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Red Sea - Black Russia. Prolegomena to the History of North Central Eurasia in Antiquity and the Middle Ages

J. Bačić,
Columbia University, New York

We have established that in the Early Middle Ages, the Rhomaeans and Muslims had contacts and conflicts with the Russians whom they saw either as one people, or as a variety of peoples identical or related to the Slavs and confused with the Men of the North, al-Majus, and with Gog and Magog. None of the writers who dealt with Russia appears to have known the exact location and the extent of the Russian domain. Even the data recorded by the best informed among them, Constantine Porphyrogenitus, are vague and imprecise.

The results of historical processes in Ukraine and Russia, which archaeology can trace to the Stone Age, and history to the middle of the first millennium BC, became clear in mid-eleventh century AD, when the elites ruling the state called Russia by Arabs, Rhomaeans, and Western Christians decided to tell themselves and the world who they were. At that time, both the supreme political and religious authorities resided at Kiev on the Dnieper. The state's population was Slavic, but there were numerous other groups. In the north lived Finnic and Baltic peoples and in the south several peoples of the Turkic language family as well as the slowly disappearing remnants of the ancient populations of Great Scythia. Notable among the latter were the Goths, who survived into the sixteenth century as a separate group in the Crimea. In addition to these native peoples, numerous foreign merchants, mercenaries, and adventurers resided temporarily or permanently within the borders of Russia. Though many languages were spoken in the land, Slavic had been the lingua franca in Great Scythia since the seventh century, if not earlier. Church Slavonic, a literary language based on a Macedonian dialect spoken in and around the city of Salonica and written first in the Glagolitic then in the Cyrillic scripts, was the liturgical language of the Russian church and the official language of the state. Thus, regardless of its "original" ethno-linguistic character, Russia entered the Christian community of nations as a Slavic land.

Though the written records examined here provide valuable information on Russia, they are but weak rays of light beamed into the gloom of the northern quarter. We hope that our interpretation of this material has shown that Russia is not a sphinx, not an enigma wrapped in a mystery, to use a trite metaphor for that land and its people, but a natural landscape inhabited by real people, often hidden from outsiders behind the veil of their own ignorance and prejudice.

Conclusion монографии J. Bačić. Red Sea - Black Russia. Prolegomena to the History of North Central Eurasia in Antiquity and the Middle Ages. N.Y., 1995