Before I start, I have to confess that this article may end up being biased as I have Slovak ancestry and upbringing. Slovaks and Slovenes, as you may know, are the only two Slavic ethnic groups that have the name Slav directly in their name to this very day and it’s also worth mentioning that, until the arrival of Hungarians into Carpathian basin in Central Europe, they were neighbors and were referred to as Slověne. So, that’s that, make of it what you will.
That being said, I was never into patriotic chest beating. After all, patriotism, nationalism, and Nazism are exactly the same. They differ merely in the amount of expressed zeal. I would even go as far as to say that patriotism is merely an euphemism. Hence, I didn’t really bother to look deeply into the early middle ages in Eastern Europe. Until today, that is. And I must say that I have a rather bitter field day with current events in Europe.
First, let me introduce you to a very brief history of first Slavic states ever.
The first known Slavic proto-state was Samo’s Empire which existed between 631 and 658. It was a tribal union that included the regions of Moravia, Nitravia (Nitra), Silesia, Bohemia and Lusatia. As far as we know, Samo was a Frankish merchant involved in West Slavic resistance against Avars and may have been one of the merchants who supplied arms to the Slavs for their regular revolts.
According to Chronicle of Fredegar, Book IV, Section 48, written circa 642, “Each year, the Huns [Avars] came to the Slavs, to spend the winter with them; then they took the wives and daughters of the Slavs and slept with them, and among the other mistreatments [already mentioned] the Slavs were also forced to pay levies to the Huns. But the sons of the Huns, who were [then] raised with the wives and daughters of these Wends [Slavs] could not finally endure this oppression anymore and refused obedience to the Huns and began, as already mentioned, a rebellion. When now the Wendish army went against the Huns, the [aforementioned] merchant Samo accompanied the same. And so the Samo’s bravery proved itself in wonderful ways and a huge mass of Huns fell to the sword of the Wends.”
Fast forward one and half century. Avars lost their grip on Central Europe after a period of steady decline and final defeat by Charlemagne between 792 and 796. In the face of changing geopolitical situation, Slavic tribes in Central Europe gained sovereignty and a series of Slavic principalities emerged in the regions on the Middle Danube.
In 833, Mojmir I united principalities of Moravia and Nitra, thus establishing the first major Slavic state in history, Great Moravia, which lasted to year 907. At its peak, this state included territories of today’s Slovakia, Czech Republic, Hungary, Austria, Germany, Poland, Romania, Serbia and Ukraine.
I won’t go into more detail here, but I will mention one significant event. In 862, on the request of Prince Rastislav, patriarch Photius send missionaries Cyril and his brother Methodius to evangelize Rastislav’s subjects. In 863, they began translating the Gospels and necessary liturgical books into the language now known as Old Church Slavonic and traveled to Great Moravia (the language derived from Old Church Slavonic, known as Church Slavonic, is still used in liturgy by several Orthodox Churches and also in some Eastern Catholic churches).
In order to accomplish their mission, they also devised the Glagolitic alphabet, the first alphabet to be used for Slavonic manuscripts. The Glagolitic alphabet was suited to match the specific features of the Slavic language. Its descendant script, the Cyrillic, and its variations are still used by more than 50 languages today, Russian and Ukrainian included.
Now, when you look at Eastern Europe you will see a similar picture. But also a bit more complex. The region was inhabited by Slavs, Finns, Baltic people, as well as people of Iranian and Turkish origin. The territories of the East Slavs in the 9th century were divided between the Varangians and the Khazars and were under constant pressure of Viking colonizers. The Varangians, or guild of Norman armed merchants, are first mentioned as imposing tribute from Slavic and Finnic tribes in 859 in The Primary Chronicle (Povest vremennykh let or Nestor’s Chronicle), one of the oldest and most important sources that dates back to c. 900–1100 and provides a window into the events in the region of that time.
The epos opens with, “These are the narratives of bygone years regarding the origin of the land of Rus’, the first princes of Kiev, and from what source the land of Rus’ had its beginning,” and continues to describe the birth of Varangian Rus’, “They said to themselves, “Let us seek a prince who may rule over us, and judge us according to the Law.” They accordingly went overseas to the Varangian Rus’. … The Chuds, the Slavs, the Krivichs and the Ves then said to the Rus’, “Our land is great and rich, but there is no order in it. Come to rule and reign over us”. They thus selected three brothers with their kinfolk, who took with them all the Rus’ and migrated.” The Primary Chronicle then mentions that varang Rurik was ruling in Novgorod from the year 862.
As far as we know, Rurik led the Rus’ until his death in about 879, passing on his kingdom to his kinsman, Prince Oleg, as regent for his young son, Igor. In 880–82, Oleg led a military force south along the Dnieper river, capturing Smolensk and Lyubech before reaching Kiev, where he deposed and killed Askold and Dir, proclaimed himself prince, and declared Kiev the “mother of Rus’ cities” essentially establishing Varangian Rus’.
And as for what Rus’ actually means — although there is a huge debate about its origin, prevalent theory is that it is, like the Proto-Finnic name for Sweden (*Ruotsi), derived from an Old Norse term for “the men who row” as rowing was the main method of navigating the rivers of Eastern Europe.
If that portion from The Primary Chronicle about inviting a prince to rule over people sounds familiar to you, you are not mistaken. It is a direct paraphrase of Israel asking for a king like the other nations have in 1 Samuel 8. However, don’t be surprised — initial passages of The Primary Chronicle link the whole saga to Biblical narrative claiming that Slavs (whom it quite crazily identifies as Noricians i.e. Celts) are descendants of Noah’s son Japheth. Well, and just as a funny coincidence and a side note, one of Japheth’s sons was Magog and according to Flavius Josephus he was the ancestor of the Scythians and settled in current day Ukraine (north of the Black Sea). Seriously, one could not make this up.
So, not to downplay the situation and quite clear genocidal intent on Russian side, I cannot shake the feeling that what is happening in Ukraine is the same what is happening in Israel where Jewish settlers literally kill their relatives from their “lost tribes”, who retaliate in the same coin for each tooth and every eye. It’s a cruel irony and twist of faith because, according to Nebel et al., a substantial portion of Palestinian Muslim Arabs (82%) and Jews (70%) had inherited their Y chromosomes from the same paternal ancestors, who lived in the region within the last few thousand years, and their findings “corroborate previous studies that suggested a common origin for Jewish and non-Jewish populations living in the Middle East.”
Abel and Cain all over again.
Then again, perhaps I should urge my government to ask for all lost territories because, you know, Great Moravia and stuff — definitely sounds like a plan O_o
I think it’s needless to say that if people refused to be driven into frenzy on the basis of tribal and subsequently national sentiments, which hold no water in today’s world, there would be no one left to fight the wars of greed and deluded dreams of world domination. I’m just afraid that the guns and hateful cheers full of vengeance today are already speaking louder than this message.
Still, better late than never.