Episode #8 The incomplete and utter history of Moscow. Part 1. Historical context

Episode #8 The incomplete and utter history of Moscow. Part 1. Historical context

July 10, 2018 0 By Gigi Green

Crush course on early Russian history! 🙂 From the Slavs and their tribes to the Mongol invasion – all to understand the later role of Moscow and how it came to be what it is

This episode may include explicit language. And a lot of my feelings and opinions.

Irony and disclaimers

So… I’ve been away for two weeks on vacation. And I wonder if this is ironic but I spend it in Moscow. And in the previous episode I bitched about Moscow. Now I kinda feel bad about it. Although what I said is true and I stand by it. Even more so after spending time there. But good girls shouldn’t bitch about innocent cities. They probably shouldn’t bitch at all, right? If you think that’s true you can cast me out of your good opinion into the cold frozen tundra that is my country right about now. Because I like to bitch and, as Elsa put it, The cold never bothered me anyway.

Ironically (and that is definitely ironic), some part of me feels that I haven’t bitched enough. But I’ll try to mend that one day! Mwahahahaha

Not today however because this episode is for my friend Molly, she likes history in podcasts so this one is all about the history.

Disclaimer: I’m not a historian. My university degree says I’m a journalist but we have different opinions on that subject. So this history is obviously by no means full. And I do present stuff either as I had learned it at school and then uni or occasionally as I see fit. I did check my facts, but if you want to discuss some of them with me, feel free to write at journeyswithgigi@gmail.com

Who the heck are the Slavs?

Moscow first popped up in historical records in 1147. But people lived there before that. There’s some archaeological evidence from Mesolithic and Neolithic periods. I think that’s a tad too early for our story so let’s start from the Slavs or as we call them… well, technically for me it’s “us”, so as we call ourselves славяне/slaviyane. Also I think historical context is cool, so you’ll get a lot of it in this episode. In fact, I think all of it will be mostly historical context. Because it is really important for understanding how Moscow became what it is.

A long time in a galaxy far far away that’s know among the geographers as Eastern Europe there lived a bunch of tribes. Like really a lot of tribes. But the ones we are interested in now are called the Slavs. Wikipedia says that by the early 6th century (that would be AD) they inhabited most of the Central, Eastern and South-Eastern Europe.

Present-day Slavs include West Slavs (for example, people from and in Poland, Czech republic and Slovakia), South Slavs (that would be people whose ancestors lived in and are from Bosnia, Bulgaria, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Slovenia) and East Slavs. The last ones include people in and from Belarus, Ukraine and Russia.

The rest of this story will be at first about the East Slavs in general because we have a lot of common history and then just about Russians. Although other nations will definitely make an appearance because a nation is no more an island entire of itself than a man. Or a woman. And now that I’m done paraphrasing John Donne let’s start with the East Slavs.

What were they all about?

They were of course divided into smaller tribes with different names. Which I myself often confuse and have trouble remembering who lived where, so I won’t even try to bother you with it. But I’ll leave the links in the show notes.

The Slavs inhabited the wooded areas a.k.a. the forest, so most of their buildings were wooden. They lived in communities of blood relatives and generally just did what most of the tribes in that region were doing. They did some hunting, fishing, beekeeping, trapping (that’s hunting to get furs. That wasn’t done just to get everybody fancy fur coats. For the most part furs were used to pay tribute to some violent neighbors who demanded it). They grew some crops such as millet, barley, wheat and rye, gathered wild berries and mushrooms. (I told you in the episode about Russian food that it has been a national pastime for a millennia, didn’t I? 🙂 ) They also raised whatever cattle people had in Europe in those days. Mostly pigs, cows, sheep and goats. They had a bunch of handicrafts and they could work with metals and that kinda stuff.

The Slavs had their own sort of paganism and mythology. But since they didn’t have much of a writing going on (or at least we don’t know about it), most of those mythological stories came through oral tradition.

The neighbors

But around the middle of the 9th century they decided to get themselves some of that fancy centralized state thingie. Not with a modern meaning of course. More of a loose federation of tribes or a principality.

They didn’t get woke all of the sudden, they just got fed up by neighbors. Especially the tribes that lived more to the south and the south-east. They were nomadic turkic people called the Khazars who lived… well, close to the parts of the South-east of Europe where the city where I’m from is situated actually. They enjoyed both routinely attacking whomever happened to lived close to them and getting paid for not attacking. So… charming folks to live next to.

And the Slavs who lived more to the north had another sort of nasty neighbors entirely – the Varangians. And those were – I shit you not – the Vikings! Because a lot of this stuff was happening close to Novgorod. (Not to be confused with Нижний Новгород/Nizhniy Novgorod, that’s an entirely different place). That Novgorod is in the north. Way closer to modern city of St. Petersburg than to Moscow. So Vikings were not a surprise in that region.

They are called Varangians in historical records but the word is not Russian, it’s mostly Greek because those dudes made it to Byzantium. In Russian or rather in Old East Slavic originally they were called варяги/varyagie.

Exterminate! Centralize!

Well, some historians think they were real proper Scandinavian people. Others think differently.

Why can’t they agree? Well, for starters, because it was more than a thousand years ago!!! And there’s very little historical record. But also because of what some of those Varangians did.

Apparently some Slavic tribes invited the Varangians to come and rule them. Why the fuck would you invite an outsider to rule you? Well, check out the logic that’s offered by our Primary Chronicle (that’s the name of this thing, by the way. The chronicle is literally called that in English. In Russian it’s name is all kinda vague and poetic and I’m not even sure how to translate it):

At some point in time Slavic tribes kicked some Varangian ass and refused to pay them tribute. That (if you haven’t yet realized) is a fancy code name for extortion and racket. But the Slavs hadn’t begun to live happily ever after after that. They started to fight among themselves! Guess, they couldn’t decide, who’s the boss now. So in the end they decided to invite some Vikings to rule them. Because… like… it was easier with them before. Whatever…

And the Vikings came. Of course, I mean, they were not idiots. Three most famous ones are three brothers: Rurick, Sinius and Truvor. They found themselves some nice towns to settle in. Two brothers soon died, and the first guy, Rurick became a sole ruler and started a Russian royal dynasty that lasted for the next seven centuries!

His heir was prince Igor but the guy who started to rule the land after Rurich was actually his kinsman Oleg. He was kind of a regent. He not only made a hobby out of venturing south to attack and rob the shit out of Constantinople (now Istanbul), he also declared Kiev his capital, mother of Russian cities and just a cool place to be if you want to consolidate some tribes and make a country out of them. Which he and князи/kniyazi after him did.

The title князь/kniyaz in British aristocracy terms would translate as a prince. Like a prince of Monaco.

So that князь/kniyaz Oleg created a state known as Kievan Rus which later evolved into other Eastern Slavic states. And one of them is Russia. Supreme irony here is that Kiev now is a capital of Ukraine, of course. And also the fact that Kiev is called a mother. I mean, in Russian we have gendered nouns and that word sounds male.

Were they or weren’t they (the Vikings)?

Now that you’ve heard all that, guess why The Viking theory (which is properly known as the Norman theory) is a problem for some people? Of course, it’s an image-related thing! But it’s also understandably important.

You see some sources call those Vikings who kinda consolidated Slavic tribes Rus. That’s R_U_S. Which looks like what? Are you ready children? Yes, captain obvious! It’s the first part of the modern name of this country I live in. Well, the way it’s spelled in English anyway.

Old Russian version is literally just that syllable. Well, with a twist of course. Not Рус/Rus, but Русь. The s sound in the end is soft. But still. Having your country named after some Vikings kinda hurts if you’re a nationalist. It’s not just Russians, btw. No one enjoys saying that their country was formed and shaped by foreigners all that much.

But it’s not pure nationalism, to be fair. It’s also kinda hard to prove that those guys were in fact Viking and not from some other Slavic tribe because most of the written accounts were created centuries after the event.

There’s little Scandinavian influence noticeable in Old East Slavic languages. Like there’s way more Greek in it from contacts with the Byzantine Empire. So even if those guys were not Slavic they must’ve assimilated superquickly. Because when it comes to English (well, Middle English) the influence of Scandinavian and Norman is very noticeable. At the same time rulers of the Slavs often had contact with Scandinavian folks when they needed some mercenaries. So… there is room for alternative theories here.

Especially because it’s hard to support shit with archaeological evidence. Simply because finding archaeological evidence in Russia is not an easy task. Not because of the size. But because our climate is a bitch when it comes to preserving that kind of thing.

Best climates for preserving archaeological evidence are those with constant temperature or some kind of constant environment. Like desert in Egypt or jungle in a lot of places or even humid climates of the south of England. But not Russia with a 70 degree temperature amplitude between the seasons. And not with a culture where a primary material was wood. Like… just imagine the speed of its decomposition! Imagine a wooden shack. Your lifetime will be quite enough for it to become visibly old and start decomposing even if it was painted and some modern materials that stave off decomposition were used. And the Slavs obviously didn’t have any of that.

How Rus became Christian

When will i get to Moscow already? Well, soon. I only have a couple of stops to make before that. But they really are important for understanding why stuff happened.

Well, and also I like the story about Русь/Rus becoming Christian. Now, this is obviously a free retelling (I mean have you heard stuff I said before?))) But it is based on historical record, that same Primary Chronicle again actually.

Four grand dukes after Oleg Vladimir the Great became the main guy in Kiev. In Russian he’s actually called Vladimir the Red Sun. And that nickname doesn’t have menacing or bloody connotations for us, by the way. Because the word for red – красный/krasniy shares the root with the word красивый/krasiviy – pretty or beautiful. So he is basically Vladimir the beautiful sun.

Also didn’t communists just hit paydirt with their signature colour for Russians?

Anyway, at that point in time people of Kievan Rus were pagans. With very few exceptions. But they were doing a lot of trading with other countries because it basically was situated on the three main trade routes connecting the north and east of Europe with Constantinople, Middle East and other nice places like that.

Vladimir sensed that it wasn’t cool to be a pagan anymore. Like, all the countries around were practicing those sleek new (well, relatively new) monotheistic religions, and his citizens were worshiping wooden idols. Very outdated, ya know!

So he decided to get himself one of those new religions. And he went about it in a very smart way. He sent some of his advisers and warriors to different places to check stuff out for him before he made any decision. His emissaries visited Christians who practiced the Latin Rite (so, future Catholics), the Jews, the Muslims and Christians in Constantinople.

The dudes didn’t like Islam because it prohibited the consumption of alcohol. Seriously! That’s cited as a real reason! Though they probably liked their pork too, I imagine.

They didn’t like Judaism because – I’m quoting right now – the god of Jews had permitted his chosen people to be deprived of their country. Erm… Well. I don’t even know how to comment on that. Guys really knew what they wanted from their one chosen god, I guess.

Ceremonies in the Roman church they found to be dull. (And the churches itself gloomy) That’s what the chronicle and wikipedia say! What kind of entertainment did they expect, I wonder?

In any case, in Constantinople they went not just to some random neighborhood church. No! They went straight to the cathedral of Hagia Sophia. And guys there knew why they were coming. So they performed the full festival ritual of the Byzantine church to impress them. Of course, the emissaries were dazzled.

So when the dudes came home, they told Vladimir that Byzantine version of Christianity was the thing. And he listened to them, went to Constantinople, married princess Anna, the sister of the Byzantine emperor and in 988 began the process of making Киевская Русь/Kievskaya Rus (that’s our name for Kievan Rus) Christian.

Why it was a smart choice?

Now that was one very smart choice which had a bunch of super serious consequences. After some time and processes in the Christian Church Kievan Rus became a part of the Eastern Orthodox Church (as opposed to the Western one). Still, the fact that the country was technically Christian protected it from being invaded by people from the Western Europe (at least for a bit) under the guise of turning infidels to the light of god or something like it.

But the fact that it was a part of the Eastern Orthodox church meant that the Pope and Rome had no power over it. And once the Byzantine empire… folded, no one had any real power over Russian orthodox church so it could do whatever the fuck it wanted. And it wanted and continues to want a lot. I’ll make an episode about it one day.

All that made Kievan Rus and the countries that came out of it – Russia, Ukraine and Belarus simultaneously part of the Christian gang… ahem… group and an outsider.

Eastern Orthodox Church used Greek where Western used Latin. And they were very nice about translating the Bible and a bunch of Greek texts on philosophy, science and history into the Old East Slavic language. So the Slavs didn’t need to learn Greek the way people in the western Europe had to learn Latin.
That led to them developing their own literature and fine arts that are quite distinct from… well, anything. Even from literature and fine arts of other Eastern Orthodox countries. Just google our churches to see!

And then it all went downhill

Everything was nice and cozy for a bit after that and then it started disintegrating. The members of the royal family were constantly fighting for the throne in Kiev, which always weakens the state. And finally the Mongol invasion in the 13th century led to the separation of the East Slavs into three distinct nations (which formed Belarus, Russia and Ukraine) and to the Grand Duchy of Moscow becoming the centre of… well… Russia.

Yay!!! I finally got to Moscow!
Well, not really. I think with the speed that I’m going it’ll have to wait for the next episode. And this one will be just a crush course on early Russian history.

Who the f were the Mongols?

Who are those Mongols? People of Kievan Rus were not really sure in the beginning also. They came from so far east that the Slavs had very little idea who they were, what they did or what religion they practiced. So of course they assumed that it was a punishment from God for their sins. I mean, what could they have thought? That somewhere very-very far where none of them had ever been some nomadic tribes from steppe region got together and thought it was high time they conquered the world?

The leader of those charming people was Genghis Khan. You’ll have to google him because he really is too… fascinating to fit into this episode. But just keep in mind that he thought it was ok to conquer everything around and kill off civilian population of conquered regions like they were extras in a superhero movie. He conquered Central Asia and a significant part of China.

His descendants inherited his values and at some point they conquered most of the Eurasia and had on their hands the largest contiguous empire in history. So the Mongols were like your worst ideas about the Vikings but with horses and bows.

The Mongol invasion

Luckily for the people of Rus by the time those dudes made it close to their borders, Genghis Khan had already died. So their first getting to know each other was traumatic but far less traumatic then it could have been.
The neighbors of Rus who used to be nasty border settlements pillaging bastards, mellowed over time and in early 1220s they even warned Rus that the shit was coming down. And nicely asked for help.

A bunch of Rus princes decided to help them. And at a time it was really a whole bunch. Their principalities though were mostly just a town/fortress and surrounding lands. So your typical feudal medieval European country.

They had a battle with Mongol army and lost. But some historians say it was just a reconnaissance invasion for the Mongols. Because they won and… left. To have a bit of fun wartime with other countries and nations. And they didn’t come back for 13 years. But when they did, they came back with a vengeance.

The Mongol empire strikes back

So princes of various Rus principalities relaxed after a while and continued to fight each other. And then in 1236 the huge horde of Mongol archers on their horses conquered their neighbor Volga Bulgaria in like a month.

BTW, that Volga Bulgaria was a Medieval country in the Middle Volga region. Well, and in other places too. But I’m interested only in the Middle Volga because that’s where I live. And we have an archaeological site of a medieval Volga Bulgarian city close to my city. Which is cool! Because most of the stuff that went on before wasn’t really about where I’m from and this little tidbit is!

After dealing with them and several other countries in 1937 the Mongol horde with Batu Khan who is called Батый/Batiy in Russian as their leader went for Kievan Rus.  (There was some other guy but Batu Khan is way more famous) He started with Рязань/Ryazan, annihilated the city and slaughtered almost every inhabitant.

There’s a city with the same name in modern Russia, but it’s a different one, about 50 km from the original site. I visited the new city this year, and I have a bunch of photos on my Instagram. The old Ryazan was never rebuilt after that one.

There’s a folk legend about a guy who defended it and recently a movie was released about him. I’ll leave a link to it in the show notes but I have to warn you it’s a very bad movie and really not historically accurate.

The Mongol Yoke

Anyway, the Mongol invasion didn’t get any better after that. Just about every important town and principality was conquered and often burned down, including Moscow that wasn’t even all that important in those days. Who knows how many people died and there’s really no way to estimate the damage.

It wasn’t… ahem… personal because they didn’t stop in the lands of Rus, but went on to conquer Hungary and Poland but it sure felt like it.

What happened after that is known in Russian history as Mongol or Tatar Yoke.

I wanna kick in the shins those people who write in some articles that really the Mongol oppression wasn’t all that terrible! Because they had never settled in the country, they mostly dealt with the local princes and they let everybody keep their own faith. And isn’t that so nice and liberal?

Well, they did have to pay taxes and tribute, and those were the days when the harvest wasn’t all that great, and there was no social security to fall back on if you didn’t have enough to pay the tribute, and there were some slave raids from time to time, and there was a constant possibility of a brutal invasion hanging over everyone’s head, but really that wasn’t a big deal! Stop whining about it already!


But you know who got out of that deep-deep shit on top? Moscow! And I’ll be a horrible tease, I guess, and save the how they did that story for the next episode. So… enjoy the suspense!

And now it’s time for the segment: How do you say it in Russian?

This one will be about stuff that I personally find important – food that you don’t eat 😉

So I’m a vegetarian will be Я – вегетарианец/Ya vegetarianec (if you want to use the male form) and Я – вегетарианка/Ya vegetarianka if you want to use the female form. I’m vegan will be Я – веган/Ya vegan or Я – веганка/Ya veganka. And if you only eat raw food you would say Я сыроед/Ya syiroed. I don’t think that a lot of people (especially outside Moscow and St Petersburg) would know what the later one is, so you’ll probably have to explain it. But just in case, you’ve got the word!

And that’s all for now. Till next week.
Gigi, from Russia with love and history!


Kievan Rus
List of tribes and states in Belarus, Russia and Ukraine
East Slavs
Rurik dynasty
Christianization of Kievan Rus
Mongol invasion of Rus
Genghis Khan
Batu Khan
Mongol Empire

The legend of Kolovrat – a (very bad) Russian movie about a guy who defended Ryazan from the Mongols
Skaz/Legend of Eupatiy Kolovrat – a Soviet cartoon about the same guy. Can’t say it’s all that great (though the style of drawing is interesting) but at least it’s just 20 minutes