Historical Perspective

While there is no other record of the tale that has just been told, and therefore no verification of the events described, it can be compared with what is known of the history of Russia at that time.  The story neither contradicts present knowledge of Russian history and the Khazars nor does it contribute anything substantial.  Kolyek, from whose manuscript this tale is taken, has not made an attempt to record a history but rather composed a memoir of his early life, and whether he survived longer than it took to write it is not known.

What is already well-documented is this: In A.D. 861, Greek brothers, Methodius, a monk, and Constantine, a priest, (or Mefhodi and Konstantin), met with the Kagan (or Khan) of the Khazars at the Kagan’s summer home in Semender, on the Caspian Sea.  The Kagan at that time had been experimenting with religions and sent an emissary to Constantinople (Konstantinopolis) in A.D. 860, requesting representatives of the Christian persuasion.

Byzantine Emperor Michael III and the Patriarch (Bishop) of Constantinople, Photios, cooperated in sending the two famous brothers who would later be canonized as the patron saints of Russia.  (There is some disagreement whether Methodius actually made the journey but no question that Constantine did.)  The Kagan received their mission in 861, but after hearing from them and from representatives of Islam sent by al-Mutawakkil ʿAlā ’llāh, the Caliph of Samarra, as well, he remained dedicated to the faith of the Jews, whose traditions were already tenuously established in the Khazar Kaganate.

This decision by the Kagan formally established the present Jewish enclave in that part of southern Russia, who are the Jews immortalized in “Fiddler on the Roof,” for instance.

Methodius and Constantine returned to Constantinople, beset at least once on their return trip by Magyar or Khazar raiders.  The raid by Jackal on such a caravan, told by the writer of this book, is very likely that same raid which is told in the history of the Greeks’ mission.

Following their return to their capital, Methodius and Constantine were sent on another, better known expedition, at the appeal of Rastislav, ruler of the western Slavic group of princedoms known as Moravia.

They left on this mission in A.D. 862 or 863, never to return permanently to Constantinople.  Before they left, however, Constantine the priest developed an alphabet for use in reducing spoken Slavonic dialects to writing.  There had never been a Slavic alphabet up to this time, although some scholars argue that attempts had been made among the east Slavs to create one.

Aware of the Moravian ruler’s problems with the Frankish (western) Christian missionaries and of a disagreement between Rastislav and Nicholas I, Bishop of Rome, who argued for keeping the liturgy forever in Latin, Constantine saw the value in converting the church liturgy to the common languages of the Slavic people.  So before he and Methodius departed for Moravia, he developed the first widely-used Slavic alphabet, from which the Glagolithic was derived, and began translating the Gospel.  Could Kolyek’s crude attempt at Slavic letters, which he describes in this book and which, the story suggests, was conveyed by Simonos to Constantine in time for his mission to Moravia, have been the basis for Constantine’s Slavonic alphabet, which led to today’s Cyrillic.

Late in Constantine’s life (827-869), he assumed the monastic name, Cyril (Kiril), after one of the great early saints.  A later version of his alphabet, called Cyrillic in recognition of his monastic name, is the basis for the Russian, Ukrainian, and some other modern Slavic scripts.

There is no historical basis for the principal characters in this tale: Euthymios, Simonos, Kolyek, Laïsha, Marhya, Gian-Pietro, and Russak. the towns of Blodensk, Pinea, Drizha, and Granitsu are mentioned nowhere else in history, although they may be the sites of modern towns now having different names.  Etil (Itil), however, was the winter home of the Kagan of the Khazars, and Dneprokiev is clearly a reference to the then-already-established city of Kiev on the Dnepr (Dnieper) River.

The Ingulets, Ingul, Donets, and Don are all true rivers in Ukraine and Russia, and the Dnepr did indeed have a stretch known as the Seven Rapids, now submerged due to the hydro-electric dams on the lower Dnepr.

The Jackal is unique to this story, as are his followers, but his mentor, Craizamon, was a contemporary historical figure as a Khazar warlord.  The Khazar’s wife, Atye, portrayed in this story as a crazy woman, is also described that way in at least one other historical reference.

Justinian and Theodora, mentioned in the story, were sixth-century rulers of Byzantium. Dioscorides, Aurelius Celsus, Galen, and Anthimus were medical practitioners and writers of earlier centuries who still influenced Greek medical teaching in the ninth century.

Sadrug, Gonashi, Combriedo de Palma, and Abru’s and Vennamar’s families are found in no other historical references.

A telling comment on Russian folk tales appears in The World & Its Peoples — Russia (USSR).

Often, as can well be understood, the mouzhik (the peasant) is the hero, sometimes in the guise of the durak (the simpleton), who gets the best of it in the end.  The miller and the soldier are also heroes, reflecting the dignity vis-à-vis the powerful.  Stories, some very profane, abound about the priest and his wife.

The story Kolyek tells in Fire, Wind & Yesterday, even to the point that he portrays himself as a potential priest with a provocative wife, is certainly in this tradition, and perhaps the earliest such written account as well.

The Horizon History of Russia contains this summary about the various groups of Slavic people:

In the midst of these movements of peoples across the great plain, the Slavic tribes emerged.  Their origins are not known; in the first century A.D. the Roman historian Tacitus wrote of them as Venedi, or Wends, who were then settled in the basin of the Vistula River and the region of the upper Dnieper — roughly equivalent to the areas of eastern Poland and Belorussia today.  He noted that, unlike the nomadic Sarmatians [an Iranian people], they traveled on foot and lived in settlements.  Already they were spreading out, colonizing westward toward the Carpathians and across the Danube, and northward and eastward into the forest zones.  In the course of these colonizing movements, which lasted several centuries, the Slavic tribes became divided into three distinct groups: the West Slavs of the Vistula Basin who became the Poles and Czechs; the South Slavs who settled in the Balkans; and the East Slavs who were divided into a number of ulus, or tribes…  During the seventh, eighth, and ninth centuries A.D. the East Slavs pushed back the numerous Finnish tribes and the Letts and the Lithuanians, who occupied the lands to the north.

The main area, inhabited by the East Slavs, lay in the zone of dark, almost impenetrable forests.  The nomads did not occupy this region; they needed the freedom and space of the steppes, over which they could range their horses.  But the Slavs were also drawn southward along the river routes, seeking a share in the lively trade controlled by their Khazar neighbors.  In the seventh and eighth centuries the Khazars ruled the steppes from their capital of Itil (supposed to be near modern Astrakhan) on the lower Volga, exacting customs duties from the steady stream of commercial caravans and boats that passed through its crossroads stronghold.  The Slavs paid tribute to the Khazars, but became increasingly involved in this trade, sending goods and slaves, mainly the fair-haired Finns so much in demand in the slave markets of the Mediterranean.  Their early cities of Pskov on the Velikaya River, Novgorod on the Volkhov, Polotsk on the Dvina, and Smolensk and Kiev on the Dnieper flourished while the trade routes were secure; but in the tenth century the power of the Khazars began to weaken, and they were challenged by the nomadic Pechenegs.  Slavic merchants found that peaceful passage along the great river highways could no longer be taken for granted and that they had to contend with the new menace from the north, the Varangians, as the Slavs called the Vikings, who appeared along the River routes in the eighth century.

Further, the Horizon History of Russia explains:

In the tenth century many peoples abandoned their pagan gods and adopted one of the monotheistic beliefs.  The Volga Bulgars adopted Islam in 922, the Danubian Bulgars having already become Christians; the Khazars had adopted Judaism about 865; Poland, Hungary, Denmark, and Norway converted to Roman Christianity in the second half of the tenth century.

In 988, Vladimir, ruler of the Kievan state, adopted Greek Christianity, although it was already a widely-held faith in his regions.

Other sources emphasize that, while the first millennium A.D. was one of dark historical silence in western Europe, Byzantium and the Arab states were flourishing in the arts and learning.  The university in Constantinople was indeed reopened in 863.  Caravans plied the routes to the north and the south of the Black Sea, reaching across two continents, from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

Constantinople had been the center of the eastern Roman empire until roughly the fifth century A.D.  With the decline of the Roman state, Byzantium rose to heights of enlightenment.  The Bishop of Rome had frequent disagreements with the Bishop of Constantinople, and the two were further divided when the brothers, Methodius and Constantine, eschewing Latin liturgies, insisted upon teaching the Slavic people in their native dialects.

Somewhere, everywhere, behind all of this history, real people — individuals — lived, laughed, loved, ached, pondered, plotted, played, and died.  Except for those fortunate to be named in a written historical account or folk tale, there is no trace today of anyone’s individual existence.  And even those about whom anything at all is written are evermore forgotten unless their stories are discovered, translated where necessary, published, and read.

<Table of Contents> <People and Places>

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