Vladimir: The Power of Architecture

By Brumfield, William C. | Russian Life, February 1998 | Go to article overview

Vladimir: The Power of Architecture


Brumfield, William C., Russian Life


"[1224] The same year, for our sins, unknown tribes came. No one knows them, who they are or whence they came, or what their faith is; but they call them Tatars..."

Thus the Novgorod chronicle described the first appearance of the Tatars in Russia. Other chronicles were to give more precise information - the "Tatars" were in fact part of the Mongol hordes of Genghis Khan - but all accounts contain the same interpretation, drawn from the lamentations of the Old Testament prophets: that an unprecedented calamity had overtaken Russia as a punishment for its sins. After a defeat of Russian forces in 1223 at the River Kalka (in the southern steppes, near the Sea of Azov), the Mongols returned to the eastern steppes, where they were to reorganize following the death of Genghis Khan in 1227, and launch another attack to the northwest. Led by Batu, a grandson of Genghis Khan, a Mongol army of some 150,000 troops struck the disorganized Russian lands, first at the southern principality of Ryazan in 1237, and then Vladimir in the winter of 1237-38. The devastating invasion eventually carried them to Kiev (1240) and Galicia, then to Poland and Hungary in 1241.

According to an account in the Galician chronicle, the catastrophe at Vladimir began with the defeat of local Russian forces and the death of Grand Prince Yury. When the Mongols approached the city and attempted by threats to gain entrance without a siege, Bishop Mitrofan assumed leadership (Yury's young son Vsevolod was thoroughly demoralized) and exhorted the citizens to fight. In the words of the chronicle: "The Tatars battered the town with their wall- battering instruments; they released arrows without number. Prince Vsevolod saw that the battle waxed yet more fierce, took fright because of this youth, and went forth from the town with his small group, carrying with him many gifts and hoping to receive his life. Batu, like a wild beast, did not spare his youth, but ordered that he be slaughtered before him, and he slew all the town. When the bishop, with the princess and her children, fled to the church [the Cathedral of the Dormition], the godless one commanded it to be set on fire. Thus they surrendered their souls to God." Such was the catastrophe that engulfed Vladimir, one of the great centers of early medieval Russian culture.

The city's rise to prominence actually occurred within a relatively brief period. Although settled as early as the first century by Finno-Ugric tribes, these lands were not colonized until the tenth century by Slavs from the west, drawn to the rich forests and tillable land. During the eleventh century, Kievan princes extended their authority over the northeast, and strengthened settlements such as Rostov and Suzdal (see Russian Life, Dec./Jan. 1998). Yet Kiev's control was tenuous: in 1071 one of Rostov's first bishops, Leonty, was killed in a pagan uprising, and the area was under the constant threat of raids by Volga Bulgars. At the beginning of the twelfth century, Suzdal was fortified and granted its own prince.

Suzdal was soon overshadowed by the fortress of Vladimir, established in 1108 a few miles south of Suzdal, on the Klyazma River. Its founder, Vladimir Monomakh, grandson of Yaroslavl the Wise and grand prince in Kiev from 1113, was the last of medieval Kiev's great rulers. Monomakh's death in 1125 led to competition for succession to the throne at Kiev among his numerous sons, including the heir to Suzdalia, Yury Dolgoruky. Yury finally gained Kiev shortly before his death, in 1157, but during the protracted struggle he built much in Vladimir, center of his principality, and established a number of settlements, including a small fortified post called Moscow. It was Yury's son, Andrei Bogolyubsky, who began the era of great architecture in Vladimir.

Andrei has entered Russian history as a controversial figure, feared by those who supported the power of Kiev and Novgorod, but venerated in Vladimir, the city he considered his own. …

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