The original stock of the high Russian nobility is composed of the houses of princes, which sprung from the male lineage, direct and legitimate of Rurik, the first sovereign of Russia, or from Guedimine, Grand Duke of Lithuania (the latter has been the founder of the dynasty commonly known under the name of Jaguellon). Rurik, a Norman by birth, reigned from the year 862 till 879. His great-grandson, Saint Wladimir,* converted all Russia to Christianity in the year 988, and died in 1015, having committed, on his death-bed; the signal fault of dividing Russia into twelve principalities, which he distributed between his eleven sons and a nephew.
According to the apanage system, which seems to have prevailed from very early times, the Russian land was a huge family estate belonging to the Rurik line, each member of which considered himself entitled to a share of it. It was therefore divided into a number of independent principalities held loosely together by a sort of patriarchal authority, vested in the senior member of the family, who ruled in Kiev, but this position was not hereditary from father to son. It was always given to the senior member of the dynasty, and the same principle was applied to all the other principalities. Hence, with the constant family quarrels and the difficulty of deciding the question of seniority, the land was continually being divided.
From 1054 to 1224, there were 64 principalities, 293 princes claimed authority and 83 civil wars were waged. Kiev was pillaged again and again and finally left a prey to barbarian tribes from the steppe, and the Russians were obliged to fall back to the regions of the Upper Volga, where new principalities were formed-Vladimir, Tver, Moscow. The princes lost all feeling for family relationships and were constant rivals.
This fatal custom of parcelling the sovereign power between many princes, once introduced into the Russian law, lasted four centuries; it has been the source of weakness to the country, incessantly lacerated by civil wars; it aided the Mongols to conquer Russia (from 1236 to 1240), and threw that country for many centuries behind the rest of Europe. However, the Tatar yoke, two hundred years endured, f and stamped with blood and devastation, at the end had saved and strengthened Russia. Had the impolitic and antisocial system of parcelling continued to emaciate the country, and had not Russia had in her hand the Mongolian weapon to oppose to the conquests of Guedimine (a great man, who founded the Lithuanian monarchy in the fourteenth century), it is probable that the capital of the empire would be actually at Wilna. Happily for Russia, the Tatars committed a political fault in endeavoring to create a center of unity and strength among the great number of petty principalities. Their choice fell on the branch of the house of Rurik, which reigned at Moscow. The princes of Moscow, able and profound politicians, having obtained the support of the Tatars for the spoliation of their collateral cousins, became Grand-Dukes of Russia, not only nominally, but in deed, and being placed at the head of the reviving forces of the country, employed them in shaking off the Mongolian yoke.
The Grand-Dukes of Moscow compelled the appanaged princes to cede their principalities, and to take instead some rich private estates. Those who resisted that policy were deprived of their fortune, without any indemnity, and cast into prison. John III. reunited to his dominion all the appanaged principalities which had slipped away from the usurpation of his predecessors; and the world also saw, under the pressure of his arms, the fall of Novgorod, the cradle of Russian civilization; that illustrious republic, so ancient and powerful, that she bore the motto : Who would dare anything against God and the Great Novgorod? The republic of Pskoff alone (which was called the younger sister of Novgorod), had preserved for some time the shadow of independence; but even that shadow vanished.
The rivalry between all these left the land an easy prey to the Mongols, who settled themselves around the lower Volga and for many years received tribute from the Russians. Under Dimitri Donskoi of Moscow, the Russians united and defeated the Tatars in the battle of Kulikovo (1380), in which the Tatars are said to have lost 100,000 men. This victory gave immense prestige to the princes of Moscow, and, under Ivan III the Great, Basil and Ivan IV (1462-1584), Moscow absorbed all the other principalities.
To strip their collaterals was not sufficient for the dynasty of Moscow; they wanted to confound them with the Moscovite aristocracy. For this purpose two expedients were devised under the reign of John III. A genealogical register (rodoslovnoia knega) was created, wherein they put on a level with the appanaged houses, the families of the Boyards of Moscow. This book was copied again, under John IV. and only the two families of Adasheff and Golovine were added to the roll. The second measure hit the mark still harder, and lowered the political position of the descendants of Rurik and Guedimine: it was the established regulation that henceforth, rank was to be considered, according to the dignity held by father, grandfather, or ancestors of each personage, either at the court, or in the army. This law, kept in observance till the year 1682, rendered the dignity of boyard almost hereditary - if not by right, at least de facto - and thus completed the fusion of the princes with the boyards' families. The institution based upon this law was called mestnichestvo.
At the era of the abolition of the mestnichestvo, in the year 1682, January 12th, the political equality among the nobles was introduced into the law; and at the same time, the ancient genealogical register had been copied again, for the last time; this being bound in red velvet, received and preserved the name of the velvet booh (barhatnaia knega). This golden book of the Hussian nobility may be found actually at the heraldic office of the senate at St. Petersburg. Not a single family of boyards could obtain the favour to be inserted in the above book, so far that even all the intrigues of the Naryshkine's house fell to the ground, who, in order to mount into it, left no stone unturned, and employed their credit at the court, and the influence, which procured them a fresh family alliance with the house of the Czars; but all to no avail.
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