Apr 26, 2022
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An entertaining history lesson from a Belarusian deputy

There was no statehood other than Old Russian in ancient Polotsk

On the last day of March, Deputy Chairman of the Security Council of the Russian Federation Dmitry Medvedev published an article in the Polish version of the agency Satellite indicating popular myths used in Poland to discredit Russia. In particular, he noted that the Poles blame Russia for the partitions of Poland in the second half of the 18th century, although the Russian Empress Catherine II did not take the Polish (ethnic) lands proper, but returned “her own”, that is, territories with an Orthodox population, captured at one time by the Lithuanians. We are talking about the lands of modern Belarus and the western half of Ukraine.

This statement provoked a rebuke from the deputy of the Belarusian House of Representatives Valery Voronetsky, who since 1995 held various diplomatic positions in the embassies of Belarus abroad, and in 2006-2011. was Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs. Voronetsky offered his own version of the “real Belarusian history”.

“Reply” is interesting for two reasons. Firstly, it reveals the views on the history of the representative of the Belarusian elite, which, under the shadow of “independence” and “sovereignty”, has been holding on to power for thirty years. With regard to the Russian world, she has formed a clear rejection, and she is quite ready to echo Zelensky – “we are different.” “This is not Russia, we have our own” – this is the main motive. Secondly, the opinions of the Belarusian deputy can be viewed as the result of the influence of educational and popular historical literature replicated in Belarus. And here we see only a reproduction of historical myths that Belarusian nationalists have been breeding since the beginning of the 20th century. These myths are served under the sauce of “real”, “carefully hidden” Belarusian history. Generations of Belarusians were brought up on this, set against the political course towards an alliance with Russia, taken by the official leadership of the republic.

What, in fact, hooked Valery Voronetsky in Dmitry Medvedev’s article? Reference to the fact that the Russian Empress during the divisions of the Commonwealth in 1772-1795. returned “its”

Yours!? How! These lands did not historically belong to Russia, one can guess the indignation of the Belarusian deputy, who decided to concisely reproduce the opinions popular in Belarus about its historical isolation from Russia. Let’s follow the author in his reasoning.

Ancient Polotsk

Ancient Polotsk

He traditionally starts from the “cradle of the Belarusian statehood” – the Principality of Polotsk. Here, on the trade route from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea, allegedly “the first historical politically independent state on the territory of Belarus” is born. All this is presented as an obvious, self-explanatory fact. But in vain! Voronetsky, in particular, notes that the first mention of Polotsk dates back to 862. Under this year in the Tale of Bygone Years there is an article telling about the calling of the Varangian Rurik to Novgorod and the formation of a state with the name “Russian Land”. According to the chronicle, Rurik sends “his husbands” to different cities, and Polotsk, the city of the Krivichi, is named among them. It turns out that the annalistic Krivichi with the main city of Polotsk are subject to the authority of Rurik of Novgorod and are included in their region into the Russian land. So is this the beginning or the end of “the first politically independent state on the territory of Belarus”?

The path from the Varangians to the Greeks

The path from the Varangians to the Greeks

In 907, again, the Tale of Bygone Years says that the Kyiv prince Oleg took a ransom from the Greeks for Russian cities. In the list of these cities, in which the princes subordinate to Oleg sit, Polotsk is again mentioned. Then the center of the Polotsk Krivichi is mentioned in the annals under the year 980 in connection with the episode of the attack of Vladimir Svyatoslavich, at that time the prince of Novgorod. In Polotsk, he is opposed by a certain Rogvolod, “who came from beyond the sea.” It is said about the latter that he “had his power in Polotsk.” Some Belarusian historians explain this phrase in the sense of indicating the independence of Rogvolod. The assumption is doubtful, given that Prince Svyatoslav, known for his belligerence and who went on campaigns to Khazaria and Danube Bulgaria, would hardly have ignored the whole area of ​​​​the Rurik power (Polotsk land), which for some reason refused to pay tribute to Kyiv. But even so, the period of Rogvolod’s rule did not last long and ended with the capture of Polotsk by Prince Vladimir. Subsequently, the Kyiv prince appoints his son Izyaslav, born of Rogneda Rogvolodovna, to Polotsk.

Trident of Prince Izyaslav of Polotsk

Trident of Prince Izyaslav of Polotsk

The Krivichi region does not fall out of the Russian land and beyond. This is not contradicted by the fact that Izyaslav’s successor, Bryachislav of Polotsk, attacked Novgorod in 1021 and came into conflict with Prince Yaroslav of Kyiv, who kept his governor in Novgorod. The prince of Polotsk was defeated on the Sudomiri River and gave away all the loot. In order to protect himself from new attacks by Bryachislav, the Kyiv prince gave him the cities of Vitebsk and Usvyat, on the condition that he always be at one with him. Until the end of his life, Bryachislav († 1044) fought together with the Grand Duke Yaroslav of Kyiv (Resurrection Chronicle).

Prince Vseslav of Polotsk

Prince Vseslav of Polotsk

The rule of Vseslav, the son of Bryachislav, in Polotsk, is presented by some Belarusian historians as an example of protecting the interests of “their state”, as if the Polotsk principality was a separate power. This violent prince marked himself with predatory attacks on Pskov, Novgorod and Smolensk, spent time in prison, was a great Kyiv prince for a short time, and went to war in distant Tmutarakan. However, it does not follow from all this that he was a statesman, under whom Polotsk strengthened its independence. It was a prince-patrimony, who sought to raise his well-being at the expense of his neighbors. In the course of military clashes with the coalition of South Russian princes Yaroslaviches, Vseslav lost his throne more than once, and princes appointed from Kyiv ruled in Polotsk. In addition, if we take into account the long period of Vseslav’s reign (57 years from 1044 to 1101 with short breaks), then only four years will be necessary for his active struggle with Kyiv, from 1067 to 1071. Before that, Vseslav took part in in all-Russian affairs, for example, in 1060, together with the southern Russian princes, he went to the nomadic Torks. And after the last defeat in 1071 near Golotichesky, Vseslav managed to regain Polotsk only as a result of an agreement with the Kyiv prince Izyaslav, obviously on the condition of being at one with him. When the Grand Duke of Kyiv Izyaslav died, Vseslav did not retain his loyalty to his successors, not missing the opportunity to plunder the neighboring volosts when their princes went with their squads to the nomadic Polovtsians. For this, the future prince of Kyiv Vladimir Monomakh went to the borders of the Polotsk principality more than once with the war. However, at that time, princely feuds had already become commonplace in the Russian land.

So the “first Belarusian statehood in Polotsk”, which Voronetsky covers with the words “as is known”, is a far from obvious value. The Belarusian political elite, of course, wants “their own” statehood, but the facts indicate the opposite: Polotsk land, like Turov, was part of a single political system of the ancient Russian state with a center in Kyiv. The sign of the Rurikids (trident) becomes a characteristic sign of the Polotsk princes.

Voronetsky also points to a single economic basis of the Russian land, speaking of the trade route from the Baltic to the Black Sea (Byzantium). But could Polotsk, Smolensk or Novgorod provide control over its entire length? Whoever held Kyiv in his hands, he held the key to all Dnieper trade, according to V.O. Klyuchevsky. Only one of the ways of this trade ran along the Dvina through Polotsk, and the Polotsk princes derived great benefits from this. They could not be economically isolated and only occasionally attacked their northern rival Novgorod. They had to live in full harmony with Kyiv, otherwise the Polotsk merchants would not have traveled further south. Items of oriental luxury came to Polotsk through Kyiv, salt was delivered here from Kyiv. Forestry products went south from Polotsk: honey, wax, furs. The Russian land, united by the efforts of the Kyiv princes, was a single economic organism..

Ignoring the unified economic basis of the ancient Russian state, Voronetsky calls into question its church unity. The Belarusian deputy propagandizes a historical myth, indicating the year 986 as the time of the christening of Polotsk. Like, the Krivichi adopted the Christian faith before the official appeal of Kyiv! They were allegedly baptized by the Scandinavian king Thorvald.

The baptism of the country is connected not only with the baptism of people, but also with the creation of a correct church organization. The Metropolis of Kyiv became such, and a diocese was established in Polotsk. The date adopted in this case (992) is conditional, the exact year remains unknown. The spread of the Christian faith in the Principality of Polotsk is associated with the time of Prince Vladimir the Baptist and his son Izyaslav. The veneration of the first was known throughout Russia and was enshrined in the church calendar of the Polotsk region, as evidenced by the references even of the later Uniate writers. About Torvald, there was “neither a rumor nor a spirit”, until in the 19th century. publications of the Scandinavian sagas did not become known.

The date of the arrival of the Icelandic king Torvald in Polotsk (986), derived by the Belarusian historian from Sweden Andrei Kotlyarchuk, is erroneous and is refuted by the evidence of the “Saga of the Baptism of Iceland”. It is directly stated here that Thorvald went on a long journey to the Holy Land and visited Constantinople, and after 1000 went to Russia. From Constantinople, he went to Kyiv, and then died in “Ruz” near the city of Polotsk (“Pallteschia”), was buried in a mountain near “Drapna” near the church of St. John the Baptist (“The Baptismal Saga of Iceland”). In Polotsk, indeed, since the XIV century. the monastery of St. John the Baptist, but he was not on a mountain, but on an island in the middle of the Dvina opposite the city castle. Neither the mention of Thorvald, nor even the honoring of him as a saint, is reported by any local evidence. There are historians who believe that the indication “near Polotsk” can be understood very broadly, so they are looking for the resting place of Torvald in the space from Kyiv to Braslav.

What can be said about this first part of the historical judgments of the Belarusian deputy? Whatever goals he pursues, starting his historical lessons from the time of the Polotsk principality, the starting point for him are historical myths. There was no statehood other than Old Russian in ancient Polotsk.

How?! After all, among them are the regions of modern Belarus! Did they once belong to Russia?! Such, one must understand, indignation moved the Belarusian deputy. Having finished his “historical excursus”, the author sums up: “Russian Empress Catherine II had no reason to consider the Belarusian lands as “her own””.

Top photo: Polotsk in its heyday,

(To be continued)

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