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Excerpt from The Story of Russia by Orlando Figes, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Story of Russia

by Orlando Figes

The Story of Russia by Orlando Figes X
The Story of Russia by Orlando Figes
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  • First Published:
    Sep 2022, 368 pages

    Sep 2023, 368 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Amanda Ellison
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All countries have a story of their origin. Some invoke divine or classical mythologies, stories linking them to sacred acts of creation or ancient civilisations, but most, at least in Europe, have foundation myths generally invented in the eighteenth or early nineteenth centuries. This was a time when nationalist historians, philologists and archaeologists sought to trace their nations back to a primeval ethnos – homogeneous, immutable, containing all the seeds of the modern national character – which they saw reflected in whatever remnants they could find of the early peoples in their territories. The Celts, the Franks, the Gauls, the Goths, the Huns and the Serbs – all have served as the ur-people of a modern nationhood, although in truth they were complex social groups, formed over centuries of great migrations across the European continent.

The origins of Russia are a case in point. No other country has been so divided over its own beginnings. None has changed its story so often. The subject is inseparable from myth. The only written account that we have, the Tale of Bygone Years, known as the Primary Chronicle, was compiled by the monk Nestor and other monks in Kiev during the 1110s. It tells us how, in 862, the warring Slavic tribes of north-west Russia agreed jointly to invite the Rus, a branch of the Vikings, to rule over them: 'Our land is vast and abundant, but there is no order in it. Come and reign as princes and have authority over us!' Three princely brothers, the Rus, arrived in longboats with their kin. They were accepted by the Slavs. Two brothers died but the third, Riurik, continued ruling over Novgorod, the most important of the northern trading towns, until his death in 879, when his son Oleg succeeded him. Three years later, Oleg captured Kiev, according to this story, and Kievan Rus, the first 'Russian' state, was established.

The Primary Chronicle reads more like a fairy tale than a work of history. It is a typical foundation myth – composed to establish the political legitimacy of the Riurikids, the Kievan ruling dynasty, as God's chosen agents for the Christianisation of the Rus lands. Much of it is fictional – stories patched together from orally transmitted epic songs and narrative poems (known in Russian as byliny), Norse sagas, Slav folklore, old Byzantine annals and religious texts. Nothing in it can be taken as a fact. We cannot say for sure whether Riurik even existed. He may have been Rörik, the nephew, son or possibly the brother of the Danish monarch Harald Klak, who was alive at the right time. But there is no evidence connecting him to Kiev, so the founder of the dynasty may have been a different Viking warrior, or an allegorical figure. The Kievan monks were less concerned with the accuracy of their chronicle than with its religious symbolism and meaning. The timescale of the chronicle is biblical. It charts the history of the Rus from Noah in the Book of Genesis, claiming them to be the descendants of his son Japheth, so that Kievan Rus is understood to have been created as part of the divine plan.

The Primary Chronicle was at the heart of a debate on Russia's origins that goes back to the first half of the eighteenth century, when history-writing in Russia was in its infancy. The new academic discipline was dominated by Germans. Among them was Gerhard Friedrich Müller (1705–83), who at the age of twenty had joined the teaching staff of the newly founded St Petersburg Academy of Sciences. Müller was the founding editor of the first series of documents and articles on Russian history, the Sammlung Russischer Geschichte (1732–65), published in German to inform a European readership, which knew almost nothing about Russia and its history. The peak of his career came in 1749, when he was tasked with giving an oration for the Empress Elizabeth on her name day. His lecture was entitled 'On the Origins of the Russian People and their Name'.

Excerpted from The Story of Russia by Orlando Figes. Copyright © 2022 by Orlando Figes. Excerpted by permission of Metropolitan Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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