The Slavs: Their Early History and Civilization

Francis Dvornik





Such then, briefly stated, was the political, cultural and social development of the Slavs, from the dawn of their history to the middle of the thirteenth century. As we have seen, at the end of the twelfth and at the beginning of the thirteenth centuries, almost all the Slavic states experienced profound crises that threatened their very existence. A better future seemed, however, to beckon to the Slavs from the thirteenth century on. In most of the Slavic political formations we witness an unexpected rise to new heights in the political and cultural development of Europe.


Bohemia was the first to rise to a new importance in Central Europe. Profiting from the decline of medieval Germany and from the strife for the imperial crown, the last kings of the Přemyslide dynasty extended their influence within the Empire. Přemysl Ottokar II (1253-1278) won the inheritance of the Babenbergers





in the Alpine region and became founder of modern Austria. Through the Austrian lands he came into direct contact with Italy, a circumstance which had its importance in the cultural development of Bohemia. Emboldened by this success, he extended his hand to grasp the imperial crown, but lost his life in battle with his rival Rudolf of Habsburg, and his achievements in Austria became the basis of the rise of the Habsburg dynasty.


His son, Wenceslas II, the wealthiest king of Europe, because of the rich silver mines discovered in Bohemia, tried his chances in the East, and succeeded in uniting Poland with Bohemia. Hungary offered its crown to him. A new political formation was rising in Central Europe, a mighty formation, with Prague as its center. The premature death of Wenceslas II and the assassination (1306) of his son Wenceslas III, the last Přemyslide, extinguished all these high hopes.


It was reserved to Charles IV of the dynasty of Luxemburg to realize the dreams of the Přemyslides. As Roman Emperor and King of Bohemia, Charles IV made Prague the capital of the Empire, an independent metropolis, and the seat of the first university founded in Central and Eastern Europe (1348). Bohemia rose to an unusual height in political and cultural life. This “golden age,” however, did not last. A national, religious and social crisis followed in the wake of this rise and plunged the country into the chaos of the Hussite wars. The Czechs heroically defended their own “Reformation,” inaugurated by John Hus, against the armies of the crusaders, and won undying military fame, but the achievements of the “golden age” were lost to a great extent in the crisis. In vain did their moderate reformers claim official recognition by the Pope of those concessions yielded to them at the Council of Basel (1433). Although the Czechs made considerable progress in the cultural field, they continued to be harrassed by religious strife and crisis.


A new hope rose for them under the Polish dynasty of the Jagiellonians when Poland, Bohemia and Hungary were united. But the dynasty of Habsburg took over the inheritance of the Jagiellonians; and the Czechs, favoring the new Reformation





and opposing the Habsburg King Ferdinand II, lost their independence in a single battle in 1620. The Kingdom of Bohemia was gradually incorporated as a province into the Habsburg Monarchy.


The Southern Slavs also rose to a new importance in the thirteenth century. Profiting by the decline of Byzantine political power which set in after the death of Manuel I Comnenos (1180), the Bulgarians revolted (1185). Their leaders, John and Peter Assen and especially Kalojan (1197-1207), laid the foundations of the second Bulgarian Empire. The Serbs, under their great Župan Nemanja, also shook off the political yoke of Byzantium, and the new Serbian State extended its sway from Serbia proper over the former Dioclean kingdom and over some Latin cities on the Adriatic. The conquest of Constantinople by the Latins, in 1204, offered new opportunities to Bulgarian and Serbian rulers. Their support was solicited by the Greeks, the Papacy and the new Latin Empire. The Bulgarian Tsar John Assen II (1218-1244) almost succeeded in realizing Symeon the Great’s dream — the conquest of Constantinople. Both countries made considerable progress in their political, economic and cultural evolution and played an important role in contemporary southeastern Europe.


When Bulgarian prestige, which was at its highest in the thirteenth century, diminished, Serbia came forward and for some time took the leadership in the Balkans. The greatest Serbian Tsar Stephen Dušan (1331-1355) even succeeded in bringing about a kind of federal union with Bulgaria. Realizing the danger from the Turks, who had succeeded in getting a firm hold on Greek soil, he proclaimed himself champion of Christian interests and made preparations for the conquest of Constantinople. Sudden death prevented him from realizing his aim and from uniting the Christian forces against the Turkish menace. The Turkish wave first swallowed Bulgaria and overran the lands conquered by Dušan. It moved forward, gradually engulfed the whole of Serbia and Bosnia, inundated the plains of Croatia and broke into Hungary, to be stopped only under the walls of Vienna. Then





the wars of liberation started, fought mostly by Slovak, Czech, German and Croat regiments under Austrian generals, a struggle which resulted first in the liberation of Hungary and Croatia and which ended only in the twentieth century for the Balkan nations.


A new life started also in Eastern Europe. Poland, tom by continuous internal strife and disturbed by the growing German influence, finally found its unity under a national king. In the reign of Casimir III the Great (1333-1370) the Poles advanced rapidly to new fame. Casimir stopped the menacing progress of the Teutonic Order, consolidated Polish lands and, supported by Hungary, his ally, assured Poland a place of honor in Central and Eastern Europe.


On the foundations built by Casimir, the Jagiellonian dynasty continued to erect a new empire. The dynastic union with Lithuania — comprising many Russian principalities, with Kiev, liberated by the Lithuanians from the Tatars — was soon completed by the dynastic union with Bohemia and Hungary. Even the proud Teutonic Order had to acknowledge Polish supremacy, which extended from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea. It was at this time that Poland experienced its literary and cultural renaissance, the achievements of which are remarkable.


The union with Lithuania was, however, one of the main reasons for a new crisis which was predestined in the end to prove fatal to Poland. Russia was, in the meantime, from the end of the thirteenth century, also finding a new center round which its national and cultural life started to revolve — Moscow. The princes of this small principality revealed a rare ability in acquiring new territories, which they administered very wisely. Securing from the Tatar khagans the title of Grand Prince and the privilege of levying for the khagans the tribute due to the Tatars by all Russian principalities, they outgrew all their rivals in Russia. After securing the support of the Russian Church, when the Metropolitan of Kiev settled in Moscow, the rulers of Moscow became leaders of the national struggle for freedom. The Grand Prince Dmitri (1359-1389), who secured the first Russian victory over the Tatars on the River Don, became the legendary symbol of





this struggle which ended in 1480, under Ivan III, with the definite liberation of all Russia from the Tatars.


Soon, however, the consequences of the isolation of Russia from the rest of Europe for over two hundred years became apparent. The Russia of Moscow was very much different from Kievan Russia. The grand princes of Moscow developed a strong monarchic régime, centralizing all the power in the hands of a single ruler. Soon they started to claim dominion over all Russia, even over the principalities which had joined the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth. Rejecting the new cultural treasures offered them by the Poles, the Russians entrenched themselves in their own Orthodox traditions and refused to accept anything from the nation which ruled over lands claimed by Moscovite princes as their otčiny — rightful inheritance from their forefathers.


This mentality prompted the Russians to sever relations also with the Greeks after the latter had accepted, for a short period, the Union with the Latins proclaimed by the Council of Florence (1439). Basil II declared himself the only lawful protector of Orthodoxy, represented by the Russian Church, and soon Russian ecclesiastic theoreticians started to declare Moscow the third Rome, rightful successor of Rome and Constantinople. Unimpressed by the claims to Byzantine inheritances, the Moscovite princes pressed only their right to lands formerly ruled by their masters, the Tatar khagans, and to “Russian” land under Poland-Lithuania, although two new Slavic nations were coming into being in those lands — the Ukrainians and the Byelorussians.


The first Tsar Ivan IV, the Terrible (1533-1584), started the Russian drive toward the Baltic Sea, on one side, and beyond the Volga and the Urals into the wide Siberian plains. An immense empire was rising, proud in its isolation from the rest of Christianity, looking for leadership only to its tsar and patriarch, the head of its Church.


The two Slavic nations clashed in a bloody and prolonged conflict when, after the extinction of the Rurik dynasty, the Poles made an attempt to put a Polish prince on the Moscovite throne. National and religious bias grew in Russia during this period of





troubles. The new dynasty of the Romanovs (from 1613 on) continued the policy of the Ruriks and eagerly joined Prussia in plans for dividing Poland, weakened by the decline of royal power and the growth of the influence on State affairs of the uncontrollable assemblies of the aristocrats. Instead of the slow penetration of Western cultural, technical and economic achievements, which Russia needed and which could have reached it peacefully through Poland, came the avalanche-like inrush, for which the Russians were not ready, when Peter the Great suddenly opened the gates that had hitherto permitted only a trickle of Western ideas to enter Moscovite Russia. This violent inrush is responsible for many a crisis that swept over Russia.


All this development opens new and varied vistas on the history of the Slavs and on their political and cultural relations with the rest of the world. The achievements realized during this medieval and postmedieval era provided the chief inspiration for the Slavic nations when they were engulfed in the empires of Germany, Austria-Hungary, Turkey, and Moscovite Russia. It is the conserved memory of their storied past that has always inspired the Slavs in their ever-recurring struggles for freedom, and it will never fail to have significance for them.


Only the scholar who is familiar with this rich and eventful history will be able to comprehend the Slavic mentality and understand the present and future history of the Slavic people. It is for this reason that this period of the rise and crisis of medieval Slavdom deserves a more thorough study.


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