вторник, 24 ноября 2009 г.


By Lyubov Tsarevskaya

Russians have been asking themselves from time immemorial: “Who were our forefathers? How did Russia come into being?”

We don’t know exactly where we came from, because written sources from other lands are few and inaccurate. Archeologists either find proof of the existence of Slavs everywhere, or they can’t find any material traces of their existence. We don’t know what induced the Slavs to leave their original lands and settle in a large part of Europe. We only know the results of that migration. Slavs occupied very large stretches of territory in the 8th and 7th centuries A.D. Traces of this have been found in the region of the Volga River, the Black Sea, the Don and Danube rivers and Central and Western Europe. Contacts with other peoples, languages, and customs naturally went into the formation of the Slavic national character. This probably explains the expansive nature of the Slavs, the absence of tribal egoism on their art, and their tolerance to other peoples.

We, Russians descended from the eastern Slavonic tribes. These cattle-breeders, tillers of the soil, huntsmen and fishermen settled in the western territory of our land – from the Baltic to the Black Sea, and from the Vistula to the Volga. This was also the homeland of the Baltic Finno-Ugric Nations. It was these Eastern Slavonic tribes that became the ancient Russian nation, which subsequently founded the ancient Russian state. So, Russia was multi-ethnic from the very start.

Where did the term ‘Russ”, the ancient name of Russia come from, you may ask. According to some sources, the Poliane tribe was known as “Russy” and they lived in the basin of the Rossi River, a Dnieper tributary. Hence the origin of the root, ‘Russ’, which then developed into Russia and Rossia. From the end of the 5th – the beginning of the 6th century the Poliane tribe had their own historical center in Kiev. Over time Kiev and the Rossi River consolidated around them a powerful union of Slavonic tribes. In his ancient “Tale of Bygone Years” the chronicler, Nestor the Monk, described the union as “Poliane who from now on will be called Rus”.

The chronicles of those years provide little information about the life of the eastern Slavic communities. Apparently, there was originally a union of tribes composed of clans, which in turn consisted of small households. Difficult natural conditions, however, — impassible forests and bogs — made economic development difficult, as also did raids by Asian tribes. The struggle for survival in the face of natural difficulties and enemy raids made it imperative for the clans and families to unite into bigger and stronger communities headed by princes.

Slavs worked the land, bred cattle, went hunting, kept bees and traded in beeswax, honey and pelts. That Slavs traded with other peoples was clear from the surviving old coins, among which were Arab coins, too. Arab authors have a lot of fascinating stories of Russians and their customs. “Russi people,” an Arab author writes, “are hospitable and merciful to both strangers seeking protection from them and to all people coming to visit them, aliens therefore are never discriminated against.

When a Russ has a newborn child, the father of the family puts an unsheathed sword in front of the baby and says: “I will leave you nothing. You’ll have what you get with the help of this sword.” Russi people are courageous and brave. They are tall, good-looking and smart in warfare.”

Arabs said Russi loved their wives and spared no effort to please them in every possible way. In return the wives were faithful to them.

Growing trade led to the rapid growth of cities, such as Kiev, Chernigov, Smolensk, Lyubech, Polotsk and Novgorod. To ensure security in the storage of goods the merchants hired the Vikings of Baltic origin who set up armed guards. At the head of such guards were princes and as they offered their services for protection of cities they sometimes seized power there too. The most known of the princes of the Vikings in Russian history were Askold and Dir, who ruled in Kiev, and Rurik – in Novgorod.

We turn again to “The Tale of Bygone Years” by Nestor the Monk.

After Rurik’s death in 879 his relative, Oleg ruled until 912. A gifted and energetic ruler, with a strong body of armed men at his command, he subjugated all the Slavic tribes on both sides of the Dnieper River. He made the conquered peoples pay tribute in furs, money and troops. In 907 he marched on Constantinople from which he returned with rich booty. Soon after he concluded a peace treaty with the Greek.

The people called their prince Oleg the Wise. Here is one of the legends they told about him.

Once Oleg asked his wizards what he would die of. “You will die of your favourite horse, whom you always ride, Prince,” one wizard prophesied. “Well, then I’ll never ride that horse again,” Oleg said to himself, “and I’ll never see him either.” He ordered the horse fed and cared for, but never brought to him. He did not touch the horse for several years, until the Greek campaign.

Oleg remembered about the horse on the fifth year after his return from Kiev. He called for the equerry and asked, “Where is the horse that I left here to be fed and cared for?” “He is dead,” the equerry replied, whereupon Oleg laughed and mocked the wizard. “Those soothsayers always lie,” he said. “That horse is dead now, while I am still alive. I’ll go and have a look at his bones.” Having arrived at the spot where the horse’s bones and skull were lying, he dismounted, set his foot on the skull and said, laughing: “So I am going to die from that skull? At that point a snake crawled out of the skull and bit Oleg lethally in the foot…

Oleg was followed by his adopted son, Igor who married Olga, a girl from the town of Pskov. Igor continued to subjugate the Slavic tribes but raised the amount of contributions set by Oleg. He died a tragic death as a result. Forgetting that moderation is a virtue for one in power, he often made the rounds of his conquered territories and taxed people heavily. One day, dissatisfied with the amount of taxes collected, Igor came back and demanded more. The conquered tribes decided that he would ruin them all if they didn’t stop him. So they tied him to two bent tries and tore him in two…

Igor was survived by his wife, the Princess Olga and his little son, Svyatoslav. It was the custom in those days that the closest surviving relative, the widow should avenge her husband. Here is how the chronicler describes it.

“Not satisfied with her repeated raids on the conquered peoples, Olga demanded more contributions from them. To their offer of pelts and honey, the seemingly good-hearted princess said ‘no’, asking instead for only three sparrows and a pigeon from each household. The townspeople gladly agreed. But when darkness set in, all their homes were in flames. The wily Olga had had burning pitch tied to the birds and released them. They naturally returned to their nests and set fire to the entire town.”

Olga was a central historical figure in those days. The people remembered her as a loving wife, and also as a first high-placed woman to adopt Christianity in Russia. The name of Christ was already known but the Slavs, like most of the peoples in Western Europe, were still pagans.

Ancestor worship was the oldest of the cults practiced by the Slavs. They believed that when a forefather died, his soul watched over the clan. They had all kinds of charms with which to disarm evil spirits and wore amulets with images of the sun, fire, water and flowers. They also worshiped the physical natural forces. The god of the heavens was names Svarog, the god of the sun was Dazhd-bog. There were also Khoros, Volos and Veles, while Perun was the god of thunder and lightning.

It is interesting that they worshiped their gods strictly in accordance with the times of the year and the major agricultural seasons. They measured the years by the phases of the sun, since the sun occupied such a prominent place in the beliefs of these ancient tillers of the soil.

Their year started on January 1st, as it does now. The new year festivities lasted twelve days, from the closing period of the old year into the beginning of the new. They would put out all the fires, and then start new ones by rubbing sticks together. They would bake special kinds of bread for the occasion and study certain signs to see what the new year would be like. They honoured their deities with feasts, for which they brewed beer, baked cakes, and also offered sacrifices. These ritual feasts took place in special premises called ‘trebishchis’.

Their next holiday came at the time of the vernal equinox. It was a gay and noisy time, when they hailed the sun and invoked nature’s blessing for the spring sowing. Their chief food at that time was flapjacks; and this custom is still observed in Russia though they are now eaten at Easter time, just before Lent. These are large round pancakes that call to mind the sun’s disc.

Other holidays were observed in the spring and summer. At the beginning of June the pagans paid tribute to Yarilo, the god who commanded the vital forces of nature. Houses and birch trees were decked with coloured ribbons.

June 24th, Ivan Kupala Day, was the culminating day of the sacrifices and ritual worship of the streams and rivers. All prayed for the gift from heaven-rain. The week before Kupala Day was devoted to the mermaids of fields and streams who, it was believed, commanded the rains. The prettiest girls were adorned with green wreaths and drenched with water in order to bring on the rain. The girls would bow to the streams, throw in their wreaths and bow to the huge bonfires lit on the high hills. Boys and girls would then jump in pairs across the fire.

Paganism, however, never took strong roots in Russia and in time it gave way to another religion, Christianity. Trade with Greece opened Russia the way to the Christian faith. The adoption of Christianity proved a turning point in the life of Slavs.

Source:The Voice of Russia

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