Hunnish Invasion Distribution of Races Slavonic Religion Primitive Political Conceptions



In speaking of this eastern half of Europe as Russia, we have been borrowing from the future. At the time we have been considering there was no Russia. The world into which Christ came contained no Russia. The Roman Empire rose and fell, and still there was no Russia. Spain, Italy, France, and England were taking on a new form of life through the infusion of Teuton strength, and modern Europe was coming into being, and still the very name of Russia did not exist. The great expanse of plains, with its medley of Oriental barbarism, was to Europe the obscure region through which had come the Hunnish invasion from Asia.

This catastrophe was the only experience that this land had in common with the rest of Europe. The Goths had established an empire where the ancient Graeco-Scythians had once been. The overthrowing of this Gothic Empire was the beginning of Attila's European conquests; and the passage of the Hunnish horde, precisely as in the rest of Europe, produced a complete overturning. A torrent of Oriental races, Finns, Bulgarians, Magyars, and others, rushed in upon the track of the Huns, and filled up the spaces deserted by the Goths. Here as elsewhere the Hun completed his appointed task of a rearrangement of races; thus fundamentally changing the whole course of future events. Perhaps there would be no Magyar race in Hungary, and certainly a different history to write of Russia, had there been no Hunnish invasion in 375 A. D.

The old Roman Empire, which in its decay had divided into an Eastern and a Western Empire (in the fourth century), had by the fifth century succumbed to the new forces which assailed it, leaving only a glittering remnant at Byzantium.

The Eastern or Byzantine Empire, rich in pride and pretension, but poor in power, was destined to stand for one thousand years more, the shining conservator of the Christian religion (although in a form quite different from the Church of Rome) and of Greek culture. It is impossible to imagine what our civilization would be to-day if this splendid fragment of the Roman Empire had not stood in shining petrifaction during the ages of darkness, guarding the treasures of a dead past.

While these tremendous changes were occurring in the West, unconscious as toiling insects the various peoples in Russia were preparing for an unknown future. The Bulgarians were occupying large spaces in the South. The Finns, who had been driven by the Bulgarians from their home upon the Volga, had centered in the Northwest near the Baltic, their vigorous branches mingled more or less with other Asiatic races, stretching here and there in the North, South, and East. The Russian Slavs, as the parent stem is called, were distributing themselves along a strip of territory running north and south along the line of the Dnieper; while the terrible Turks, and still more terrible Tatar tribes, hovered chiefly about the Black, the Caspian, and the Sea of Azof. No dream of unity had come to anyone. But had there been a forecast then of the future, it would have been said that the more finely organized Finn would become the dominant race; or perhaps the Bulgarian, who was showing capacity for empire-building; but certainly not that helpless Slavonic people wedged in between their stronger neighbors.

But there were no large ambitions yet. It meant nothing to them that there was a new "Holy Roman Empire," and that Charlemagne had been crowned at Rome successor of the Roman Caesars (800 A. D.); nor that an England had just been consolidated into one kingdom. Nor did it concern them that the Saracen had overthrown a Gothic empire in Spain (710). For them these things did not exist. But they knew about Constantinople. The Byzantine Empire was the sun which shone beyond their horizon, and was for them the supreme type of power and earthly splendor. Whatever ambitions and aspirations would in time awaken in these Oriental breasts must inevitably have for their ideal the splendid despotism of the Eastern Caesars. But that stage had not yet been reached.

Although branches of the Slavonic race had separated from the parent stem, bearing different names, the Bohemians on the Vistula, the Poliani in what was to become Poland, the Lithuanians near the Baltic, and minor tribes scattered elsewhere, from the Peloponnesus to the Baltic, all had the same general characteristics. Their religion, like that of all Aryan peoples, was a pantheism founded upon the phenomena of nature. In their Pantheon there was a Volos, a solar deity who, like the Greek Apollo, was inspirer of poets and protector of the flocks--Perun, God of Thunder--Stribog, the father of the Winds, like Aeolus--a Proteus who could assume all shapes--Centaurs, Vampires, and hosts of minor deities, good and evil. There were neither temples nor priests, but the oak was venerated and consecrated to Perun; and rude idols of wood stood upon the hills, where sacrifices were offered to them and they were worshiped by the people.

They believed that their dead passed into a future life, and from the time of the early Scythians it had been the custom to strangle a male and a female servant of the deceased to accompany him on his journey to the other land. The barbarity of their religious rites varied with the different tribes, but the general characteristics were the same, and the people everywhere were profoundly attached to their pagan ceremonies and under the dominion of an intense form of superstition.

Slav society was everywhere founded upon the patriarchal principle. The father was absolute head of the family, his authority passing undiminished upon his death to the oldest surviving member. This was the social unit.

The Commune, or Mir, was only the expansion of the family, and was subject to the authority of a council, composed of the elders of the several families, called the _vetche_. The village lands were held in common by this association. The territory was the common property of the whole. No hay could be cut nor fish caught without permission from the _vetche_. Then all shared alike the benefit of the enterprise.

The communes nearest together formed a still larger group called a _Volost_; that is, a canton or parish, which was governed by a council composed of the elders of the communes, one of whom was recognized as the chief. Beyond this the idea of combination or unity did not extend. Such was the primitive form of society which was common to all the Slavonic branches. It was communistic, patriarchal, and just to the individual. They had no conception of tribal unity, nor of a sovereignty which should include the whole. If the Slav ever came under the despotism of a strong personal government, the idea must come from some external source; it must be imposed, not grow; for it was not indigenous in the character of the people. It would be perfectly natural for them to submit to it if it came, for they were a passive people, but they were incapable of creating it.