A Brief History: How do we know?

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Cyrillic was not invented until 863, so how do we know what went on in nascent Kievan Rus? Much of our knowledge we owe to medieval chronicles, local texts that existed in many regions, written and compiled by monks. The originals of most of these chronicles have not survived, but we find them – cut, pasted, altered and rearranged – in later manuscripts. Snippets of chronicles from one region or another appear in manuscripts produced in yet another region, edited by a different writer during a different era. The monks writing these codices, collections of manuscripts bound together in book form, were not known for their meticulous preservation of facts and the histories contained within the manuscripts were often subject to revision.

To make matters worse, there was no native written record of what was going on in Russia before the Scandinavians showed up. And yet, impressively, the authors of these chronicles found many alternatives: ecclesiastic Greek writing, diplomatic documents such as treaties, oral traditions from Scandinavian sources and military leaders, local and Norse legends. With these, they were able to compile a history, much of which can now be backed up by other Slavic chronicles, the accounts of foreign travelers and linguistic and archeological evidence.

One of the fundamental sources for Eastern Slavic history is the Primary Chronicle, often called Povest’ Vremennykh Let, or Tales of Bygone Times, which details the period from the mid-9th century to the early 12th century. It’s full of fascinating anecdotes about the founding of Kiev, the arrival of the Scandinavians and the dynasty that would rule the region for centuries.

A prominent – though challenged – theory by the Russian historian Aleksey Shakhmatov is that this particular compilation was preceded by three texts. The first was written in 1039 and is the most ancient known Kievan compilation. It was put together from folk songs called byliny, narratives of Russian saints from which the author took information of ecclesiastic interest, and the author’s own memories of recent events. In 1073, the texts were continued at the Crypt Monastery of Kiev, and around 1095 another addition was written, which went on to serve as the basis for further redactions of the Primary Chronicle.

There are three such redactions. The first was written around 1111 and is attributed to a monk named Nestor, dubbed Nestor the Chronicler (although further examination of the style and methods of the writing have cast his authorship into doubt). Nestor, or whoever the author was, reworked the chronicle text into the first comprehensive history of Rus, Eastern Europe and the Slavic people in the context of world history, at least as it was known at the time. Unfortunately, this edition of the manuscript has not survived, lost to time.

A few years after Nestor’s text was written, in 1116, the manuscript was edited by hegumen Sylvester, whose monastery was located in the village of Vydubychi, the patron of which was the ruler Vladimir Monomakh. Understandably, this version made Vladimir a central figure in the narrative.

A third edition was put together a mere two years later and was a compilation of three chronicles: the Primary Chronicle (that is, Nestor’s redaction of 1111), the Kiev Chronicle and the Halych-Volhynian Chronicle, which centered on the history of the region that is today Western Ukraine.

These second and third editions come to us in the form of two codices. The Laurentian Codex contains the second edition (the one edited in 1116 by Sylvester). This was a collection of chronicles complied in 1377 by the monk Laurentius, of Nizhny Novgorod, located just east of Moscow. Having been put together in the north, the domain of the Muscovite princes whose lineage had split off from the Southern princes some time before, it traces Kievan legacy through them.

The third edition appears in the Hypatian Codex, dating from the 15th century. Since it was written on the territory that is now Ukraine, it traces the Kievan legacy not through Muscovy, but through the Halych (Galician) principalities of Western Ukraine.

So let’s review: there were three texts, which may or may not have existed, edited into a chronicle, now lost, which was the basis for two subsequent redactions, each of which eventually found its way into a codex, compiled on either end of the already-sprawling Rus, displaying the expected regional variations, inconsistencies and biases. Russian historians have had the unenviable job of putting this mess together into as verifiable a history as possible, often during times of political pressure to analyze their scant evidence one way or another, but, given the circumstances, they’ve done an admirable job at providing us an accurate, believable and detailed look into the early history of this complex nation.

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