It would he useful to set out seriatim a few elementary geographical facts before attempting to enter on an abstract of Russian history to illustrate the references in the Slóvo.
Russia in Europe now comprises 1,997,000 square miles, a territory just less than seventeen times that of the United Kingdom. But medieval Russia, i.e. the country effectively occopied and nationalized, roughly comprized only the present Governments of Volhynia, Kíev, Černígov, Smolénsk, with outposts in Minsk and Vitebsk; farther North, Nóvgorod had established a free domain, which had little or no share in the current of Russian history, until it was merged in the Moscovite Empire by Iván III in the year 1478. Moscow and Northern Russia were only gradually colonized from the South in the course of the XII and XIII centuries.
On a rough calculation this essential Russia occupied no less an area than 90257 square miles, an expanse of not very much smaller than that of the entirety of the British islands.
Russia is a country of great waterways,:none of which empty into any of the great seas. The Dnĕstr flows through Poland and Galicia into the Black Sea at Odessa, the Dnĕpr, with its numerous affluents flows through central Russia, and reaches the same land-locked sea at Kherson; the Don and the Volga are still farther East, and the latter finds its outlet in that huge salt-water lake, the Caspian.
Medieval Russia only benefited by the Dněpr, which formed the great commercial road between the Baltic and the Black Sea.
But the homeland of Russian civilization suffered under great disadvantages. The immense flat stretch of North-Eastern Europe has no great mountains nor any natural frontiers, and medieval Russia in particular was an undefined land, open to aggression from all sides,
On the South she was cut off from the Black Sea and the estuary of the Dněpr at Čerkásy, † one hundred miles south of Pereyáslavl’.
From Čerkásy the Russian frontier ran more or less parallel with the coast of the Black Sea, and the land to the South was occupied by hostile nomads, To the East the rivers Sulá and Seĭm formed another shifting boundary; and the Turanian tribes held undisputed, sway up to the farthest North, to the shores of the White Sea.
On the West, there was an uncertain line of demarcation in what is now Austrian Galicia and Eastern Poland, a region always contested for by the Roman Catholic Poles against the Orthodox Russians.
On the North, the Lithuanians and Esths, and other savage races, which had not yet attained to civic life, barred the way to the Baltic; when they were conquered, it was by the German knights of Brandenburg.
Thus the Russians, in addition to being an inland state, had none of the security of a frontier formed by mountain-ranges (such as the Carpathians, which sheltered the Hungarians, nor that of one formed by one of the great rivers.
This indefensible position was held by the Russians of Kíev, who bore all the brunt of the Turanian assaults in the confused migrations of the ninth, tenth and eleventh centuries. Their realm, minute as it is in comparison with modern Russia, was a vast field to defend. These geographical factors are of the utmost importance, if the division and anarchy of Russian history is to be understood, and, to a certain extent, condoned. Thus, taking distances as the crow flies, from Nóvgorod to Pskov is two hundred miles, from Pskov to Polotsk, (the fief of the Kriviči and an independent branch of the reigning family)--300 miles, from Černígov to Minsk 325, from Černígov to Kíev (the two capitals of medieval Russia) one hundred miles, from Kíev to Pereyáslavl’ 75, from the junction of the rivers Donéts and Don to Kíev 500, and from Vladímir Suzdalski, (the first capital of the Northern branch of the family who were to gain sovereignty over all Russia) 600 miles.
This tedious list of figures might be prolonged: but they must be emphasized: otherwise the abuses of the medieval Russian polity will remain inexplicable on any theory of human folly. These great flaws, were the incessant subdivision of territory amongst the sons of the reigning house; the retention of lateral descendibility instead of lineal [отчины, дѣдины], with all of its attendant risks civil war, disputed rights and the temptaion to establish independent domains: it was because the rights of minors could not be effectually guarded, because children could not
undertake the heavy military duties that so very swiftly wore out the warlike generations of the Russians.
One or two really great rulers succeeded in the frightful task of establishing central authority and maintaining these vague and shifting boundaries.
The Russians themselves at this time called themselves collectively Руць. It was a word with an import like that of Ἑλλάς of old; an honorific, rather than a territorial designation; wherever the Russian went was Руць; he built cities, established the Christian worship; and, segregated from contact with the West by his position and parted from the decaying Eastern Empire, (to which he owed his civilization) by barbarian marauders who beset the lines of communication by land, (whilst he had no access by sea), he upheld his culture and spread it abroad, colonized and permeated the Finnish territories to the North and the Turanian to the South, and everywhere carried his country with hire.
That he had great lacks and faults, is very evident, The Russian had no genius for organization; stupendous as the work was, the later princes showed no power of adaptation. Their separatist tendencies betrayed them into every dishonourable course, alliance with the savage tent-dwellers who were shaking the foundations of their state, treachery amongst themselves, unwillingness to co-operate. All through Russian history down to the final defeat by the Tatars in the year 1224, it was only the house that happened to hold the throne at Kíev that fought against the myriad foes from beyond the steppes; and, when the Tatars were established for their two hundred years of rule, subjugation brought the most disgusting servility and meanness in its train.
The Slóvo was written only some fifty years before the great disaster of 1224; it is literally and narrowly historical; and it portrays the merits of the Russians, to whom it fell to beat off the Asiatic invaders of Europe, their high ideal, as well as their lapses from it.
This history must now be reviewed in brief outline.
v:† about 150 miles from the sea coast: and 300 by the Dněpr.