The Literary Tradition of Kievan Rus'

The Rus' have left a good sized body of literature which can still be studied and enjoyed to this day. The adoption of Church Slavonic as a literary language has meant that virtually all of this literature has come down to us in what would have approximated the Russian vernacular. What follows is a short overview of the literature which survives.


Of interest to us are two, the Russian Primary Chronicle (or to use its Russian title, The Tale of Bygone Years) and the Chronicle of Novgorod. The former was began between 1037 and 1039; from 1060 to 1073 it was kept by Nikon, a Kievan monk who was an eyewitness to many of the events described. In about 1113, Nestor, another monk, is believed to have revised the chronicle, adding an introduction to the work which traces the origin of the Rus' from the Biblical Flood, the founding of Kiev, and the subsequent establishment of the Rus1 state. Nikon's accounts and Nestor1s revisions succeeded in turning the fairly straightforward chronicle into a full-blown work of literature, complete with dialogue and philosophical tangents. It is generally accepted, however, that the basic historical information included in the chronicle is accurate.

The Chronicle of Novgorod contains sparse entries for the first half of the eleventh century, but thereafter contains a lively account of the commercial affairs of the city, details of the weather and harvests, and accounts of political intrigue, some lifted from other chronicles. It is far less "literary" and far more practical than the Primary Chronicle.

Here is an example:
6651(1153) All this autumn was rainy, from Our Lady1s day of Nativity until the winter solstice it was warm and wet. The water was very high in the river Volkhov, and it carried away hay and wood. The lake froze, and there was great coldness in the night. And the wind broke up the ice and carried it into the river Volkhov, where it broke the bridge and carried away four of the bridge piles. In the same year Sviatopolk married in Novgorod. He brought in his bride between Christmas and Epiphany. And in the same year the Korelians campaigned against the Yamians, but were forced to retreat.

Religious Works

These include a number of sermons and saints' lives. The oldest is the Sermon on Law and Grace , written by Hilarion, the Metropolitan of Kiev, sometime between 1037 and 1051, when he assumed the post of Metropolitan, the first non-Greek to hold that office. Though the theology is clearly Byzantine in nature, it includes a long eulogy to Vladimir, the first Christian ruler of the Rus'. The Primary Chronicle contains the first accounts of the passions of the saints with its description of the martyrdom of Boris and Gleb, two brothers of Iaroslav the Wise who were murdered by their brother Sviatopolk and became both the first two native Russian saints, but also the prototypes for a uniquely Russian type of martyr: one who accepts his fate passively, without resistance, in the imitation of Christ's humble sacrifice (thus providing a counterweight for the then far more prevalent image of Christ as a mighty creator of all things). As Christian Russia provided saintly figures, they, too had their lives told in their own vitae.

Also of interest are the various apocryphal tales associated with Biblical figures. In one such account, the Virgin Mary is given a guided tour of Hell by the Archangel Michael, where she sees unfair usurers devoured by worms, a gossip with serpents emerging from her mouth, lecherers immersed in a river of fire, liars hung by their tongues from a tree of thorns, and beds of fire for those who would not get up to go to Easter Midnight Service, among other horrors. The Virgin, in tears, attempts to intercede for those in Hell and is rebuked by Michael, but Christ has mercy and gives them a second chance to obey him. In another account, this time in poetic form, Adam addresses Lazarus in Hell before Jesus raises him from the dead.

Epic Poetry

There seems to have been a solid oral tradition of epic poetry and song in place well before any of these works were actually written down. Of course, the Norsemen who arrived in the lands of the Rus' brought with them the tradition of the sagas, a number of which discuss the Rus'. But a native Rus' style of epic sprang up in the years following Vladimir1s conversion and the consolidation of the Rus' state. These are the byliny , tales of Vladimir and his entourage. The entourage consisted of a number of bogatyr, each fairly individualized in his characterization. For instance, there is Ilya of Murum, the eldest, a man of peasant stock, straightforward and brave; Alesha Popovich, the cunning son of a priest who is a bit of a fop; and Dobrynia Nikitich, a man of boyar parentage noted for his generosity.

It would take another two centuries, however, for the genre to reach its apex in a work known as The Lay of Igor's Campaign, the tale of a rather disastrous expedition by Igor, Prince of Novgorod-Seversk, against the Cumans, his capture, and subsequent escape. The excerpt below describes the Russian defeat:

And so it used to be
There were battles and campaigns,
but there had never been such battle as this.
From early morning to night,
from evening to dawn
there flew tempered arrows.
swords rained down upon helmets,
Frankish lances resound,
and all this in the unknown steppe,
in the Kuman land.
The black earth under the hooves
was strewn with bones,
was covered with blood.
Grief overwhelmed the Russian land.

What noise do I hear?
What clinking comes to my ears
so early in the morning before the dawn
It is Prince Igor who has led away his troops.
He is saddened by the fate of his brother Vsevolod.
They fought for one day.
They fought for another day.
At noon on the third day Igor's banners fell.
Here in the shores of the swift river Kaiala,
the brothers parted.
The wine of this bloody banquet was drunk to the last drop.
The Russians gave their guests to drink from the same cup.

They died for the Russian land.
The grass withered from sorrow,
and the saddened trees drooped earthward.

The lay concludes with an appeal to the various princes (by this time many in number) to cease their feuding and face the dangers confronting them together.

The oral tradition should not be mentioned without saying a word about fairy tales. These fall into two categories: Magical ones, filled with flying carpets and sorcery; and satirical. While many of these were not actually written down until fairly recent times, some of the characters who appear in them-- such as the witch Baba Yaga--pop up in chronicles, while others are part of the canon of spirits and mystical creatures which remained ingrained in the popular imagination long after the conversion to Christianity.


Music and Entertainment

Study of this area has been much aided by the archaeological excavations at Novgorod, which have provided physical evidence for the use of musical instruments mentioned in passing in literature. Music in Novgorod can be divided into three categories: folk songs connected with pre-Christian ritual, handed down orally; instrumental folk music, and ecclesiastical music. Only the third category was actually written down, so I'll discuss it first.

Church music in both Byzantium and Ancient Rus' was purely choral, unaccompanied by any instrumentation, though bells were used heavily. It was built on the Byzantine system of modes, which consists of eight glas (or "echoes") derived from old Greek modes. Church singing seems to have been unisonal to begin with, gradually becoming polyphonic as the liturgy developed. Excellent recordings of this sort of music can be purchased from the early music sections of major record stores; for the most authentic sound, stick to recordings made based on manuscripts from the sixteenth century or before.

Secular musicians, in contrast, utilized a wide variety of instruments, which were often condemned by the Church as demonic, though actual persecution of wandering professional minstrels or clowns (skomorokhi) did not occur until the seventeenth century. The picture of earlier centuries is of ecclesiastical authorities bemoaning in vain practices clearly popular on all steps of the social ladder. The skomorokhi were professionals and traveled in companies, though ecclesiastical sources refer to them as low-class buffoons; perhaps some of the fine musical instruments uncovered at Novgorod belonged to them. Like such traveling minstrels in Western Europe, the skomorokhi combined music and drama as they performed various epics and folktales; we know that they, like Byzantine actors, sometimes used masks. Part of the objections of the Church to their activities was based on the fact that many of the Rus' folk cycles and epics are deeply imbued with paganism and may actually have been derived from pagan festivals. The main instruments of the skomorokhi -- pipes, gusli, and gudok -- were also played by amateur musicians. Examples of these have all been found at Novgorod.

Pipes were made of small hollow branches (ash and willow, in the case of those found at Novgorod) and drilled with holes. The scales which resulted were apparently used to tune whole ensembles. Simple one-note pottery whistles have also been found.

The gusli is the Russian psaltery, played by plucking. Unlike other folk instruments, the gusli was viewed positively by the Church in many cases, as psalteries are mentioned in the Bible. These came in two shapes -- curved or helmet shaped, and saw- or wing-shaped, and were fashioned of fir, birch, and especially alder, and strung with, it is believed, copper or bronze alloy wire or gut; early examples have five strings, while later ones have as many as seven, while the helmet-shaped examples have ten. As with modern psalteries, they were hollow inside; more advanced examples had a sound hole or playing window. The gusli was not fingered (though the fingers might be used to damp some strings to form chords), but played like a zither, held on the lap or, if the instrument had a playing window, upright.

The gudok or smyk was a stringed instrument played with a bow. It was similar in many ways to the Western fiddle or viol, being pear-shaped, with a head (often carved) with three tuning pegs, a short neck, and a hollow body, usually made of fir. The bow was curved and strung with horsehair; resin was then rubbed on the hairs to allow them to stick and produce sound.

Since none of the music of this period was actually written down, we must rely on later Russian folk music to draw conclusions about the actual music of this period. It was probably mostly diatonic with occasional use of a pentatonic scale. Usually, the song is begun by a leader, then other singers come in, embellishing the original theme in independent parts which all fit together to create the whole effect. "Uneven" time signatures such as 5/4 and 7/4 are common. Much is left to the individual performers in these songs. Solo singing was also practiced, particularly in the case of epics; here, a single musician, perhaps self-accompanied by gusli, would sing these tales, much in the way Greek epic or Norse saga is believed to have been performed.

Copyright 1997 Susan Carroll-Clark. All rights reserved.