Story of Russia - R. Van Bergen

Early Records of Russia

Russian peasants


At an early period in the history of Greece, we hear of colonies established on the northern shore of the Pontus Euxinus or Hospitable Sea, as they named the Black Sea. We may even now recognize some of the names of those colonies, such as Odessos, at the mouth of the Bug, Tyras, at that of the Dniester, and Pityas where Colchis, the object of the search of Jason and his fellow Argonauts, is supposed to have been. In the fourth century before our era, some of these colonies united under a hereditary archon  or governor, probably for the purpose of securing better protection against the barbarians who dwelt further inland.

The Greeks mention these barbarians as the Scythians, and divided them into three classes. The agricultural Scythians dwelt in the black earth belt, near the Dnieper; the nomad Scythians lived at some distance to the east of them, and the royal Scythians occupied the land around the Sea of Azof.

Learned men of Russia have made many excavations on the spots where the Greek settlements once stood, during the past century. They have been rewarded by finding many works of art, illustrating the mode of living of the Scythians. They have been placed, and may be seen in the Hermitage museum of St. Petersburg. Among these relics of the past are two beautifully engraved vases, one of gold, the other of silver. The Scythians on the silver vase wear long hair and beards, and are dressed in gowns or tunics, and bear a close resemblance to the Russians of our time. These vases and other ancient objects confirm what is said about these people by Herodotus, a Greek historian who lived in the fourth century before Christ.

We learn from him that the Scythians worshiped a sword stuck into the ground, representing the god of war, and that they made human sacrifices. They drank the blood of the first enemy killed in battle, scalped their prisoners, and used their skulls as drinking cups. In the course of time the Greek civilization exerted its influence, and penetrated to tribes dwelling much further in the north, as is shown by the antiquities found in the government of Ekaterinoslaf.

The orbis terrarium  or world so far as it was known to the Greeks, was centered about the Mediterranean; hence the name of that sea, meaning Middle of the Land or Middle of the Earth. Beyond that there was an unknown region, supposed to be inhabited by people of whom many wonderful stories were told. Thus they believed in the existence of the Arimaspians, a race of one-eyed people; there are legends, too, of the Agrippei who were described as bald and snub-nosed. The Greeks also mention the Gryphons, who, they said, were guardians of immense quantities of gold. The most wonderful people to the Greeks were the Hyperboreans, or dwellers beyond the regions of the north wind, who were looked upon with awe and pity because it was said that they lived in a country where snow fell summer and winter. These were some of the races and tribes supposed to inhabit Russia, which goes far to prove that the knowledge of that country, in those times, was neither extensive nor very accurate.

The truth is that we know very little about the early inhabitants of Russia; nor do they concern us greatly, because grave changes occurred in the fourth century of our era. At that time several large and warlike tribes of Central Asia moved westward compelling other tribes on their route to join them or to move ahead. Thus they gathered strength until it looked as if Asia was bent upon the conquest of Europe. They poured in through the gap between the Ural mountains and the Caspian Sea, and the civilized people of southeastern Europe were unable to cope with the savage hordes. In the vanguard were the Goths, who made an effort to settle in Scythia, but they were forced to move on when Attila, who is known as the Scourge of God, swooped down upon them with his Huns. He was followed by a host of Finns, Bulgarians, Magyars, and Slavs who, however, left his wake, scattered and settled down. Soon after the Slavs became known to Greek authors and were described by them. They were divided into a number of tribes, among them the Russian Slavs who settled about the sources of the Volga and the Oka, and were the founders of Novgorod, Pskof, and Izborsk.

They must have been a numerous people. We hear of another tribe settling on the banks of the Vistula, and laying the foundation of the future kingdom of Poland. They settled on the upper Elbe, and in the north of Germany. It is believed that the Slavs are ancestors of the people in Bohemia, Bulgaria, Croatia, Servia, and Dalmatia, and in Prussia of those living in Pomerania and Brandenburg.

All these Slavs, although widely dispersed, practiced the same heathen rites, spoke the same language, and nursed the same traditions, until they fell under different influences. They were, however, not the sole occupants of northeastern Europe. Other races had followed in Attila's wake, and among them the Finns were the most numerous and most warlike. They settled in the basin of the Dwina and the Kama and named their new home Biarmaland, while the Russians called it Great Permia. They also occupied what is now known as Finland, but which was then known as Land of the Suomi. The Finns, more than any other tribe, bore evidence of their Asiatic origin.

Thus the present European Russia was divided among a host of tribes, belonging either to the Slav or Finn families, and each kept to a great extent the superstitions and traditions of his race. Even in our time the traces of these superstitions are plainly discernible in many parts of Russia. When Christianity was introduced among these people, the missionaries found many of the barbaric rites so strongly implanted among the people that, instead of making vain efforts to uproot them, they preferred to admit them under a Christian name.

The religion of the Slavs bore a great resemblance to that of the Norsemen and of the Germanic races; that is, they worshiped nature and its phenomena. Dagh Bog was the sungod; Perun, the Thor of northern mythology, was the god of thunder; Stri Bog, the god of the winds; Voloss, the protector of flocks. They had neither temples nor regular priests, but worshiped the oak as the symbol of Perun, and before it the leaders offered sacrifices. These ancient deities are preserved under the names of St. John, who displaced Perun; Voloss who became St. Vlaise, etc. When a chief died, the wife often refused to survive her husband. The men-servants were summoned and asked which of them would be buried with his master. When one of them came forward, he was immediately strangled. Then the same question was put to the women servants, and if one of them consented, she was feasted until the day when the funeral pyre awaited the corpse. She was then killed and her body burned with that of her master. There were, however, some tribes that buried their dead.

The father was absolute master of his family, but his authority did not descend to the eldest son, but to the oldest of the family, his brothers, if any were living, according to their age. The Slavs kept several wives, and were given to consume large quantities of a strong drink called kvass. They were a people devoted to agriculture; the land under cultivation was not owned by one person or a family, but by all the members of a community, or mir. The heads of the families composing the mir assembled in a council or vetché, which had authority over the mir. Only the house and the dvor  or inclosure, and his share in the harvest, were the property of each householder. In the course of time, several of these rural communities united in a canton or county, called a volost, which was then governed by a council composed of the elders of several communes. It happened sometimes that one of these elders, who was considered unusually wise or powerful, became chief of the volost, a dignity which might become hereditary. This was probably the origin of the boyards or nobles. As a rule, the volosts were proud of their independence; they disliked entangling alliances, although in time of danger or necessity they would enter into a confederacy of all the counties belonging to the same tribe, which was then called plemia. But it was always understood that such an arrangement was temporary. In most of the volosts, there was at least one spot fortified by earthen walls and wooden palisades, where the people might take refuge in case of an attack.

We know that some of the Slav tribes attained some degree of civilization as early as the seventh century of our era. Novgorod was a town, large for that time, which carried on a brisk trade with Asia. This is amply proved by the discovery of Asiatic coins belonging to that period. Although the favorite occupation of the Slavs was agriculture, the construction of the fortified places suggests that they were not averse to increase their wealth by an occasional raid upon their unprepared neighbors. There is other evidence that Novgorod, grown into a wealthy city in the middle of the ninth century, longed for peace. No wonder that such a community sought for means of security for its commerce. But the manner in which it accomplished this desire, decided the fate of Russia.