An essay by Andrei for Russian History.
What was the Russians' view of themselves and others?
It is all too common to demonize those of the outside group, and elevate those in the in-group to sainthood – literally, in some cases – in human psychology. (Cherry) Older histories, in particular, seem to be subject to this. Through examining the stories in the Novgorodian Chronicle, it is clear that Russians too had a tendency for demonizing the opponents and praising the in-group's heroes. Russians viewed their princes as archetypal embodiments of their societies, with those who performed particular feats coming to be regarded as saints. Contrasting this were the godless, evil, pagan infidels who were their enemies – and the Christians that did not share the same beliefs were foolish. It is also important to view the modern historical record compared with the Novgorodian Chronicle to examine the bias in the Russian writing. ("Novgorodian Chronicle")
The provided excerpt of the article begins by accusing the devil of brewing distrust and turning the princes against one another. It is clear their interpretation of Satan is not based as a tempter of human fate, but truly evil – basking in the death of Christians. This seems to be an attempt to absolve the princes of their responsibility; instead of human error, it is a supernatural act. The attribution seems to ask, “What else could turn the Great Russians against one another?” In describing the quarreling, it is not simply “the Kievans”, but their prince – in the case of Kiev, Vladimir Rurikovich – and “the men of” the stated city. The prince is the most important, the only individual out of the city seemingly worth mentioning. The prince represents all of the Russians of a particular city-state. As the Tatars begin their attacks, the princes are outmatched and unable to strike back. ("Novgorodian Chronicle") They have better success with the Swedes, with Novgorod defended by Prince Alexander – later, Alexander Nevsky – against the opposing Catholic forces. This would not be his last encounter with the Swedes, later fighting them in the attempted “Northern Crusades”, the forces of which were most likely Livonian Knights of the Teutonic Order. (“Aleksander Nevsky”) Here, the prince is not merely the embodiment of the people, but the champion of God – empowered by prayers and saints. Indeed, the chronicle goes into great detail on Alexander's successes, in both warfare with the Livonians and diplomacy with the Tartar-Mongol “Golden Horde”. ("Novgorodian Chronicle") Indeed, later Russians consider him incredibly important in maintaining Russia's independence from Catholicism, and from the Mongol yoke. While Novgorod would have to pay tribute, they were not occupied. (“Mongol Invasion”) He was canonized as a saint in the 16th century, and awards in his honor have been a military staple in Russia and the Soviet Union. (“Aleksandr Nevsky”) Through saying that God is on Nevsky's side, then God is on the side of the Russian people as well. Even the pagans can apparently recognize the strength of the greater princes, with Batu Khan supposedly having said “I was told the truth, that there is no other prince like Alexander.”
The pagans and the Catholics do not hold this favor with God. Whereas the pagans are “set upon” Russia, supposedly for the latter's sins, the Catholics are simply unguided Christians. Either seem to hold ear to the devil's tongue. As aforementioned, when Russians war against other Russians, it is considered to be due to acts of Satan. ("Novgorodian Chronicle") The Novgorodian Chronicle speaks of Swedish invaders; these invaders were not merely Swedish, but Germans and other nationalities as well. The text seems to lack a breaking point between the Swedish-Norvgorodian War and the Northern Crusades, perhaps showing that they were unaware of such an act. Later “Swede” forces would encompass the Livonian Knights of the Teutonic Order – often, less specifically to this conflict, called the Teutonic Knights. (“Aleksander Nevsky”) They are considered Christian, but without God's guidance – foolish and naïve, compared to the Orthodox Russians. The vitriol against them is far less than that against the pagans. The brutal “Golden Horde” is seen as being godless and evil. They are described as locusts – like a great plague. They practice war with great cruelty, slaying the leaders of a town, along with countless innocents. However, they are not necessarily seen as opponents of God, for this would weaken the power of such a divinity. Instead, according to the Russian rationalization, God merely lets the pagans conquer Russian lands that have not been faithful and true enough to His word. ("Novgorodian Chronicle")
The Novgorodian Chronicle is mostly accurate. Minor errors abound, such as the “Swedish” attacks on Novgorod when in fact the campaign was soon to be expanded into a larger “Northern Crusade”. (“Northern Crusades”) It should come as no surprise that there is nevertheless a bias against the enemies of the Russians. As earlier stated, this is not merely unique to Russian culture. In as much as the Russians saw the Catholics as misguided Christians, the Catholics must have viewed such East Orthodox ways with disdain as well. The bias was worse with the pagans. The Golden Horde is represented as completely unmerciful, barbaric, and downright evil. ("Novgorodian Chronicle") In reality, while they had a notorious reputation for brutality, they were not by any means micromanagers. Those who yielded and paid forth tribute via a sort of taxation were treated fairly well; it was only those princes and cities that resisted that found eradication. (“Mongol Invasion”) Nevertheless, it is a reflection on how embarrassing and humiliating the Russians found it to be under the “yoke” of the Mongols, and how they remember their history reflects this.
Who can blame the Russians for their views, given their humanity? In many cases, the statuses of Russian heroes and villains were well earned. Most modern historians credit Nevsky's victories with keeping the whole of Russia as East Orthodox, though some dissent. (“Aleksandr Nevsky”) It is difficult to make excuses for the incredible brutality of the Golden Horde, even if the Novgorodian Chronicle is not accurate in every single regard. Regardless of how such views may have been exaggerated, a critical eye reveals the bias. There is a saying that history is written by the victor. Bias is human nature, and not merely an artifact of ancient histories. The religious connotations in their elevation and demonization of figures and civilizations in their history is a testament to how much their faith played a role in their society. Even the hero Nevsky was celebrated in atheistic Soviet Russia, and Stalin commissioned a film in his honor. (“Aleksandr Nevsky”) This is a testament to culture's powerful influence.
“Alexander Nevsky.” Russiapedia, by RT. [http://russiapedia.rt.com/prominent-russians/history-and-mythology/aleksandr-nevsky/], accessed September 6th, 2012.
Cherry, Kendra. “What is Prejudice?” About.com. [http://psychology.about.com/od/pindex/g/prejudice.htm], accessed September 6th, 2012.
“The Novgorodian Chronicle.” [https://www2.stetson.edu/secure/history/hy308C01/alexandernevskychronicle.html], accessed September 6th, 2012.
“Northern Crusades.” Crusades Encyclopedia. [http://www.crusades-encyclopedia.com/thenortherncrusades.html], accessed September 6th, 2012.