These days, Tolkien isn’t particularly popular among readers and publishers of fantasy. To be called “Tolkien-esque” can even be slightly insulting, as strange as that may sound. Still, Tolkien casts a wide shadow on the genre, not least since he grounded his imaginative world in real history. Nowadays, every good fantasy takes some actual historical culture as its basis, whether it’s China for Guy Gavriel Kay or ancient Egypt for N. K. Jemisin.
Early Medieval Russia, the time period called “Kievan Rus,” is the historical setting for my fantasy world. It is a time period shrouded in myth, making it a perfect setting for epic fantasy. Still, there is enough real history to ground that fantasy in gritty reality. I especially like to read about random historical bits that have gotten lost in the cracks. A lot of them are little stories in themselves. Here are some unexpected facts about that mythical time.
I’m sure at least some of these bits will make it into my novels…
Unexpected facts about “Kievan Rus”
It turns out that “Kievan Rus” as such never existed. The name was a 19th century invention that corresponded to the nationalistic ideals of the Russian Empire. It was intended to evoke an ancient past where different cities were all unified under a single “Grand Prince.” Actually, the principalities were incredibly independent, divided, and constantly at war. Even though the title “Grand Prince” was coveted, it was little more than an honorific.
Orthodox Churches with…Organs?
It turns out that Russia, the land known for the peal of bells, initially may have had organs, not bells in its churches. Only large churches in major cities had bells. One of the frescoes in the ancient Cathedral of St. Sophia in Kiev shows jesters playing on organs.
What did early Russian princes look like?
There’s a definite “image” that Russian princes command in the imagination—tall, golden-haired, blue-eyed. Actually, that was probably not the case at all. Kiev and other principalities practiced political marriages from the very beginning. Not only Western European brides were chosen, but also brides from the various nomadic Asian tribes who constantly harassed the Russian cities. So sometimes Russian princes looked distinctly un-European.
The Veche: a Democratic Assembly?
The Russian popular imagination has canonized the Veche, a democratic assembly of townspeople that elected rulers in some cities, especially Novgorod. In actual fact, there was little “democracy” about it. Most people in cities were not freemen, and had no civic rights whatsoever. Most of the time, the democratic “Veche” was little more than a council of nobles.
Yes, it’s a little known fact, but one of the major sources of profit in old Rus was slavery. Selling foreign prisoners of war into slavery was a common practice, but some princes even sold other Slavs into slavery. Slavic prisoners were especially coveted in Eastern slave markets. Arabic manuscripts of the tenth and eleventh centuries describe in vivid detail how Slavic slaves traveled from Rus into the Caliphate and the Mediterranean. It often happened that if you owed money to someone higher up on the food chain, he could legally sell you to slave traders. It may seem strange that a Christian nation sold slaves, but actually most cities in Rus remained pagan until at least the 12th century.
Kiev—the Third Rome
Before the Mongol invasions, Kiev was a wonder of the ancient world. It was larger than one square mile in size (massive for its time and place). There were hundreds of churches. It was the first city in Rus to have organized streets and quarters. It impressed European and Arabic visitors alike. Some Byzantines even compared it (obviously hyperbolizing) to Constantinople itself. But hardly anything remains from that glorious time, everything having been destroyed by the Mongols and later wars. Only the church of St. Sophia and a few reconstructed gates remain.
The Cyrillic alphabet was never really used
Well, that’s not quite true. The written language created by Sts. Cyrill and Methodius, which was the original “Cyrillic” alphabet (now called Glagolytic) never really took off. This alphabet was used as a code language, however, even after people had stopped using it as a written language. The first historical appearance of what is today called Cyrillic was a cryptic word (“gorushna”) on a clay urn. No one knows what that word means, even today.
Alcoholism is not a historically Russian trait
Drinking strong alcohol was not something that early Russians did at all. Even wine only appeared in general use after the Mongol invasions (13th century and on). Kiev didn’t even have breweries! Whatever “alcoholic” drinks were enjoyed—mead and kvass—rarely were stronger than 1% or 2% in alcohol content.
As for food, common people never ate some things we can’t live without—butter, sugar, even mustard. Even tea (a staple in Russian homes) wasn’t drunk. Instead, people boiled rosebay, something that’s still done in some places, a drink now called “Ivan-chai”. They ate a lot of meat—pigeon, rabbit, venison, and wild boar. They did eat a lot of cheeses and sour cream.
Rus was baptized in… the twelfth century?
Well, Prince Vladimir did baptize Kiev and the surrounding areas in 988-9. But it was largely a local event. Polotsk was only baptized in the 11th century. Rostov and Murom—they had a large population of pagan Finns—was only baptized in the early 12th. A convincing proof of the slowness of Russian Christianization were the repeated revolts of pagan druids that were supported by large chunks of the population (one in Suzdal in 1024, one in Novgorod in 1071).
If you liked this post, and if you’d like to read more about Russian history and traditions, be sure to join my Readers’ Group. Members of my Readers’ Group will get exclusive opportunities to get bonuses from me when I launch my first novel, The Song of the Sirin, on July 1.