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The Life of Michael of Chernigov


In examining the Rostov chronicle above, we mentioned that among the tales of Russian

princes who died a martyr’s death during the rule of Batu the Princess Maria chronicle of 1263 contains, a record of the murder of Maria’s father, Prince Michael of Chernigov, in 1246 in the Horde. During Maria’s lifetime (she died in 1271) apart from the chronicle entry a short prologue Life45 was compiled about the murder of Prince Michael and his boyar Theodore in the Horde.46

The prologue Life says, that after seizing the Russian land the inoplemenniki (literally “those of another tribe”), “began to summon” the Russian princes to pay homage to Batu in the Horde. There the Russian princes were forced “to go through fire (walk between burning bonfires) and bow to the sun and idols”.[1]

The Prince of Chernigov, who had come to the Horde at Batu’s command, also had to perform this rite. Michael was prepared to pay homage to Batu, but he refused to walk between the fires or bow to the Mongol gods, for he considered this to be a profanation of the Christian faith. In return for this Batu’s nobleman Eldega orders the prince to be “tormented” “with various tortures” and beheaded. The boyar Theodore, who accompanied Michael to the Horde, follows his master’s noble example. The death of the prince and his boyar in the Horde is treated in the Life as suffering for the Christian faith. The story ends with the announcement that Princess Maria and her sons are building a church, and a plea to the saints to pray for the Rostov princes Boris and Gleb, Michael’s grandsons.

This short prologue Life formed the basis of a whole series of subsequent expanded redactions of The Life of Michael of Chernigov. The first of these, whose author is named as Father Andrei in the title, was compiled in the late thirteenth or early fourteenth century. This redaction contains a number of new details making the story more dramatic and psychological.

For example, this is how the culminating episode of Prince Michael’s refusal to perform the pagan rite is described.47 Michael and Theodore stop by the fires between which they have to walk. Batu’s envoy, Eldega, rides up to them. He informs the prince that the khan has said if Michael walks between the fires and worships his gods, he will stay alive, return home and continue to rule his principality. If not, he will die. When Michael refuses, Eldega says to the prince: “Know, Michael, that you are dead!” At this time Michael’s grandson, Prince Boris of Rostov, is in the Horde, and many other Russian princes. They all try to persuade the prince to submit to Batu’s orders and promise to do penance for the prince.

Theodore the boyar fears that their pleas will shake the prince’s resolve to suffer for the faith, that remembering his wife and children the prince will weaken and submit to the khan’s demands. But Michael remains firm and resolves to do his duty to the end. Taking off his sumptuous princely cloak, he throws it at the feet of those who are pleading with him, and exclaims: “Take the glory of this world for which you are striving.” Then follows an account with much dramatic detail of how Michael and Theodore were brutally killed.

Already in its short prologue form The Life of Michael of Chernigov was no abstract account of the sufferings of a saint for the faith, but the story of a Russian prince who dies in the Horde for his religious beliefs. Dying for one’s faith in these cir­cumstances was a kind of political protest. The complexity and dramatic tension of the subject in the expanded redaction, the introduction of new details that slow down the development of the action make this work an even more heart-rending story of the cruelty of the conquerors and the resolute pride of the Russian prince who lays down his life for the honour of his homeland. Such a story was of great patriotic significance: it urged people not to reconcile themselves to the Mongol invaders and extolled those who refused to compromise with the foe, elevating them to the rank of saints.

[1]  The ritual of walking between burning fires was compulsory for all foreigners who came to the Horde. It was a special ritual: it was thought that if a man passed through the fires unharmed he could not do any harm to the khan.

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