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A Very Simplified History of Eastern Europe, the Slavs and the Jews: Part One

The origin of the Slavs

   The Slavs are Indo-Europeans who, during the Neolithic period, became separated from the larger linguistic family. By 1400-1200 BCE these Balto-Slavs split into two language groups: Baltic, the ancestor of both Latvian and Lithuanian, and proto-Slavic.

Slavs were referred to as Venedi (or Wends) by the Romans who situated them along the Baltic coast. However, the original homeland of early Slavs could well have included parts of today's central and eastern Poland, southern Belarus, and northwestern Ukraine. By the 4th to the 7th century, the Slavic Dulebi, Volhynians, Drevlians, Polans, Dregoviches, and Buzhans—ancestors of modern Ukrainians and Belarusians— were well settled on the lands between the Vistula and Bug rivers in the west, the Dniester and Dnieper in the east. By the 9th century, they had extended southward to the Carpathian Mountains.

In around 5,000 BCE, the Slavs had ceased to be hunters and food gatherers. Raising stock and farming the flat dry plains, Slavs were far less belligerent and destructive than incoming Eurasian nomadic horsemen such as the Scythians who hung scalped heads from their saddles, used the skin from arms as sacks for their quivers. However, to protect their crops and flocks, Slavs, too, were obliged to become more warlike.

Agriculture in the Middle Ages or Medieval Period (5th to the late 15th centuries)

   Peasants and animal herders comprised the greater part of the population in Medieval Europe. Whether freemen or serfs, they occupied the next to the lowest rung of the social ladder; only slaves were their inferiors. Living within village boundaries, largely illiterate, and with little concept of the great world outside, their primitive agricultural tools and practices doomed them to life at a subsistence level. Yet they were the foundation of society, producing the food that enabled the survival of all classes.

   A considerable rise in agricultural productivity arrived with the use of manure for fertility, crop rotation, and the invention of the iron-tipped plough which could turn over furrows—wooden ploughs merely scratched the surface. Another excellent innovation was the horse collar, for it removed pressure from a horse’s windpipe and permitted the hauling of heavy loads. Draught animals could now be hitched together, and soon, because of their greater strength, cattle replaced horses.

  Slash and burn agriculture and ploughing the land required small workgroups—usually families or nuclear families—thus many small villages came into existence. And after the 7th century, the claim to a defined space had replaced clan migration with its vague territorial claims. Typical villages could be comprised of a mere dozen, or up to a few hundred people. Houses were strung out along winding roads or, on the more exposed plain, clustered together on crisscrossing streets. Surrounding grasslands were collective.

Medieval Kievan Rus

  This territory, now Belarus, Ukraine, and parts of western Russia, came together as the medieval state of Kievan Rus, and it lasted from the 9th to the 13th century. It was ruled by the Varangians, the Roman name for Vikings, although no one is certain if they were Slavs or Norse people who had assimilated into Slavic culture. Kievan Rus was never one unified kingdom, but a conglomerate of principalities each headed by a prince, a descendant of the Varangian ruler Riuryk, and although each prince pledged allegiance to the grand prince resident in Kyiv, they were often at war with each other.


  In 980, the grand prince accepted the Eastern Christian Orthodox rite: acceptance into the larger Byzantine Commonwealth meant military assistance against the fearsome incoming Pechenegs and Cumans. There was, however, fierce clan resistance, and it took several centuries before pagan rites were totally vanquished. Yet, until 1054, religious loyalty association was liberal: the Orthodox and the Catholics could—and did—worship in the same churches. This happy truce ended when the pope and the patriarch, alienated from each other in doctrinal and political matters, fought to determine who was the supreme authority.

The Jews of Kievan Rus

  Commerce in Kievan Rus flourished thanks to the trade routes linking the Black Sea to Poland, Germany, and the Baltic basin. Jews had been important maritime merchants, co-founding and settling in the Greek cities along the Adriatic, Aegean, and Black Sea coasts. Also included in the community were Khazarian Jews, and Jews so assimilated into Slav society, they had Slavic names. The Jewish population increased considerably after the First Crusade’s persecutions and violence in 1096. These incomers from central Europe, Bohemia, and Moravia were, thanks to their international expertise, welcomed and protected by the Kievan princes. The travellers Benjamin of Tudela (1130-1173) and Rabbi Pethahiah of Regensburg (1175-1190) both mentioned the large community in Kiev, by then a large city with 4,000 dwellings and 80,000 people.

   By the late 11th century, Kievan Rus was in decline; by the 12th, it had disintegrated into rival regional powers. In 1199, the two principalities of Galicia (Halych) and Volhynia (today’s western and southern Ukraine) combined to become the extensive Kingdom of Galicia–Volhynia with Lviv as its capital city, but the Mongols were surging westward to slaughter Europe, and the kingdom collapsed in 1240. The Jewish community disintegrated; the boyars (a word of Turkic origin designating 7th-century Bulgar conquerors who, Slavicized, joined with clan chiefs to form an upper class) fled to Polish lands and, incorporated into the Lithuanian and Polish nobility, the Szlachta, they converted to Catholicism.

   Only five years later, under King Danylo, the Mongols were chased out of Volhynia—or perhaps they headed back to Qara-Quorum to join the race for succession after Great Khan Ogodaï died during a drinking binge. The re-born Kingdom of Galicia–Volhynia now knew its most glorious days, becoming one of the most powerful states in east-central Europe. A cultural centre where literature flourished, it benefitted from new arrivals: incoming German craftsmen, western Jews fleeing persecution, and Armenians whose country, Cilicia, had become a Mongol vassal state.

   This comfortable period lasted until 1323 and the end of the Rurikid dynasty. Volhynia then passed into the control of the Lithuanian prince Liubartas, and the boyars took over Galicia. The Polish prince Boleslaw Yuri II was invited to take the throne, and he did so, converting to Orthodoxy. However, suspected of harbouring Catholic loyalties, he was poisoned by the Orthodox boyars in 1340, then replaced by one of their own, Dmitry Detko.

The End of Independent Kievan Rus

One year later, a united Tatar and Ruthenian army led by Detko, and a Lithuanian force led by Liubartas, attacked and defeated the Poles. Their triumph was short-lived. In 1349, the ruling dynasty died out. Wanting to extend Poland’s territories but unable to expand southward because of the Bohemians, blocked in the north by the Teutonic Order, the Polish King Casimir III

could only expand by annexing the Rus kingdom. After Casimir’s death in 1370, Galicia-Volhynia was annexed by Lithuania, and it ceased to exist as an independent state.

Tag(s) : #Slavs and Jews, Early History of Eastern Europe
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