Byzantine Empire, Part Four

The Spread Of Civilization In Eastern Europe, Part Four

Long before Byzantine decline after the 11th century, the empire had been the source of a new northward surge of Christianity. Orthodox missionaries sent from Constantinople busily converted most people in the Balkans - in what is now Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, and parts of Romania and Hungary - to their version of Christianity, and some other trappings of Byzantine culture came in their wake. In 864 the Byzantine government sent the missionaries Cyril and Methodius to the territory that is now Czechoslovakia. Here the effort failed in that Roman Catholic missionaries were more successful. But Cyril and Methodius continued their efforts in the Balkans and in southern Russia, where their ability to speak the Slavic language greatly aided their efforts. They devised a written script for this language, derived from Greek letters; to this day, the Slavic alphabet is known as Cyrillic. Thus the possibility of literature and some literacy developed in eastern Europe along with Christianity, well beyond the political borders of Byzantium. Byzantine missionaries were quite willing to have local languages used in church services, another contrast with Western Catholicism.

Orthodox Missionaries And Other Influences

Eastern missionaries did not monopolize the borderlands of eastern Europe. Roman Catholicism and the Latin alphabet prevailed not only in Czechoslovakia but also in most of Hungary (taken over in the 9th century by a Turkic people, the Magyars) and in Poland. Much of this region would long be an area of competition between Eastern and Western political and intellectual models. During the centuries after the conversion to Christianity, this stretch of eastern Europe north of the Balkans was organized in a series of regional monarchies, loosely governed amid a powerful, landowning aristocracy. Kingdoms of Poland, Bohemia (Czechoslovakia), and Lithuania easily surpassed most Western kingdoms in territory. This was also a moderately active area for trade and industry. Ironworking, for example, was more developed than in the West until the 12th century. Eastern Europe during these centuries also received an important influx of Jews, migrating away from the Middle East. Poland gained the largest single concentration of Jews. Eastern Europe's Jews, largely barred from agriculture and often resented by the Christian majority, gained strength in local commerce while maintaining their own religious and cultural traditions. A strong emphasis on extensive education and literacy, though primarily for males, distinguished Jewish culture not only in eastern Europe but also compared to most societies in the world at this time.

This was an early phase of the development of eastern Europe beyond the Byzantine heartland, for by Asian (or Byzantine) standards the region remained backward, lightly populated, and not yet able to produce a significant written or artistic culture beyond rudimentary church buildings and monkish chronicles of events. Many features of Byzantium, including its elaborate bureaucracy, were irrelevant to what was, like most of western Europe at the same time, a developing region.

The Early Russian Phase

Russia shared many features with the rest of northeastern Europe before the 15th century, including rather hesitant advances in economy and politics. A full-fledged Russian civilization had yet to emerge. Yet, as with much of eastern Europe, the centuries of Byzantine influence were an important formative period that would influence later developments considerably. During the postclassical centuries Russia was not a particularly significant society. It was in an initial stage as a civilization and primarily serves as one of the important cases in which civilization fanned out from more established centers - in this instance, Byzantium. Russia can be compared in this sense to other areas that were taking clear shape as civilizations but whose world-historical importance would come later - for example, Japan and in many ways western Europe itself.

Slavic peoples had moved into the sweeping plains of Russia and eastern Europe from an Asian homeland, during the time of the Roman Empire. They mixed with and incorporated some earlier inhabitants and some additional invaders, such as the Bulgarians who adopted Slavic language and customs. The Slavs already knew the use of iron, and they extended agriculture in the rich soils of what is now western Russia, where no durable civilization had previously taken root. Slavic political organization long rested in family tribes and villages; the Slavs maintained an animist religion with gods for the sun, thunder, wind, and fire. The early Russians also had a rich tradition of folk music and oral legends, and they developed some very loose regional kingdoms.

During the 6th and 7th centuries, traders from Scandinavia began to work through the Slavic lands, moving along the great rivers of western Russia, which run south to north - particularly the Dnieper. Through this route the Norse traders were able to reach the Byzantine Empire, and a regular, flourishing trade developed between Scandinavia and Constantinople. Luxury products from Byzantium and the Arab world traveled north, in return for furs and other relatively crude products. The Scandinavian traders, militarily superior to the Slavs, gradually set up some governments along their trade route, particularly in the city of Kiev. A monarchy emerged, and according to legend a man named Rurik, a native of Denmark, became the first king of Russia around A.D. 855. The Kievan kingdom, though still loosely organized through alliances with regional, landed aristocrats, flourished until the 12th century. It was from the Scandinavians also that the word Russia was coined, possibly from a Greek word for red, which applied to the hair color of many of the Norse traders. In turn, the Scandinavian minority gradually mingled with the Slavic population, particularly among the aristocracy.

Contacts between Kievan Russia and Byzantium extended steadily. Kiev, centrally located, became a prosperous trading center, and from there many Russians visited Constantinople. These exchanges led to growing knowledge of Christianity. King Vladimir I, a Rurik descendant who ruled from 980 to 1015, finally took the step of converting to Christianity not only in his own name but in that of all his people. He was eager to avoid the papal influence that came with Roman Catholicism, which he knew about through the experiences of the Polish kingdom; Orthodox Christianity gave a valid alternative that still provided a sophisticated replacement for prevailing animism. Islam was rejected, according to one account, because Vladimir could not accept a religion that forbade alcoholic drink. Russian awe at the splendor of religious services in Constantinople also played a role. Having made his decision, Vladimir proceeded to organize mass baptisms for his subjects, forcing conversions by military pressure. Early church leaders were imported from Byzantium, and they helped train a literate Russian priesthood. As in Byzantium, the king characteristically controlled major appointments, and a separate Russian church institution soon developed.

As Russia became Christian, it was the largest single state in Europe, though highly decentralized. Rurik's descendants managed for some time to avoid damaging battles over succession to the throne. Following Byzantine example they issued a formal law code, which among other things reduced the severity of traditional punishments and replaced community vendettas with state-run courts, at least in principle. The last of the great Kievan princes, Yaroslav, issued the legal codification, while also building numerous churches and arranging the translation of religious literature from Greek to Slavic.

Russian Institutions And Culture

Russia borrowed much from Byzantium, but it was in no position to replicate major institutions such as the bureaucracy or an elaborate educational system. Russian kings were attracted to Byzantine ceremonials and luxury and to the concept (if not yet the reality) that a central ruler should have wide powers.

Many characteristics of Orthodox Christianity gradually penetrated Russian culture. Fervent devotion to the power of God and to many Eastern saints helped organize worship. Churches were relatively ornate, filled with icons and the sweet smell of incense. A monastic movement developed that stressed prayer and charity. Traditional practices, such as polygamy, gradually yielded to the Christian family ethic that insisted on only one wife. The emphasis on almsgiving as a manifestation of religious feeling long described the sense of obligation wealthy Russians felt toward the poor, and would actually delay the formation of more institutionalized welfare arrangements.

The Russian literature that developed, using the Cyrillic alphabet, mainly summed up a mixture of religious and royal events and was filled with praises to the saints and invocations of the power of God. Disasters were seen as just expressions of the wrath of God against human wickedness, while success in war followed from the aid of God and the saints in the name jointly of Russia and the Orthodox faith. This tone also was common in Western Christian writing during these centuries, but in Russia it monopolized formal culture more fully: a distinct, additional philosophical or scientific current did not emerge in the postclassical period.

Russian art focused on the religious also, with icon painting and illuminated religious manuscripts becoming something of a Kievan specialty. Orthodox churches, built in the form of a cross surmounted by a dome, similarly aped Byzantine styles, though frequently the building materials were wood rather than stone. Religious art and music were rivaled by continued popular entertainments in the oral tradition, which combined music, street performances, and some theater. The Russian church tried to suppress these forms, regarded as pagan, but with incomplete success.

Overall, this formative period in Russian society saw the development of a powerful religious sentiment, with particular cultural emphasis on art and music. This cultural development, although parallel to some features in emerging Western culture because of the common process of creating a new literary tradition from an animist background and because of shared Christian beliefs, operated quite separately from specific patterns in the West. Russian-Western contacts, at this point and for several centuries to come, were virtually nonexistent, though Yaroslav, interestingly, married his daughter to a French king, indicating awareness of possible beneficial interchange.

The same separate development marked Russian social and economic patterns. Russian peasants at this juncture were fairly free farmers, though an aristocratic landlord class existed. Russian aristocrats, called boyars, had less political power than their counterparts in western Europe, though the Kievan kings had to negotiate with them.

Kievan Decline

The Kievan kingdom began to fade in the 12th century. Rival princes set up regional governments, while the royal family frequently squabbled over succession to the throne. Invaders from Asia whittled at Russian territory. The rapid eclipse of Byzantium reduced Russian trade and wealth, for the kingdom had always depended heavily on the greater prosperity and sophisticated manufacturing of its southern neighbor. A new kingdom was briefly established around a city near what is now Moscow, but by 1200 Russia was weak and disunited. The final blow in this first chapter of Russian history came in 1236, when a large force of Mongols from central Asia moved through Russia and into other parts of eastern Europe. The initial Mongol intent was to add the whole of Europe to their growing empire. The Mongols, or Tartars as they are called in the Russian tradition, easily captured the major Russian cities, but they did not penetrate much farther west because of political difficulties in their Asian homeland. For over two centuries, however, Russia would remain under Tartar control.

This control, in turn, further separated the dynamic of Russian history from that of western Europe. Russian literature languished under Tartar supervision. Trade lapsed in western Russia, and indeed the vigorous north-south commerce of the Kievan period never returned. At the same time, loose Tartar supervision did not destroy Russian Christianity or a native Russian aristocratic class. So long as tribute was paid, Tartar overlords left day-to-day Russian affairs alone. Thus when Tartar control was finally forced out, in the second half of the 15th century, a Russian cultural and political tradition could reemerge, serving as a partial basis for the further, fuller development of Russian society.

Russian leaders, moreover, retained during the period of eclipse an active memory of the glories of Byzantium. When Constantinople fell to the Turks in 1453, just as Russia was beginning to assert its independence from the Tartars, it was logical to claim and quite probable to believe, that the mantle of east European leadership had fallen on Russia. A monk, currying favor, wrote the Russian king in 1511 that while heresy had destroyed the first Roman Empire, and the Turks had cut down the second, Byzantium, a "third, new Rome," under the king's "mighty rule" "sends out the Orthodox Christian faith to the ends of the earth and shines more brightly than the sun." "Two Romes have fallen, but the third stands, and there will be no fourth." This sense of an Eastern Christian mission, inspiring a Russian resurgence, was not the least of the products of this complicated formative period in the emergence of a separate European civilization in the Slavic lands.

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