Moscow – back to the roots

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Historians recognize 1147 as the year when Moscow was established, and each year, the Moscow City Day honors the city’s founding. Moscow traditionally celebrates this day during the first weekend in September. The celebration involves free cultural events, a parade and evening fireworks. Moscow Mayor official website looks into where the official September date comes from.

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 millennium 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.

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. 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.

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.

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.

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.

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