The Gathering of the Rus, Part 1
The Gathering of the Rus, part 1:
As the saying goes, everything is bigger in Russia. Even as early as the mid-1600s, there are complaints from men in Roman port towns frequented by Russian sailors that the womenfolk prefer the company of the supposedly better-endowed Russian men. The accuracy of the complaint is unknown, although Russians have never shown any inclination to argue against it.
Studies of skeletal remains from the period however do show a substantial height differential. They show that in the mid-1600s, the height of the average Russian woman was the same as the height of the average Roman man. The scenario effectively repeats a scene from the classical age, where the Germanic peoples of the north literally towered over the shorter Italians. Based on personal accounts from the period, there were a decent number of Roman men who were into Russian women for this reason, a trend that exists to this day.
The lands of Russia, although divided in the 1630s, are already vast in size and also in population. Aside from the brief fighting that marked the Sundering of the Rus, and some incursions from the steppe, the lands of Russia have been at peace since the end of the Great Northern War in the early 1570s. That bloody and sweeping conflict had been devastating for the Russian people, like the Time of Troubles for the Romans, but like the Roman experience, the Russian experience afterwards had been of a remarkable resurgence. But this one had been even stronger, and unlike the Flowering, which had been poleaxed by the Great Uprising and the Eternal War, the Russian boom has continued.
The result was the greatest known sustained population growth rate in early modern history up to that point, only superseded in the 1640s by the Triune colonies in North Terranova. Between 1550 and 1630 the Roman population in the heartland increased by about 50%. In that same time frame, Russia’s population nearly doubled, and the discrepancy is even higher when one factors in that some of Rhomania’s growth was driven by Russian emigration.
In 1640, Russia’s population is at least 28 million, and possibly higher. Khazaria’s population is almost certainly underreported, not factoring in all the nomadic tribes, Cossacks, and Siberian natives paying iasak (tribute in furs). Great Pronsk alone has 16 million, just a few hundred thousand short of the Roman heartland itself. Of the remaining 12 million, 6 are in Lithuania, with Novgorod, Scythia, and Khazaria splitting the remainder roughly evenly.
This is moreover not a poor population, at least by the standards of the 1600s. The bulk of the population is poor, often landless, existing on the edge of subsistence, but that applies to all societies of the time, including Rhomania. Alongside them though is a large and prosperous subset of the population.
Russia only has one city that is in the top rank of cities in Christendom, Novgorod at 100,000 souls in 1645. But by that time it is richly endowed with many small cities and larger towns, chief of which are Vladimir, Smolensk, Bryansk, Tver, Ryazan, Nizhniy Novgorod, Pskov, Kharkov, Kherson-on-the-Don, Chernigov, Yaroslavl, Pronsk, Kiev, Kazan, Tula, Vilnius, and Voronezh, (the last replaces Draconovsk, which after being damaged by Kalmyk raids and then fires has declined to a shadow of its former self) all of which have at least 25,000 inhabitants. There are many more that are smaller, with one observer saying the Russian towns number as many as the Italian, albeit spread out over a much larger area.
Flourishing and intricate trade networks are the reason for the sprawling urban network. Trade with Rhomania had been the initial spark but it has grown substantially since. The towns are loci for trade internal to Russia, as well as facilitating the flow of exports and imports. From Scythia comes grain and vegetables. From Siberia comes fur and metals. From Novgorod comes timber, hemp, tar, and potash. From Lithuania comes leather, butter, and cheese.
Trade with Rhomania is still by far the most important foreign trade, and it is the same with Rhomania and Russia. Roman imports are a mix of primary and secondary goods, with wine and textiles the main items. The Russians export mainly raw materials, foodstuffs, furs, hides, and metal bars. However it would be a mistake to present this trade as colonial. The Russians are not exporting raw materials and then importing finished goods made out of said materials, like the Egyptians when they export raw cotton and import cotton textiles from Thrakesia or Syria.
The finished goods the Russians import, primarily textiles, are made from raw materials that were not sourced in Russia. Russia does provide many raw materials for Roman industry, principally metals. Due to the limits of transport, the metal is mined and refined on site in Russia and processed into bars, which is how it is shipped, to be reworked into whatever tool once it reaches its Roman destination. However the metal goods produced overwhelmingly stay in the Roman market. For their metal goods, the Russians ship other bars of metal to a Russian town where artisans work it to make whatever good is desired.
As the metal-working example shows, Russian towns are centers of manufacturing as well as trade. Transportation is difficult, even by the standards of the early modern period, and mostly conducted by river. Bulk shipment over the execrable roads, except when the winters freeze them, is not advised. Nevertheless the volume of goods and merchants, travelers and ideas, moving across the landscape of Russia is surprising in number and variety.
The lands of Russia are also expanding rapidly to the east. Although Khazar authority in Central Asia crashed after the death of Theodoros I in 1634, expansion in Siberia has continued unabated. It is done mainly by Cossacks and fur traders and trappers, and at this stage Russian presence is broad but thin in much of Siberia. Most of the Siberian natives have been coerced into paying iasak, a yearly tribute in furs, but are otherwise largely left alone. In 1652 Russian traders and trappers will reach the Pacific Ocean, establishing the outpost at Okhotsk.
Much of the iasak ends up flowing south, not west. While the trade will expand greatly over the later 1600s, already by 1640 there is a thriving caravan trade with China. In some respects it mirrors Russian trade with Rhomania. The Chinese want Siberian forest products and metals, and especially the fine furs. The Little Ice Age, disastrous for many people, is a boon to Russian fur traders. In exchange the Russians get Chinese manufactures, mostly silks and porcelains. As early as 1640, there are contracts for the transport of Chinese porcelain that specify that payment will be denied if more than a certain percentage of the items are broken. Impressively, this clause does not seem to have been invoked very often. Tea leaves are used as packing material and are soon valued as a trade good in their own right.
The Kazan trade fair, timed for when the Chinese goods are expected to arrive, sees Russians converging from all over the principalities, to trade, to party, to talk and debate. It is sometimes said, with good reason, that Russia was reunited first at the Kazan trade fairs.
Another place where Russia is united is in the kaffos houses to be found in every settlement that has any pretensions to culture. Even some monasteries have their own kaffos house, exclusive for the monks and workers at the monastery. Romans consume roughly 60% of the kaffos they import, with Russians consuming most of the remainder. The kaffos houses are popular places, with hot drinks and hot food and good conversation.
Much of the conversation is learned. Russian literacy rates vary wildly, but the city of Novgorod in 1640 has arguably the highest literacy rate in the world at the time, with 90%+ adult male literacy. This continues a long trend, reaching back well into the Middle Ages, of high literacy in the city, although by this stage paper has completely shoved out the birch bark as a reading and writing material. Nowhere else in Russia can compete with Novgorod, but literacy in the towns and in the countryside near the towns is high by contemporary standards. While the average literacy rate in Russia is lower than in Rhomania, the sheer size of the Russian population means that the Russian literary public is bigger than the Roman, and that public has a healthy demand for reading material. Smolensk especially, seconded by Kiev, have major printing industries. (Oddly, Novgorod does not, getting most of its books from Smolensk.)
Some of the literature is in Greek, as a knowledge of that language is considered necessary for a Russian who wants to be cultured, and essential for the merchant class. A cheap paperback edition containing a compilation of ancient Greek myths published in Constantinople in 1629 is a particularly hot item for the Russian presses at this time. But there is a limit to this; both Russians and Georgians, while respecting and appreciating Roman culture, can find Roman assertions of cultural superiority to be rather patronizing and trying. The Russian attitude can be summed in the saying “respect Greek, but do not become one, for you are Russian”.
Works published in Russian, ranging from religious texts to histories to comedies, make up the bulk of Russian printing. Russians have much to be proud of in this regard; the plays of Dmitrii Romanov, author of the Epic of David I, Conqueror of Mexico, are admired throughout Russia with Greek translations being quite popular in Rhomania. It is not just in writing; the creations of Russian icon painters are also quite popular in the Empire to the south.
Russians in the kaffos houses, a mix of locals and travelers getting hot food and drink, not only read the literature available (which often includes newspapers) but also talk. Oftentimes the conversation is about politics. Most agree that the breakup of the Rus is wrong on a fundamental level; it must be made right. The Sundering of the Rus revealed a truth that they hadn’t realized until it was too late, that they were all Russians. And it is not right that such a numerous and mighty people should be divided; it only exposes them to insolence. The outrage of the English at the idea of having to treat Russians as equal in the matter of reciprocal trading rights had been directed at Novgorod, but Russians in all the Principalities had all felt the humiliation.
But that still leaves the question of how Russia is to be reunited, and what the Russia of the future is to be. These are far more complicated issues. But there are a few things on which Russians in general can agree.
The power of the towns had been a strong counter to the power of the great landowners. But the rise of the towns had also helped the peasantry. To feed the towns required a lot of grain, which encouraged the creation of large estates with the advantage of economies of scale. But around the towns also sprung up small landholdings, which provided the towns with vegetables, herbs, flowers, and animal products. Selling these items to the town can be profitable even with relatively small amounts of product, and so a class of small peasant landowners filling this niche has arisen.
Individually they can’t compare to the great rural landowners or the big urban magnates and long-distance wholesale merchants, but as a class they are a power that cannot be ignored. Combined with the towns, they are a formidable counter to the might of big rural landowners who otherwise might wish to dominate society, like in Vlachia or as is steadily more and more the case in Poland, where the demand of western European cities for Polish rye is encouraging the growth of large estates worked by serfs under ever worse condition. The towns and small landowners do not care for that prospect one bit.
There are still many great estates, producing grain in bulk to feed the towns, and the big landowners are elites in Russian society. But their workforce can emigrate to the towns, or south to Scythia or Rhomania (less so now than was the case 50 years ago), or east to Khazaria & Siberia. One way to keep their workforce is by repression, the Vlach and Polish route. But the power of the towns and small landowners makes that not an option. As a result, the big landowners need to rely on the carrot, not the stick.
The small landowners that are near the towns are a minority of the peasant population, with many more poorer peasants with smaller plots, or ones less well suited to take advantage of urban markets. There are also landless laborers and tenant farmers and sharecroppers, these cases providing the work force for the great estates. But despite their lower economic status, the influence from the towns, the increased trade and literacy, means that they know their rights, and they will not yield them. They are not Poles or Vlachs, to be yoked like cattle and treated as slaves. They are Russians, and one does not do that to Russians unless one wishes to die.
As Stenka Razin and Yemelyan Pugachev, delegates to the Zemsky Sobor, would say to rapturous applause, “to be Russian is to be free”.