Read Russia Online

Authors: Philip Longworth

Russia (2 page)

BOOK: Russia
6.19Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
The Russians: Who are They?

1547, within days of the deaths of Henry VIII of England and Francis I of France, at the other end of Europe a sixteen-year-old youth was crowned tsar of Russia. The ceremony took place in the Kremlin’s Cathedral of the Assumption, one of most richly decorated of all Europe’s cathedrals, and when the Tsar emerged, crowned and holding orb and sceptre, to be showered with gold to symbolize prosperity, all the bells of Moscow pealed out and the huge, enthusiastic crowds roared as if in expectation of great things to come. The youth they acclaimed was Ivan IV, first titular emperor of Russia, self-proclaimed descendant of the Viking Riurik and of the Roman Emperor Augustus. He was to prove himself a dedicated empire-builder, whose possessions came to extend right across Eurasia, from Sweden to Persia and from the Baltic to the Pacific. It was the largest imperial heartland in the world.

Most accounts of the Russian past begin here — or even later, with Peter the Great — and give only cursory treatment to the preceding periods, despite their relevance to the development of Russian imperialism. This history, however, will begin at the beginning. But what was the beginning? Russian tradition suggests the arrival of Riurik and his band of Vikings in the ninth century, but since they found the land inhabited should one not begin earlier? And should one begin with the people or with the land of Russia? Common sense suggests the land, but, since the Russian environment and ecology were formed to an extent simultaneously with human settlement, there is reason to deal with them together. Either course presents a problem, however, since this story begins long before the written records on which most history is based, and since no historical records of those times survive (even supposing they were ever made). We shall therefore have to reconstruct our account of what happened by inference, from the conclusions of sciences other than history.

Anthropologists, archaeologists, experts in linguistics and others have all contributed to our understanding of what happened, but there are questions on which there is, as yet, no consensus
the live areas of scholarship
fired by dispute. Even when written sources appear, they cannot be taken at their face value. The early chroniclers worked for princes. They recorded what was of interest to their masters and, like public-relations staffs today, did so in ways which showed them in the best light, suppressing inconvenient facts. They justified their princes’ actions, supported their claims, and blackened the reputations of their enemies.

Despite these problems, the data unearthed by scholars in a variety
fields allows us to construct a picture of even the earliest past of human society and its environment. The information is patchy, disputed at points, and tells us little or nothing about some things we would like to know -such as the stories of individual human beings. The best picture we can build of the Russians’ earliest past, then, will resemble an old, imperfect silent movie. It will describe a long-drawn out process in a series of brief rushes; the definition will often be indistinct, and the film will break off altogether at certain points. Yet there are
certainties about human existence in what is now Russia from as early as twenty millennia ago, and even a sweeping survey of this difficult prehistoric ground may yield clues that could prove vital to later conclusions about the nature of Russians and their expansionist tendencies.

The territory of European Russia had been populated before the Ice Age. Among the earliest remains that have so far been discovered is a grave at Sungir, near Vladimir in central Russia. It dates from between 20,000 and 26,000 years ago, and contained the bones of a twelve- or thirteen-year-old boy and a girl of six or seven. The dead wore garments similar to modern anoraks and leather trousers that were sewn directly to their moccasin-like shoes — a device which Siberians still use to fight the cold. Their clothes had been decorated with thousands of shell beads. These and the variety of stone tools, pierced antler rods, ivory bracelets, and the two spears made from straightened mammoth tusks found with them suggest that the children were the offspring of a chief.

The Sungir remains mark an end rather than a beginning, of societies as well as of individuals, for the people of Sungir disappeared along with the mammoths and the population of almost all the rest of Europe. As the cold became more intense, they either died or moved to the warmer climes of the continent’s southern peripheries. However, the territory was resettled after the Ice Age, and so our story resumes after a lapse of several millennia about 10,000 to 16,000 years ago.

One basic certainty is that the Russians are Europeans by descent. We
know this from the work of the geneticist Dr O. Semino and his associates. In the year 2000 they published a major study which has extended knowledge of the genetic history of Europeans. They had analysed blood samples from over 1,000 men from all over Europe, and their findings, which focused on the Y chromosome, which is carried only by males, led them to conclude that when Europe was struck by the Ice Age, about 24,000 years ago, its Stone Age inhabitants withdrew in three directions, taking refuge in the warmer climes of southern Europe: Mediterranean France and Spain, the Balkans, and what is now Ukraine. The Russians are descended from this last group.

The Ice Age ended very slowly, and the global warming was interrupted by phases when the great cold returned. Eventually, however, the glaciers retreated, and the earth warmed somewhat, although permafrost continued to hold the tundra of the far north and large tracts of Siberia in its deadening grip. It does so to this day. There are still immense tracts of tundra where the subsoil is permanently frozen, which makes for problems in maintaining rail beds for Siberia’s railways. But elsewhere, as temperatures became milder, the atmosphere became moister. As it did so, life gradually returned — at first in the form of plants, then of insects and animals. As larger areas became habitable once more, descendants of the three groups of refugees began to repopulate those regions of Europe which their ancestors had abandoned when they became ice-bound.

By the time of the return, each group of humanoids carried a genetic specific that differed significantly from the others. We also know that most of them belonged to blood group B, and were predominately rhesus positive. But the blood of the Ukrainian group, to which the Russians owe their origins, was now distinguished by haplotype Eu 19. This genetic marker was to be bestowed on the generations of Slavs and other Europeans who were to follow.

At first, these ancestors
the Russians, Ukrainians, Poles, Hungarians and others (for scholars know of no characteristics which distinguished them from one another until very much later) were confined to a swathe of territory to the north and west of the Black Sea. Much of the country beyond, later known as Russia, was still covered with icy marsh, and conditions over large areas even further south did not allow life to flourish in any form. The atmosphere was as dry as the temperature was cold, and, since life depends on humidity, the vast terrain was bleak, forbidding. Before humans could survive there, an ecological system with the potential to sustain human life had to develop.

The first need was for plant life. The earliest species to appear were those
with the highest tolerance of cold. Tiny, rudimentary plants pioneered the taming of the wastelands, then successively larger plants, including trees — the aspen and the birch (still characteristic of northern Russia), the pine, the larch, the hazel and the willow. Where the warming produced excessive wetness, the spruce helped make the area more hospitable. As the climate became milder 7,000 to 8,000 years ago, the hornbeam and linden appeared, and, where conditions favoured them, deciduous oak and elm took root and flourished. The famous Russian forests were in the making.

Towards the milder south, however, the forests gradually thinned out into the rolling steppe. The vegetation there was thick, but rainfall was less certain and the winds which blew across from Asia were so fierce that, except in deep ravines which afforded some protection, trees were comparatively rare.

The moister conditions had already created an environment hospitable to insects, including the productive bee. As water temperatures rose, more and more species of fish appeared, eventually including pike, perch and salmon, and it became warm enough to accommodate the water chestnut too. Ducks and other water fowl arrived, and larger, more complex, animals moved into what had been wasteland — hares, beavers, red deer, roe deer, and a variety of predatory species including the fox, the wolf, the lynx, the glutton (similar to the American wolverine) and the lumbering, honey-loving brown bear. And, now a suitable environment had been created, human beings also entered the scene.

They had begun to exploit certain wild creatures in the south country where they had sheltered during the Ice Age, and they followed them northward into their new habitats as the ice receded. They hunted deer and wild pigs and horses for food, and in time they were to domesticate some of them. Primitive man understood breeding. He also learned to cultivate certain grasses for their seeds, and to crush them into flour, which could be cooked and eaten. The descendants of the first practitioners of this systematic crop-raising and animal-rearing were to carry these techniques northward. However, the movement of humans from the southern lands into the virgin lands to the north was gradual and exploratory. People moved cautiously, edging little by little into the new environment, and the yields from farming were, as yet, sparse and unreliable. Hunting, fishing and gathering whatever edible plants nature provided in season remained essential to human sustenance.

Indeed, the hunters led the way into the virgin territories, penetrating to the edge of the northernmost areas that were free of ice in summer, tracking animals and birds to kill, not only for food, but also for their fur,
feathers, horns and bones, from which all manner of useful things could be made. Others trekked upriver and explored lakes to find the points where fish could be found in abundance and caught most easily, and seasonal gatherers (mostly women and children, one imagines) came with the men, searching for edible grasses, berries, nuts and other forest fruits like mushrooms. Normally they would retreat to base at the onset of winter, carrying their spoils. But as populations grew, so did pressures to extend the areas of permanent settlement. Similar pressures affected the primitive societies of central Europe too, so that migrants from the west, including those who were subsequently to be identified as Baits and Finns, also moved into fringes of the north-land.

The people who explored and eventually made homes in the Russian lands belonged to the species
Homo sapiens sapiens.
They were, as we have seen, genetically distinct, Caucasoid in anthropological type, and capable of speech and language. Their culture was of the Stone Age, but of the later, more sophisticated, palaeolithic kind. We can infer that they were by nature curious, venturesome, ingenious and adaptable.

Their adaptation to their new homeland took two forms: conscious and unconscious. The conscious process involved learning from experience, collectively as well as individually, and the recording of experience through memory and storytelling down the generations. Unconscious adaptation took place over a much longer timescale, as it still does, and was genetic. The DNA of the Russians’ ancestors gradually changed in response to climate and environment. In more northerly areas, where they had less exposure to sunlight, their hair grew fairer and their skin lighter. In colder areas their noses tended to grow longer, allowing the air they breathed in a longer time to be warmed in its passage to the lungs; and, thanks to the processes of natural selection, they developed resistance or immunity to some diseases. Their genetic structure was to change somewhat as they encountered other groups and mated with them, but their essential characteristics are broadly identifiable and have persisted into our own times.

Although we can relate no personal stories from these earliest, formative, times, we can begin to picture representative Russian men and women. A huge research project mounted by the Soviet Academy of Sciences in its heyday was devoted to describing the Russians in terms of physical type and to investigating the historical origins of their physical characteristics. The work, carried out in the later 1950s by Dr V. Bunak and his team of ethnographers, examined no fewer than 17,000 adult men and women in over 100 regions of Russian settlement. The large sample made it statistically possible to map an anthropological type in all its variations. Whereas earlier
research had concentrated on the geographical spread of head shapes and body height, this study also registered face size (breadth and height from the brow), complexion, hair colour, shape of nose, thickness of lip, body height, strength of beard growth, and other indicators including blood group. Variations in each characteristic were mapped, and combinations of them were grouped according to geographical area.

It was found, for example, that in north-west Russia people were moderately brachycephalic, or short-headed with rather broad skulls, and had fairish hair, broad faces, comparatively weak beard growth and, often, a high base of nose, though all these characteristics varied in intensity within the region. To the west the Russians were found to have longer faces, darker hair (by contrast to their fair-complexioned Finnic, Balt and Mazurian Polish neighbours), lower nose-bases, and a higher incidence
folded eyelids. In the south-east, by contrast, people were mostly mesocephalic, with medium-shaped skulls and skull capacity. They had bright complexions and dark hair; and again these characteristics were more pronounced in some parts of the region than in others.

Variations in build and appearance reflected intermarriage with neighbouring groups, but also natural selection in response to differences in diet and climatic conditions. The better nourished people are, the taller they tend to be; the greater their exposure to the sun, the darker their colouring; the greater the cold, the more Mongoloid their faces; the less their exposure to light, the fairer their hair.
To this extent the appearance of the Russians, as with all humanity, is partly a response to their environment, which continues to change.

BOOK: Russia
6.19Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Other books

Longarm 422 by Tabor Evans
Just a Couple of Days by Tony Vigorito
Bury Me When I'm Dead by Cheryl A Head
Reckless & Ruined by Bethany-Kris
Dream Caller by Michelle Sharp
An Untimely Frost by Penny Richards
Equilibrium by Lorrie Thomson