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The Slavs - Episode 1


The Slavs

The northern-most limits of Eastern Europe. The ice-bound Russian coastline of Karelia, the Kanin Peninsula and Novaya Zemlya. These places mark the frozen northern border of the immense area inhabited by the various nations who are known as Slavs. About 2,500 miles away lies the southern boundary of the Slavs territory, the Mediterranean coast of the Adriatic sea, made up of jutting headlands, countless islands and calm lagoons.

To the east, the Slavic world has its frontiers in some of Europe's most extensive and densest forests. Beyond, stretch the steps and tundras of Asia. The Western border cuts across Europe, running from the heart of the continent up to the shores of the Baltic, then, down again following the course of the great rivers: the Danube, the Don, the Volga and the Dnieper, as far as the Black Sea.

Inside this natural perimeter, dramatic historical events have led to the present day political frontiers that divide the Slav countries: Poland, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia and Russia. Today, the capital cities of these countries are often mentioned in the news, but they are also an integral part of the history of Europe. Moscow, and the old capital of Russia St. Petersburg, modern Leningrad. Warsaw and ancient Krakow, the two main cities of Poland. Czechoslovakia's Prague, a masterpiece of medieval town planning. And Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria. While in Yugoslavia, cities such as Dubrovnik, bare witness to the fruitful encounter between the ancient civilisations of the Slavs and Western Europe.

Only one thousand years ago, the Slavs where tribes and groups of little importance, dotted about the virgin lands that where to become the setting for their empires. This film, is the first in a series, that will tell the fascinating story of the Slavs, from those early years, when they made their appearance on the European stage.

The great cities of the Slavic world. Prague, once known as the Golden City. Moscow, whose Red Square and Kremlin walls are known to everyone. And Leningrad, with its eighteenth century elegance. Cities that abound in history and art. Cities that have witnessed and still witness military, economic and cultural events, which have changed the face of the whole of Europe. We take the civilised splendour of these cities for granted today, as well as their continued growth, but when the history of the ancient world was already written, the ancestors of the Slavs of the 20th century had only just begun populating the unspoiled territories that eventually became their homeland.


The Fall of the Roman Empire

In many cities of Eastern Europe, excavation work for the foundations of new blocks of flats, often brings to light the remains of fortifications dating back to the 2nd, 3rd and 4th centuries AD, the last garrisons defending the edges of the world dominated by the Caesars. The Roman Empire was beginning to crumble. Before long there would be no more legions defending its frontiers. The bustling life of city streets and forums and theatres would soon cease.

All around Rome and across Europe spread the silence of desolation. That vast empire became little more than a wasteland. The eastern and western shores of the Mediterranean no longer shone with the glory that was Rome. The marble magnificence of the Italic cities faded, the sands of the desert were quick to cover impressive Roman settlements in Africa and Asia minor. Even long before the power of the empire had completely disintegrated, like ominous shadows, groups of wondering nomads had begun to slip through its weakening defences. Some came from the deserts to the south and to the east. Some arrived from the boundless north-eastern plains, others managed to penetrate the once impregnable chain of fortifications created by that inveterate builder of walls, the Emperor Hadrian. Some impressive remains of this great work can still be seen in the part of Eastern Europe that was formally the Roman province of Pannonia.


The Protoslavs

Among the increasing numbers of aliens who came from the eastern forests were the Protoslavs, the ancestors of the Slavs of today. They moved about with the tents in family groups. The experts refer to them as nomadic peasants. In fact, while being hunters who pursued herds of prey for months, they also practised a primitive form of agriculture. That was another reason they were constantly on the move. They were engaged in a tireless search for more fertile land where they could settle down. In the museum of Kiev there's a model showing what a typical community was like at that time. According to the anthropologists this was how the early forefathers of modern young Slavs lived.


Amber and the Lusatian Protoslavs

Among those groups of primitive farmers, herdsman and hunters, there were also men who managed to survive by gathering some of the fruits of nature. Near the Baltic Sea for example they knew how to find amber, the coin of the sun, as it used to be called thousands of years ago. In this connection there are many interesting exhibits to be seen in Polish museums, but an even clearer idea of what amber collecting was like in the past, can be obtained by visiting the woods surrounding the cities of the Baltic. All that is changed is the use of electric pumps. Even in the ancient world the amber found in this way was sent south, to the Mediterranean. It was a highly profitable trade, indeed it still is. Which is why in the 20th century searching for amber goes on with great thoroughness. Thanks to that same thoroughness some very old funerary earns have been found by chance. They are convincing proof that some quite evolved groups once lived here in the later Bronze Age. These objects belong to the so called Lusatian culture of the Protoslavs. They're made of pottery, but what makes them really interesting is the simple attempt to depict the human face. It's fascinating to think that these caricatures modeled in clay, represent the features of the fathers, of the fathers of the men who first settled permanently in this area.


Venedi South Protoslavs

The Roman historians Pliny The Elder and Tacitus knew about the first Slavs who came from the east and partially intuited the importance they would have for the known world. Later, the astronomer and geographer Ptolemy, invented a name for those Protoslavs who instead of migrating north or west, decided to come south. He called them the Venedi. Gradually, over a long period of time they had filtered through the passes of the eastern alps. They made their way as if with the instinct of migratory birds down towards the Po valley and finally settled in an extremely fertile area, which still bears the name derived from theirs, the Veneto region of Italy.

Those early Slavs who came south, had the skills needed to make these bronze votive plaques in the 6th and 5th centuries BC. Over the centuries however they merged with the native population and slowly lost their own identity, taking on the cultural characteristics of neighbouring peoples, such as the alphabet which they probably learned from the Etruscans. Because of this process of evolution, the Venedi grew increasingly differentiated from their eastern cousins, who also in their turn refined their skills in working materials, casting objects in metal for instance as this excerpt from a Polish film illustrates.


Early North-East Slavs

Those early Slavs of the north-east had a deep sense of religion, even though it involved nature worship and ritual sacrifices. As with any civilisation in the making, the development of various crafts marked important stages in the growth of the Slavs. We can study these stages not only through the excavated finds exhibited in museums, but also by watching surviving traditional craftsman. Blacksmiths for example who still use the same techniques for bending iron as many hundreds of years ago. The finished products are more than adequate for simple farming use as they were then. Those early Slav farmers perfected pottery making techniques as well, in this case too, the tradition has been kept alive after the present day, along with many other crafts practised by county-dwelling Slavs. But above all wood was the material most commonly used by these men of Northern and Eastern Europe. They used tree trunks for their houses, for making agricultural tools and for fashioning the boats they needed to travel on the many large and small rivers and torrents that abounded in there untamed world, together with countless lakes.


Hunting and Early East Slavs

For months on end, every winter, those inland waterways and expanses of water are transformed by ice and snow. In the hostile season the early Slavs lived out their dark and silent odysseys in a desperate struggle for survival. Hunting expeditions called for tenacity and courage and the use of every possible kind of weapon or trap. The primitive Slav of the north and the east had to learn his cunning from the cunning animals he hunted. Fishing in the ice for example, a technique first imitated thousands of years ago but still used in remote areas of the world of the Slavs, such as Vojvodina on the border of Serbia limited by the Danube.


The Village of Biskupin

For the population of these areas of Eastern Europe, felling trees in the vast forests came to mean more than having material for making tools and weapons, for building simple huts and for hewing out canoes or as fuel for the long winters. It also made possible the construction of impressively complex works. One of those early Slavic achievements was the fortified village of Biskupin in Poland which was built on piles. Biskupin is not far from the modern city of Poznan and it too belongs to the Lusation period we had already mentioned, in other words dating back to about the year 450 BC. Its remains have been partly reconstructed, respecting the original layout and proportions. A stone's throw away from the lake that has given its name to the place is the stockade that protected the houses of the community. This was the time when, much farther south the Greeks were at war with the Persians, eventually defeating them at Marathon and Thermopylae. Equally decisive battles for survival certainly took place around the walls of Biskupin, but those remote events have left no trace on the chronicles of history except for these logs of wood used by nameless men.

The story of how the village of Biskupin was discovered is an unusual one. At the end of the last century, one of the first Polish balloons rose into the air from Poznan. And there happened to be an enthusiastic photographer on board, taking pictures of the forest down below. It was his photographs of neatly arranged tree trunks that revealed the existance of the ancient settlement.


Early Slavic Settlements

This area has always been subject to invasions and raids by bands of marauders and a little town of [Biolgoszcz?], also on Lake Biskupin, confirms that the tradition of fortifying settlements has never been abandoned. We can say then, that in these regions of the plains, as well as in the Carpathian mountains, the Protoslavs had already settled down as far back as 2,500 years ago.

In Slovakia and in Bulgaria these are the craggy mountains of Belogradchik. They colonised inhospitable lands with stubbornness. So, with the dawning of the historical era, the area inhabited by the early Slavs extended from the fertile plains between the Dniepr and the Don as far as the most inaccessible valleys of the Balkans. There, it took the hard work of generations of settlers to rest strips of land to cultivate from the stone cluttered slopes and forests. Those separate groups of settlers gradually turned into communities that shared a common identity. But several centuries were to go by before the waves of the great migrations, brought other Slavs here to swell the numbers of those early settlers. And it was only then, that a territory as immense as a third of Europe became the permanent homeland of all the Slavs.


The Waterways as Transport

A homeland of fertile plains and mountain chains covered with forests. Abounding in rivers and lakes, with ample water for pastures and fields, today just as it was in the past. The only difference is that now all that water also represents a precious source of energy. This is the biggest hydro-electric power station in Europe at the Iron Gate on the Danube. This network of waterways continues to provide important lines of communication, linking one country with another, both the many smaller streams and the great rivers. Huge barges ply these rivers, carrying goods of every kind. But there's another very old method for transporting timber in out of the way areas where mountain torrents represent the only means of access. In the world of the Slavs, timber was a vital product as it still is today. In the Bosnia and Herzegovina regions of Yugoslavia, natural conditions rule out the possibility of building roads down from the mountains or navigable canals, but log rafts manage to resist the rapids and powerful currents. For these intrepid lumberjacks the activity is usually a family tradition, but there are not many of them left today, most young men are drawn to the modern world in which transportation is a less risky business. The contrast between the present and the past is a sharp one. In areas like this, despite technological progress, the relationship between men and nature continues to be a personal challenge, with the emphasis on the individual and his resources.


An Adventurous Way of Life

This glimpse of a still adventurous way of life brings to an end this first episode of the series. We wanted to introduce you to the natural world of the early Slavs because it had a great influence on every aspect of their later history. There have been relatively few changes here since these scenes were shot for a documentary film 60 years or so ago. They express the courageous spirit of a people who for centuries were impelled to seek new horizons, eager to trade, hungry for knowledge. A spirit that has been passed on from father to son despite modifications in customs and attitudes. It was this spirit that enabled the Slavs to penetrate a natural environment in which the word adventure still has a meaning. An uncontaminated oasis of silence cut off from the main roads of history. In the stillness of centuries old forests like this, it's not difficult to identify with those Slavic pioneers who lived out there epic struggle for survival in harmony with the natural world.