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  • Shakhmatov's Legacy and the Chronicles of Kievan Rus´
  • Mari Isoaho
Aleksei Tolochko, Ocherki nachaĺnoi Rusi (Studies of Early Rus´). 336 pp. Kiev: Laurus, 2015. ISBN-13 978-9662449686.
Tat´iana Vilkul, Litopis i khronograf: Studiï z tekstologiï domongolś´kogo kiïvśkogo litopisannia (The Chronicle and the Chronograph: Textual Criticism Studies of Pre-Mongol Kievan Chronicles and Early Rus´ Chronographs). 518 pp. Kiev: Natsional´na akademiia nauk Ukraïni, 2015. ISBN-13 978-966075546.

The legacy of Aleksei A. Shakhmatov (1864–1920), a philologist and historian who left a fundamental mark on the field of Russian chronicle studies, has been under careful examination for over a century. His ideas and hypothesis about the early history of Rus´ chronicle writing made up a complicated theory, based on the construction of hypothetical layers, or stages, (svody) of the chronicles that preceded the earliest surviving Kievan chronicle, Povest´ vremennykh let (PVL).1 This chronicle, which survives in five main copies dated from 1377 to the 16th century, has customarily been called The Primary Chronicle in English, even though it is precisely this primacy that Shakhmatov questioned. Although Shakhmatov was challenged even by some [End Page 637] of his contemporaries—for example, Vasilii M. Istrin, Sergei A. Bugoslavskii, and Nikolai K. Nikol´skii—the core parts of his vision were accepted until the beginning of the present century.2 Today we are witnessing a renewed interest in textual criticism, and various articles have challenged Shakhmatov's theory. The best-known efforts may be those undertaken by Donald Ostrowski of Harvard University and Aleksei Tolochko of the Center for Kievan Rus´ Studies in Kiev.3 The two monographs under review here grew out of active investigations by the two arguably most dynamic historians from the Center for Kievan Rus´ Studies of the Ukrainian National Academy of Sciences: Tat´iana Vilkul, senior fellow of the Institute of Ukrainian History; and Tolochko, who is also a corresponding member of the Ukrainian National Academy of Sciences in the Department of History, Philosophy, and Law.

As a general rule, every historian using early chronicle sources has had to adopt some kind of stance vis-à-vis Shakhmatov's theories. In particular, he or she must decide whether to believe in the existence of the pre-PVL chronicle layers (svody)—especially in reference to what is called the Nachal´nyi svod (Beginning Compilation). Based on the theory of prior chronicles, Shakhmatov and his followers have claimed that a tradition of chronicle writing existed in Novgorod and Kiev 100 years or so before our earliest text witness—the Primary Chronicle.

Tolochko sharply disagrees with Shakhmatov's thesis of earlier layers underlying the PVL on the grounds that this theory opened a kind of Pandora's box, revealing old chronicle layers wherever one looked. In this way, Tolochko claims, Russian and Soviet scholars have created a national myth about medieval sources that never existed but are treated as if they did. Identifying these [End Page 638] layers make it possible to accept the PVL as an authentic witness to each historical incident that it describes. The idea that each historical report, or annal, was supposedly recorded not long after the date cited in the chronicle is used to support the view that the PVL offers a real eyewitness report of the events it describes.

The chronographs form part of Shahmatov's circular argument, which led him to analyze the text of the Novgorod I Chronicle in Its Later Redaction (Novgorodskaia pervaia letopis´ mladshaia redaktsiia, hereafter NIml) as derived from the pre-PVL text. This text he designated as Nachal´nyi svod. Shakhmatov argued that both the PVL and the Nachal´nyi svod bore evidence that linked them to the chronographs. This argument placed the chronographic tradition in Rus´ as already having been established before the 1090s, which was the date of Shakhmatov's hypothetical Nachal´nyi svod.

Emerging from this discussion is a major new contribution from Tat´iana Vilkul. A diligent writer, she has published several articles on textual criticism of chronicles and other Old Rus´ texts.4 In the monograph under review, she has completed a notable synthesis of her work, tying together the lines of her previous studies...


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