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The Tale of Temir Aksak


In 1395 Timur’s army invaded the Russian principalities. Timur (also known as Tamerlane or Timur i Leng), the famous Oriental conqueror, was Emir from 1370 to 1405 of a state that had its capital in Samarkand. His large, well-organised armies waged constant warfare and were famed for their cruelty. The very name of Timur struck terror into the peoples of Asia and Europe. After a bitter struggle against Tokhtamysh, Timur defeated the Golden Horde and subjected it to his rule. He then invaded Russia. His army captured the principality of Elets and advanced to the borders of Ryazan. After standing on the frontier of the Ryazan lands for two weeks, Timur left Russia.

The Tale of Temir Aksak, which has survived in several redactions and versions, in both chronicles and miscellanies, tells the story of Timur’s campaign against Russia and Russia’s deliverance from the terrible conqueror.

The most recent researcher on the Tale, Vassily Grebenyuk, dates the writing of the original work to the period between 1402 and 1408.22 Of the published texts the one closest to the original is that in The Sophia Second Chronicle.

The Tale opens with the strife in the Horde and the arrival of Temir Aksak.23 Then follows an account of who he is and why he is called by that name. Temir Aksak, we learn, “was not of royal birth: not a ruler’s son, nor of a ruler’s house, nor a prince’s, nor a boyar’s, only the lowliest of the low … by trade he was a blacksmith, by temper and disposition pitiless, a robber, a violator, and a plunderer…” Temir Aksak’s master got rid of him for “depravity”. Having no sustenance Temir Aksak began to steal. One day he stole a sheep and was caught. He was almost beaten to death and had one of his legs broken. Temir Aksak “bound his broken leg with iron, which is why he limped and was nicknamed Temir Aksak, because ‘Temir’ means ‘iron’ and ‘Aksak’, a ‘lame man’”. Then it describes how Temir gathered a small band of young men as desperate as himself that grew and grew until eventually he began to conquer lands and was called a ruler.

The story of Temir Aksak forms the first half of the Tale, and is of oral origin. In the Tale this story was intended to draw a contrast between the lawful power of the Grand Prince of Moscow and the unlawful dominion of the rulers of the Horde.

The second part of the Tale describes the preparations in Moscow to resist the enemy, the transfer of the icon of the Virgin from Vladimir to Moscow and Temir Aksak’s flight from Russia. In order to protect Moscow against the danger it is decided to bring the icon of the Virgin of Vladimir from Vladimir to Moscow. This icon, which was taken from Kiev to Vladimir by Andrew Bogolyubsky, was regarded as the patron icon of the Russian land.[1] The Tale describes the farewell to the icon in Vladimir “with lamenting and with tears” and its solemn reception in Moscow by the whole population. Then, on “the very day when the icon of the Holy Virgin was brought from Vladimir to Moscow, on the same day Temir Aksak, the ruler, took fright, and was struck with horror and dread, and fell into disarray, and fear and trepidation did come upon him, fear crept into his heart and terror into his soul, and trepidation into his bones”. Overcome by this fear and trepidation, Temir Aksak fled with his army from the land of Russia.

The main ideological tendency of the Tale was to show how wisely the Prince of Moscow and the Metropolitan had acted in bringing the icon from Vladimir to Moscow, and to demonstrate that the wonder-working icon was particularly favourably disposed towards Moscow, thereby enhancing the national importance of Moscow. All this was of great political significance, not only for the historical episode in question, but for enhancing Moscow’s national importance in the future.

In the latter half of the sixteenth century, on the basis of the different redactions and versions of the Tale a large compilation was made entitled The Tale of the Icon of the Virgin of Vladimir. Apart from The Tale of Temir Aksak the author of this work drew on a considerable number of other sources.

[1]  Now in the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow.