THE earliest annals of Russia only furnish occasional glimpses of numerous barbarous hordes roaming over its surface. These nomadic tribes, classed under the common appellation of Sarmatians and Scythians, at a very early period began to menace the Roman frontiers, and even before the time of Cyrus the Great of Persia had invaded what was then called the civilized world, particularly southern Asia. They inhabited the countries described by Herodotus between the Don and the Dnieper; and Strabo and Tacitus mention the Roxolani, afterward called Ros, as highly distinguished among the Sarmatian tribes dwelling in that district. The Greeks early established colonies here; and in the second century the Goths came from the Baltic, and, locating in the neighborhood of the Don, extended themselves to the Danube.
In the fifth century, the country in the neighborhood of these rivers was overrun by numerous migratory hordes of Alans, Huns, Avarians, and Bulgarians, who were followed by the Slavi, or Slavonians, a Sarmatian people, who took a more northerly direction than their predecessors had done. In the next century, the Khozari, pressed upon by the Avarians, entered the country between the Volga and the Don, conquered the Crimea, and thus placed themselves in connection with the Byzantine empire. These and numerous other tribes directed the course of their migrations toward the west, forced the Huns into Pannonia, and occupied the country between the Don and the Alanta; while the Tchoudes, or Ishudi, a tribe of the Finnic race, inhabited the northern parts of Russia. All these tribes maintained themselves by pasture and the chase, and exhibited the usual barbarism of wandering nomades.
The Slavonians, coming from the northern Danube, and spreading themselves along the Dnieper, in the fifth and sixth centuries, early acquired, from a commerce with their southern neighbors, habits of civilized life, and embraced the Christian religion. They founded in the country afterward called Russia the two cities of Novgorod and Kiev, which early attained a commercial importance. Their wealth, however, soon excited the avidity of the Khozari, with whom they were compelled to maintain a perpetual struggle. But Novgorod found another and more formidable enemy in the Varagians, a race of bold pirates who infested the coasts of the Baltic, and who had previously subdued the Courlanders, Livonians, and Estonians. It is not improbable that these Varagians formed a part of those Scandinavian nations, who, under the name of Danes and Saxons, successively made themselves masters of England. To these bold invaders the name of Russi, Russes, or Russians, is thought by the most eminent authors to owe its origin. Be that, however, as it may, it appears certain that in these dark ages the country was divided among a great number of petty princes, who made war upon each other with great ferocity and cruelty, so that the people were reduced to the utmost misery; and the Slavonians, seeing that the warlike rovers threatened their rising state with devastation, were prompted by the necessity of self-preservation to offer the government of their country to them. In consequence of this, a celebrated Varagian chief, named Rurik, arrived, in 862, with a body of his country-men, in the neighborhood of the lake Ladoga, and laid the foundation of the present empire of Russia, by uniting his people with those who already occupied the soil.
Rurik has the credit of being zealous for the strict administration of justice, and enforcing its exercise on all the boyars or nobles who possessed territories under him. He died in' 879, leaving an only son, Igor, who, being a minor, Oleg, a kinsman of the deceased monarch, took on himself the administration of affairs. The new monarch appears very early to have projected the extension of his territories, by annexing to them the settlement which the Slavi had formed about Kiev, against which he soon undertook a formidable expedition. He collected a numerous army, and, taking with him the young prince Igor, opened the campaign with the capture of Lubitch, and of Smolensk, the capital of the Krivit-sches. Having reduced several other towns, he advanced toward the rival city of Kiev, the possession of which formed the chief object of his ambition. As he did not think it advisable to hazard an open attack, he had recourse to artifice; and, leaving behind him the greater part of his troops, he concealed the remainder in the barks that had brought them down the Dnieper from Smolensk. Oleg himself, disguising his name and quality, passed for a merchant sent by the regent and his ward Igor on business of importance to Constantinople; and he despatched officers to Oskhold and Dir, the two chieftains of the Kievians, requesting permission to pass through their territory into Greece, and inviting them to visit him as friends and fellow-citizens, pretending that indisposition prevented him from paying his respects to them in person. The princes, relying on these appearances of friendship, accepted Oleg's invitation;, but when they arrived at the regent's encampment, they were surrounded by the Varagian soldiers, who sprang from their place of concealment. Oleg, taking Igor in his arms, and casting on the sovereigns of Kiev a fierce and threatening look, exclaimed: " You are neither princes, nor of the race of princes; behold the son of Rurik!" These words, which formed the signal that had been agreed on between Oleg and his soldiers, were no sooner uttered, than the latter rushed on the two princes, and laid them prostrate at the feet of their master. The inhabitants of Kiev, thrown into consternation by this bold and treacherous act, made no resistance, but opened the gates of their city to the invader. By this means, the two Slavonian states were united under one head.
Having thus made himself master of the key to the eastern empire, Oleg prepared to carry into effect his ambitions designs against Constantinople. Leaving Igor at Kiev, he embarked on the Dnieper with eighty thousand warriors, in two thousand vessels. The inhabitants of the imperial city had drawn a massy chain across the harbor, hoping to prevent their landing. But the invaders drew ashore their barks, fitted wheels to their flat bottoms, and converted them into carriages, which, by the help of sails, they forced along the roads that led to the city, and thus arrived under the walls of Constantinople. The emperor Leo, instead of making a manly resistance, is said to have attempted carrying off his enemies by poison; but, this not succeeding, he was obliged to purchase from the conqueror an ignominious peace. Oleg obtained the completion of his wishes, by the rich booty which he carried off; and his people, dazzled with his brilliant success, thought him endowed with supernatural powers.
Oleg maintained the sovereign power for thirty-three years; nor does it appear that Igor had any share in the government till the death of his guardian left him in full possession of the throne, A. D. 912, at which time he had reached his fortieth year. He soon discovered marks of the same warlike spirit which had actuated his predecessor. Among the nations that had been subjugated by Oleg, several, on the accession of a new sovereign, attempted to regain their independence; but they were quelled, and punished by the imposition of a tribute. Igor, however, soon had to contend with more formidable enemies. The Petchenegans, a nation hitherto unknown, quitted their settlements on the Yaik and the Volga, and made incursions into the Russian territory; and Igor, finding himself unable to cope with them in arms, concluded a treaty of alliance.
The Russian monarch was now far advanced in years; but the insatiable rapacity of his officers, ever craving fresh spoils from vanquished nations, impelled him to turn his arms against the Drevlians, for the purpose of obtaining from them an increase of their yearly tribute. In this unjust attack, he was at first successful, and returned loaded with the contributions which he had levied from that people; but having dismissed a great part of his troops with the spoils of the vanquished, and marching with the remainder too far into the country, he fell into an ambuscade, which the Drevlians, now grown desperate, had formed, on his approach, in the neighborhood of Korosten. The Russians were overpowered, and Igor, being taken prisoner, was put to death. This occurred in 945.
Before the death of Oleg, Igor had married a princess of a bold and daring spirit, named Olga, by whom he had one son, Sviatoslaff; but as he was very young at the death of his father, the queen-mother Olga assumed the reins of government. Her first care was to take signal vengeance on the Drevlians, who, satisfied with the death of their oppressor, appeared desirous of renewing their amicable intercourse with the Russians. Olga, concealing her real designs under a specious veil of kindness, appeared to listen to their overtures, and received the deputies of Male, but immediately ordered them to be privately put to death. In the meantime, she invited a larger deputation from the Drevlian chief, which she treated in the same manner, taking care that no tidings of either murder should be carried to the Drevlians. She then set out, as if on an amicable visit, to conclude the new alliance; and having proclaimed a solemn entertainment, to which she invited some hundreds of the principal inhabitants of the Drevlian towns, she caused them to be treacherously assassinated. This was but the first step to the dreadful vengeance which she had resolved to inflict on this unhappy people. She laid waste the whole country, particularly near the town of Korosten, where Igor had lost his life. For a long time she could not master the place, as the inhabitants, dreading the horrible fate that awaited them from the revengeful' spirit of Olga? defended themselves with valor and success. At length, being assured of clemency, on condition of sending to Olga all the pigeons of the town, they submitted; but Olga, causing lighted matches to be fastened to the tails of the pigeons, set them at liberty. The birds flew to their usual places of residence in the town, which were speedily in a conflagration. The wretched inhabitants, endeavoring to escape the flames, fell into the hands of the Russian soldiers, planted round the town for that purpose, by whom they were put to the sword. Though not uncommon in the annals of a barbarous people, this transaction is sufficient to hand down the name of Olga with detestation to posterity. This princess was, however, the first of the barbarians who professed to embrace Christianity. She failed in persuading her son to follow her example, but induced a few of her subjects to do so.
It is probable that Olga retired from the administration of affairs soon after her profession of Christianity; for we find Sviatoslaff in full possession of the government in 957, long before his mother's death. This prince has been considered one of the Russian heroes ; and if a thirst for blood, a contempt of danger, and disregard of the luxuries and conveniences of life, be admitted as the characteristics of a hero, he deserves the appellation. He took up his habitation in a camp, where his accommodations were of the coarsest kind; and when he had, by this mode of life, ingratiated himself with his troops, he prepared to employ them in those ambitious projects which he had long been forming.
His first expedition was against the Khozari, a people already mentioned, from the shores of the Caspian, and the Caucasian mountains, who had established themselves along the eastern shores of the Black sea. These people had rendered tributary both the Kievians and the Viateches, a Slavonian nation that dwelt on the banks of the Oka and the Volga. Sviatoslaff, desirous of transferring to himself the tribute which the Khozari derived from the latter people, marched against them, and appears to have succeeded in his design. He defeated them in a battle, and took their capital city Sarkel, or Belgorod. It is said by some historians that he annihilated the nation; and it is certain that, from that time, no mention is made of the Khozari.
The martial fame of Sviatoslaff had extended to Constantinople; and the emperor Nicephorus Phocas, who was then harassed by the Hungarians, assisted by his treacherous allies the Bulgarians, applied for succors to the Russian chieftain. A subsidiary treaty was entered into between them, and Sviatoslaff hastened with a numerous army to the assistance of his new allies. He quickly made himself master of most of the Bulgarian towns along the Danube; but, receiving intelligence that the Petchenegans had assembled in great numbers, ravaged the Kievian territory, and laid siege to the capital, within the walls of which were shut up his mother and his sons, he hastened to the relief of his family.
Having defeated the besiegers, and obliged them to sue for peace, he resolved to establish himself on the banks of the Danube, and divided his hereditary dominions among his children. He gave Kiev to Yaropolk; the Drevlian territory to Oleg; and on Vladimir, a natural son, he bestowed the government of Novgorod. On his return to Bulgaria, however, he found that his affairs had assumed a very different aspect. The Bulgarians, taking advantage of his absence with his troops, had recovered most of their towns, and seemed well prepared to resist the encroachments of a foreign power. They fell on Sviatoslaff, as he approached the walls- of Pereiaslavatz, and began the attack witli so much fury, that at first the Russians were defeated with great slaughter. They, however, soon rallied, and, taking courage from despair, renewed the battle with so much eagerness, that they in turn became masters of the field. Sviatoslaff took possession of the town, and soon recovered all that he had lost.
During these transactions, the Greek emperor Nicephorus had been assassinated, and John Zemisces, his murderer, had succeeded to the imperial diadem. The new emperor sent embassadors to the Russian monarch, requiring him to comply with the stipulations of his treaty with Nicephorus, and evacuate Bulgaria, which he had agreed to occupy as an ally, but not as a master. Sviatoslaff refused to give up his newly-acquired possessions, and prepared to decide the contest by force of arms. He did not live to reach the capital; for having, contrary to the advice of his most experienced officers, attempted to return to Kiev up the dangerous navigation of the Dnieper, he was intercepted by the Petchenegans near the rocks that form the cataracts of that river. After remaining on the defensive during the winter, exposed to all the horrors of famine and disease, on the return of spring, in 972, attempted to force his way through the ranks of the enemy; but his troops were defeated, and himself killed in the battle.
Yaropolk, the sovereign of Kiev, may be considered as the successor of his father on the Russian throne; but his reign was short and turbulent. A war broke out between him and his brother Oleg, in which the latter was defeated and slain. Vladimir, the third brother, dreading the increased power and ambitious disposition of Yaropolk, soon after abandoned his dominions, which were seized on by the Kievian prince. Vladimir had retired among the Varagians, from whom he soon procured such succors as enabled him to make effectual head against the usurper. He advanced toward Kiev before Yaropolk was prepared to oppose him. The Kievian prince had, indeed, been lulled into security by the treacherous reports of one of his voyvodes, who was in the interest of Vladimir, and who found means to induce him to abandon his capital, on pretence that the inhabitants were disaffected toward him. The Kievians, left without a leader, opened their gates to Vladimir; and Yaropolk, still misled by the treachery of his adviser, determined to throw himself on the mercy of his brother; but before he could effect this purpose, he was assassinated by some of his Varagian followers. By this murder, which had probably been planned by Vladimir, the conqueror, in 980, acquired the undivided possession of all his father's territories.
The commencement of Vladimir's reign formed but a continuation of the enormities which had conducted him to the throne. He began with removing Blade, the treacherous voyvode, by whom his brother had been betrayed into his power, and to whom he had promised the highest honors and dignities. The Varagians, who had assisted in reinstating him on the throne of his ancestors, requested permission to go and seek their fortune in Greece. He granted their request, but privately advertised the emperor of their approach, and caused them to be arrested and secured.
Vladimir engaged in numerous wars, and subjected several of the neighboring states to his dominion. He seized on part of the Polish territory; and compelled the Bulgarians, who dwelt in that which now forms the government of Kazan, to do him homage. He subdued the Petchenegans and Khazares, in the immediate neighborhood of the Kievian state; he reduced to his authority Halitsch (or Kalisch) and Vladimir, countries which are now known as Galicia and Lubomiria; he conquered Lithuania as far as Memel, and took possession of a great part of modern Livonia.
This monarch, having settled the affairs of his empire, demanded in marriage the princess Anne, sister to the Greek emperor Basilius Porphyro-genitus. His suit was granted, on condition that he should embrace Christianity. With this the Russian monarch complied; and that vast empire was thenceforward considered as belonging to the patriarchate of Constantinople. Vladimir received the name of Basilius on the day he was baptized ; and, according to the Russian annals, twenty thousand of his subjects were baptized on the same day. The idols of paganism were now thrown down, churches and monasteries were erected, towns built, and the arts began to flourish. The Slavonian letters were also at this period first introduced into Russia; and Vladimir sent missionaries to convert the Bulgarians, but without much success. We are told that Vladimir called the arts' from Greece, cultivated them in the peaceable periods of his reign, and generously rewarded their professors. His merits, indeed, appear to have been very considerable. He has been extolled by the monks as the wisest as well as the most religious of kings; his zealous exertions in promoting the profession of Christianity throughout his dominions acquired for him the title of saint; and succeeding historians, comparing the virtues of his character with the age in which he lived, have united in conferring upon him the appellation of " Vladimir the Great."
His son Yaroslav, who reigned thirty-five years, and died in 1054, at the age of seventy-seven, was a prince of considerable attainments, and a great patron of the arts. The church of St. Sophia, at Novgorod, was by his order decorated with pictures and mosaics, portions of which are said to remain to the present time. His expedition against Constantine XL, who then held the sceptre of the eastern or Greek empire (though unsuccessful), as well as his acquirements, and the splendor in which he lived, made his name known and respected throughout Europe. Three of his daughters were married to the kings of France, Norway, and Hungary; and his eldest son, Vladimir, who died before him, had for wife a daughter of the unfortunate Harold, the last of the Saxon kings of England.
Yaroslav, at his death, divided his empire, as was usually the case, among his sons. Vladimir Monomachus, his grandson, who died in the early part of the next century, did the same; and as the Russian monarchs were blessed, generally speaking, with a numerous offspring (the last-mentioned sovereign had eight children), the country was continually a prey to internal dissensions and strife: and these family feuds were not settled until an appeal had been made to the sword, which, being congenial to the disposition of the people and the temper of the times, was frequently prolonged for years. In the year preceding the death of Monomachus, Kiev was nearly destroyed by fire; and, from the great number of churches and houses that fell a prey to the flames, that city must then have been of great extent and opulence. This calamity was followed in the succeeding reign by a still greater one, when the sister-capital, Novgorod, was desolated by a famine so awful, that the survivors were not sufficiently numerous to bury the dead, and the streets were blocked up by the putrid corpses of the inhabitants!
The reigns which followed this period of Russian history are distinguished by little else than continual wars with the Poles, Lithuanians, Polovetzes, and Tchoudes, with this exception, that the town of Vladimir, built by Yury I., in 1157, became in that year the capital instead of Kiev. But a more formidable enemy than the inhabitants of the countries and tribes already mentioned drew near the Muscovite territory, in the person of Tuschki, the son of Zinghis Khan, who, emigrating with his Tartars westward, led them, about the year 1223, from the shores of the sea of Aral and the Caspian to those of the Dnieper. The Circassians and Polovetzes, having endeavored in vain to arrest the progress of the horde, were at length constrained to apply to their hitherto inveterate foes for assistance ; and, the cause being now equally dear to all parties, the Russians made an intrepid stand on the banks of the Kalka. The impetuous attack, however, of the invaders was not to be withstood, and, the prince of Kiev treacherously abstaining from taking part in the battle, the Russians were completely routed, and scarcely a tenth part of an army composed of one hundred thousand men escaped. The enemy then pursued his way unmolested to the capital, which he took, and put fifty thousand of the inhabitants of the principality of Kiev to the sword! The further progress of the Tartars northward was marked by fire and sword; but, having reached Novgorod-Severski, they faced about and retreated to the camp of Zinghis Khan, who was at this time in Bokhara.
Thirteen years after, Batou Khan, grandson of Zinghis, desolated Russia afresh, committing every species of cruelty, and aggravated breaches of faith with the towns who submitted to his arms. In this manner, the old provinces of Riazan, Periaslavl, Rostov, and several others, fell into his hands; for, with incredible apathy, and contrary to their usually warlike inclinations, the Russian princes neglected to raise any troops to dispute their progress; and Yury II., prince of Vladimir, was at this critical juncture occupied in celebrating the marriage of one of his boyars. At length, suddenly roused to a sense of his desperate position,, he placed himself at the head of some troops hastily called together, and left his family under the protection of one of his nobles, trusting that his capital would be able to sustain a long siege. He was mistaken: the Tartars soon made themselves masters of Vladimir, and the grand princesses, as well as other persons of distinction, were burnt alive in the church in which they had taken shelter. On hearing of this tragical event, Yury marched with his adherents to meet the foe. The contest was sanguinary and short; but, after performing prodigies of valor, the Russians were borne down by overpowering numbers, and their prince was left among the slain. There was now nothing to dispute the march of the ruthless Tartars, and they pushed forward to within sixty miles of Novgorod, when they again turned round without any ostensible motive, and evacuated the Russian territory.
The wretched condition into which the southern and central parts of the empire were thrown by these invasions, afforded a most advantageous opportunity for other enemies to attack it; and, accordingly, in 1242, and during the reign of Yaroslav II., the Swedes, Danes, and Livonians, sent a numerous and well-disciplined army to demand the submission of Novgorod. This Alexander, the son of the reigning sovereign, refused; and, leaving his capital, he advanced, unaided by any allies, to meet his opponents, and fought the celebrated battle of the Neva, which gained him the surname of Nevski, and a place in the Russian calendar. The personal courage of Alexander in this battle was of the highest order, and mainly contributed to secure the victory. His memory is still cherished by the Russians, and the order instituted in honor of him is much valued.
A cruel and constantly-fluctuating war with the Tartars—various incursions by the Livonians, Lithuanians, Swedes, and Poles—and the most frightful civil discord among the several almost regal provinces of Russia — consumed fourteen successive reigns, between Yury II., who died in 1238, and Ivan I., who succeeded his father in the principality of Vladimir in 1328.* At times, during this period, the Tartars, adding insult to injury, arrogated to themselves the power of protectors of this or that inter est; and, in the case of Ivan L, Uzbek Khan secured to him the possession of Novgorod, as well as of Vladimir and Moscow. Ivan's father had greatly beautified and improved the latter town; and Ivan followed his example, and made it his residence. Here also resided the metropolitan, and it therefore rapidly advanced in importance. Ivan's reign of thirteen years was remarkable as improving and peaceful, and he exercised a sound discretion by building a wall of wood round the city, which supported a rampart of earth and stone. At the close of his life he took monastic vows, and died in 1341. In the reign of Ivan II., second son of the previous monarch of that name, Moscow established its pre-eminence as a city, and became the capital of the empire.
Sears, Robert. An Illustrated Description of the Russian Empire. New York: Robert Sears, 1855