Primary Chronicle

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Primary Chronicle


(Tale of Bygone Years; in Russian, Povest’ vremennykh let), an all-Russian chronicle codex compiled in Kiev in the second decade of the 12th century. Even though it did not survive as a separate, independent literary monument, the Primary Chronicle served as the basis for most of the chronicle codices that have been preserved. The oldest, basic copies are the Laurentian Chronicle, which reflects the second redaction of the Primary Chronicle, and the Hypatian Chronicle, which reflects the third redaction.

Nestor, a monk at the Kiev-Pecherskaia Laura (monastery), is named in some chronicle codices as the compiler of the Primary Chronicle. In the 18th and 19th centuries scholars considered Nestor the first Russian chronicler and the Primary Chronicle the first Russian chronicle. However, studies of chronicle writing by A. A. Shakhmatov, M. D. Priselkov, D. S. Likhachev, A. N. Nasonov, M. N. Tikhomirov, L. V. Cherepnin, and B. A. Rybakov indicated the existence of chronicle codices antedating the Primary Chronicle. The chronicle was reworked twice.

The sources for the first redaction of the Primary Chronicle included the chronicle codex of the Kiev-Pecherskaia Laura at the end of the 11th century, the tenth-century Russo-Byzantine treaties, the Chronograph (an old Russian compilation on world history), the Byzantine chronicle of Georgios Amartolos, the Life of Basil the Younger, the works of Epiphanius of Cyprus, and the Bible. Also among the sources for the Primary Chronicle are the Tale of the Slavic Written Language; legends about the Eastern Slavic tribes, Kii, and Ol’ga’s revenge on the Drevliane; and oral tales attributed to Ian Vyshatich and the monks of the Kiev-Pecherskaia Laura.

Nestor was the first Russian feudal historiographer to link the history of Rus’ with that of the Eastern European and Slavic peoples and with world history as it was understood at that time.

According to the entry following article 1110, which is incomplete, the manuscript of the Primary Chronicle was written in 1116 by the abbot Sil’vestr, who was responsible for the new, second redaction of the chronicle. Sil’vestr, the abbot of the Vydubetskii Monastery, the family monastery of Vladimir Monomakh, deleted some of the final entries in the first redaction of the Primary Chronicle and altered others. In making his revisions, Sil’vestr paid a great deal of attention to Vladimir Monomakh, expanding and embellishing his role in the events of the late 11th and early 12th centuries. Sil’vestr also made a number of additions to the chronicle.

In 1118 the Primary Chronicle was again reworked. Events associated with the Monomashichi (the Russian princes descended from Monomakh), and particularly with Mstislav, Vladimir Monomakh’s son, are the center of attention in the third redaction. The last editor of the Primary Chronicle supplemented the source with information about the family affairs of Vladimir Monomakh and his father Vsevolod and corrected information in the chronicle about the Byzantine emperors, to whom the Monomashichi were related. On the whole, however, the Primary Chronicle retained the significance attributed to it by Nestor: it was the first historiographical work in which the history of the ancient Russian state was presented in the broader context of world history. The chroniclers called on the princes to unite and defend the Russian land from foreign enemies.

The Primary Chronicle is a collection of tribal traditions; folkloric tales, epics, and legends; the lives of the first Russian saints; and works of literature. The language of the chronicle, which is closely related to the Russian language of the 11th—12th centuries, is distinguished for its terse, vivid quality. The stories in the Primary Chronicle have been used repeatedly by Russian writers, including A. S. Pushkin, A. N. Maikov, and A. K. Tolstoy.


Povest’ vremennykh let, parts 1–2. Moscow-Leningrad, 1950. [Text prepared by D. S. Likhachev and translated by D. S. Likhachev and B. A. Romanov.]


Shakhmatov, A. A. “Povest’ Vremennykh let, vol. 1: Vvodnaia chast’, Tekst, Primechaniia.” In the collection Letopis’ zaniatii Arkheograficheskoi komissii, vol. 29. Petrograd, 1917.
Shakhmatov, A. A. “Povest’ Vremennykh let i ee istochniki.” In the collection Trudy Otdela drevnerusskoi literatury, vol. 4. Moscow-Leningrad, 1940.
Istrin, V. M. “Zamechaniia o nachale russkogo letopisaniia.” In the collection Izvestiia Otdeleniia russkogo iazyka i slovesnosti, vols. 26–27. Petrograd, 1923–24.
Nikol’skii, N. K. “Povest’ Vremennykh let kak istochnik dlia istorii nachal’nogo perioda russkoi pis’mennosti i kul’tury.” In Sb. po russkomu iazyku i slovesnosti AN SSSR, vol. 2, fasc. 1. Leningrad, 1930.
Priselkov, M. D. Istoriia russkogo letopisaniia XI-XV vv. Leningrad, 1940.
Eremin, I. P. Povest’ vremennykh let: Problemy ee istoriko-literaturnogo izucheniia. Leningrad, 1946.
Likhachev, D. S. Russkie letopisi i ikh kul’turno-istoricheskoe znachenie. Moscow-Leningrad, 1947.
Rybakov, B. A. Drevniaia Rus’: Skazaniia, Byliny, Letopisi. Moscow, 1963.
Nasonov, A. N. Istoriia russkogo letopisaniia Xl-nachala XVIII vv. Moscow, 1969.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.