How to understand the history of Russia
How to understand the history of Russia

What you need to know about pre-Petrine Russia, where to read the chronicles, which book, designed for the general reader, can become a desktop textbook?

We have compiled a list of books and sites with which you can immerse yourself in the history of Russia:

Igor Danilevsky. Ancient Russia through the eyes of contemporaries and descendants (IX-XII centuries). M., 1998

Igor Danilevsky. Russian lands through the eyes of contemporaries and descendants (XII-XIV centuries). M., 2001


Professor of the School of Historical Sciences of the Higher School of Economics, Doctor of Historical Sciences Igor Nikolaevich Danilevsky called his textbook on the history of the Russian lands not a textbook, but a course of lectures.

This allowed the author to do without a detailed retelling of the event history, but to build the story around problem areas - questions to which historians give different answers, not only based on the data at their disposal, but also from their own ideas about how to read the sources. and sometimes from their own ideological attitudes. Why should we understand all this, why it is impossible to get by with a story about events that we already seem to be reliably known about, Danilevsky explains, for example, in the introduction to the second book.

“We are hardly worried about the fact that one day, about 227,000 average solar days ago, approximately at the intersection of 54 s. sh. and 38 c. on a relatively small plot of land (approx. 9.5 km²), bounded on both sides by rivers, several thousand representatives of the biological species Homo sapiens gathered, which for several hours, using various devices, destroyed each other. Then the survivors dispersed: one group went to the south, and the other to the north …

Meanwhile, this is what actually happened, objectively, on the Kulikovo field …

No, we are interested in something completely different. It is much more important who these representatives considered themselves to be, how they represented their communities, why and why they tried to exterminate each other, how they evaluated the results of the act of self-destruction that took place, and similar questions. So we are, rather, worried about what was happening in their heads, and not what happened "in reality" …

That is why the statement that the author intends to write the story as it happened in reality is nothing more than a sincere delusion of this or that author or deliberately misleading the reader. A rather strict separation of our ideas about what and how happened in the past, from how all this was presented to contemporaries is necessary."

Igor Danilevsky

Real lectures are an attempt to figure out what is behind certain interpretations, and a search for a way to understand what exactly the author (or editor) of the source wanted to tell and why he chose for this exactly the words that we are now reading.

“Starting to work on a course of lectures on the history of Ancient Russia, I first of all had to answer for myself the question: what will this book be about? About my ideas about Ancient Russia? About how the ancient Russian inhabitants themselves imagined their life? Or how did this or that historian imagine this life? And if I choose the latter approach, what criteria will be subordinated to the selection of views that are reflected in the sea of ​​historical (or claim to be called historical) writings?

Having asked such questions, you very soon become convinced that the only somehow justified way in these conditions will be a simple comparison of all three points (more precisely, groups of a certain set of points of view).This is the only way to realize what our knowledge about the past is worth, to get the real scale of the approach of modern man to how it really was."

Igor Danilevsky

After reading this, one might think that two courses of lectures may be of interest to specialists who care about minor discrepancies and contradictions. In fact, in the history of Russia in the 9th-14th centuries, there are practically no important provisions that would not cause controversy and doubt, so the reader of these two books gets an idea of ​​the most different aspects of the life of Kievan Rus and Rus of the so-called specific period: what is a squad and who are chroniclers they call it "Varangians", what did the participants in the veche do, who and how was taxed, whether Kievan Rus was a state (and what does it mean in general), what was the role of the church in the specific period, how the chroniclers perceived the invasion of the Tatars, what is known about the Slavic pagan pantheon, how the Russian Orthodox church is arranged, whether Alexander Nevsky was a hero or a traitor, and so on, but the notion is conscious: understanding where this or that position comes from makes it possible to form one's attitude towards it, and not just take it on faith.

Mark Aleshkovsky. The Tale of Bygone Years: The Fate of a Literary Work in Ancient Rus. M., 1971


Many will probably find familiar the standard design of the cover of this book, developed at one time by the Nauka publishing house for the publication of popular literature: the editions of this series were a characteristic attribute of Soviet intellectuals' leisure.

Published in 1971, the work of the famous archaeologist Mark Khaimovich Aleshkovsky is a summary of the author's original views on the initial stages of the history of Russian chronicle writing. Despite the complexity of the topic, the book is written in the most accessible style (and this, to be honest, compares favorably with most weighty "chronicle" works). So, even a person unfamiliar with Old Russian problems will be able to follow the development of thought.

The author's reasoning begins with the question of when the last version of the Tale of Bygone Years was completed. Then, starting from the contradictions present in this latest version of the most important chronicle work of the pre-Mongol period, the author distinguishes between the editor's insertions and the original text of Nestor, and then, having made a number of curious observations about the history of Old Russian historical literacy, he raises the question of Nestor's sources - about those oral stories and written works, on which the Pechersk chronicler of the late 11th - early 12th centuries must have relied on in his large-scale work in terms of historical coverage.

It is natural for an archaeologist to move against the flow of time, because, for obvious reasons, he comes across the latest layers first. But the same development of thought inverse to chronology is natural for philological studies of Russian medieval literature: after all, if ancient works reach us for the most part as part of later revisions, then first we have to remove the layers of eras that are closer to us, and only then be taken for a real ancient text … In other words, by its very construction, the book clearly demonstrates to the reader how researchers of Ancient Russia work.

Not all the positions expressed by the author in the early 1970s are unambiguously accepted by modern science. Some of Mark Aleshkovsky's thoughts have clearly not passed the test of time, others, for example the idea of ​​annually replenishing the chronicle with new news, are actively discussed now. But in any case, thanks to the lively, unofficial tonality, the book allows the reader to penetrate into the historian's workshop, to partake not only of epoch-making achievements, but also the spirit of research work on the Tale of Bygone Years.

Valentin Yanin. "I sent you birch bark …" / afterword by Andrey Zaliznyak. M., 1998


The first birch bark letter was discovered in Novgorod on July 26, 1951, and today more than a thousand various letters on birch bark are known.

For the most part, birch bark letters are very laconic, and at the same time, these short business notes allow researchers to imagine the everyday life of a Russian medieval city, learn about the joys and anxieties of an ordinary person in Ancient Russia, get acquainted with the colloquial Old Russian language, which did not experience the "ennobling" influence of Church Slavonic book rate. The importance of birch bark letters as a historical and linguistic source can hardly be overestimated.

The book of the famous Russian historian and archaeologist, long-term leader of the Novgorod archaeological expedition, Valentin Lavrentievich Yanin, was first published in 1965 and since then has been significantly replenished twice, taking into account new finds (and they happen every year). The scientist begins by acquainting the reader with the general atmosphere of archaeological excavations in medieval Novgorod, explaining along the way how the cultural layer is formed and how the approximate date of the object's creation is determined by the depth of occurrence.

Further, when the basic "secrets of the craft" have already been revealed, one can proceed to the specifics - individual authors and addressees of the surviving birch bark letters. The figures of the boy Onfim with his school friends and the influential boyars Mishinich, the famous icon painter Olisey Grechin and the unknown woman in love of the 11th century appear before the reader.

At the same time, Yanin does not present the existing interpretations of birch bark letters as ready-made knowledge, but acquaints his audience with all the stages of interpreting the next "note" - from detection and initial reading to a long, in fact, detective search for points of intersection with already known documents on birch bark, parchment and paper. As a result, the reader gets the opportunity, together with scientists, to feel both despair when the text remains incomprehensible, and the research excitement that accompanies discoveries.

Special attention should be paid to the afterword by Andrey Anatolyevich Zaliznyak, dedicated to how linguists study birch bark letters. Using a number of extremely illustrative examples, Zaliznyak explains what is the meaning of letters on birch bark as a linguistic source, what problems have to be solved when translating birch bark letters into modern Russian, and what are the remarkable features of the Old Novgorod dialect, which held a special position among the dialects of the Old Russian language.

Naturally, a popular book will not replace an acquaintance with professional literature on birch bark letters - the multivolume collection “Novgorod letters on birch bark” and two editions of Andrei Zaliznyak's “Old Novgorod dialect”. In addition, it is absolutely necessary to visit the site "Old Russian birch bark letters" - a complete database that includes photographs, traces and transcriptions of most of the currently known birch bark letters, as well as a large array of links to special research literature. However, for an initial introduction to the topic, Ioannina's book is suitable.

John Fennell. The crisis of medieval Russia 1200–1304. M., 1989


British historian, a prominent specialist in the field of Slavic studies, professor at Oxford University John Fennell undertook this study (the first edition was published in 1983) in order to fill a gap for the Western reader in the field of Russian history of the 13th century: there were no monographs devoted to the specified period.

Meanwhile, the 13th century was marked by the first campaign of the Tatar-Mongols against Russia, the establishment of the yoke, the fall of Kiev, clashes with the gaining strength of the Livonian Order and the Germans who showed interest in the eastern lands (the Battle of the Neva and the battle on Lake Peipsi).The historian understands the "crisis" in the title as the gradual decline of the princely power, which entailed the disintegration of the Old Russian state and defeat in the struggle against the Mongols.

In his research, Fennell draws on the chronicles, trying to separate the personal attitude brought by the chronicler and later editors - and, it seems, he manages to maintain an impartial view. In particular, this allows the historian to question some of the previously generally accepted points of view in historiography, for example, about the significance of the Battle on the Ice and, more broadly, the personality of Alexander Nevsky. Fennel considers the figure of Nevsky to be somewhat overestimated, and his relations with the Tatars - almost frankly comprador.

“But was this victory so great? Was it a turning point in Russian history? Or is it just Metropolitan Kirill or someone else who wrote the Life, inflated the significance of Alexander's victory in order to brighten up Alexander's subsequent servility to the Tatars in the eyes of his contemporaries? As usual, sources from that time do not help answer these kinds of questions. The most complete description of the battle is contained in the Novgorod First Chronicle; As for the reflection of this episode in the chronicle of the Suzdal land, no fragments from the personal grand ducal chronicles of Alexander have survived, and the significance of the whole event has been downplayed, and so much so that the hero is not Alexander, but his brother Andrey.

We can judge the scale of the battle only by analyzing the information about the losses, this time - from the enemy: the Novgorod First Chronicle reports that “the chyudi (Estonians) were besieged, and the Germans were 400, and 50 were by the hands of the Yasha (taken prisoner)” … If the chronicler considers these 450 people to be knights, then the figure given is undoubtedly a gross exaggeration, since at the time the battle took place, the two orders had slightly more than a hundred knights and, probably, many of them, if not most of them, were fighting at that moment. with other enemies in Courland under the command of the Livonian Landmaster Dietrich von Grüningen.

In any case, the oldest and most original Western source, the Livonian Rhymed Chronicle, written in the last decade of the 13th century, reports that only twenty knights died and six were captured. The evidence of the Livonian Chronicle does not give grounds to consider this military clash a major battle, even if we take into account the author's desire to shamelessly minimize the losses of his side."

John Fennell

Irina Karatsuba, Igor Kurukin, Nikita Sokolov. Choosing your story. Forks on the path of Russia: from Rurik to oligarchs. M., 2014


The book is divided into chapters corresponding to the turning points in Russian history: the adoption of Christianity, the introduction of the oprichnina, the victory of the people's militia during the Time of Troubles, Peter's reforms, the Decembrist uprising, and so on. At each of these points, according to the authors, Russia made its own choice. Aside from the question "How could it have been otherwise?" Raised by the authors, the work of Karatsuba - Kurukin - Sokolov consists in a total revision of the history of Russia and common misconceptions associated with it.

The Battle of the Ice was a local and insignificant battle, the Moscow princes at first were friends with the Horde against their neighbors, Alexander I was also going to abolish serfdom - all this is not news and not sensational discoveries, but once again it is worth recalling this. The fact is that the history of Russia, swollen with official concepts, documentaries on federal channels and numerous re-reads, requires careful work based not on discoveries and consolidation, but on careful work with sources - which is just enough in the book.

At the same time, the book is definitely designed for the general reader: easily and sometimes wittyly written, it, despite some of its bias (Russia regularly chooses the worst of all paths), can serve as a table textbook on history.

Editions of Old Russian literature


Old Russian literature began to be published in the 18th century - in particular, the famous educator of Catherine's time, Nikolai Ivanovich Novikov, made a contribution to this matter. The reign of Nicholas I, which was harsh to the sciences and muses, turned out to be surprisingly fruitful for the publication of Old Russian writing, when several multivolume editions of historical sources appeared at once - and, which is especially important in the context of this course, the first volumes of the Complete Collection of Russian Chronicles appeared, the publication of which continues to this day.

Each volume of the Complete Collection publishes the text of one chronicle, accompanied by a preface, a specialized archaeographic apparatus representing the features of the manuscript, and, if the chronicle is known in several copies-lists, discrepancies, as well as one or more indexes. Some particularly extensive chronicles (Nikon Chronicle) may take several volumes.

A significant part of the Complete Collection of Russian Chronicles has been scanned and posted on the Internet. However, it is necessary to warn an unprepared enthusiast who wants to directly join the source of knowledge: the texts are published as they are, without translation and practically without adaptation, at best - with punctuation marks according to the modern standard.

Even the names of the chronicles that have developed spontaneously and have no internal logic can confuse: for example, if the chronicles have numbers (Sophia I, Pskov II, etc.), then these numbers are assigned not in the order in which the chronicles arose, but in the order of how they were discovered or published, therefore the Novgorod IV Chronicle is older than both Novgorod II and Novgorod III … It is almost impossible to figure it out without special training. Those who still dare can be helped by the page on which the staff of the V.V. Vinogradov Institute of the Russian Language have posted a number of the most important linguistic reference books, including "Materials for the Dictionary of the Old Russian Language" by Izmail Sreznevsky and the Dictionary of the Russian Language of the 11th-17th centuries …

A different kind of series "Library of Literature of Ancient Rus", the electronic version of which is available on the website of the Institute of Russian Literature (Pushkin House) of the Russian Academy of Sciences. The first edition of this series (then published under the title “Monuments of Literature of Ancient Rus”) was published in 1976–1994, and the first volume of the second edition was published in 1997. The founders of the series (and its chief editor was Dmitry Sergeevich Likhachev) set themselves the task of acquainting the widest possible readership with the literary heritage of the pre-Petrine era.

Therefore, all published texts (including the texts of the chronicles) are accompanied by a translation into modern Russian and notes that reveal the meaning of little-known historical details and dark places. The first edition of the series bears the imprint of the late Soviet era both in terms of the selection of works and in the content of commentaries that practically ignore religious symbolism and allusions to the Holy Scriptures. However, these shortcomings were corrected in the second edition, which gives a very detailed picture of the literary life of the XI-XVII centuries.

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