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The Legend of the Killing of Daniel of Suzdal and of the Founding of Moscow


The second work in the cycle represents a new step in the development of historical fiction, the mastery of artistic invention. In the Legend the subject receives a consistently fictional treatment. Here Moscow is not called the “Third Rome”, and the motif of sacrifice is firmly rejected. If one can speak of a philosophy of history in the Legend, it is a philosophy of historical accident. This is stated in the opening lines: “And why was Moscow to be a realm, and who knew that Moscow would be a state? Here on the River Moskva stood the fair, fine villages of the boyar Stefan Ivanovich Kuchka.” The element of chance can also be sensed in the closing scenes which actually speak of the founding of Moscow: “And God did plant a thought in the prince’s heart; these fair villages and settlements greatly pleased him, and he thought that it was fitting to build a city here… And ever since that day … the city of Moscow has been renowned.” In this case the phrase “God did plant a thought in the prince’s heart” simply means that the hero admired the beauty of this spot on the River Moskva and decided to build a fortress here, and nothing more than that.

By renouncing the idea of Divine predestination, the author of the Legend gave full rein to artistic imagination. Pure fantasy dominates in the Legend There are very few authentic historical details. They are the statements that Daniel, the youngest son of Alexander Nevsky and the founder of the Muscovite principality, was the brother of Andrew who reigned as Grand Prince of Vladimir, and had a son called Ivan, the future Ivan the Money-Bag. In fact there was no bloody drama.in Daniel’s family. The author made it up. The manuscripts of the Legend also show a total lack of concern for historical facts. In different redactions of the work the heroes bear different names: instead of Prince Daniel we find Prince Boris and the wicked princess is sometimes called Ulita and sometimes Maria. Whereas The Tale of the Founding of Moscow still preserves the characters’ historical names, in the Legend we find a transition to invented names.

This fact is extremely important. It shows that free narrative had finally triumphed over history in historical prose, that the subject had freed itself from the chronicle or chronograph source. The following point also illustrates the shift of attention to entertainment, fiction: while freely varying the “historical” details from manuscript to manuscript, from redaction to redaction, the Legend left all the details of the plot untouched. Thus invention was given priority over history.

When Prince Daniel forced the two handsome sons of the boyar Kuchka into his service (“there were none so fine in the whole Russian land”), they immediately caught the eye of the princess. “And the Devil did kindle lust in her, and she became enamoured of the beauty of their faces, and at the Devil’s instigation an amorous liaison arose between them. And they thought to kill Prince Daniel.” Out hunting the brothers attack their master, but he abandons his horse and manages to escape from them. “The prince ran to the River Oka, to the ferry. And be had nothing with which to pay the ferryman but a gold ring on his hand. The ferryman rowed close to the shore and put out his oar for the prince to place the ring on it. The prince placed his ring on the oar, but the ferryman took it, then pushed off his boat and would not row the prince over.” Prince Daniel ran on. The dark autumn night found him in a forest. “And he knew not where to shelter: it was a wild spot in the depths of the forest. And he found a wooden tomb where a dead man lay. And the prince hid in the grave, overcoming his fear of the body. And the prince slept through the dark autumn night until morning.”

Meanwhile the disheartened Kuchka brothers told the princess of their failure, and she gave them the following advice: “We have a certain hound. When Prince Daniel went off to the war he would tell me: ‘If the Tartars or Crimean folk kill me or capture me alive … send your men to search for me with this dog … the dog will be sure to find me.’” So the Kuchka brothers followed the hound and it led them to the wretched fugitive: “The dog stuck its head into the wooden tomb and saw its master … and began to fawn upon him.” Then Daniel met a cruel death. And the princess rejoiced.

But Prince Andrew avenged his brother. First he executed the widow, then her lovers who were hiding at their father’s place. It was then that Andrew had the idea of building Moscow on the site of the ill-fated boyar Kuchka’s fair villages.

As we can see, the plot of the Legend has been put together from “evergreen” motifs: here we find the sudden attack during the hunt, the flight, the dark autumn night in the forest, the treacherous ferryman, the night spent in a wooden tomb and the faithful hound who unwittingly betrays its master to the murder­ers. In the modern day these motifs are well known to any writer and reader. But a Russian writer of the seventeenth century could not base himself on tradition. He himself was creating it.

An analysis of the individual elements of the Legend enables us to reconstruct the diverse masterly devices used to compose the plot. The author of the Legend knew not only the earlier Tale of the Founding of Moscow with its single theme, but also its sources. Turning once more to the Chronicle of Constantine Manasses, he found a love triangle in one of its chapters, where the Empress Theophania kills her husband in order to marry Tzimisces, the pretender to the Byzantine throne. Whereas The Tale of the Founding of Moscow was content with the conflict between the pious husband and his lustful wife, the Legend complicated this conflict with the motif of the heroine’s unlawful passion for her husband’s vassals.

The scene with the ferryman did not require much effort on the part of the author. It was a simple adaptation of an old legend about Metropolitan Alexis, a contemporary of Dmitry Donskoy.

According to the legend, Metropolitan Alexis was travelling to the Horde, when, like Prince Daniel in the Legend, he was robbed and tricked by ferrymen (here the Metropolitan’s gold cross takes the place of the ring).

The story of one of the main incidents in the plot, the episode of the faithful hound, is more complicated. The Tale of the Founding of Moscow compares the Kuchka murderers to dogs; they fall upon their victim “like watch-dogs”. This is a typical mediaeval comparison of the functional, dynamic type.3 In “function” the despicable murderers are like dogs: in the Middle Ages the dog was a symbol of someone disgraced or outcast, the fool-in-Christ, the buffoon or the executioner.

Another source of this episode was Russian life of the seventeenth century. During this period the number of bondmen and tied peasants who sought to flee their masters reached vast proportions. Their masters thought up all manner of ways to get them back, including sending hounds after them, who would follow their scent and unwittingly betray them by fawning upon them joyfully.38

Thus, the author of The Legend of the Killing of Daniel of Suzdal and of the Founding of Moscow made use of both written sources and real life. He sought to combine motifs of different types. This weaving together of episodes is done by the hand of the artist, however, not the compiler: the individual motifs merge into an organic whole in the structure of the plot.