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The Tale of the Founding of Moscow


The first of these tales begins with a reference to the well-known idea that “Moscow is the Third Rome”. Without indulging in reflections on Moscow as the last invincible bulwark of Orthodoxy, the author makes use of one motif only that accompanied this traditional idea, the motif of the sacrifice. This motif goes back to the rites of primitive peoples and is based on the belief that no building would stand for long unless a human life was sacrificed at its founding. The author of the tale writes the following about Moscow: “This town is indeed called the Third Rome, for at its founding there was the same sign as at the founding of the First and Second…—bloodshed.” Rome and Constantinople were said to have been founded on blood. And the future capital of Russia was also founded on blood. Turning to the theme of sacrifice, the author announces straightway that he is not an historian, but a writer of fiction; for the seventeenth century this motif was not so much an historico-philosophical, as an artistic one.

The action of the tale begins in 6666 “from the Creation of the world” (that is to say in 1157-1158).[1] Ever since the Gospel times the number 666 had been considered the “number of the beast”, the Anti-Christ. By choosing an almost apocalyptic number, the author may have wanted to stress that a fatal predestination was involved in the founding of Moscow, that the age itself demanded blood, as it were. In this year Prince Yuri the Long-Armed, halting on his way from Kiev to Vladimir on the high bank of the River Moskva, killed the local boyar Kuchka who “did not show the Grand Prince due respect”. Then the prince is said to have ordered the building here of “a fortress with wooden walls, and to call it Moscow from the name of the river that flows by it”. He gave Kuchka’s daughter in marriage to his son And­rew Bogolyubsky. Her handsome brothers were also sent to And­rew.

The blood of the boyar Kuchka was not sufficient. One murder was not enough. The blood of Andrew Bogolyubsky was also required. This pious prince, as the tale describes him, a builder of churches, devout in prayer and fasting, thought only of heavenly things and soon renounced “carnal conjugation” with Kuchka’s daughter. She incited her brothers to kill her husband. “Like watch-dogs” they burst into the prince’s chambers one night, dealt him a cruel death, and threw his body into the water. Andrew’s brother avenged his death by killing the murderers and his wife. This is the plot of The Tale of the Founding of Moscow. However, in keeping with the manuscript tradition some historical notes were added to the work that were only indirectly connected with the theme of Moscow, namely, references to Andrew Bogolyubsky’s brother, Vsevolod the Big Nest, Batu’s invasion of Russia, Alexander Nevsky, his son Daniel of Moscow and his grandson, Ivan the Money-Bag. The number and content of the additions to the manuscripts vary. This shows that the tale as a genre had not yet split off from the historical works with which it was related. Like any chronicle The Tale of the Founding of Moscow was not a self-contained subject. Like a chronicle, the Tale could be continued with records of later events.

However, The Tale of the Founding of Moscow is only formally linked with the chronicle (in the structure of the final stories and the placing of the events under years). The author is not in the least interested in Andrew Bogolyubsky’s political conflict with the boyars, a conflict which the chronicler used to explain the prince’s murder. The author of the tale deliberately ignores the historical and political significance of the chronicle account, concentrating on its fictional background, on the chronicler’s obscure hints at a connection between the conspirators and Andrew Bogolyubsky’s wife. This “fictional impulse” is developed with the help of the Chronicle of Constantine Manasses,with which he was familiar from the 1512 Chronograph. One of the sections in the Manasses’ Chronicle gave the author of The Tale of the Founding of Moscow the motif of sacrifice, and from another he borrowed the conflict between the lustful Byzantine empress and her pious husband, transferring it to a Russian setting.

[1] In fact Moscow already existed in 1147.