Understanding Russia: The Medieval Period

Kievian Rus Byliny

This series on Russian culture, history, and art is intended to provide a larger context for those watching and listening to commentary on the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics. Read about my background in Russian language and literature, and why I’m doing this series

Kievian Rus’, Novgorod, Vladimir-Suzdal, and Moscow

We left off yesterday with the beginning of Russian literature and Kievian Rus’. To set up the next phase of history and culture, it’s important to understand the grand sweep of the 12th-15th centuries in what is now Russia.

Kievian Rus’ was the first federation to rise, and over these centuries, various power centers arose and cooperated or fought with each other, as each of their strengths waxed and waned. The major centers of power, in order of their appearance on the scene, were Kiev, Novgorod, Vladimir-Suzdal, and Moscow.

Each of these principalities was governed by local nobilities, and all were subjugated to the Mongol Invasion of 1237. Mongol domination, along with threats from other European powers, dominated the political scene until the Mongols fell in 1480 (though the beginning of the end came in 1380, when they were defeated by Dmitri Donskoi).

Dmitri Donskoi at the Battle of Kulikovo

Dmitri Donskoi at the Battle of Kulikovo

Perhaps the single most important historical figure of the Novgorod republic was Prince Aleksandr Nevsky. Born far out of the line of succession, he never expected to claim the throne – yet the people of Novgorod summoned him to defend them against the threat of invasion, which was looming on all sides. The Germans were approaching from the west, the Golden Horde from the south and east, and the Swedes were threatening from the North. The Mongols invaded and completely conquered Rus’ between 1237 and 1240, but Aleksander Nevsky managed to stay in power by paying them tribute. He won a massive victory over the Swedes at the river Neva (which gave him his nickname – Nevsky means “of the Neva”). Nevsky remains the first true Russian national hero.

Александр Невский

Aleksandr Nevsky

Nevsky managed to maintain power and a good relationship with the Mongol rulers, such that he was named the supreme Russian ruler in 1252. He is also thought to be partially responsible for keeping Russia Orthodox, instead of yielding to Catholic (western) power. He died in 1262, and was glorified as a saint in 1547. He is traditionally seen as the ideal princely ruler – a powerful soldier, pious Orthodox Christian, and ultimately, defender of Russia. His victory over the Teutonic Knights was the subject of one of Sergei Eisenstein’s most critically acclaimed films in 1938, and his image was used to solidify a Russian identity (orthodoxy) in opposition to the west (catholicism).

As a foreshadowing – we start to see in this period the tension between east and west in which Russia has dwelt since its beginnings. Aleksandr Nevsky’s decision to pay tribute to the Tatars (another term for the Mongols) can be seen as a turn towards the east and away from Europe – especially in light of his decision to limit Catholic (read: Roman and Western European) influence. This tension – as a nation that is not European or Asian, but is also both – marks Russia’s cultural and political identity, and the decisions made by its people and leaders at various moments can often be understood in light of it. This is not to oversimplify a deeply complex history, but it’s a truly important cultural reality that must be grasped in order to rightly understand Russian culture, history, art, and politics.

Medieval Art and Literature in Russia

It was this period that is responsible for much of the famous iconography we associate with Russian Orthodoxy. The most famous painter of the period was Andrei Rublev, a monk about whom very little is known, but whose unique artistic style eventually came to be considered the ideal of Orthodox iconography.

The Trinity, by Andrei Rublev

The Trinity, by Andrei Rublev

Andrei Rublev is also the subject of one of Soviet filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky’s finest films, appropriately titled Andrei Rublev. It’s currently available to Hulu Plus subscribers as part of the Criterion Collection.

In terms of literature, this period of Russian history is known for былины (byliny), which are traditional oral epic narrative poems. They come from both Kivian Rus’ and Novgorod, but most weren’t collected until the mid-19th century, when the rise of nationalistic romanticism throughout much of Europe spurred the first traditional folklorists to research and compile these stories. Russian byliny, like many other anthologies of traditional literatures, feature legendary characters and mythical histories. They’re easy and fun to read, and form a sort of core for what became Russian national identity, as authors and artists of later generations looked to byliny for inspiration. A few classic characters are Ilya Muromets, a knight-errant of Kievian Rus’ and Sadko, a musician of Novgorod.

A 20th century depiction of Ilya Muromets

A 20th century depiction of Ilya Muromets

Read the stories of Илья Мурометц (Ilya Muromets)
Read the stories of Садко (Sadko)
Read the stories of Васили Буслаевич (Vasily Buslayevich, another knight-errant)

That’s it for now!  If you missed out yesterday, make sure to read my previous post on where Russian culture started, and my movie review for the hauntingly beautiful 1975 short film, Hedgehog in the Fog. You can also keep track of all of my posts on Understanding Russia on Pinterest!

3 responses to “Understanding Russia: The Medieval Period

  1. Pingback: Understanding Russia: Master Post! | Follow Lauren·

  2. Pingback: Understanding Russia: The Rise of the Czars, Ivan the Terrible, and the beginning of Empire | Follow Lauren·

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