The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.


Slavs (slävz, slăvz), the largest ethnic and linguistic group of peoples in Europe belonging to the Indo-European linguistic family. It is estimated that the Slavs number over 300 million in the world. They are usually classified in three main divisions. The West Slavs include the Poles, the Czechs, the Slovaks, and the Wends (also known as Lusatians) and other small groups in E Germany. The South Slavs include the Serbs, the Croats, the Slovenes, the Macedonians, the Montenegrins, the Bosniaks, and the Bulgars. The East Slavs, the largest group, include the Great Russians, Ukrainians, and Belorussians (or White Russians).

Religiously and culturally, the Slavs fall into two main groups—those traditionally associated with the Orthodox Eastern Church (the Great Russians, most of the Ukrainians, some of the Belorussians, the Bulgarians, the Serbs, and the Macedonians) and those historically affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church (the West Slavs, most of the Belorussians, some of the Ukrainians, and the Croats and Slovenes). The cleavage into Eastern Church and Western Church is symbolized by the use of the Cyrillic alphabet by the first group and of the Roman alphabet by the latter.


Ethnically the Slavs possess little unity, for they have mixed for centuries with other peoples, including Turko-Tatars, Finnic peoples, Germans, Mongols, Greeks, and Illyrian tribes. The Bulgarians are not of Slavic origin. The obscure beginnings of the Slavs have given rise to several theories, all of which include as a possible place of origin the area of the Polesie marshes in Galicia. The ancestors of the Slavs were Neolithic tribes who occupied this territory a few centuries before the Christian era, and the similarities of these Proto-Slavs to the Proto-Balts has led to a theory of a Proto-Baltic Slav period (see Balts). There was presumably no one Proto-Slavic language, but rather a blending of tribal dialects that emerged as differentiated Slavic languages; the Slavs' unifying medium is today chiefly that of language.

Domination and Expansion

The Slavs were probably dominated in succession by the Scythians and the Sarmatians (both Iranian tribes), by the Goths, by the Huns, and by the Avars, in whose westward expansion they shared and whose slaves they often were. By the 6th cent. Slavs had settled in Germany E of the Elbe River. In the Balkan Peninsula they invaded the Byzantine Empire in 576 and again in 746, and they settled in the country districts of Greece.

A sedentary, agricultural people, the Slavs tended to adopt a loosely democratic organization. Primitive Slavic religion shows Iranian influence. The Slavs were animists; their supreme god was the god of lightning. In material culture, especially in military matters, the Slavs were greatly influenced by the Goths.

In the 8th cent. Charlemagne temporarily subdued the Slavs E of the Elbe, and German eastward expansion, which permanently pushed the Slavs beyond the Oder River, came in the 12th cent. with Henry the Lion of Saxony, the Wendic Crusade, Albert the Bear of Brandenburg, and the Teutonic Knights. From the 12th cent. on, the area of the Bohemian and Polish states was greatly changed by German immigration.

The Bohemian, Moravian, and Slovak tribes were converted (9th cent.) to Christianity by Saints Cyril and Methodius. A large Slavic empire emerged at that time under the leadership of Moravia, but it was soon destroyed by the Magyars. The duchies (later kingdoms) of Poland and Bohemia, most powerful of the Western Slavic medieval states, cooperated in the 10th cent. to resist German conquest. In the south, Bulgaria, Serbia, Bosnia, and Croatia each reached a relatively high degree of political development before being absorbed (14th–15th cent.) by the Ottoman Empire. Most important was the East Slavic Kievan state, which rose in the 10th cent. and was destroyed by the Mongol invasion in the 13th cent. Thereafter the principalities of Halych-Volhynia and Moscow (see Moscow, grand duchy of) became prominent.

From the 17th cent. on Pan-Slavism increased and became to some extent a development in opposition to Pan-Germanism. The history of the West Slavs and the South Slavs during the past three centuries is dominated by their struggles for liberation from Turkish, German, and Magyar domination. The Slavs, however, have not been able to unify politically, mainly as the result of different national interests.


See K. Jazdzewski, Atlas to the Prehistory of the Slavs (tr., 2 vol., 1948–49); J. S. Roucek, ed., Slavonic Encyclopaedia (4 vol., 1949, repr. 1969); F. Dvornik, The Slavs (1956) and The Slavs in European History and Civilization (1962, repr. 1986); S. H. Cross, Slavic Civilization through the Ages (1963); A. P. Vlasto, The Entry of the Slavs into Christendom (1970); M. A. Gimbutas, The Slavs (1971).

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