p Central problems in the literature and polemics of this period are state power, the personality of the autocrat, and the nature and limits of his autocratic power. The resolution of these questions was attempted in the legendary historical tales of the Wallachian Governor Dracula, the Georgian Empress Dinara, and Basarg. These problems are raised by Archbishop Vassian in his Epistle to Ivan III (1480), by the Muscovite heretics and losif of Volotsk. They attract the attention of Maxim the Greek, Ivan Peresvetov and Ivan IV in his correspondence with Prince Andrei Kurbsky.

p In the first quarter of the sixteenth century, the political theory of the Russian state is finally formulated in Spiridon-Sawa’s Epistle on the Crown of Monomachus, the Tale of the Princes of Vladimir, and the Epistle of Filofei, Elder of the Pskov Eleazar Monastery, to Vasily III.

The political ideas of the centralised state, and the strong autocratic powers of its rulers find “historical” 227 basis in all-Russian chronicles of the mid-sixteenth century and in the Book of Generations (Stepennaya kniga).

The Tale of
the Wallachian Governor Dracula

p The Dracula Tale, written in the late fifteenth century, raises the question of the nature of power of an autocratic ruler, the meaning of his personality; it is one of the more important stages in the development of historical-legendary tales.

p In the 1840’s A. Kh. Vostokov proposed an interesting hypothesis that its author was Secretary Fedor Kuritsyn, who headed the Russian delegation to Moldavia and Hungary from 1482 to 1484. This hypothesis found support from Soviet scholar Ya. S. Lurye.  [227•1 

p The historical prototype of Dracula was Governor Vlad Tsepesh, ruler of Romania from 1456 to 1462 and in 1476. Many tales of his extraordinary cruelty circulated throughout Europe; in Germany a series of tales were published on Dracula. The text of the Russian tale probably goes back to oral tales heard by the author in Hungary and Romania.

p Written in the form of state protocol, the Dracula Tale focuses on the actions of the despotic governor.

p These deeds are narrated in the form of small anecdotes, where dialogue is of primary importance and the fate of the characters with whom Dracula converses depends on their wit and resourcefulness. The maleficent, but at the same time wise ruler values intelligence and resourcefulness above all in men: the ability to escape from a difficult position, military prowess, honesty; and he zealously guards the honour of “the great prince”. The terrible, unbribable lord hates to see evil in his domain and punishes everyone, be he “a great boyar, a priest, a.monk or a simple man”, for evil deeds; 228 no one can “buy his life”, “no matter how wealthy he might be".

p At the same time, Dracula (which in Romanian means “devil”) is extraordinarily cruel: he orders that the hats of envoys who fail to remove them, according to the custom of their country, be nailed to their heads for appearing before the great prince with their hats on and thus shaming him; he punished soldiers who were wounded in the rear and not the front, and impales an envoy who condemns his cruelty; he burns old men, cripples and paupers for “humane” reasons (freeing them of poverty and disease)—“for no one will be poor in my realm”. He dines “beneath the corpses of the dead”, and orders that a servant who held his nose because he could not bear the odour be impaled; he orders that the hands of a negligent, lazy wife, whose husband walks around in a torn shirt, be cut off. Even sitting in the dungeon of the Hungarian king, Dracula keeps up his “evil habits" and kills mice and birds that have been specially purchased for him at the market.

p The author almost never states his own attitude to Dracula’s behaviour. At first the evil side of Dracula’s wisdom and life is emphasised; then the author waxes indignant at the governor’s sinfulness, when he kills the masters who made him barrels for gold. “Only the devil could inspire such a deed,” declares the author. When Dracula betrays Orthodoxy and becomes a Catholic, upon the demand of the King of Hungary, the author goes into a didactic tirade, condemning Dracula for “abandoning the truth, and leaving the light and going into darkness”, and therefore “paving the way for eternal torment".

p On the whole the tale is bereft of Christian didacticism and does not view man from the perspective of Divine Providence. Dracula performs his deeds by his own will and is not incited by any other forces. These deeds show not only Dracula’s evil genius, but the wisdom of the prince whose honour he defends.

p Neither glorifying nor condemning his hero, the author seems to invite readers to participate in the resolution of the central question: how should a great sovereign whom God has put on the throne to punish 229 evil-doers and reward those who do good, conduct himself, should he be merciful or terrible.

It is characteristic that this question later became the most important one in the polemics of the sixteenth century; Ivan Peresvetov, Ivan the Terrible, Maxim the Greek and Andrei Kurbsky all attempt to answer it.

The Tale of
Georgian Empress Dinara

p The Tale of Georgian Empress Dinara also centres around this question. It was composed in the late fifteenth or early sixteenth century and glorifies the wise empress, Dinara (possibly Tamara, a renowned Georgian queen served as a prototype  [229•1 ) who ruled her land like a wise helmsman. Her distinguishing features are Christian piety and courage in battle, and they are revealed in the central episode dealing with Dinara’s battle against the emperor of Persia. Threatening to take away her power, the emperor demands that she immediately send him gifts twice as great as those sent by her father Alexander. By way of an answer, Dinara, with the dignity and pride of a Muscovite prince, replies that she has received her power from God and that the Persian emperor cannot take it from her. She is contrasted, not only to the “bestial” Persian emperor, but to the indecisive nobles of Georgia who are afraid to attack the Persians. Dinara inspires them with a courageous speech.

p First making a pilgrimage to a monastery, she then attacks the Persians and is victorious, decapitating the impious emperor.

p As we see it, the Tale of Georgian Empress Dinara can be called historical only with certain reservations. The main thing in the tale is the apotheosis of the pious empress’ autocratic power. The tale declares that only an autocrat can defend his realm from foreign enemies and rule in peace and quiet. For this he must be a pious 230 Christian and a courageous warrior. The power of the sovereign is begun to be wreathed in an aureole of holiness, and therefore Dinara is described in hagiographical terms which intermix with formulas from the military tale. To a certain degree the Tale of Georgian Empress Dinara prepares for the composition of those Christian idealised biographies of the rulers of Rus in the Book of Generations. At the same time it shows the strengthening cultural and literary ties between Rus and Georgia.

p Wisdom, boldness and resourcefulness are essential qualities for a ruler. This is the central theme in the fairy-tale “historical” narrative of Basarg, condemning the cruel, merciless and crafty emperor of Antiochia, King Nesmeyan the Proud, who hates Orthodoxy.

The political theory of the centralised Russian state was strengthened in official genealogies of the Muscovite princes, establishing their descent from Rurik, as well as in the Epistle on the Crown of Monomachus written by Spiridon-Savva and the legendary Tale of the Princes of Vladimir composed on its basis.

The Tale of the Princes
of Vladimir

p The tale attempts to establish genealogical ties between the Muscovite princes and the founder of the Roman Empire, Augustus Caesar. Augustus’ brother Prus was sent by the Roman emperor to the Vistula, “and from him the Prussians got their name”. (The Prussians were a tribe on the lower Vistula.) Prince Rurik. summoned by Novgorodians, was of the Prussian tribe, that is, the tribe of Augustus Caesar. Accordingly the rights to autocratic power of the Muscovite princes were inherited from their forefather, Augustus Caesar himself.

p Then the Tale told how Greek Emperor Constantine Monomachus sent Kievan Prince Vladimir Vsevolodovich (Monomakh) his crown, scepter and power. In fact Constantine Monomachus died when Vladimir was only two years old. Vladimir was crowned with this 231 crown and given the title “Emperor of Great Russia”. “From that time on, all of the great princes of Vladimir are crowned with the crown sent by Emperor Constantine Monomachus when they take the throne of the Great Russian kingdom.”

p This legend, at the time considered to be historically authentic, was an important political means for justifying the right of the Muscovite princes to the title of tsar and to autocratic rule of the state.

p On the basis of the Tale of the Princes of Vladimir, as though it were a historical document, Ivan IV declared himself tsar and was solemnly crowned with the crown of Monomachus in the Cathedral of the Dormition in 1547. In diplomatic talks, Ivan the Terrible more than once mentioned that he was descended from Augustus Caesar.

p The Tale of the Princes of Vladimir provided a powerful ideological foundation for a new autocratic form of rule in Rus, helped to consolidate the internal political authority of this rule and to establish the international prestige of the Muscovite state.

p In 1523, Filofei, Elder of the Pskov Eleazar Monastery wrote: “Attend and heed, pious tsar, how all Christian kingdoms shall be reduced to your one, for two Romes have fallen, and a third stands, and there shall be no fourth; Christendom is yours, and there shall be no other.”

This was the laconic, simple formulation of the political theory of the sovereignty of the Russian state: “Moscow is the third Rome.”

Afanasy Nikitin’s Journey
Across Three Seas

p One of the finest works of the late fifteenth century is Tver merchant Afanasy Nikitin’s Journey Across Three Seas, included under the year 1475 in the St. Sophia Chronicle.

p Nikitin travelled to India from 1466 to 1472, one of the first Europeans to reach the land of the Rachmans, whose great wealth and fantastic wonders are described 232 in the Alexander Tale and the Tale of the Wealth of India.

p The Journey is a valuable historical document, the living testimony of a fifteenth century man and a superb work of literature. Unlike the journies of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, it has no religious, didactic purposes. Nikitin travelled to a land unknown to the Russians to see it and for purposes of trade. Thus, not only his own curiosity, but practical considerations inspired the merchant’s voyage.

p On the basis of the Journey Across Three Seas we get, above all, a picture of an extraordinary figure, a Russian patriot who braved the hazards of unknown lands for the good of Rus. No adversities or trials faced by Afanasy during his difficult journey could frighten him or break his will. When he loses his ships at the mouth of the Volga to Tatar bandits he continues his journey. Perhaps if he had returned to Tver he would be faced with nothing more than debtor’s prison, whereas an unknown land beckoned him forward.

p Sailing across the Caspian Sea, traversing Persia and crossing the Indian Ocean, Nikitin at last reached his goal: the centre of India. There he visited such cities as Chaul, Junnar, Bidar, Parvat.

p Inquisitive about the mores and customs of the alien land, Nikitin still retains the image of his own country in his heart: the Russian land. His longing for it increases on alien soil and although there are many injustices in Rus, he cherishes his fatherland and cries out: “May God preserve the Russian land! ... On this earth there is no other like it, although the Russian nobles are unjust. May the Russian land become orderly and may there be justice in it! "

p For Nikitin Orthodoxy symbolises his motherland. He laments his inability to observe religious rituals in this alien land. No threats can make him convert to Islam. To convert, for him, would be to betray his native land. But Afanasy Nikitin is no religious fanatic. He attends to the religious customs of the Indians, describing in detail the Buddhist shrines at Parvat and religious rituals and observes, “Only God knows the true faith".


p The Journey Across Three Seas abounds in autobiographical information. Nikitin pays much attention to psychology. But the central theme is, of course, India.

p This Russian man is interested in the daily life and mores of the foreign land. He is struck by the darkcoloured skin of the natives and their clothing: “People walk around naked, with uncovered heads and barebreasted and their hair plaited in a braid.” Particularly surprising for this man of Rus are the married women who do not cover their heads. This was considered shameful in Rus. The Indians do not eat meat, but dine twice a day, and at night neither eat nor drink wine. They eat cheese, carrots with oil and various greens. Before eating they wash their hands and feet and rinse out their mouths. They eat with their right hand and do not know of knives or spoons. While dining many cover themselves so that no one can see.

p Afanasy was struck by social inequality and religious strife: “...Country people are very naked, but the nobles are wealthy and have all luxuries; they are carried on their silver divans by horses harnessed in gold....”

p Nikitin describes the luxurious hunt of the Sultan and his mother, the magnificence and wealth of the court with seven gates guarded by a hundred sentries and a hundred scribes who write down the names of all who enter and leave.

p The Russian merchant is intrigued by the annual grandiose bazaar held near Bidar. Here the entire land of India comes to trade all sorts of goods for ten days. Nikitin sought goods which would appeal to Russian customers. At first he found nothing: “...All the goods were for the pagan land, pepper and paints, and cheap.” He is interested in the armed forces of India and the technique of fighting.

p Afanasy also notes features of India’s climate: “...their winter begins on Trinity Day,” and there is water everywhere, and dirt and they then sow their wheat and everything edible. Spring begins on the Day of the Intercession when in Rus the first inklings of winter begin. Nikitin is astounded that the Indians do not raise horses, but bulls or buffaloes.


p He pays a great deal of attention to people’s behaviour, customs and mores, and is interested in the religion of the Indians, describing several religious rituals. He is also struck by the number of castes in India—84, and by the fact that people neither eat nor drink nor marry outside of their caste.

p Nikitin’s descriptions of India are strictly factual; only in two cases does he recount local legends. One is about the ghuggu, a bird which lives at Alland: “...It flies at night, crying ”ghuggu’; whenever it settles on a house-top, someone dies in the house; and when anyone tries to kill it, it begins to spit fire...."  [234•1  The second legend is about the King of the Monkeys and is based, evidently, on the Indian epic Ramayana.

p The Journey ends with a short diary about the hero’s return to his native land, where he died near Smolensk, never reaching Tver.

p It would be difficult to overestimate the literary significance of Nikitin’s work. His Journey is devoid of literary, ornate language, but is written in colloquial Russian, interspersed with Arabic, Turkish and Persian words learned during the journey. Characteristically he uses foreign words when he expresses his innermost thoughts about the Russian land, his love for his native land, and when he condemns the injustices of the Russian nobility.

The main feature of the Journey’s style is its laconicism, and the author’s ability to note and describe the main things: precision and strict observance of facts. All this distinguishes the Journey Across Three Seas from European descriptions of India.


p 1. R. P. Dmitrieva, Skazanie o knyazyakh Vladimirskikh (The Legend of the Princes of Vladimir}, M.-L., 1955.

p 2. D. S. Likhachev, Chelovek v literature Drevnei Rusi (Man in Old Russian Literature), M., 1970.

p 3. Ya. S. Lurye, Ideologicheskaya borba v russkoi publitsistike kontsa XV-nachala XVI veka (The Ideological Struggle in 235 Russian Polemical Literature of the Late Fifteenth and Early Sixteenth Centuries), M.-L., 1960.

p 4. Povest o Drakule (The Dracula Tale). A Study and Texts by Ya. S. Lurye, M.-L., 1964.

5. Poslaniya losifa Volotskogo (The Epistles of losif of Volotsk). Prepared by A. A. Zimin and Ya. S. Lurye, M,-L., 1959.

* * *


[227•1]   Ya. S. Lurye, Povest o Drakule. Issledovanie i podgotovka Ickstov (The Dracula Tale: A Study and Texts), M.-L., 1964.

[229•1]   L. S. Shepeleva, “Kulturno-literaturnye svyazi Gruzii s Rossiei v X-XVII vekakh" (“Cultural and Literary Relations Between Georgia and Russia from the Tenth to the Seventeenth Centuries”), TODRL, vol. 9, 1953.

 [234•1]   Afanasy Nikitin’s Journey Across Three Seas 1466–1472, M., 1960.