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The Early Chronicle-Writing


The earliest extant chronicle compilation is The Tale of Bygone Years which is dated at about 1113. However, as Shakhmatov has proved, the Tale was preceded by other chronicle compilations.

Among the facts which led Shakhmatov to the conclusion that marked the beginning of many years of enquiry in the field of early Russian chronicle-writing was the following: The Tale of Bygone Years, which has been preserved in the Laurentian, Hypatian and other chronicles, differs considerably in its treatment of many events from another chronicle that deals with the same early period of Russian history, The Novgorod First Chronicle of the younger recension. The Novgorod Chronicle does not contain the texts of treaties with the Greeks, Prince Oleg is called a voevoda serving the young Prince Igor, the campaigns against Constan­tinople are described differently, etc.

Shakhmatov concluded that the first part of The Novgorod First Chronicle was based on a different chronicle compilation that had preceded The Tale of Bygone Years.

At the present time the history of the earliest chronicle-writing is reconstructed as follows.

Oral historical legends existed long before chronicle-writing; with the emergence of a written language records of historical events began to appear, but chronicle-writing as a genre did not emerge until the reign of Yaroslav the Wise (1019-1054). During this time Russia which had adopted Christianity began to find the tutelage of the Byzantine Church irksome and sought to establish its right to ecclesiastical independence, for Byzantium was inclined to regard the states in whose conversion it had played a part as the spiritual flock of the Constantinople Patriarchate and also sought to turn them into its vassals politically.

It was precisely this that Yaroslav was opposing when ^he appointed a Russian, Hilarion, as Metropolitan of Kiev and sought the canonisation of the first Russian saints, princes Boris and Gleb. These actions were intended to strengthen Russia’s ecclesiastical and political independence of Byzantium and enhance the authority of the young Slavonic state.

Kievan scribes argued that the history of Old Russia was like the history of other Christian states. Here too there had been early converts who had sought by their personal example to encourage the people to accept the new religion: Princess Olga was christened in Constantinople and urged her son Svyatoslav to become a Christian too. There were martyrs in Old Russia as well, for example, the Varangian and his son who were torn to pieces by the pagan crowd for refusing to sacrifice to pagan gods. And there were saints—the princes Boris and Gleb who were murdered on the orders of their brother Svyatopolk, but did not violate the Christian precepts of brotherly love and obedience to the senior in succession. Russia even had its Prince Vladimir, who christened his people, thereby likening himself to Constantine the Great, the emperor who established Christianity as the official religion of Byzantium.

It was to support this idea, Dmitry Likhachev assumes,41 that a collection of legends on the emergence of Christianity in Russia was compiled. It included stories about the christening and the death of Princess Olga, about the Varangian Christians, the Christianisation of Russia, the princes Boris and Gleb and, finally, a lengthy eulogy of Yaroslav the Wise (which is reflected in The Tale of Bygone Years under the year 1037). All these six legends, in Likhachev’s opinion, show “that they belong to the same hand … and are very closely interrelated: compositionally, stylistically and ideologically”.42

This collection of legends (which Dmitry Likhachev tentatively calls The Tale of the Spread of Christianity in Russia) may have been compiled in the early 1040s by scribes in the chancellery of the Metropolitan of Kiev.

The next stage in the development of Russian chronicle-writing is the 1060s and 1070s. Alexei Shakhmatov links it with the activity of Nikon, a monk in the Kiev Crypt Monastery. He bases his argument on the following observation. After a quarrel with Prince Izyaslav, Nikon left the Crypt Monastery, fled to remote Tmutorokan (a principality on the eastern shore of the Black Sea on the Taman Peninsula), and did not return to Kiev until 1074. Shakhmatov draws attention to the fact that Nikon always seems to be “accompanied” by precise dates in the chronicle; the entries for the 1060s contain no precise dates for the events that took place in Kievan Russia, but there is detailed information (which even mentions the day on which an event took place) about what happened in Tmutorokan: how Prince Gleb was driven out by Rostislav Vladimirovich, and how Rostislav himself was poisoned by a certain kotopan (Greek priest).

It is possible that in this chronicle compilation the stories about the first Russian princes, Oleg, Igor and Olga, were added to the stories about the spread of Christianity in Russia. Finally, Nikon (if he really did compile this collection) probably added the legend that the dynasty of Russian princes holding the throne of the Grand Prince of Kiev was descended not from Igor, but from the Varangian prince Rurik, who was summoned by the Novgoro- dians. In addition Rurik is said to be the father of Igor, and the Kievan prince Oleg is presented by the chronicler as a voevoda serving first Rurik, and after his death, Igor.43

This legend was of considerable political and ideological significance. Firstly, in the Middle Ages the founder of the ruling dynasty was often declared to be a foreigner: this (the creators of such legends hoped) did away with the question of seniority and priority among the local dynasties. Secondly, recognition of the fact that the princes of Kiev were descended from a prince invited by the Slavs to bring “order” to Russia, was bound to give great authority to the reigning princes of Kiev. Thirdly, the legend turned all the Russian princes into “brothers” and proclaimed the legality of one princely family only—the line of Rurik.

In feudal times none of the chronicler’s hopes were destined to work out, but the legend of the “summoning of the Varangians” became one of the basic ideas of Russian mediaeval historio­graphy. Many centuries later it was resurrected and raised aloft on the shield of the Normanists, the school of thought that argued the foreign origin of the Russian state system.44

Scholars also assume that it was in the 1060s that the chronicle account took on the characteristic form of yearly entries (annals) which, as already mentioned, is a fundamental distinction between Russian and Byzantine chronicles.