The origins of Moscow: What archaeological finds, chronicles and urban legends tell us

The origins of Moscow: What archaeological finds, chronicles and urban legends tell us
Расцвет Кремля. Всехсвятский мост и Кремль в конце XVII века. А. Васнецов. 1922 год
Historians who, after much debate, have come to recognise 1147 as the capital’s founding year, are still uncertain about the month and day. According to some sources, it could have fallen on today, the 5th April. If so, where does the official September date come from, and is this claim as true as textbooks statings?

Memories emerging from Moscow’s soil

Archaeological digs show that the site of today’s Moscow and the surrounding area have been inhabited since time immemorial. Among the earliest finds are axes, fishing hooks and arrowheads made of stone and bone – relics of the so-called Lyalovo culture – which experts assign to the Neolithic period, i.e. the last phase of the Stone Age. Among others, a prehistoric settlement dating back to the 4th millennium BC was discovered on the grounds of Dyakovo village, now known as the Kolomenskoye memorial museum-estate, while a similar site found in Orekhovo-Zuyevo district is nearly a thousand years older.

The Fatyanovo culture, in its turn, marks the introduction and development of metals. The examination of numerous burial sites from the late 3rd millenium DC found in various parts of the Moscow Region, such as Istra and Iksha, led archaeologists to conclude that the land was inhabited by nomadic cattle breeders who made their tools and decorations from bronze.

The artefacts of the Dyakovo culture, which according to archaeological classifications covers a period of more than a thousand years from the 7th century BC to the 7th and 8th centuries AD, point to signs of a settled lifestyle. The discovery of domestic animal bones, iron sickles and querns indicates that the Finno-Ugric tribes who inhabited the area at the time, such as the Merya and the Veps, practised farming and cattle breeding.

Finally, researchers suggest that the burial mounds of the 10th and 11th centuries may have been left by the Slavic tribes the Vyatichs, who lived on the lands of modern Moscow, and the Krivichs, who occupied the upper part of the present-day Moscow area to the north of the Klyazma River.

Traces of Slavic settlements have been discovered in most districts of Moscow situated next to water: Dyakovo, Fili, Kuntsevo, Matveyevskoye, Brateyevo, Zyuzino, etc. The oldest dwelling known so far in Moscow is the home of a Vyatich craftsman near the Patriarch’s residence in the Kremlin [1]. It probably stood among a group of buildings surrounded by a moat that was filled up at the beginning of the 12th century and the outlines of which have been revealed by archaeologists near the Grand Kremlin Palace.

Some historians even find that the names of some Vyatich settlements mentioned in chronicles and tales, and those of present-day Moscow districts such as Vorobyovo, Vysotskoye, Kulishki, Kudrino, Simonovo, and Sushchyovo, have something in common.

Chronicles: Facts and questions

A generally recognised testimony to the future capital’s “parentage” was its first trustworthy mention of Moscow in Ipatiev (Kiev) Chronicle, one of the three chronicles that form the Hypathian Codex.

Recounting the events of the year 6655 following the creation of the world, which in the Byzantine chronology used at the time corresponds to 1147 in the Christian calendar, an annalist describes a successful military campaign waged by Prince Yuri Dolgoruky, Vladimir Monomakh’s son, and Prince Svyatoslav Olgovich on the lands of Novgorod and Smolensk, and mentions Yuri’s subsequent invitation to Svyatoslav to pay him a visit in Moscow. What follows are an account of Svyatoslav’s arrival, accompanied by his two sons and a small armed escort, on the eve of Saturday of the Akathist, and the warm welcome that they received, and the exchange of gifts, and the generous feast offered by Yuri the following day. There is no indication, however, either of the nature of the estate or of Yuri’s part, if any, in setting it up.

Another source, Tver Chronicle, is more specific, claiming that in 1156 Grand Prince Yuri Volodimerich laid down the town of Moscow between the mouths of two rivers, Neglinnaya and Yauza. In other words, the Grand Prince built a fortress; and archaeological excavations indeed show that such a structure once stood on the southwestern corner of the present-day Kremlin.

The problem, though, is the lack of trust that historians put in this record. The earliest surviving copy of the Hypatian Codex dates back to the 15th century, while that of the Tver Chronicle is of the 16th. There is evidence that in 1156 Yuri Dolgoruky was in Kiev and could hardly be building anything resembling the then-Moscow. It is reasonable to suggest that Yuri’s son Andrei Bogolyubsky actually built the fortress in question.

Urban legends

Some other versions of the origins of Moscow also make the rounds. A strand of writings, collectively known as the Tale of the Rise of Moscow and of the Krutitsy Eparchy, appeared at the end of the 17th century. Here, Prince Daniil Ivanovich, a purely imaginary character, while searching for a place for his capital, comes across a beast with spotted skin and three heads. His advisor, Basileios the Greek, treats the encounter as an omen indicating that the prince’s domain will be triangular in shape and inhabited by all sorts of people. The town is to be built around two focal points: the island, which serves as abode to a hermit by the name of Bukal, is where the ruler’s castle will stand, while the hill where lives a Roman called Podon will become the site of the Krutitsy Monastery. The town is said to have been settled in the year 6720 (1212).

The Tale, though mainly fictional, still contains a grain of historical truth. The creation of the Krutitsy Metochion (Podvorye) is indeed dated to the 13th century and attributed to Prince Daniil of Moscow.

There is more to be found in the magic box of Moscow’s legends. The Tale of Oleg, Founder of Moscow, otherwise called Of the Beginnings of the Sovereign Town of Moscow, which researchers also date back to the second half of the 17th century, credits the founding of Moscow to one of Rurik’s warlords, Prince Oleg, in the year 6388 (880). Oleg became the ruler of all Russian lands, followed by Rurik’s son Igor. The extremely concise narrative clearly emphasises an issue crucial for the justification of the prince’s authority: the unknown author traces Igor’s lineage back to the Roman emperor Augustus. Russia’s succession to Rome thus becomes a matter of fact rather than just a formula.

Строительство деревянных стен Кремля. XII век. А. Васнецов. 1903 год

Controversial date 

Despite the fictional nature of these legends, historians have always given them some consideration. The first references to their texts can be found in Vasily Tatishchev’s works. Nikolai Karamzin, for his part, contemptuously called them fairy tales. In contrast, Ivan Zabelin, one of the first directors of the History Museum, was less categorical, admitting that these legends in their own manner actually reflect real events.

Historians clearly have enough matter for discussion without having to consider legends. In addition to 880, 1147 and 1156, some sources, allegedly based on chronicles, mentioned other dates of Moscow’s birth, such as 1117 and 1140. This caused little concern until the 1840s when, in the run-up to the city’s 700th anniversary, the first serious discussion broke out on the pages of Moskovityanin, Moskovskiye Vedomosti and other periodicals.

The dispute, however, could be called serious in terms of intensity rather than the essence of its subject matter. Nikolai Karamzin in his History of the Russian State authoritatively named 1147 the correct year, just in accordance with Ipatiev Chronicle. Moreover, he specified the date of the two princes’ feast: Saturday of the Akathist, 28 March. Professor Ivan Snegiryov was the first historian who dared to place this date under doubt. Referring to certain shifts in Christian chronology, he suggested moving it instead to 5 April. Mikhail Pogodin and Alexander Herzen spoke in favour of Karamzin’s version, while Ivan Snegiryov was supported by his disciple Pyotr Khavsky and by the young Ivan Zabelin. The dispute ended in a draw: at the order of Emperor Nicholas I, Moscow modestly and almost unnoticeably celebrated its seventh centenary on… 1 January 1847.

By the end of the 19th century, historians practically stopped arguing and adopted a sort of democratic pluralism, each abiding by his own viewpoint. Some of them sympathised with the version that attributed the creation of Moscow to Oleg, while others dismissed it as an invention of later-day scribes.

Moscow’s next centenary, the eighth, was sumptuously celebrated in September 1947. Historians’ views were once again ignored. Joseph Stalin himself set the date, and no one was desperate enough to confront “the father of the peoples”. Celebrations were resumed in 1997 and became annual.

Research on this topic continues, however; archaeological digs are currently under way in different parts of Moscow, and new artefacts rekindle discussions as to the city’s age. Thus, an early settlement discovered within the boundaries of the Danilov Monastery is dated back to the 9th century; the remnants of ancient buildings found near the Red Square are assigned to the 9th or 10th century. Recently found ancient Arabic coins also pose quite a number of questions. All this leads some researchers to suggest that Moscow may well be some 200 to 300 years older than what the generally accepted Karamzin’s theory affirms.

Other scholars, more cautious or sceptically minded, put forward a few essential considerations. First of all, the terms that we use require clarification. While any group of dwellings can be called a settlement, a town must be complete with fortifications no lesser than dikes and ditches, and, in today’s terms, at least a basic infrastructure, such as paved streets.

Secondly, the creation of a town is a cultural event and a political act. In mediaeval Eastern Europe, a prince alone could promote a settlement to the rank of a town. As a rule, an event of such significance was to go on record, and this is exactly why chronicles are regarded as the main source of information on administrative matters.