Young Folks' History of Russia - Nathan Dole

The Ancestors of the Russians

In Central Asia there is a vast table-land surrounded by lofty, sheltering mountains, watered by noble The early rivers, and so fertile that it might well be called home of the Garden of Eden. Perhaps this was the cradle Aryans of the human race.

The people who dwelt there in earliest times tilled the soil, tended their flocks and herds, fished in the wide streams, worshipped the heaven and "our mother the dank earth," and, living quiet and happy lives, increased and multiplied until at last there was no more room for them all. Then the young men, taking their families and their goods, joined themselves into little bands and turned their faces toward the south and the west and the north.

Some settled on the lands between the Indus and the Ganges; some reached the beautiful islands of the Mediterranean, and peopled the sunny vales of Greece and the balmy shores of Italy; others, more adventurous, wandered across the never-ending plains into the cold, wind-swept regions of Russia and the rocky coasts of Scandinavia.

Island of Liparl


The Hindu throwing himself under the wheels of Juggernaut, the wild robber-chief lurking in the caves of Olympos, the Italian beggar proud of his name, the peasant starving in the swamps of Ireland, the serf in his sheepskin coat crouching on top of his huge oven, the farmer guiding his oxen over the stony hills of New England, are all kith and kin. Our common ancestors dwelt in that morning land and spoke one language, which was the parent of a hundred tongues,—Sanskrit and Greek and Latin, Keltic and Russian, German and English. Hence all over the world are found the same superstitions, the same customs of seed-time and harvest, the same rites of marriage and death, the same strange myths and fairy tales: Jack the Giant Killer and Cinderella were natives of the Garden of Eden thousands of years ago.

The wanderers from Asia who settled in Greece became civilized early and built cities, the history of which every schoolboy knows. The Greek cities in turn sent out colonists who established trading-posts and flourishing towns on the shores of the Black Sea, at the mouth of the Danube, on the Don, in the Crimea, at the foot of the Caucasus. These enterprising merchants kept alive the manners and customs of the mother cities, sang the poems of Homer as they marched to battle, cultivated the arts of sculpture and eloquence, and bartered with their barbarous cousins, the Scythians, who brought furs and honey, amber and lapis-lazuli, to exchange for richly sculptured vases, jewels, and weapons fashioned to their taste by Athenian artisans.

Herodotus, the father of history, made a journey to these regions, and he gives us what little knowledge we have of the many tribes which, under the general name of Scythians, occupied south-eastern Europe four centuries before Christ. He divides them into three branches the farmers, the herdsmen, or wanderers, and the royal Scythians, who considered the others their slaves. Many of them were doubtless Finns; many were driven west and occupied the forests of Germany; some were the ancestors of the Russians.

In the Museum of the Hermitage at St. Petersburg there are two vases which were found in the tombs of southern Russia, and are believed to be more than two thousand years old. On one of them men are represented in sculptured silver, taming and bridling their horses. With their long beards, coarse features, strange tunics and trousers, they are the very type of the present inhabitants of the same plains. They are the agricultural Scythians, the ancestors of the Slavs of the Dnieper. On the other vase, in gold, are the royal Scythians, warriors with pointed caps, embroidered garments, and curving bows.

These tribes worshipped as their god of war an antique iron sword fixed on top of a mound, and sacrificed to it their captives. They drank the blood of the first enemy slain in battle, took off the scalps of their conquered foes and made cloaks of them, or swung them as ornaments from their saddle-bows, and used their skulls, lined with leather or beaten gold, for drinking cups.

Our knowledge of the world of tribes who dwelt beyond the Scythians in the far north is less accurate and is mixed with fable. Some were cannibals, and devoured the bodies of their dead parents with great solemnity; some were called Black Robes, from the color of their raiment; others were luxurious and fond of adorning themselves with gold; some, like the Cyclops, had only one eye; some were from birth to death snub-nosed and bald, both men and women; others, once every year, were changed into fierce were-wolves. There were tribes of warlike women, called Amazons, who killed their male children; and the Gryphons who kept watch and ward over fabulous hoards of gold in unapproachable mountains; and gentle and peace-loving men who dwelt under the north star and fed on dainty food, eating honey and drinking dew, and thus lived to be centuries old.

Unexplored lands are always supposed to be inhabited by monsters: a German baron who visited Russia in, the sixteenth century speaks of the lands beyond the Obi where "are said to dwell men of prodigious stature, some of whom are covered all over with hair like wild beasts, while others have heads like dogs, and others have no necks, their breast taking the place of a head, while they have long hands but no feet. There is also in the river a certain fish with a head, eyes, nose, mouth, hands, feet, and in other respects almost exactly like a man, but without speech." He also tells of certain black men rho die on the 27th of November and come to life again, like the frogs, the following spring. Neither the father of history nor the German baron ever saw these fabulous and scarcely credible monsters; "they dwelt remote and withdrew before the power of civilization.

During the early Christian centuries, Asia, the inexhaustible mother of barbarians, poured out over Europe successive throngs of warlike and conquering tribes. Well might it have been said, No one could tell their origin, whence they came, what religion they professed. God alone knew who they were, God and perhaps wise men learned in and the books." First came the Goths, who built up a vast empire between the Black Sea and the Baltic, threatened Rome, and spread even into Spain. The Goths were defeated and destroyed by the Huns, who followed them from China, and in turn fell before Asparuch and his countless multitudes of Bulgarians and Finns, Turks and Tatars.

The Eastern emperors and chroniclers, in their descriptions of these invasions, often mention the Slavs. They settled first in the fertile valley of the Danube, but were soon driven out by stronger tribes, and forced to take refuge in different lands, Bohemia and Moravia, Poland and Russia.

A thousand years ago, the Russian Slavs, divided into many small tribes constantly at war with one another, but speaking the same language, and governed by the same traditions, occupied a district between the Dnieper and the Dniester, less than one-fifth of the European Russia of to-day. The names of many of these tribes have come down to us in the chronicle of Nestor, an old Russian monk who lived at Kief eight hundred years ago. Two of the principal tribes were the Field Folk and the Forest Folk. Nestor thus contrasts them:—

"The Field Folk followed the customs of their forefathers; they were gentle, humble, and respectful to their sisters-in-law and their mothers; the women, too, honored the brothers and sisters of their husbands. Their customs in regard to marriage were strange: the bride-groom went not in person to receive his bride; she was brought to him the rather at eventide, and only on the following morning did he come into possession of her dower.

"The Forest Folk, on the contrary, lived in a strange fashion, verily like the wild beasts; they cut each other's throats, ate impure food, despised all marriage ties.

Possibly Nestor exaggerated their wildness in order to show the softening effect of Christianity upon them. They were not entirely like savage beasts, but were by nature peaceful and fond of agriculture, devoted to liberty, music, and the dance, and so hospitable that it was considered a virtue among them to steal from a neighbor to provide an unexpected guest with food. In the funeral mounds which they left are found curious vessels of pottery, articles of iron and bronze, bits of glass, false pearls, and Oriental coins.

The emperors of Constantinople describe them as cruel in war and full of wiles; able to conceal themselves in places where it would seem impossible for their bodies to be stowed, fond of lying for hours at a time in streams with the water over the head, breathing by means of a hollow reed. They were of high stature and had long black hair, ruddy complexions, and gray eyes. They were taught from earliest childhood to endure extremes of heat and cold, to face pain, and hunger. They wore no armor, but fought naked to the waist, protecting themselves by osier shields. Their weapons were pikes, long wooden bows, poisoned arrows, and lassos.

Each family obeyed its elder or head; little groups of families formed a commune, tilled the land, and deliberated together on matters of general importance, in a council formed of all the elders. The communes nearest together made a canton or district, which was governed by an hereditary or elected chief. Each canton had at least one fort or village enclosure built of earth and protected by ditches and palisades or osier hedges, and situated on the bank of a stream, the steep shore of a lake, or as a crown to some little hill in the midst of primitive forests.

Besides these villages, even at this early day, the Slavs had considerable cities. In the fifth century they built New Town, near Lake Ilmen, on the site of an ancient city which had been destroyed or depopulated by a pestilence. The old chronicle tells how the Field Folk built the city of Kief: The families of the Field Folk had each their own chief, who lived on his estate and governed his house. Now there once lived among the Field Folk three brothers and a sister. The brothers built a city and in honor of the eldest called it Kief."

The city was surrounded by thick pine forests in which the inhabitants chased bears, wolves, and martens After the death of the three brothers, the Forest Folk and other neighboring tribes overcame the Field Folk; and the Kozars, who dwelt among the mountains and woods, attacked them and said unto them, Pay us tribute." The Field Folk, under necessity, gave them two-edged swords, one from every house. The Kozars carried the tribute to their prince and their elders, and said to them, "We have brought a new people under subjection."

"Where are they?" demanded the prince and the elders.

"They live in the forests and mountains beyond the Dnieper."

"What tribute did they give?"

The Kozars showed the swords. Then said the elders of the Kozars,

"Prince, this tribute is not good. Our sabres have only one edge, but these swords have two edges. There is danger of these men levying tribute upon us and upon other nations."

The Kozars at this time ruled over all the land from the mouth of the Volga to the Black Sea and around the banks of the Dnieper; the Caspian Sea was called the Sea of the Kozars. They built their city of Atel on the Volga, and their White City on the Don; they entered into commercial and military alliances with the emperors of Byzantium, the califs of Bagdad, and the Moorish rulers of Spain. They had great schools, and their liberal shagan or emperor tolerated all forms of religion. The Greeks tried to convert them to Christianity, and sent the missionary St. Cyril to them toward the middle of the ninth century. Even as late as the time of Lewis VII. of France and King Stephen of England the kan of the Kozars still ruled over the shores of the Caspian Sea.