Authors: Catherine Merridale
It was always crucial for the warlike Rus to persuade their various neighbours to trade with them. Unfortunately, the wealthiest of these, the citizens of Constantinople, were horrified by stories of the Vikings to the north. The very harshness of their world, to say nothing of that recent sea-attack, made this particular group of pagans seem especially uncouth. Although Constantinople’s imperial government hired Vikings of its own to serve as mercenaries (they were the most resourceful sailors, after all, and staunch fighters to boot), undomesticated ones, whatever they called themselves, were regarded as barbarians, and at first the Rus were not permitted to enter the imperial capital at all. Instead, they had to trade through the Black Sea ports of Cherson and Tmutorokan, which meant sharing their profits with a swarm of middle-men.
They finally secured a trade treaty with Constantinople in 911, but its terms made clear that Rus merchants were permitted to enter the city only if they kept to their own designated gate. They were also forbidden to arrive in groups of more than fifty at a time.
The turning point came in the late tenth century. Dazzled by Constantinople’s gold and fascinated by its power, the pagan Rus adopted the Christianity of the patriarchs. It was a choice, and there were other options, not least the chance of allegiance to Rome. At the time, the gulf that lay between the two main Christian churches was not deep, but the Rus’ decision to align themselves with Constantinople’s version of the faith would shape their people’s future for centuries. The cultural impact was incalculable. It was the splendour and the beauty of eastern monotheism, apparently, that captivated Russia’s Norsemen. After a visit to Constantinople’s magnificent Church of the Holy Wisdom, a party of Rus emissaries was struck with awe. The building was a miracle, the liturgy spectacular. ‘We knew not’, one of them reported to his prince, Vladimir of Kiev, ‘whether we were in heaven or on earth.’
Around 988 (no date can be entirely fixed), Prince Vladimir accepted baptism for himself, and extended the same boon to his subjects by ordering their mass immersion in the Dnieper. Just to make sure, he also had the pagan idols flogged and dragged about the streets before condemning them to death.
Christianity brought the lands of the Rus into the orbit of a commonwealth. Constantinople was its centre, but the culture of Christian Kiev also inherited something from the religious traditions of Alexandria, Asia Minor and the Balkans. A veritable black-robed tide swept into Kiev after its official conversion, and the foreign monks brought much more than the principles of faith. Their other legacies included a new alphabet, a new set of ideas about the state, and a Christian calendar.
Some were talented artists, and icon-painters, many of them Greeks, were soon producing images of saints. Christ and the Holy Virgin were universal, but the Greek church also favoured St John of the Ladder, St Anthony the Great, and St Andrew the First-Called, the apostle whom legend held to have foreseen the Christian glories that awaited Kiev. The Holy Wisdom, the divine spirit of the Word behind the Incarnation, was at the heart of all, for both Kiev and its wealthy rival, Novgorod, followed Constantinople in dedicating their most important cathedrals to it. The conversion of the Rus was not quite a revolution, for there had been little in the way of authentic culture to overturn, but it was certainly a stunning change, and Kiev’s princely government, with its imported faith and its veneer of Greek precepts, became a model for the eastern Slavic world.
None of these developments implied a future glory for the outpost on the Moscow river, however. The rulers of Muscovy were keen, much later, to find a precedent for their own court in eleventh-century Kiev, but at its best their case was flimsy. The prince in Simon Ushakov’s icon, Ivan I, was almost certainly descended from Vladimir, but the line was hardly direct. He had a claim to the Riurikid dynastic title, but he was only one of countless princes of that royal blood, many of whom ruled flourishing cities of their own.
Ivan and Vladimir were separated by three hundred years, and though human affairs, when viewed from the twenty-first century, may appear to have moved slowly in the medieval world, three centuries was always a long time. It is roughly the same interval, for comparison, that separates today’s England from the one that sent the Duke of Marlborough to fight at Blenheim, and an even shorter gap divides our generation from the last to witness British rule in the American colonies.
The passage of time was not the only fact that separated Kiev and Moscow, either, for their geography, economies, political systems and even their diplomatic orientations were worlds apart, with Kiev looking southwards to the Black Sea and Moscow trading on the forest and its links to distant cultures on the Volga and beyond. But there was one important sense in which Moscow was truly Kiev’s heir. The Dnieper city had been the region’s first spiritual capital, a status that Constantinople confirmed when it chose Kiev’s Holy Wisdom to be queen of every Christian church in the vast territory. Byzantine clerics also proposed an ecclesiastical hierarchy to manage the Rus congregation. As a barbarian frontier, and a wild one at that, the princes’ world did not merit the creation of a separate patriarchate (there were only five of those on the planet
), but the Rus did get a metropolitan (the next rank down), a man who acted as the link between the Slavic north and civilization as Constantinople defined it. The newly created job involved a lot of travel, for churches were being built at almost every prosperous princely court from the Baltic to the middle Volga, but the metropolitan’s official residence was Kiev, and on his death each one was laid to rest in or around the great cathedral there. The region’s spiritual geography shifted decisively, then, when the man in Ushakov’s icon, Metropolitan Peter, broke with convention by stipulating that his body should instead be buried in the cathedral that he and Ivan had founded in Moscow, nearly five hundred miles to the north-east.
* * *
The journey that ended with that moment did not lead directly from Kiev but paused, for well over a hundred years, at Vladimir, a fortress-city even further to the east on the River Klyazma. The route was complex, and there is no easy way to understand it without making a detour into the elaborate world of inheritance law. Primogeniture, the system that kept property and titles in convenient straight lines in other kingdoms and in later times, was alien to the Rus princely clan. Their world was one of constant movement, and the heads of every major family could hope to claim a territory somewhere, ruling from its local capital with a small court and a retinue of warriors. But the clan insisted on dynastic hierarchies, including a convention that gave primacy, in political terms, to the princes of the most important cities of the time. In the Rus lands, as an expert on the region has observed, the royal family was viewed ‘as a corporate entity, and, as such, all had a claim on its constituent parts’.
If it was a system of collective wealth-management, however, it was also subject to an expanding list of partners and sporadic violent take-over bids.
The kindest thing that could be said about the system of inheritance itself was that it guaranteed a healthy pool of male heirs. Instead of betting on a single son, custom (in a land where life-expectancy was short) put a prince’s brothers in line for his throne, so that an adult male (the younger brother of the senior prince) was likely to inherit ahead of second-generation royal infants. If a member of the older generation did not live to inherit a princely seat, however, his heirs might be barred, in perpetuity, from doing so. These rules were seldom absolute because there were so many opportunities to do away with rivals. To complicate inheritance still more, a title and associated lands and wealth were not necessarily conferred for life. The princely estates, or appanages, were arranged along a scale of notional desirability, and increasing seniority within the clan allowed each prince to move up, maybe several times, from a lesser to a greater one. Claimants with ambition could compete for the best lands of all, moving from city to city or facing their cousins in battle in a murderous game of musical chairs as death and promotion created vacancies. For more than a century, the mother-city of Kiev remained the prize that all desired, but though the contest for that throne was particularly fierce, the entire system could have been designed to generate feuds.
Until his death in 1015, Prince Vladimir of Kiev had kept the family in order, but his successors soon looked set to dissipate his legacy in fratricide. Steppe tribesmen, notably the energetic Polovtsy, were quick to take advantage, mounting increasingly damaging raids on any treasure that looked vulnerable (they sacked Kiev in 1061), and for a time it seemed as if the Rus might disappear like every other clan that had once ruled the Dnieper grasslands and the woods beyond. In 1097, the princes finally convened to shape a truce under the stern gaze of a magnate called Vladimir Monomakh.
In future, most of the lesser appanages would be attached to named, specific members of the clan. There was a distinction between the inner circle of senior princes and their humbler cousins, but most could now begin to build a stable, even heritable, estate. The changed conditions also encouraged the development of a new pole within the Slavic world. Though Kiev remained glorious, and fortunes could be made in the markets of Novgorod, the lands held by Vladimir Monomakh emerged as the most powerful of all.
Monomakh’s territory lay beyond the Moscow forest in a range of gently rolling hills whose rivers drained not south, to the familiar Black Sea, but eastwards to the Volga and the markets of the Asian plateau. The region may have seemed remote, but at a time when wealthy cities to the west had become vulnerable to nomad raids, its location was appealingly secure. The land was lightly settled in the days of Monomakh, but it also turned out to be reasonably fertile, and in trading terms it made a useful entrepôt between the Volga and the Dnieper. Here, then, on the banks of the rivers Nerl and Klyazma, a succession of powerful princes developed their own centre, first at Suzdal and then at a new fortress, Vladimir, possibly founded by Monomakh himself. The region grew prosperous and even opulent within decades, but Monomakh still opted to rule in Kiev when the chance arose, as did at least three of his sons. It fell to his grandson to change the geographical balance for good. Andrei Bogoliubsky followed the family example when he accepted the throne of Kiev in 1169 (thereby asserting his own primacy within the clan), but instead of settling there he chose to move his capital to Vladimir. In a system where no prince was equal, the Prince of Vladimir, not Kiev, would henceforth stand as lord above them all, and eventually the title would itself inflate. In years to come, a series of powerful and already wealthy men would willingly risk their lives to gain the right to call themselves Grand Prince of Vladimir.
Andrei’s next task was to create a city to eclipse Kiev. Power and glory came from God, so the prince’s scribes gave him the attributes of an Old Testament king. He was, they said, a Solomon in wisdom and a David in his virtue and his strength.
The most conspicuous demonstration of his kingship, however, was achieved through a massive programme of building. For years, the thin north-eastern light was to play on piles of earth and scaffolding as masons and craftsmen from all over twelfth-century Europe hastened to meet this ruler’s deadlines.
Because Andrei had resolved to outshine the metropolitan seat of Kiev, his cathedral in Vladimir had to be higher, at 106 feet, than the 93 feet of Kiev’s famous Holy Wisdom.
The finished building blazed with jewel colours. Sheets of gilded copper covered the cupola, while the white limestone itself was patterned with raised designs in red, blue and green as well as gold and gemstones. The pulpit inside glinted with more gold and silver, and sunlight coming through the vault scattered and pooled on many smooth-cut precious stones. When it came to exterior detail, Andrei favoured intricate carving, and other churches in his realm were decorated with menageries: lions and panthers, dogs, hares, deer and mythical creatures like the griffin and the sirin-bird.
The building programme continued with a walled palace and several ominous triumphal gates. In a landscape dotted with thatch and mud, the structures made the kind of statement that no-one, let alone a rival prince, could miss.
The confidence and swagger of it all hint at Andrei’s true qualities. God’s loyal servant was also a ruthless, vengeful and imperious man. No other kind, perhaps, could have constructed a city on this scale, and curt, decisive government was needed in an age of constant war. But Andrei’s cruelties added daily to the list of his enemies. In the summer of 1174, a rumour began to circulate that he was planning to get rid of certain discontented noblemen, and in particular the sons of a landowner from Moscow whom Andrei’s family had murdered and whose property had recently been seized. Another version, more appealing to later Muscovite chroniclers, held that the murdered landlord’s sons (avenging Muscovite heroes) took the initiative themselves. Either way, the conspirators agreed that Andrei had to die, and on the eve of 29 June a group of twenty of them broke into his bedchamber and hacked him to pieces.
The tyrant’s buildings did not fare well in the years to come. The great cathedral in Vladimir was damaged in a fire soon after his death, and his palace was eventually looted for treasure and, later, for stone. Only an arch and one tower still stand. A short distance away, the elegant church that Andrei commissioned to commemorate one of his most resounding victories, a building that once rose from a tiered white stone platform, has subsided into the riverside grass as if to cut the prince’s glory down to size.