defence for the southern frontier, was defeated by a Polovtsy attack in 1061. When they launched a new campaign in 1068, Prince Vsevolod and his brothers. Iziaslav of Kiev and Sviatoslav of Chernigov, combined their forces. Although the Polovtsy were victorious, they retreated after another encounter with Sviatoslav's forces. With the exception of one frontier skirmish in 1071, they then refrained from attacking the Rus for the next twenty years.
When the Polovtsy did renew hostilities in the 1090s, the Riurikids were engaged in their own intradynastic conflicts. Their ineffective defence allowed the Polovtsy to reach the environs of Kiev and burn the Monastery of the Caves. But after the princes had resolved their differences at a conference in 1097, they once again mounted impressive coalitions that not only repulsed Polovtsy attacks, but pushed deep into the steppe and broke up the federation of Polovtsy tribes responsible for the aggression. These campaigns yielded comparatively peaceful relations that facilitated trade between Kievan Rus and the Polovtsy and kept the trade route linking Kiev and Constantinople secure for the next fifty years.
But the political organization of the Riurikids also contributed to repeated dynastic conflicts over succession to the throne of Kiev. Although the princes were dispersed, it was understood that the senior member of the eldest generation of the dynasty was heir to the Kievan throne. Succession thus followed a lateral pattern, with the throne of Kiev passing to a grand prince's brothers and cousins, then to their sons.
The proliferation and complexity of the Riurikid family, however, generated recurrent confusion over the definition of seniority, the standards for eligibility, and the lands subject to lateral succession. Disagreements over succession provoked intradynastic warfare; the outcome of the conflicts refined the `rules'. For example, a challenge to the seniority of Iaroslav's sons was mounted by a grandson of Iaroslav's elder brother (concurrently with the Polovtsy attack on the Rus lands in 1068-9); following its failure, eligibility for succession was restricted to those princes whose fathers had been grand prince of Kiev. In 1097, when wars over lands to be transferred along with the Kievan throne became so severe that they impaired a successful defence against the Polovtsy, a princely conference resolved that each principality in Kievan Rus would henceforth be the possession of a single branch of the dynasty. The only exceptions were Kiev itself, which in 1113 reverted to the status of a dynastic possession, and Novgorod, which had asserted the right to select its own prince by 1136.
But even as confrontations and conferences resolved disputes, the evolving rules of succession to the grand princely throne failed to anticipate new disputes stemming from the growth of the dynasty and state. As a result, throughout the twelfth century the dynasty was embroiled in numerous controversies, often triggered by attempts of members of younger generations to bypass their elders and to reduce the number of princely lines eligible for the succession. These conflicts escalated as dynastic branches formed rival coalitions, drew upon the enlarged populations and economic resources of their own principalities to enhance their military capabilities, and also fought for control over secondary regions, especially Novgorod, whose wealth and power could give a decisive advantage in the battles for the primary objective, Kiev.
The greatest confrontations involved the heirs of Grand Prince Vladimir Monomakh (1113-25). By the time of his death, his sons had become the exclusive heirs to the grand princely throne; first Mstislav (1125-32), then Iaropolk (1132-9) ruled as grand prince. An attempt by Iaropolk to arrange for his nephew (Mstislav's son) to be his successor provoked objections from his younger brother, Iurii Dolgorukii, the prince of Rostov-Suzdal. The struggle persisted until 1154, when Iurii finally ascended to the Kievan throne and restored the traditional order of succession.
An even more destructive conflict commenced after the death in 1167 of Grand Prince Rostislav Mstislavich (who had appropriately succeeded his uncle Iurii). When a member of the next generation (Mstislav Iziaslavich, the prince of Volhynia) attempted to seize the throne, a coalition of princes formed to oppose him. Led by Iurii's son Andrei Bogoliubskii, it represented the senior generation of eligible princes, but also included the sons of the late Grand Prince Rostislav and the princes of Chernigov. The conflict culminated in 1169, when Andrei's sons led a campaign that resulted in the flight of Mstislav Iziaslavich and the sack of Kiev. Andrei's brother Gleb, as prince of Pereiaslavl (traditionally the main seat of the house of Monomakh), became grand prince of Kiev.
Prince Andrei personified the growing tensions between the increasingly powerful principalities of Kievan Rus and their centre Kiev. As prince of Vladimir-Suzdal, he concentrated on the development of Vladimir and challenged the primacy of Kiev by building the Church of the Dormition in 1158 and his own Golden Gate. He also constructed his own palace complex of Bogoliubovo outside Vladimir, conducted campaigns against the Volga Bulgars, celebrated a victory over them in 1165 by building the Church of the Intercession nearby on the Nerl river, and extended his influence over Novgorod. Andrei used his power and resources, however, to defend the principle of generational seniority in the succession to Kiev. But his victory was short-lived: when Gleb died in 1171, Andrei's coalition failed in its attempt to secure the throne for another of his brothers. The renewed struggle ended instead with a prince from the Chernigov line on the Kievan throne; his reign and the accompanying dynastic peace lasted until 1194.
By the turn of the century, eligibility for the Kievan throne was confined to three main lines: princes of Volhynia, Smolensk, and Chernigov. When the prince of Volhynia (representing the junior generation) claimed the throne, the rules of eligibility and succession were temporarily waived due to the sheer power that he was able to muster. Although the primacy of the senior generation was restored upon his death in 1205, new rivalries emerged. By the mid-1230s, princes of Chernigov and Smolensk were locked in a prolonged conflict over Kiev. But in this case the combatants were of the same generation and each was the son of a grand prince; dynastic traditions were offering little guidance for determining which prince had seniority.
The dynastic contests of the early thirteenth century had serious consequences. During the hostilities Kiev was sacked twice more, in 1203 and 1235. The strife revealed the divergence between the southern and western principalities (which were deeply enmeshed in the conflicts) and those of the north and east (which were indifferent). Intradynastic conflict, compounded by the lack of cohesion among the components of Kievan Rus, undermined the system of shared power that had previously ensured the integrity of the realm. Kievan Rus was thus left without effective defences when it had to face a new, overwhelming threat from the steppe--the Mongols.
Meet the Author
Gegory Freeze is a Fellow of the Russian Research Center at Harvard University and a Professor of History at Brandeis University. His numerous books include From Supplication to Revolution: A Documentary Social History of Imperial Russia (OUP, 1988).
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