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(slävz, slăvz), the largest ethnic and linguistic group of peoples in Europe belonging to the Indo-European linguistic family. It is estimated that the Slavs number over 300 million in the world. They are usually classified in three main divisions. The West Slavs include the Poles, the Czechs, the Slovaks, and the WendsWends
or Sorbs,
Slavic people (numbering about 60,000) of Brandenburg and Saxony, E Germany, in Lusatia. They speak Lusatian (also known as Sorbic or Wendish), a West Slavic language with two main dialects: Upper Lusatian, nearer to Czech, and Lower Lusatian, nearer to
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 (also known as Lusatians) and other small groups in E Germany. The South Slavs include the Serbs, the Croats, the Slovenes, the Macedonians, the Montenegrins, the Bosniaks, and the Bulgars. The East Slavs, the largest group, include the Great Russians, Ukrainians, and Belorussians (or White Russians).

Religiously and culturally, the Slavs fall into two main groups—those traditionally associated with the Orthodox Eastern Church (the Great Russians, most of the Ukrainians, some of the Belorussians, the Bulgarians, the Serbs, and the Macedonians) and those historically affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church (the West Slavs, most of the Belorussians, some of the Ukrainians, and the Croats and Slovenes). The cleavage into Eastern Church and Western Church is symbolized by the use of the Cyrillic alphabet by the first group and of the Roman alphabet by the latter.


Ethnically the Slavs possess little unity, for they have mixed for centuries with other peoples, including Turko-Tatars, Finnic peoples, Germans, Mongols, Greeks, and Illyrian tribes. The Bulgarians are not of Slavic origin. The obscure beginnings of the Slavs have given rise to several theories, all of which include as a possible place of origin the area of the Polesie marshes in Galicia. The ancestors of the Slavs were Neolithic tribes who occupied this territory a few centuries before the Christian era, and the similarities of these Proto-Slavs to the Proto-Balts has led to a theory of a Proto-Baltic Slav period (see BaltsBalts
, peoples of the east coast of the Baltic Sea. They include the Latvians, the Lithuanians, and the now extinct Old Prussians. Their original home was farther east, but from the 6th cent. they were pushed westward by the Slavs. In the 13th cent.
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). There was presumably no one Proto-Slavic language, but rather a blending of tribal dialects that emerged as differentiated Slavic languages; the Slavs' unifying medium is today chiefly that of language.

Domination and Expansion

The Slavs were probably dominated in succession by the Scythians and the Sarmatians (both Iranian tribes), by the Goths, by the Huns, and by the Avars, in whose westward expansion they shared and whose slaves they often were. By the 6th cent. Slavs had settled in Germany E of the Elbe River. In the Balkan Peninsula they invaded the Byzantine Empire in 576 and again in 746, and they settled in the country districts of Greece.

A sedentary, agricultural people, the Slavs tended to adopt a loosely democratic organization. Primitive Slavic religion shows Iranian influence. The Slavs were animists; their supreme god was the god of lightning. In material culture, especially in military matters, the Slavs were greatly influenced by the Goths.

In the 8th cent. Charlemagne temporarily subdued the Slavs E of the Elbe, and German eastward expansion, which permanently pushed the Slavs beyond the Oder River, came in the 12th cent. with Henry the Lion of Saxony, the Wendic Crusade, Albert the Bear of Brandenburg, and the Teutonic Knights. From the 12th cent. on, the area of the Bohemian and Polish states was greatly changed by German immigration.

The Bohemian, Moravian, and Slovak tribes were converted (9th cent.) to Christianity by Saints Cyril and MethodiusCyril and Methodius, Saints
, d. 869 and 884, respectively, Greek missionaries, brothers, called Apostles to the Slavs and fathers of Slavonic literature. Their history and influence are obscured by conflicting legends.
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. A large Slavic empire emerged at that time under the leadership of MoraviaMoravia
, Czech Morava, Ger. Mähren, region in the E Czech Republic. The region is bordered on the W by Bohemia, on the E by the Little and White Carpathian Mts., which divide it from Slovakia, and on the N by the Sudetes Mts.
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, but it was soon destroyed by the Magyars. The duchies (later kingdoms) of PolandPoland,
Pol. Polska, officially Republic of Poland, republic (2005 est. pop. 38,635,000), 120,725 sq mi (312,677 sq km), central Europe. It borders on Germany in the west, on the Baltic Sea and the Kaliningrad region of Russia in the north, on Lithuania, Belarus, and
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 and BohemiaBohemia,
Czech Čechy, historic region (20,368 sq mi/52,753 sq km) and former kingdom, in W and central Czech Republic. Bohemia is bounded by Austria in the southeast, by Germany in the west and northwest, by Poland in the north and northeast, and by Moravia in the
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, most powerful of the Western Slavic medieval states, cooperated in the 10th cent. to resist German conquest. In the south, BulgariaBulgaria
, Bulgarian Balgarija, officially Republic of Bulgaria, republic (2011 pop. 7,364,570), 42,823 sq mi (110,912 sq km), SE Europe, on the E Balkan Peninsula.
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, SerbiaSerbia
, Serbian Srbija , officially Republic of Serbia, republic (1995 est. pop. 10,394,000), 34,116 sq mi (88,361 sq km), W central Balkan Peninsula; formerly the chief constituent republic of Yugoslavia and of its short-lived successor, Serbia and Montenegro.
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, Bosnia, and CroatiaCroatia
, Croatian Hrvatska, officially Republic of Croatia, republic (2011 pop. 4,284,889), 21,824 sq mi (56,524 sq km), in the northwest corner of the Balkan Peninsula.
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 each reached a relatively high degree of political development before being absorbed (14th–15th cent.) by the Ottoman Empire. Most important was the East Slavic Kievan state, which rose in the 10th cent. and was destroyed by the Mongol invasion in the 13th cent. Thereafter the principalities of Halych-Volhynia and Moscow (see Moscow, grand duchy ofMoscow or Muscovy, grand duchy of,
state existing in W central Russia from the late 14th to mid-16th cent., with the city of Moscow as its nucleus.
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) became prominent.

From the 17th cent. on Pan-SlavismPan-Slavism,
theory and movement intended to promote the political or cultural unity of all Slavs. Advocated by various individuals from the 17th cent., it developed as an intellectual and cultural movement in the 19th cent.
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 increased and became to some extent a development in opposition to Pan-Germanism. The history of the West Slavs and the South Slavs during the past three centuries is dominated by their struggles for liberation from Turkish, German, and Magyar domination. The Slavs, however, have not been able to unify politically, mainly as the result of different national interests.


See K. Jazdzewski, Atlas to the Prehistory of the Slavs (tr., 2 vol., 1948–49); J. S. Roucek, ed., Slavonic Encyclopaedia (4 vol., 1949, repr. 1969); F. Dvornik, The Slavs (1956) and The Slavs in European History and Civilization (1962, repr. 1986); S. H. Cross, Slavic Civilization through the Ages (1963); A. P. Vlasto, The Entry of the Slavs into Christendom (1970); M. A. Gimbutas, The Slavs (1971).



the largest group of peoples in Europe, united by linguistic affinity and a common origin.

In 1970 there were approximately 260 million Slavs, including more than 130 million Russians, 41.5 million Ukrainians, 9.2 million Byelorussians, about 37 million Poles, about 10 million Czechs, 4.7 million Slovaks, 100,000 Wends, 7.9 million Bulgarians, 9 million Serbs, 4.8 million Croats, 2.1 million Slovenes, 600,000 Montenegrins, and 1.2 million Macedonians (in Yugoslavia).

Sources on the history of the ancient Slavs, the ancestors of the modern Slavic peoples, include archaeological and linguistic data, the writings of such Greco-Roman and Byzantine historians as Pliny the Elder, Tacitus, Ptolemy, Jordanes, and Pro-copius of Caesarea, and early medieval chronicles. The earliest information about the Slavs, known as Wends (Venedi), dates from the first and second centuries A.D. From the mid-sixth century the name “Sklabenoi” (or “Sclaveni”) is encountered in the works of Procopius, Jordanes, and other historians. In the second half of the seventh century the Slavs (Sakaliba) are first mentioned by Arabic authors, notably Abu Malik al-Akhtal.

Linguistic evidence links the ancient Slavs with Central and Eastern Europe—the region stretching from the Elbe and Oder rivers in the west, across the Vistula River basin and the upper course of the Dnestr River, to the middle course of the Dnieper River in the east. The Slavs’ northern neighbors were the Germans and Baits, who together with the Slavs constituted the northern group of Indo-European tribes. To the east lived western Iranian tribes, both Scythians and Sarmatians; to the south, Thracians and Illyrians; and to the west, Celts. The question of the oldest “homeland” of the Slavs has not been settled, but most scholars believe that it was located east of the Vistula.

Many Soviet, Polish, and Czechoslovak archaeologists believe that the ancient Slavs, as well as the Germans and Baits, were descended from the livestock-raising and farming tribes of the Corded Ware culture. By the end of the third millennium B.C., these tribes had spread from the northern Black Sea coast and the Carpathians across Central, Northern, and Eastern Europe. Subsequently, the Slavs were represented by several genetically related archaeological cultures, of which the most important were the Trzciniec culture, which flourished in the third quarter of the second millennium B.C. between the Vistula and the middle Dnieper, and the Lausitz (13th to fourth centuries B.C.) and Pomeranian cultures (sixth to second centuries B.C.), both of which existed in what is now Poland. Some archaeologists hold that proto-Slavs in the Dnieper River basin were the bearers of the Chernyi Les (literally “black forest”) culture (eighth to early sixth centuries B.C.) and that they were the Neu-roi and even the Scythian plowmen mentioned by Herodotus. The Podgortsy and Milograd cultures, dating from the seventh century B.C. to the first century A.D., have also been linked with the Slavs. The Zarubintsy culture, which arose at the end of the first millennium B.C. along the Pripiat’ River and middle Dnieper, is attributed to the ancestors of the East Slavs. It was a mature Iron Age culture, whose bearers engaged in agriculture, livestock raising, and crafts. Among certain advanced tribal groups the clan community had probably been replaced by a territorial one.

The southward movement of Germanic tribes (Goths and Gepids) into Slavic territory between the second and fourth centuries A.D. was evidently an important factor in the separation of the Slavs into western and eastern groups. During the first centuries A.D. most of the bearers of the Zarubintsy culture moved northward and northeastward along the Dnieper and Desna rivers (late Zarubintsy culture). In the third and fourth centuries the Middle Dnieper Region was inhabited by tribes who left behind the Cherniakhov antiquities. Some archaeologists have identified these people as Slavs, but the majority believe that they were a polyethnic group that included Slavic elements.

At the end of the fifth century, after the defeat of the Huns, the Slavs moved southward toward the Danube and the northwestern coast of the Black Sea, invading the Balkan provinces of the Byzantine Empire. At that time the Slavic tribes were divided into two groups—the Antes, who invaded the Balkan Peninsula by way of the lower reaches of the Danube, and the Sclavenians, who attacked the Byzantine provinces from the north and northwest. The Balkan Peninsula was colonized not through the displacement but rather through the diffusion of the Slavs, who retained all their old lands in Central and Eastern Europe. During the second half of the first millennium the Slavs gained control of the land along the upper Dnieper and its northern periphery—areas previously settled by the Eastern Baits and Finno-Ugric tribes—as well as the lands along the lower Elbe and the southwestern coast of the Baltic Sea. They became the largest ethnic group in Europe. Both the Antes and the Sclavenians broke up into separate tribal groups: the Du-lebs were known as early as the seventh century, and the Slavic “tribes” mentioned in the Tale of Bygone Years probably also existed at that time, including the Poliane, Severiane, Drevli-ane, Krivichi, Ulichi, Tivertsy, Khorvaty, Radimichi, Drego-vichians, and Viatichi. Among the many Slavic groups that penetrated the Balkan Peninsula during the seventh and eighth centuries were the Draguvity, Sagudaty, Verzity, and Severy (Severiane).

The testimony of written sources has been confirmed by archaeological finds. Remains dating from the sixth and seventh centuries have been discovered in the USSR along the Dnieper, Bug, and Dnestr rivers, as well as in Poland, Czechoslovakia, Rumania, Bulgaria, and Yugoslavia. These include the ruins of settlements consisting of semisubterranean log huts (or sometimes surface post houses), fortified settlements, and burial grounds and kurgans containing cremated remains.

Slavic art developed through interaction with the art of its nearest neighbors—Germans in the west, Finno-Ugric tribes in the north and northeast, Scythians and Sarmatians in the south and southeast, and Thracians in the southwest. The Slavs made various kinds of pottery decorated with incised or relief ornamentation. Their jewelry included iron and bronze fibulae with engraved or cast designs and various women’s ornaments. The recurrent motifs in ornamentation were associated with the cult of the sun (circle, cross, and swastika), of water and rain (undulating and reticular designs), and of lightning (zigzags). The cosmological concepts of the Slavs were also reflected in works of monumental sculpture, notably the Zbruch Idol. The most prevalent sculptural works were statues of gods, often with several faces, erected in the center of temples. The statues have a static and monolithic quality. During the seventh century the influence of Byzantine art began to manifest itself in jewelry.

Written sources dating from the sixth to the 12th century, as well as archaeological and ethnographic information, have revealed certain aspects of ancient Slavic mythology and religion. Among the oldest forms of religion were the family-clan cults of ancestors (roditeli), including the cult of Rod and Rozhenitsy, associated with fertility. (Vestiges of these cults survived in the folk images of the Shchur, or Chur, and domovoi [house spirit].) Communal agricultural cults were subsequently adapted to the Christian holidays, for example, Christmastide. The sky deities Svarog and Dazhbog were also related to the agricultural cults. By the time the clan system was on the decline, Perun, the god of thunder, headed the pantheon of Slavic deities. Among lesser deities were the leshii (Polish, duch lisny; forest goblin), the vodianoi (Czech, vodnik; water sprite), the polevoi dukh, or poludnitsa (Lusatian, pripoldnica; field spirit), and the vily—water, field, forest, mountain, or air maidens. There was probably no general Slavic pantheon; only Perun appears among various groups. At the end of the first millennium, tribal cults were transformed into state cults.

Written and archaeological evidence shows that primitive communal relations were disappearing among the Slavs in the third quarter of the first millennium owing to changes in the economic life of the Slavs, chiefly in the system of agriculture and land tenure, and to the development of crafts. The Slavs engaged in plow farming, livestock raising, and various crafts, and they lived in adjoining communes. Historical circumstances, such as wars and dispersion, contributed to the weakening of clan ties, the development of private ownership of implements and the means of production, and the formation of classes.

As the Slavs dispersed over vast areas that had diverse native populations, their ethnic and linguistic cohesion gradually broke down, resulting in the formation of the three Slavic groups that exist to this day—the West, East, and South Slavs. With the disintegration of the clan system and the rise of the earliest Slavic states (notably the First Bulgarian Kingdom, the empire founded by Samo, the Great Moravian State, Caranta-nia, and Kievan Rus’) at the end of the first millennium A.D., the medieval Slavic ethnic groups began to evolve: the West Slavic Poles, Czechs, and somewhat later Slovaks and the South Slavic Slovenes, Serbs, Croats, and Bulgarians. The ancient Russian nation was coalescing among the East Slavs. Christianity spread among the Slavs in the ninth and tenth centuries, gradually becoming the dominant religion. The artistic heritage of the Slavs exerted a profound influence on the development of national cultures during the rise of the early feudal states of Eastern Europe in the eighth and ninth centuries.

In subsequent centuries the territory over which the Slavs had dispersed underwent substantial changes. The Magyar (Hungarian) tribes that had reached the Middle Danube at the end of the ninth century cut the West Slavs off from the South Slavs and assimilated part of the Slavic population in Pannonia. The area occupied by the West Slavs was reduced under the onslaught of the Germans. In their Drang nach Osten (“drive to the East”) the Germans annihilated or absorbed all but a small group of Polabian Slavs (from which the Wends evolved), as well as the Pomeranian Slavs, with the exception of the Ka-shubs. In the north the Poles were almost entirely cut off from the Baltic Sea, and in the south, where the Germans had penetrated as far as Silesia, they were separated from the Czechs. The Germans also occupied part of the Czech lands. The area settled by the South Slavs was somewhat reduced. Most of the Slavs living in the Peloponnesus were assimilated by the Greeks, and the Austrians assimilated the Carinthian Slovenes.

In the second half of the 14th century, the Turks began invading the territories of the Bulgarians and Serbs, compelling some of the latter to migrate from Old Serbia to Voevodina in the north. The South Slavic nationalities were formed in the course of the struggle against the Turks. Many of the southern and southeastern regions inhabited by the East Slavs were depopulated in the 13th century as a result of the Mongol-Tatar invasion. However, the resettlement of these areas by Slavs began as early as the 15th century during the struggle against the Golden Horde and the Tatar khanates that emerged after the horde’s destruction. This period saw the emergence of the East Slavic nationalities—the Russians, the Ukrainians, and somewhat later the Byelorussians. The fall of the Kazan and Astrakhan khanates in the 16th century opened the way for Russian expansion into the Volga and Ural areas and subsequently into Siberia. After the fall of the Crimean Khanate, the Ukrainians settled the steppes along the Black Sea and, together with the Russians, the steppe and piedmont regions of the Northern Caucasus. The ethnic territory of the Byelorussians remained virtually unchanged.

The comparatively late ethnic differentiation of the Slavic peoples, their common historical destiny (including the struggle against German and Turkish feudal lords), and the largely similar impediments to their national development owing to the loss of statehood by many of them (most of the West and South Slavs were included within the Austrian [later Austro-Hungarian] Empire or the Ottoman Empire)—all facilitated the preservation of a sense of Slavic community that grew markedly stronger in the 19th century, when bourgeois nations were beginning to emerge. At that time, however, this ethnic consciousness was frequently distorted by the political ideas of Pan-Slavism.

The national oppression and difficult economic position of the Slavic peoples at the end of the 19th and early 20th centuries stimulated large-scale emigration to other European countries (such as France) and across the sea (primarily to the USA and Canada). At the beginning of the 20th century, there were about 150 million Slavs, including more than 65 million Russians, approximately 31 million Ukrainians, about 7 million Byelorussians, more than 19 million Poles, more than 7 million Czechs, more than 2.5 million Slovaks, more than 9 million Serbs and Croats, 5.5 million Bulgarians, and 1.5 million Slovenes. The bulk of the Slavic population—107.5 million persons—lived in Russia. About 25 million resided in Austria-Hungary, more than 4 million in Germany, and more than 3 million in North and South America.

The national movements that arose among the South and West Slavs in the mid-19th century resulted in the unification of their ethnic territories and the creation of sovereign states. The process was accelerated by Turkey’s defeat by Russia in 1877-78, by the First Balkan War (1912), and by Austria-Hungary’s defeat in World War I. Postwar international acts established new boundaries for Bulgaria, formed the multinational Slavic states of Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia, and reestablished the national statehood of Poland. The October Revolution of 1917 in Russia led to the creation of national statehood for the Ukrainians and Byelorussians, who along with the Russians became socialist nations in the course of socioeconomic changes.

The solidarity of the Slavic peoples was actively manifested and strengthened during World War II in the course of the struggle against fascism. In 1939 and during the first postwar years, all the Ukrainian and Byelorussian lands were unified and the indigenous ethnic territories of the Poles and Czechs were restored. As a result of political and socioeconomic changes in Eastern and Southeastern Europe, socialist Slavic states emerged and Slavic socialist nations were formed, including the Polish, Czech, Slovak, Serbian, Croatian, and Bulgarian socialist nations.


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