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The Tale of Shevkal


In 1327 there was an uprising in Tver against the khan’s baskak4 Chol-Khan (Shevkal, Shchelkan). Chol- Khan was killed together with all the Mongols (Tartars) who had come with him. This event was reflected in chronicle tales.

The earliest Tale of Shevkal is in The Rogozh Chronicle and in the so-called Tver Miscellany, i.e., in chronicles that reflect Tver compilations. The Tale was inserted mechanically into the chronicle, its text is interspersed with other chronicle records and the chronicle entries alongside it contain duplicate ififormation (i.e., repetition of one and the same fact). This suggests that the Tale originally existed as an independent work.

The story of Shevkal in the Tale begins with the announce­ment that Prince Alexander of Tver received the yarlyk in the Horde to rule the grand principality of Vladimir. Incited by the Devil, the Mongols tell their khan that if he does not kill “Prince Alexander and all the Russian princes” he will not have “power over them”.5 Shevkal, the “instigator of all the evil” and “destroyer of Christianity”, asks the khan to send him to Russia, boasting that he will kill all the Russian princes and bring much “booty and slaves” to the Horde. “And the khan ordered him to do so.” When Shevkal arrives in Tver, he drives the prince “from his court, and himself settled in the court of the grand prince full of pride and fury. And he did wreak great havoc on the Christians—rape, looting, murder and desecration.” The people of Tver beseech their prince to defend them, but the prince dares not go against Shevkal and tells them to be patient. The people will not tolerate the cruelty of their oppressors and wait for a suitable opportunity to rise up against them.

One day “on the fifteenth of August, in the early morning, when the market place was assembling” (i.e., when people from the surrounding villages were arriving), the Tartars seize “a young and very fleshy mare” from a Tver deacon “by the name of Dudko” as he is taking her to water in the Volga. Dudko begins to wail: “Don’t let them have it, people of Tver!” This wail from an injured townsfellow acts as a signal for an uprising against the invaders: “and they rang all the bells, and held a meeting, and the town rose up”. They killed so many Tartars that there was no vestonosha left in the town, i.e., someone who could bear the tidings of the slaughter to the Horde.

Nevertheless the news of what had happened did not take long to reach both Moscow and the Horde. Some Tartar herdsmen where tending horses in the fields outside the town and managed to gallop away from the furious townspeople on their fastest steeds. It was they who carried the news of Shevkal’s murder to the Horde and Moscow. In revenge the khan sent an army to Tver led by Fedorchuk. Tver was sacked and looted, and Prince Alexander fled to Pskov.

The beginning of the Tale, the account of how and why Shevkal marched against Tver, differs in general character and style from the main section. This suggests that the main section, the story of Shevkal’s outrages and the uprising, was written earlier and was an independent text. The introduction was added later.

Judging by the details in the main section of the Tale we can assume that it goes back to an oral legend written down shortly after the uprising, possibly from the account of an eyewitness who took part in the events. This oral, folk origin would also explain the attitude of the prince in the Tale, who is afraid to challenge the oppressors.

Apart from The Tale of Shevkal the folk tradition has also preserved a response to the popular uprising of 1327 against the conquerors, namely, the historical song “Shchelkan Dudentievich” of which several versions exist.

A comparison of the different versions of this song enables us to get an idea of its original form and to consider the question of the relationship between the song and the Tale.6 The song, like the Tale, has preserved historical memories which suggest that it originated shortly after the events themselves.7 The song views them in a somewhat different light from the Tale, however, and contains different characters. In the song the town is defended by the two brave Borisovich brothers, the chiliarch (tysyatsky) of Tver and his brother,8 and the prince is not even mentioned.

The song, like the Tale, has drawn on oral accounts about Shevkal but these accounts came from different sources and the resemblance between the Tale and the song is explained by the fact that they are based on the same historical event. The Tale of Shevkal resembles the historical song “Shchelkan Dudentievich” in its attitude to the uprising against the foe: the hero that revolts against the Tartars and destroys them is the people in both works.

In this respect the song expresses the people’s assessment of the event more consistently and strongly: it portrays the enemy with a touch of satire, Shchelkan’s death is shameful and humiliating (“One seized his hair, Another his feet, And they tore him asunder”), and the end of the song, contrary to the historical facts, is optimistic—no one suffers for the murder of Shchelkan: “Here he was done to death, No one was punished for it.”9

The Tale of Shevkal and the song about Shchelkan expressed the popular protest at Mongol oppression and testified to the ordinary people’s reluctance to accept the rule of the Horde. The emergence during this period of this type of literary work and song was of great patriotic significance.

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