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How Valdamarr Sveinaldsson got to Moscow

Stephen Velychenko
November 9, 2015

How did Prince Valdamarr, who never set foot in Moscow because it did not exist during his life, become the “Russian” prince Vladimir, and according to what logic are Russia’s leaders now building a statue to him in Moscow? To answer this question those interested might begin with the logical gap found in all survey histories of Russia. Both Russian and foreign surveys trace Russia’s past and that of its ruling dynasties to territories in today’s Ukraine -- even though these territories were not part of Russia until the eighteenth century. These surveys contain no prehistory of the Volga-Oka basin, nor an explanation of why their authors ignore those beginnings or the relationship between this omission and the Muscovite/Russian medieval dynastic myths about “Kievan origin” that underlies it. Modern authors of survey histories of Russia who begin their grand narrative in today’s Ukraine, knowingly or not, still use those myths of periodization and continuity thereby making themselves unique among the world’s historians. They, both Russian and foreign, neither explain why they still subscribe to mythical medieval dynastic criteria as an organizing conceptual principle or why they prefer the imperial Russian myth to others.

While today throughout the world there are historians who write histories of ruling dynasties, no historian nowadays writes national history according to dynastic criteria – mythical or otherwise. What, for instance, would a history of Britain written to dynastic criteria look like? This country had six ruling families since 1066, none of them English, and its Royal Marriage Act (1772) was designed to keep the royal family German. Prince Philip’s real last name, for those who have forgotten, is Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glucksburg. Perhaps Princess Diana was so beloved was because she would have been the only English or proto-English woman since Boadicea to have been Queen. A history of Britain/UK/England written by dynastic criteria would presumably begin in a German principality, while histories of Germany would have to include Britain.

Although there are studies revealing how spurious the medieval contrived link between elected Michael Romanov and the Riurykovichi was, authors of survey histories, nonetheless, use that imagined lineage to perpetuate the notion of a political-historical continuity between a peripheral Rus principality and the Kyivan-Rus metropole ruled by Vladamarr/Volodymyr/Vladimir. Such survey histories of Russia thus present events in the Dnipro basin and Black Sea littoral as a “first period” of a political cultural unit whose center is somewhere else -- the Volga-Oka basin. They then ignore that unit’s prehistory effectively leaving its inhabitants without an origins. Kyivan Rus, consequently, is misrepresented as a “beginning” rather than what is was: an influence on that unit, much like the Mongols or the Finns or the Swedes were an influence on it.

The earliest extant Muscovite/Russian chronicle written in the Volga_Oka basin is the Laurentian text of the Primary Chronicle (1377). Its narrative begins and then shifts away from the Kyivan centre after about 1180 and thereafter focuses on the Suzdalian periphery with no direct reference to any event or theory to justify or demonstrate why it does so. The text begins in the Kyiv regions because it was based on compilations written in 1177 and 1193 at the command of Andrei Bogoliubsky and his successor Vsevolod III. Both claimed political primacy in Rus but did not move to Kyiv. They tried to win from Byzantium recognition of their town as the seat of the Rus Metropolitanate and successor to Kyiv. To this end they instructed the prelates of the Dormition Cathedral in Vladimir to provide the necessary historical legitimation. Two resultant hypothetical codices were probably intended to prove to the emperor and the patriarch that Vladimir, and not its western rival Halych, was the “true” Rus. The task of these chroniclers was considerably facilitated by Bogoliubsky's foresight in bringing from Kyiv, which he sacked in 1169, a copy of the Primary Chronicle. This absolved Vladimir chroniclers of the need to provide the standard medieval story of origins, as they could begin with the story already written in the Primary Chronicle. To explain how Bogoliubsky’s destruction and then retreat to Vladimir-Suzdal from Kyiv represented not a rejection but a continuation of Kyivan rule, the compilers used the the notion of “translatio imperii” not dynastic right. These Vladimir chroniclers attributed the sack of Kyiv to “punishment for their [Kyivan] sins,” thereby implying and justifying according to the values of the time the claims of their prince. If contemporary historians can understand why medieval clerics writing for their prince in Kyiv’s northeastern periphery began their narrative from a metropole and then shifted it to their peripheral Volga region, why should any of them still today, and least of all non-Russians, think in such terms? Those who argue this is only using the dynastic-political criteria of the period itself, do not explain why they prefer this one particular imperial Muscovite/Russian version of those criteria to some other.

The tracing of the city of Vladimir’s first appearance on the historical stage as far back as possible was expressed in the Sofiia I Chronicle (1456), which may have reproduced in part the Vladimirskii polikhron (1418?). Here, for the first time, the local prince Vsevolod III is called the ruler of “all the Rus land,” while the city of Vladimir is given a history going back to 988. Many historians trace the subsequent Muscovite claim to primacy in Rus and to the Kyivan inheritance to the end of the fourteenth century and literature dealing with the Kulikovo battle. The Troitskaia Chronicle (1408-9) in particular is cited as a major source of the new “imperial” ideology. There, for the first time in Muscovite chronicles,“ Rus” replaces “Muscovite” and “Suzdal land” as a term for Kyiv's old northeastern provinces. From that time, it is argued, “Russkaia zemlia” for the Volga-Oka region elites almost always meant Muscovy. However, almost all the known Kulikovo literature exists only in mid-fifteenth- and sixteenth-century copies, while the Troitskaia Chronicle was destroyed by fire in 1812, and the text used today is only a reconstruction, not a re-creation. Thus, the notion of Muscovite primacy in Rus could just as well have been asserted not at the end of the fourteenth but at the end of the fifteenth century. In the earliest known version of one of the works of the Kulikovo cycle, Zadonshchina, moreover, Moscow is still treated as one only one of several political centres in Rus and its ruler as one of many rivals.

If Muscovite chroniclers commissioned by princes used dynastic links to justify political –territorial claims on all Rus lands, does that mean that academic historians today should use that same politically inspired logic to incorporate something called “Kievan Russia” as a “first period” into surveys of “Russian history” – which normally refers not only to Russia but its entire empire? Is it logical, to trace “Russian history” to the banks of the Dnipro because Kyiv once ruled principalities in what is now Russia? Analogous logic would lead American historians to claim that because what today is America was once ruled from London, American “national history” should begin on the banks of the Thames. British, German or French historians, similarly, would claim that because what are now Britain, France and Germany were once ruled by Roman emperors, their respective national histories should begin on the banks of the Tiber. Geoffrey of Monmouth, for example, who wrote in the 1130s, did begin his history of Britain/Albia (Historia regum Britannia ) on the banks of the Tiber, just like Bogoliubsky’s clerics began their history on the banks of the Dnipro. But in England his schema was disproved as myth in the seventeenth century. Thus, today no one begins British history in Rome.

Muscovite imperial claims were influenced by rivalry with Poland-Lithuania. In 1481, ten years after the Duchy of Kyiv was abolished, Mykhailo Olelkovych, Kyiv’s last ruling Gediminite prince, was murdered by the Poles. The next year his closest relatives, the Belsky brothers, escaped to Moscow, where they began to encourage Ivan III to avenge his brother-in-law and claim his “rightful” lands. Ivan included “All Rus” into his title in 1481, and six years later made the first explicit Muscovite demand for the Poles to recognize this addition as a legitimate part of the tsar's title. By this act Ivan III extended the notion of “all Rus” to include not only the Rus periphery he ruled, but also the Rus ruled by Lithuania. Against this background, Muscovite chroniclers then began to claim that their grand princes belonged to a dynasty whose roots went back not only to Vladimir/Volodymyr of Kyiv, but to the Roman emperors. Implicit in this theoretical addition to the notion of “translatio imperii” was the idea that the lands once ruled from Kyiv were the rightful patrimony of Muscovite princes. The clearest expression of this “patrimonial theory” was formulated by Metropolitan Spirodon in his Skazanie o kniazakh vladimirskikh (1504-5?). According to his argument, the only rights the Lithuanian dukes had to Kyivan lands did not stem from a conquest, as they claimed, but rather from the marriage of Algirdas (Olgierd) to the sister of Mikhail of Tver. Algirdas could, therefore, call himself a duke (princeps), but he, and extention his lands, were subordinate to and vassal of the Muscovite ruler. The Skazanie explains that the Lithuanians had simply taken advantage of Kyiv's decline and illegitimately usurped Moscow's right to rule there. We can understand why Muscovite/Russian court chroniclers and historians imagined their country’s past in these terms, but why should academic historians continue to frame Russian history in these terms today? If, moreover, we accept this kind of thinking is founded on medieval myth, then why should the official Russian myth be preferable to other mythical versions—in particular the Polish and Lithuanian ones?

Alongside the Laurention codex version of Rus history is a second version called the Hypatian Codex (1425), also called Litopys ruskyi. This consists of three works: the Primary Chronicle (1039), the Kyivan Chronicle (c. 1200), and the Halych-Volyn Chronicle (1255-1300). Although the first two were written in Kyiv, they are not normally regarded as “Ukrainian” by non-Ukrainian historians. The Kyivan Chronicle under the year 1171, unlike the Laurentian codex, explained the sack of Kyiv as punishment for “our sins.” Since the author lived in or around Kyiv, the sins in question clearly could not be “theirs”, as it was for the Vladimir clerics for whom Kyiv was far away. The Kyivan wording implied no transfer of political primacy to Vladimir or its princes regardless of dynastic ties. The narrative continued to focus on Kyivan lands after 1160. This chronicle implied no Kyivan links to the Halych principality (western Ukraine). According to Michael Hrushevsky this was because parts of it were written in the early 1170s by a Vladimir-Suzdal sympathizer who “went through earlier sections of the chronicle...and in general incorporated `Suzdalian' tendencies into the chronicle.” This explanation is confirmed by the third part of the Hypatian Codex, which most accept as “Ukrainian,” that does link Halych with Kyiv. The Russian historian Mikhail Priselkov concluded that it was written as a reply to Vladimir-Suzdal compilations to demonstrate that primacy in Rus had not gone north-east, but west to Halych. The Halych-Volyn Chronicle explicitly identified Rus with today’s western Ukrainian lands by referring to Halych as the site of the “second Kyiv.” The compilers referred to Roman of Halych as “autocrat” and “tsar” of all Rus. Under the year 1250 we read that Danylo Romanovych was “Grand Duke ruling the Rus land, Kyiv, Volyn and Halych,” and “his father was tsar in the Rus lands.”

This idea was an underlying theme of the Kyivan Hypatian Codex and distinguishes it from the Muscovite Laurentian Codex. The former was probably compiled for Vytautas (Vivovt – 1352-1430), Grand Duke of Lithuania, who had to justify his claims against the still independent principality of Pskov. During the same period the Lithuanian princes also claimed to rule all Rus, and an interpretation not linking Kyiv either to Poland or to Moscow was ideologically useful. The Hypatian Codex, by joining together three separate Rus chronicles with no reference to any Polish conquest of Rus, or north-easterly “shift” of capitals, thus provided a theoretical basis upon which the Lithuanian Grand Duchy appeared as the inheritor of the Kyivan legacy. Therefore, according to dynastic-political criteria, histories of Lithuania should logically begin on the banks of the Dnipro.

Significantly, the Hypatian Codex opens with an introductory list of Kyivan princes to 1240 not found in the Laurentian text. The list is incomplete, but its message is that after 1171 the political centre of Rus shifted west, not north-east: “and after him came Volodymyr, and after him Roman [of Halych], and after Roman...Volodymyr Riurykovych, whom Danylo [of Halych] put on the Kyivan throne. After Volodymyr, under the rule of Dmytro, Danylo's vice-regent, Kyiv fell to Baty.” With the exception of the above mentioned Suzdalian tendencies, the structure of the narrative in Hypatian Codex followed the Riurykovych succession as given in the introduction, linking Kyiv with Halych, not Suzdal/Moscow. Accordingly, using dynastic criteria, the Lithuanian-Kyivan imperial myth, that presents Kyivan Rus history as the “first period of Lithuanian history,” has as much, if not more validity than the Muscovite/ Russian medieval imperial myth.

Dynastic criteria can also justify including the entire past of the Dnipro/ black sea littoral region into a History of Poland because medieval Polish chronicles considered these lands legitimately conquered by their kings. During the debates preceding the Union of Lublin in 1569, Polish spokesmen justified the incorporation of what was central Kyivan-Rus, and is today central and eastern Ukraine, into the Polish Kingdom on the grounds that the area had been part of Poland since the eleventh century. Advocates of incorporation pointed out how Kyiv and the “whole Rus land” should be part of Poland, “because it is established from ancient chronicles that the city had been taken and laid waste three times by Polish kings.” This idea that the Kyivan lands had been conquered and annexed to Poland before the 1386 Union of Kreva first appeared in the Polish Chronica (1114), which was written as a panegyric to Bolesław III and the Piast dynasty. One of the “worthy deeds” described was Bolesław I's temporary occupation of Kyiv in 1018 that the author labeled a conquest. This interpretation of Polish- Rus relations echoed through Polish historiography for centuries. Today, however, no survey history of Poland includes all Ukrainian lands on grounds they were supposedly once all conquered by Piast kings. Thus, we read about Prince Wladimierz only in texts dealing with Polish foreign relations.

As Russia’s rulers build their statue to a prince who had never set foot in their country, one might hope that their project motivates at least foreign historians to reflect why they today still think Russia’s history can “begin” in lands that were not part of it “in the beginning” and are outside its borders in the present. Norway is in Norway and not in Sweden, and Valdamarr lived in Kyiv not Suzdal.