Home » 11th-13th century » Byzantine and Russian Chronicles


Byzantine and Russian Chronicles


Scholars of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the present one believed that Russian chronicle-writing emerged as an imitation of Byzantine chronography. Yet the Byzantine chronicles were not used by Russian writers in the early stage of the development of Russian chronicle-writing. Moreover, most Russian chronicles are based on a different principle. In the Byzantine chronicles (for example, the Chronicle of Georgios Hamartolos or that of John Malalas) the country’s history is presented as a series of short biographies of the rulers, without any mention of the date of their accession to the throne, removal or death, but only the length of their reign. The structure of the Russian chronicle was fundamentally different: the very name of the genre (“chronicle” in Russian— letopis—from leto—year and pisat—to write) tells us that we are dealing with annals, yearly records. Each item begins with the words “in the year …”, followed by the date from the Creation and a list of events that took place in this particular year in Russia and sometimes in neighbouring states also. Together with reports of the births and deaths of princes, their marriages, diplomatic and military acts, the chronicles contain information about the building and consecration of churches, natural disasters, rare atmospherical or astronomical phenomena—in brief, all events which the chronicler considers worthy of attention and of being preserved for posterity. Consequently, the chronicle is not only a literary work, but also an historical document, first and foremost, thanks to its attempt to record and interpret all historical events of importance. True, sometimes the chronicle narrative ignores the year-by-year principle of exposition: when political clashes extend over several years, the chronicler is compelled to depart from a strict chronology and narrate the event from beginning to end. This type of exposition is characteristic of chronicle tales, but it is not they that determined the structure of the chronicle as a whole.

Both chronicles and chronographs were compilations. The chronicler could not describe all the events from his own impressions and observations, albeit for the fact that he sought to begin his exposition from the “very beginning” (i.e., from the Creation, the formation of this or that state, etc.). Consequently, the chronicler was forced to draw on existing sources for an account of more ancient times. On the other hand, the chronicler could not simply continue the work of his predecessor. Firstly, because each chronicler usually tried to pursue his own political line and altered his predecessor’s text accordingly, not only omitting material that he considered of little importance or politically unacceptable, but also inserting extracts from new sources, thereby creating his own version of the chronicle narrative different from that of his predecessors. Secondly, to prevent the work with the new information it had acquired in the latest redaction from becoming too large (many chronicles are made up of large folios with several hundred sheets in each), the chronicler had to sacrifice something, and therefore omitted the material that he considered least significant.

All this makes it very hard to study chronicle compilations, establish their sources and characterise the work of each chroni­cler. It has proved particularly difficult to reconstruct the history of the earliest Russian chronicle-writing, since the only extant manuscripts belong to a much later period (The Novgorod Chronicle of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, The Laurentian Chronicle of 1377, and The Hypatian Chronicle of the early fifteenth century), and do not reflect the earliest chronicle compilations, only later redactions of them.

Therefore the history of the earliest chronicle-writing is to some extent hypothetical. The most acceptable and authoritative hypothetical reconstruction is that of Academician Alexei Shakhmatov, which literary specialists and historians use in their study of most monuments of Kievan Russia.39 It is based on careful examination and comparison of all the main chronicle compila­tions up to the sixteenth century in which the early chronicle- writing has been preserved to some extent or other. Therefore Shakhmatov’s works are of value not only for their conclusions, but also for the method that he elaborated of studying chronicle texts. This method has been adopted by his followers, in particular, Mikhail Priselkov, Arseny Nasonov, and Dmitry Likhachev as well as many others. Shakhmatov’s hypotheses have been expanded and amplified by his followers.40