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The Zadonshchina; Afanasy Nikitin's Journey Across Three Seas

Information and Questions for Reading

These are two quite different texts, but each is short enough that we can read them together. The first, the Zadonshchina, or "[Matter] Beyond the Don," was written by Sofony of Riazan (thus we see that Riazan has recovered somewhat since its destruction in the 13th century). The battle described took place in 1380 and represented the first victory of what are still Rusians against the Mongols - even though it was not a lasting victory.

The name "Sofony" (or Sofonii, Софоний), is clearly a monk's name, and we know very little about him besides his name. (But what difference does it make when we DO know the name - as we did with ibn Fadlān, but not with the author/composer of the Igor Tale?) You'll notice his references to the Igor Tale, as Zenkovsky points out in his little introduction. Unless the Igor Tale is a forgery (and let me know if you're interested in the arguments over that question), these references suggest that it was more widely known in the late 14th century than it later became.

A couple of observations: Now we see references not to the sons of Ishmael, but to the sons of Noah, Japheth and Shem. Since the Bible was the best-known text to the monks who were literate in this period, and since the versions of history they had access to (the chronicles) would begin their narratives from the beginning of time according to the Bible, they would be quite familiar with Japheth and Shem and continue to use them in explaining the nature and origin of races. - Note that the term "brother" is used here to mean "cousin" (in Russian, "cousin" is expressed by a phrase that includes "brother," so it's often shortened to "brother"; you can tell by the names of the two princes that they don't have the same father).

On p. 215, note the Lithuanian brothers who take part in the events. At this point, Poland and Lithuania were part of a large state that included what is now Ukraine. You may surmise that the Lithuanians were recently Christianized, by looking at the names of their father and grandfather, which the narrative supplies: they aren't recognizable as "Christian" names, as the names of the current generation are.


1. Have you seen warrior monks in other traditions (from this era, or others)?

2. What similarities do you see to the Igor Tale? What are the differences (with the caveat that we are reading both in translation)?

3. How does this work present the Tatars - especially from the point of view of their religion?


Afanasy Nikitin began his journeys 80-some years after the Battle on the Don, and in an era where things had settled somewhat. The merchants (купцы) were one of the four traditional social classes in traditional Muscovite culture: the other three were the peasants, the clergy, and the nobility. (This started to fall apart by the second half of the nineteenth century.) In the Kievan part of East Slavic history, and to some extent in the Muscovite era, merchants were often seen as adventurers and the heroes of tales and epic songs (like Sadko of Novgorod): they traveled abroad, they were familiar with other lands and therefore sophisticated. It's not visible in our translation, but Zenkovsky notes that parts of the text were originally written in a koiné of tongues that was used by traders around the Indian Ocean (something parallel to Swahili in Africa): Afanasy had several years to learn this, and it surely made his life easier once he could communicate with others, especially other merchants. Perhaps in tandem with the loss of warm-water ports and (on the other hand) Ivan IV's crushing of the relative independence of the western cities in his realm, the merchants eventually became known as a very conservative and rather insular part of society, and educated Russians especially from the aristocracy saw them as backward. - Tver', Afanasy N's hometown, is one of the ring of old cities around Moscow.


1. What risks of travel in this period does Afanasy depict to us?

2. I mistakenly said that he had converted to Islam, misremembering one passage. Now that we know he didn't: what episodes put his adherence to the Orthodox faith at risk?

3. Why is he unable to tell when the Christian fasts should be observed? (How does the Muslim calendar differ from the Christian calendar?)

4. How would you compare this piece to ibn Fadlān's story of his journey to the North?

5. For whom is (or might be) Afanasy writing?

6. What clues in the text show you that he's a merchant?