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  • The Forgotten Text of Nikolai Golovin:New Light on the Igor Tale
  • Robert Mann, Independent Scholar (bio)


Sometime around 1792, a collector of antiquities in the service of Catherine the Great discovered a compendium of ancient texts, including a unique secular tale (Slovo o polku Igoreve —The Tale of Igor's Campaign, or simply the Igor Tale) that was rooted in events of the twelfth century. It was a splendid epic poem about the defeat of Igor Sviatoslavich, Prince of Novgorod-Seversk, at the hands of the Polovtsy, a steppe people who were later displaced and assimilated by the Mongol hordes. The text of the Igor Tale was published in 1800, twelve years before the manuscript itself was destroyed during the Napoleonic occupation of Moscow.

As decades passed, scholars began to find textual parallels to passages in the Igor Tale— especially in a group of literary tales about Moscow's first great victory over the Mongols on Kulikovo Field in 1380. This group of tales is customarily referred to as the Kulikovo Cycle. It includes two distinct chronical accounts of the Kulikovo Battle, five more or less complete versions of a "poetic" tale about the battle (Zadonshchina, or The Battle Beyond the Don), and a much longer, more sober tale extolling the Russian Church and the victorious Russian armies (Skazanie o Mamaevom poboishche, or Tale of the Battle against Mamai). The Skazanie has numerous redactions and has survived in over 100 manuscript copies. It is clearly the work of lettered authors who appear to have inserted occasional passages from the more poetic and dynamic Zadonshchina into their comparatively dry narrative.1

Nearly all specialists in early Russian history and literature have viewed the Zadonshchina as a literary imitation, or stylization, of the older Igor Tale. The Zadonshchina mirrors the Igor Tale in style and structure as well as in its phrasing. Because the Igor Tale is the only work of its kind to reach us from the early Kievan period, the tale must be studied in conjunction with the works of the Kulikovo Cycle—the tales that are most closely connected with it.

For 200 years it has been customary to approach the textological puzzles of the Igor Tale and the Kulikovo Cycle in the context of a manuscript tradition. Variant readings in the five surviving copies of the Zadonshchina and in the many texts of the Skazanie o Mamaevom poboishche ordinarily have been attributed to copyists and editors who altered texts along the lines of other written sources that they have read. After comparing similarities and differences in phrasing and organization, scholars construct hypotheses about the lost source texts from which the Kulikovo tales derive. This speculation is almost invariably limited to hypothetical prototypes of the written variety. Lev Dmitriev, the leading expert on the Skazanie during Soviet times, spoke of "the immense popularity of the Zadonshchina among readers in the Middle Ages" (1966:423), while Roman Jakobson and Dean Worth hypothesized that manuscripts of the Slovo and the Zadonshchina circulated together as a diptych (1963:18). Dmitrii Likhachev argued that the Slovo is the work of an ingenious twelfth-century poet whose writing was familiar to the authors of the later Zadonshchina and Skazanie tales (1967). All these scholars have been united in their belief that the Igor Tale and the Zadonshchina were first composed by a writer.

Only a few scholars have contended that the Slovo is the text of an oral epic song. I. I. Sreznevskii (1858) asserted that it was an oral tale, but he presented almost no evidence in support of this hypothesis.2 A. I. Nikiforov wrote a lengthy dissertation in support of Sreznevskii's idea, but there was little that was truly new in the voluminous material that he compiled—nothing that would shake traditional assumptions that shaped all discourse and predetermined scholars' conclusions (Nikiforov 1941). The musicologist L. V. Kulakovskii theorized that the Slovo was composed as a song, but his arguments seem to have left no lasting impression on most scholars' thinking (1977).

Early Russian sources allude explicitly to singers in the service of Russian princes. Yet it is assumed that the epic songs of this court tradition must...

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