History of the Russian State from Gostomysl to Timashev

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History of the Russian State from Gostomysl to Timashev
Author Aleksey Konstantinovich Tolstoy
Original title История Государства Российского от Гостомысла до Тимашева
Country Russia
Language Russian
Genre Poem
Publication date
Media type Print (Hardback & Paperback)

History of the Russian State from Gostomysl to Timashev (История Государства Российского от Гостомысла до Тимашева) is a parody poem in 83 verses by the Russian poet and dramatist Aleksey Konstantinovich Tolstoy, written in 1868. Banned by censors and published for the first time only in 1883 by Russkaya Starina, eight years after the author's death, it became one of the best known examples of political satire in 19th century Russia, popular with Russian intellectuals of many generations.[1][2]


The poem comes from the time when Aleksey K. Tolstoy was greatly concerned with Russian history and its meaning for the age in which he lived. As W.E.Harkins pointed out, Tolstoy was neither a Slavophile nor a Westernizer, but shared certain views of each camp, admiring both the Western-type constitutional monarchy and the Kievan Rus' period in Russian history, seeing the latter as heroic and progressive.[2] Unlike the Slavophiles, though, he held the Varangian influence in the earliest period of Russian history as beneficial and abhorred the era of Moskovia's rise which led to the centralised Russian state and the Golden Horde yoke which he regarded to be the cause of all Russian woes. Tolstoy was repelled by the whole of the Russia's history down to and including his own times.[2]

The History of the Russian State was written in 1868 and is considered to have been inspired by the two poems published in the anthology Russian Hidden Literature of the XIX Century (1861), compiled by Nikolay Ogarev in London, one being "The Fairytale", another – "As Our Great Novgorod...", the latter by Mikhail Dmitriev. Karamzin's History also served, apparently, as the inspiration.[3] During his lifetime Tolstoy made no attempt to publish the piece. The manuscript circulated privately between 1868, when it was completed, and 1883, when it first appeared in print.[3]


The poem was published for the first time by the Russkaya Starina magazine (1883 November issue, pp. 481–496) as The History of the Russian State from Gostomysl. 862-1868. As for to the poem's exact title, the author in his letters referred to it variously, as "L'historie de Russie", "L'historie de Russie jusqu'a Timashev", "The History of Russia". At least four times, in letters to Boleslav Markevich (February 7, November 3, 1869) and Mikhail Stasyulevich (May 20, November 12 of the same year) he used the title History of the Russian State from Gostomysl to Timashev which was later deemed the final one by the publishers.[1]

The poem's first publication was full of mistakes, many of which were corrected in the next two issues, No. 12, 1868, and No. 1, 1869 of Russkaya Starina. An article in Novoye Vremya (No. 2780) by Vladimir Zhemchuzhnikov (signed M.V-n) also made some amends. Nevertheless in 1884 the poem was published in Berlin, or, rather, re-printed without taking any of these corrections into consideration. In 1907 the poem featured in the first edition of The Complete A.K.Tolstoy (Volume 1, pp. 465–477). Pyotr Bykov who compiled it, used the Russkaya Starina text and took the No. 12, 1868, corrections into account, ignoring all others. The process of the restoration of the original text continued for decades. The version that featured in the 1937 edition of Complete A.K.Tolstoy is considered to be the ultimate one and the text hasn't been change since.[1]


History of the Russian State from Gostomysl to Timashev was less serious than Zmei Tugarin (1867), its immediate predecessor, with its dire prophecy of the downfall of Russia brought on by the Tatars. Here there is little glorification of the Kievan era and the coming of the Varangians to Rus is treated frivolously and tongue in cheek. According to William Harkins, the poem should be seen "as an important work by an author who has a very substantial claim to be regarded as Russia's leading humorous poet, and not as a serious or entirely consistent statement of definite ideological position."[2]

St.Nestor the Chronicler by Viktor Vasnetsov

The poem begins with a short extract from Nestor's Chronicle (page 8): "Our land is vast and abundant, one thing it lacks is order." The phrase, forming half of Verse 1 (Poslu′shaite rebyata/Tchto vam rasska′zhet ded/Zemlya nasha boga′ta/Porya′dka v nei lish net. - Now take a listen children/What grand-dad's have to say/Our land is rich. The Order / Is one thing that it lacks) and is repeated many times later, in a manner of a refrain.[4]

In verses 2-6 Russia's forefathers (Gostomysl, actually, never mentioned), having noticed the fact (as expressed by Nestor) make a decision to bring the Varangians in, to face the task of bringing order to the rich lands of Russia. Verses 7-8 see three brothers, after a short consideration (Varya′gam stalo zhutko/No dumayut: Tchto zh tut?/Popytka ved' ne shutka/Poydyom koli zovut. - Varyags got duly frightened/But then they said: so what?/Lets have a try, for sure/Lets go once we're being called!) arrive at the scene. The account of Ryurik and then Igor, Oleg, Olga and Svaytoslav's deeds (verses 9-14) is marked by the "macaronic" (as W.Hoskins describes it) use of the German language (set to remind the reader of the newcomer's Western origins): Nu, dumayut, komanda/Zdes nogu slomit tchort/Es ist je eine Shande/Wir mussen wieder fort. - Oh dear, what a fix, they think, here devil will break his leg/It is a shame, and we gotta get out of here! (Ryurik and his team's first impression of the place).[4]

After Svaytoslav, Vladimir came: "Da endigte fur immer/Die alte Religion" ("Then came an end to the old religion..."), his rationale related in Russian: Perun uzh otchen gadok/Kogda yego spikhnyom/Uvidite, poryadok/Kakoi my zavedyom (Perun, you see, is too loathsome. You just see what an Order we'll have once we dethrone him!). Vladimir dies ("of grief, having failed to bring Order", according to Verse 20) and the Yaroslav the Wise marches in: coming close to bringing order, he ends up with cutting up all land – merely "out of love for children" (Verse 21).[4]

Next part of his History attests to Tolstoy's willingness to suppress the personal political antipathies of his own and be historically objective. A loather of Mongol's Yoke, here he makes a point to describe the enemy's advent (who explain themselves rationally: Ot vashego, mol, spora/Zemlya poshla vverkh dnom/Postoyte-zh, my vam skoro/Poryadok zavedyom. - Your never ending disputes/Made land turn upside down/ Now just you see, how soon we'll bring you Order. - Verse 24.) in neutral and somewhat jovial manner keeping all the bile for the Russian local leaders, quick to report one on another to foreign masters (Verse 26).

Ivan the Terrible

Ivan III frees Russians from the occupation but still brings none of the long sought-after Order about, with Ivan IV stepping in. Here Tolstoy's reserve becomes even more apparent: the Terrible's era (which always horrified the author) is described in a tone more ironic than hostile (Ivan Vasilyich Grozny/Emu byl imyarek/Za to shto byl seryo′zny/Solidny tchelovek. - Ivan Vasillich had the Terrible/For an assumed name/For the reason of him being a serious, a solid kind of man). The author gives Tsar Ivan credit of sorts for being an intelligent ruler and for coming rather close to achieving the historical aim: Priyo′mami ne sladok/No razumom ne khrom/Takoi zavyol poryadok/Hot' pokati sharom (With methods not exactly sweet/But surely not lame in the brain/He's brought such kind of order/T'was like you'd roll the ball. - Verse 31.)[5] The anti-idyll ends (Zhit' mozhno bi bespetchno/Pri etakom tzare/No ah! Nichto ne vetchno/Y tzar Ivan umre. - One's life'd be rather carefree/With such kind of Tsar/But ah! No thing's eternal/And Tsar Ivan, he died) and in comes Tsar Fyodor, his father's antypode, "quick not in wits, but words" (...Byl razumom ne bodor/trezvo′nit lish gorazd. - Verse 33.)[4]

Then came Tsar Boris whose claims to virtue, according to the author, were "serious intelligence", "good looks" and "being a brunette" (Verse 34) and after him The Impostor (Samozvanets) with a girl: Y, na Borisa mesto/Vzobravshys, sei nahal/Ot radosti s nevestoi/Nogami zaboltal. - And, at the Boris' place this guy and his fiancée climbed/So happy with themselves, they, legs a-dangling, sat. - Verse 37) The Poles upstarted, got driven of, and Vasiliy came up throne only to be asked "by all the land to instantly come off" which led to another invasion of the Poles who this time brought Cossacks with them: Kazaki y polyaki/Nas paki byut y paki/my’zh bez tzarya kak raki/Goryuem na meli. - "The Cossack and the Poles/They beat us again and again/And without Tsar we’re very down/Like crawfish out of depth"). Minin and Pozharsky emerged to drive the Poles away, and Mikhail got up on throne, still bringing none of the Order expected: Varshava nam y Vilna/Prislali svoi privet/Zemlya byla obylna/Poryadka-zh net kak net (Both Warsaw and Vilno/Have sent us their hellos/The land, it was abundant/With the Order being missed. - Verse 47).

Tsar Aleksey's mission, apparently, was to give birth to Pyotr, and that was when "new times have come to our State", for "Tsar Pyotr indeed loved discipline/Almost like Tsar Ivan" (Tsar Pyotr lyubil poryadok/Pochti kak Tsar Ivan... - Verse 48). In search of it, having chosen Amsterdam for his port of call, he's shaven the nations' beards off, "dressed all of us up as Hollanders" and indeed maintained a certain kind of discipline which promptly vanished with his death (Verse 55).

Peter the Great

After that "several tsars were ruling, and even more of queens" (Verse 56), Anna and ('a true gendarme') Biron getting a brief mention. The often quoted Verse 58 provides succinct overview of the most carefree period in post-Peter Russia: Vesyo′laya tsaritza/Byla Yelisavet/Poyo′t y veseli′tsa/Poryadka tolko net. - A merry kind of queen was Queen Elisavet/She sings, she's having fun/And yet the Order's nil.)

With Yekaterina's epoch the first French phrases creep up into the text. Voltair and Diderot advice the Russian Queen to grant freedoms to her people and this way maintain Order, but... Messieurs, - im vozrazila/Ona, - vous me comblez/Y to′tchas prikrepi′la/Ukraintsev k zemle. - Messieurs, she retorted/You are being too kind to me/And instantly she fastened Ukrainians to land.)

After Pavel I (the one of the Maltese Order, but with "un-knightly ways") Alexander I came, a man of "week nerves, but gentle manners" whose way of reacting to Napoleon's 1812 advance was a polite retreat. Kaza′losya, nu nizhe/Nelzya sidet v dyre/An glyad', uzh my v Parizhe/S Louis le Desire. - It seemed, a deeper hole to dwell/Would be hard task to find/Then lo! We are in Paris/ With Louis le Desire) This jubilant point in history sees "Russia's colours flourishing", its land being abundant, but Order still nowhere in sight (Verse 67).[4]

The reason for taking his tale to an abrupt end Tolstoy explains in Verse 68: Posle′dnee skaza′nye/Ya’b napisal moyo/No tchayu nakazanye,/Boyus monsier Veillot. (I would have written the final part of my tale, but expect punishment, and the one who frightens me is monsier Veillot), the latter being the head of a Russian Interior Ministry's Postal Department, with the right to use perlustration.[6] And it was Verse 68 that's made Tolstoy's poem relevant for all the latter times of the Russian history:[7] Hodit' byva′yet sklizko/Po ka′meshkam inym/Itak, o tom tchto blizko/My lutche umoltchim. - Some cobbles may prove slippery once being stepped on by/So of the things that are close to us we'd rather keep mouths shut.)

Tolstoy ends his poem with a sarcastic paean to the Aleksander II's cabinet ministers, picturing them as a bunch of children sleighing down the snowy slope. Of them he names just eight, for - Ikh mnogo, otchen mnogo/Pripo′mnit vsekh nelzya/Y vniz odnoy dorogoi/Letyat oni, skolzya. (There's much, so very much of them, one wouldn’t recall their names/And going down and down they slide by just one single track.) The poem ends with Tolstoy's preposterously humble address to the Interior Minister Aleksander Timashev imploring the latter to, first, introduce the now almost mythical Order thing to his land, but also to "re-write and correct, for truth's sake" whatever the author might have put wrong in his tale. Mentioning Nestor the Chronicler again and slipping totally into parodying the latter's style, Tolstoy concludes: Sosta′vyl ot byli′nok/Rasskaz nemudry sei/Hudyi smirenny inok/Rab bozhy Aleksei. (Compiled from small bylinas/This quite unwise account/One skinny humble inok/God's slave, named Aleksey. - Verse 83).[4]


  1. ^ a b c Yampolsky, Igor. Commentaries to History of the Russian State from Gostomysl to Timashev. The Works of A.K. Tolstoy in 4 volumes. Vol.I. Moscow, Khudozhestvennaya Literatura. 1964. Pp.762-763.
  2. ^ a b c d William E. Harkins. "A.K.Tolstoy'ss parody History of the Russian State". 27: 459–469. JSTOR 2493346. 
  3. ^ a b "Gale Encyclopedia of Russian History: Alexei Konstantinovich Tolstoy". www.answers.com. Retrieved 2011-01-01. 
  4. ^ a b c d e f "Alexey Konstantinovich Tolstoy. Humorous and Satiric Poetry". az.lib.ru. Retrieved 2011-01-01. 
  5. ^ Покати шаром (pokati sharom), literally, Roll the ball: an idiom meaning emptiness through devastation, with not a thing in sight.
  6. ^ This way Tolstoy implies, apparently, he's never intended to publish his poem - rather send to friends by means of m-r Veillot's office.
  7. ^ Vanyukov, Andrey. The History of Russian State From.. and Up to…