Part One

 

Part 2

 

Part 3

 

Part 4

 

The Spread Of Civilization In Eastern Europe, Part Four

     Long before Byzantine decline after the 11th century, the empire had been

the source of a new northward surge of Christianity. Orthodox missionaries

sent from Constantinople busily converted most people in the Balkans - in what

is now Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, and parts of Romania and Hungary - to their

version of Christianity, and some other trappings of Byzantine culture came in

their wake. In 864 the Byzantine government sent the missionaries Cyril and

Methodius to the territory that is now Czechoslovakia. Here the effort failed

in that Roman Catholic missionaries were more successful. But Cyril and

Methodius continued their efforts in the Balkans and in southern Russia, where

their ability to speak the Slavic language greatly aided their efforts. They

devised a written script for this language, derived from Greek letters; to

this day, the Slavic alphabet is known as Cyrillic. Thus the possibility of

literature and some literacy developed in eastern Europe along with

Christianity, well beyond the political borders of Byzantium. Byzantine

missionaries were quite willing to have local languages used in church

services, another contrast with Western Catholicism.

 

Orthodox Missionaries And Other Influences

 

     Eastern missionaries did not monopolize the borderlands of eastern

Europe. Roman Catholicism and the Latin alphabet prevailed not only in

Czechoslovakia but also in most of Hungary (taken over in the 9th century by a

Turkic people, the Magyars) and in Poland. Much of this region would long be

an area of competition between Eastern and Western political and intellectual

models. During the centuries after the conversion to Christianity, this

stretch of eastern Europe north of the Balkans was organized in a series of

regional monarchies, loosely governed amid a powerful, landowning aristocracy.

Kingdoms of Poland, Bohemia (Czechoslovakia), and Lithuania easily surpassed

most Western kingdoms in territory. This was also a moderately active area for

trade and industry. Ironworking, for example, was more developed than in the

West until the 12th century. Eastern Europe during these centuries also

received an important influx of Jews, migrating away from the Middle East.

Poland gained the largest single concentration of Jews. Eastern Europe's Jews,

largely barred from agriculture and often resented by the Christian majority,

gained strength in local commerce while maintaining their own religious and

cultural traditions. A strong emphasis on extensive education and literacy,

though primarily for males, distinguished Jewish culture not only in eastern

Europe but also compared to most societies in the world at this time.

 

     This was an early phase of the development of eastern Europe beyond the

Byzantine heartland, for by Asian (or Byzantine) standards the region remained

backward, lightly populated, and not yet able to produce a significant written

or artistic culture beyond rudimentary church buildings and monkish chronicles

of events. Many features of Byzantium, including its elaborate bureaucracy,

were irrelevant to what was, like most of western Europe at the same time, a

developing region.

 

The Early Russian Phase

 

     Russia shared many features with the rest of northeastern Europe before

the 15th century, including rather hesitant advances in economy and politics.

A full-fledged Russian civilization had yet to emerge. Yet, as with much of

eastern Europe, the centuries of Byzantine influence were an important

formative period that would influence later developments considerably. During

the postclassical centuries Russia was not a particularly significant society.

It was in an initial stage as a civilization and primarily serves as one of

the important cases in which civilization fanned out from more established

centers - in this instance, Byzantium. Russia can be compared in this sense to

other areas that were taking clear shape as civilizations but whose

world-historical importance would come later - for example, Japan and in many

ways western Europe itself.

 

     Slavic peoples had moved into the sweeping plains of Russia and eastern

Europe from an Asian homeland, during the time of the Roman Empire. They mixed

with and incorporated some earlier inhabitants and some additional invaders,

such as the Bulgarians who adopted Slavic language and customs. The Slavs

already knew the use of iron, and they extended agriculture in the rich soils

of what is now western Russia, where no durable civilization had previously

taken root. Slavic political organization long rested in family tribes and

villages; the Slavs maintained an animist religion with gods for the sun,

thunder, wind, and fire. The early Russians also had a rich tradition of folk

music and oral legends, and they developed some very loose regional kingdoms.

 

     During the 6th and 7th centuries, traders from Scandinavia began to work

through the Slavic lands, moving along the great rivers of western Russia,

which run south to north - particularly the Dnieper. Through this route the

Norse traders were able to reach the Byzantine Empire, and a regular,

flourishing trade developed between Scandinavia and Constantinople. Luxury

products from Byzantium and the Arab world traveled north, in return for furs

and other relatively crude products. The Scandinavian traders, militarily

superior to the Slavs, gradually set up some governments along their trade

route, particularly in the city of Kiev. A monarchy emerged, and according to

legend a man named Rurik, a native of Denmark, became the first king of Russia

around A.D. 855. The Kievan kingdom, though still loosely organized through

alliances with regional, landed aristocrats, flourished until the 12th

century. It was from the Scandinavians also that the word Russia was coined,

possibly from a Greek word for red, which applied to the hair color of many of

the Norse traders. In turn, the Scandinavian minority gradually mingled with

the Slavic population, particularly among the aristocracy.

 

     Contacts between Kievan Russia and Byzantium extended steadily. Kiev,

centrally located, became a prosperous trading center, and from there many

Russians visited Constantinople. These exchanges led to growing knowledge of

Christianity. King Vladimir I, a Rurik descendant who ruled from 980 to 1015,

finally took the step of converting to Christianity not only in his own name

but in that of all his people. He was eager to avoid the papal influence that

came with Roman Catholicism, which he knew about through the experiences of

the Polish kingdom; Orthodox Christianity gave a valid alternative that still

provided a sophisticated replacement for prevailing animism. Islam was

rejected, according to one account, because Vladimir could not accept a

religion that forbade alcoholic drink. Russian awe at the splendor of

religious services in Constantinople also played a role. Having made his

decision, Vladimir proceeded to organize mass baptisms for his subjects,

forcing conversions by military pressure. Early church leaders were imported

from Byzantium, and they helped train a literate Russian priesthood. As in

Byzantium, the king characteristically controlled major appointments, and a

separate Russian church institution soon developed.

 

     As Russia became Christian, it was the largest single state in Europe,

though highly decentralized. Rurik's descendants managed for some time to

avoid damaging battles over succession to the throne. Following Byzantine

example they issued a formal law code, which among other things reduced the

severity of traditional punishments and replaced community vendettas with

state-run courts, at least in principle. The last of the great Kievan princes,

Yaroslav, issued the legal codification, while also building numerous churches

and arranging the translation of religious literature from Greek to Slavic.

 

Russian Institutions And Culture

 

     Russia borrowed much from Byzantium, but it was in no position to

replicate major institutions such as the bureaucracy or an elaborate

educational system. Russian kings were attracted to Byzantine ceremonials and

luxury and to the concept (if not yet the reality) that a central ruler should

have wide powers.

 

     Many characteristics of Orthodox Christianity gradually penetrated

Russian culture. Fervent devotion to the power of God and to many Eastern

saints helped organize worship. Churches were relatively ornate, filled with

icons and the sweet smell of incense. A monastic movement developed that

stressed prayer and charity. Traditional practices, such as polygamy,

gradually yielded to the Christian family ethic that insisted on only one

wife. The emphasis on almsgiving as a manifestation of religious feeling long

described the sense of obligation wealthy Russians felt toward the poor, and

would actually delay the formation of more institutionalized welfare

arrangements.

 

     The Russian literature that developed, using the Cyrillic alphabet,

mainly summed up a mixture of religious and royal events and was filled with

praises to the saints and invocations of the power of God. Disasters were seen

as just expressions of the wrath of God against human wickedness, while

success in war followed from the aid of God and the saints in the name jointly

of Russia and the Orthodox faith. This tone also was common in Western

Christian writing during these centuries, but in Russia it monopolized formal

culture more fully: a distinct, additional philosophical or scientific current

did not emerge in the postclassical period.

 

     Russian art focused on the religious also, with icon painting and

illuminated religious manuscripts becoming something of a Kievan specialty.

Orthodox churches, built in the form of a cross surmounted by a dome,

similarly aped Byzantine styles, though frequently the building materials were

wood rather than stone. Religious art and music were rivaled by continued

popular entertainments in the oral tradition, which combined music, street

performances, and some theater. The Russian church tried to suppress these

forms, regarded as pagan, but with incomplete success.

 

     Overall, this formative period in Russian society saw the development of

a powerful religious sentiment, with particular cultural emphasis on art and

music. This cultural development, although parallel to some features in

emerging Western culture because of the common process of creating a new

literary tradition from an animist background and because of shared Christian

beliefs, operated quite separately from specific patterns in the West.

Russian-Western contacts, at this point and for several centuries to come,

were virtually nonexistent, though Yaroslav, interestingly, married his

daughter to a French king, indicating awareness of possible beneficial

interchange.

 

     The same separate development marked Russian social and economic

patterns. Russian peasants at this juncture were fairly free farmers, though

an aristocratic landlord class existed. Russian aristocrats, called boyars,

had less political power than their counterparts in western Europe, though the

Kievan kings had to negotiate with them.

 

Kievan Decline

 

     The Kievan kingdom began to fade in the 12th century. Rival princes set

up regional governments, while the royal family frequently squabbled over

succession to the throne. Invaders from Asia whittled at Russian territory.

The rapid eclipse of Byzantium reduced Russian trade and wealth, for the

kingdom had always depended heavily on the greater prosperity and

sophisticated manufacturing of its southern neighbor. A new kingdom was

briefly established around a city near what is now Moscow, but by 1200 Russia

was weak and disunited. The final blow in this first chapter of Russian

history came in 1236, when a large force of Mongols from central Asia moved

through Russia and into other parts of eastern Europe. The initial Mongol

intent was to add the whole of Europe to their growing empire. The Mongols, or

Tartars as they are called in the Russian tradition, easily captured the major

Russian cities, but they did not penetrate much farther west because of

political difficulties in their Asian homeland. For over two centuries,

however, Russia would remain under Tartar control.

 

     This control, in turn, further separated the dynamic of Russian history

from that of western Europe. Russian literature languished under Tartar

supervision. Trade lapsed in western Russia, and indeed the vigorous

north-south commerce of the Kievan period never returned. At the same time,

loose Tartar supervision did not destroy Russian Christianity or a native

Russian aristocratic class. So long as tribute was paid, Tartar overlords left

day-to-day Russian affairs alone. Thus when Tartar control was finally forced

out, in the second half of the 15th century, a Russian cultural and political

tradition could reemerge, serving as a partial basis for the further, fuller

development of Russian society.

 

     Russian leaders, moreover, retained during the period of eclipse an

active memory of the glories of Byzantium. When Constantinople fell to the

Turks in 1453, just as Russia was beginning to assert its independence from

the Tartars, it was logical to claim and quite probable to believe, that the

mantle of east European leadership had fallen on Russia. A monk, currying

favor, wrote the Russian king in 1511 that while heresy had destroyed the

first Roman Empire, and the Turks had cut down the second, Byzantium, a

"third, new Rome," under the king's "mighty rule" "sends out the Orthodox

Christian faith to the ends of the earth and shines more brightly than the

sun." "Two Romes have fallen, but the third stands, and there will be no

fourth." This sense of an Eastern Christian mission, inspiring a Russian

resurgence, was not the least of the products of this complicated formative

period in the emergence of a separate European civilization in the Slavic

lands.

Home Page

World History Center