A Distant World: Russian Relations with Europe Before Peter the Great

A Distant World: Russian Relations with Europe Before Peter the Great

Poe, Marshall (University of Iowa)

The World Engages Russia (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2003), 2-23. 


Shortly after the fall of the western Roman Empire in the fifth century, a number of previously unknown groups—the Veneti, the Sclaveni and the Antes—rather suddenly appeared in the writings of European annalists. Though their exact identity is the subject of some dispute, most historians agree that they were probably Slavs. The early history of this group is shrouded in mystery. We do not know where they came from, who they were, or even what they called themselves. One thing, however, is certain: they were on the move. Under pressure from the Avars, a group of nomadic pastoralists from the western Eurasian Steppe, the Slavs migrated out of their homeland above the Danube to the north and east and settled regions so inhospitable that no agriculturalist had ever attempted to scratch out a living there. Indeed, the only inhabitants of this corner of northeastern Europe at the time were Uralic-speaking hunter-gatherers, the ancestors of today’s Finns. Over the course of five centuries, the Slavic plowmen progressed into the seemingly endless forested zone, pushing the proto-Finns before them into a smaller and smaller corner of the continent. As they did so, their Common Slavic language evolved into East Slavic, and the resulting linguistic divisions laid the earliest foundations for what would become Belorussian, Ukrainian, and Russian culture, though hardly in recognizable form.

The peopling of the distant and barren northeastern expanse was a remarkable achievement, but one with two serious consequences. First, the geographic position of the East Slavs meant that they, and particularly that cohort which came to reside north of the Oka River, would be relatively isolated from the great civilizations of medieval western Eurasia: the Carolingian Empire, the Byzantine Empire, the Abbasid Caliphate, and Transoxiana. The East Slavs were pioneers rather than successors. They opened to the axe, plow, and scythe a territory that had hosted no ancient civilization, was not on any major trade route, and was, all things considered, a long way from anywhere. This is not to say that the East Slavs were completely isolated from the ancient centers of Eurasian culture, for they were not. The point is that they did not have very frequent or sustained contact with these cultural loci for a period of approximately half a millennium. The second consequence resulting from the settlement of the Slavs in the northeast, an area that later became the Russian heartland, was poverty.

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