The Russian Primary Chronicle, or Повесть временных лет (Povest’ vremennykh let, in traditional orthography Повѣсть временныхъ лѣтъ), is a remarkable document that has always been the basic source for the early history of Russia (or rather Rus, since “Russia” was a much later concept). It contains eyewitness, or at least contemporary, accounts of the late 11th and early 12th centuries and reports drawn from oral history for earlier periods. As James Billington says in The Icon and the Axe:

Chronicles were written in Church Slavonic in Kievan Russia long before any were written in Italian or French, and are at least as artistic as the equally venerable chronicles composed in Latin and German. The vivid narrative of men and events in the original “Primary Chronicle” struck the first Western student of Russian chronicles, August Schlözer, as far superior to any in the medieval West, and helped inspire him to become the first to introduce both universal history and Russian history into the curriculum of a modern university.

There are excerpts in English here, here, and here (among others [first two links are dead as of Oct. 2014]), but the full text is available in Likhachev’s modern Russian translation here, in manuscript reproductions here, and (the main reason for this post) in Donald Ostrowski’s collation of the manuscripts here. The sections are in pdf files (and, alas, there is no Google cache, which means I can quote only as much as I’m willing to painstakingly type in), but it’s worth downloading Adobe if you don’t already have it—not only for the sake of the Chronicle itself, but most especially for Ostrowski’s introduction (pdf), which is the best thing I’ve read on the history and practice of textual criticism in Russia and the West. He explains why the stemma came into use and then fell out of favor due to a logical conundrum, and describes his own solution to the latter. He discusses in detail the various proposed (or implied) stemmata for the MSS of the Chronicle, then proposes his own. There is of course much that is of interest only to fellow specialists, but the many lucid discussions of subjects of general interest (for instance, “Textual Criticism vs. Textology,” about halfway through, comparing Western and Russian approaches) make it worthwhile for anyone interested in the subject.

My first impulse to write this post actually came from a book that recently arrived from Amazon, Food in Russian History and Culture (the table of contents should give an idea of why I wanted this book so much). I happened to open it to the footnotes to Horace G. Lunt’s “Food in the Rus’ Primary Chronicle” and was riveted by the first one:

Samuel Cross’s 1930 translation called it The Tale of Bygone Years, but in fact the words poviest’ vremennykh” liet” in the opening line make little sense, “the tale (or story) of temporary (or temporal) years.” Russian scholars long ago decreed that here, and only here, this adjective meant “past, bygone.” Now, the phrase vremena i lieta “seasons (or occasions, or special times) and years” recurs in biblical and liturgical contexts, and equivalent Greek phrases are found in reference to histories. It is plausible that an original sequence of noun (in genitive plural) plus connective “and” (vremen” i) could be miscopied as a genitive plural adjective (vremennyx). To posit that the original text had poviest’ vremen” i liet” is well within the bounds of justifiable emendation.

That sounded somewhat dubious to me, but I really had no basis for judging. As it happens, Ostrowski deals with this very issue in his introduction:

In a recent article, Horace Lunt conjectures that the phrase “Повѣстъ врѣменъ и лѣтъ” came to be transformed into “Повѣстъ врѣменьныхъ лѣтъ.” Yet, the existence of an earlier form of the phrase does not mean that we need to emend the text of the PVL itself. Since my concept of the text of the PVL is α, according to the stemma, then whatever preceded α is not α, but part of the text’s sources. If we emend the title to read “врѣменъ и лѣтъ” in spite of the attestation of all the extant manuscript copies, then we have to explain how and why the copyists of β and γ managed to change “врѣменъ и лѣтъ” to “врѣменьныхъ лѣтъ” independently of each other…

Another possible explanation is that Sil’vestr wrote “врѣменъ и лѣтъ” in his authorial version. Then that authorial version was copied once and lost. The scribe of the copy changed “врѣменъ и лѣтъ” to “врѣменьныхъ лѣтъ” and all the other copies maintained the mistaken reading. At least two problems arise with this scenario. First, there is no convincing reason to think that Sil’vestr wrote anything different from what is in the common exemplar of all the other copies… Second, if an error occurred, the more likely place is for it to have occurred in translating the Greek phrase, καιρούς καί χρόνους, into Slavonic rather than in copying the Slavonic words from one manuscript to another… Subsequent copyists seem to have had no problem with this phrase since they do not try to correct it in any way, although in numerous other cases they do try to make corrections when they perceive their exemplar as being in error. Instead, they are comfortable with “врѣменьныхъ лѣтъ,” and do not perceive it as being an error. To change “врѣменьныхъ лѣтъ” to “врѣменъ и лѣтъ” would, in my opinion, be a hypercorrection and completely unnecessary…

Instead, I prefer Lunt’s alternative proposal—that is, “leave the attested words, but… insist on accurate translation, that is either The Tale of the Years of Time, or The Tale of Passing Years.” As Dom Quintin pointed out, we need to accept the possibility that authors sometimes make mistakes.

I rather like “The Tale of the Years of Time.” (Incidentally, can my Russian readers confirm that the adjective is in fact pronounced vrEmennykh, with the stress on the first syllable, the way I’ve been saying it? Because there’s also an adjective vremennOi ‘temporal.’) The fact that the “incorrect” wording has been accepted all along by Russians is exactly what made me doubt Lunt’s emendation. And in case anybody’s wondering about the discrepancy between my “traditional orthography Повѣсть временныхъ лѣтъ” and Ostrowski’s “врѣменьныхъ лѣтъ,” with yat’ in the first word, the Russian word is время and the Church Slavonic word врѣмя. I don’t know why.


  1. I always heard it pronounced “vremennYkh”.

  2. Speaking of Billington, have you read his Russia in Search of Itself?

  3. Onokrotal says

    The word ‘Russian’ is not correct in this context. Chronicles were written in Church Slavonic in old Kiev. As you know Kiev is the capital of Ukraine. It is common mistake that Old Kievan texts are often named as ‘Russian’, but modern word ‘Russia’ has absolutely different geographical and political meaning.
    The new edition of “The Pověst’ vremennykh lět. An Interlinear Collation and Paradosis. Complied and edited by Donald Ostrowski, Associate editor David J. Birnbaum, Senior Consultant Horace G. Lant.”
    was published as old ukrainian text in Harvard library of old ukrainian literature.

  4. The commonly accepted stress in on the last syllable. It is assumed that Sylvester was not the original author but compiled his work from earlier sources (Nestor, Nikon, Novgorod chronicles) and made use of translations of Greek chronicles into Slavic languages. I think that Likhachev says somewhere that “vremennykh” is found in a Slavonic translation of Georgios Amartolos’ chronicles in the sense of “past.”

  5. On a technical matter, unless the creator of the PDF has disabled it, you can normally copy text from one by clicking on the “T” icon on the toolbar, selecting the text to copy, and then clicking Edit -> Copy.

  6. Tatyana, Alexei: Thanks for the information; I am reprocessing my accentual habits accordingly.
    Aidan: Good lord, I did not know that! Thanks, you’ve made my life easier. (I tried it on the Ostrowski introduction just now, and it works.)

  7. Your “History of Russian food” book:
    the index convey strange impression. As if it was written
    1) by request of some vegetarian society
    2) and an odd Armenian nationalist: Armenia recieved unexplained and exclusive preference among other 14 former Soviet republics (assuming the intent was to show historical connection between pre-revolutionary Russian and Soviet period’ food; I can’t think of any other reason)

  8. Tatyana: It’s a collection of papers delivered at a conference, so of course it’s an odd assortment — scholars chose whatever they wanted to talk about, I presume. The introduction says:
    “Food as a symbol of the relation between the Russian center and the national provinces is addressed by Joyce Toomre in ‘Food and National Identity in Soviet Armenia.’ Toomre presents an overview of traditional Armenian foodways as a prelude to questioning the subsequent Soviet influence on their development. The focus of this chapter is on the small Caucasian republic of Armenia SSR, although it could just as well be Uzbekistan, Ukraine, Estonia, or Moldova. How to ensure the survival of food habits of smaller units within a larger political entity is an issue for any regional cuisine.”
    I don’t think Toomre is an “Armenian nationalist” (Toomre doesn’t sound like an Armenian name to me), but she had to pick one republic to write about, and she picked Armenia.

  9. Ah, now this explains the weirdness. Sorry I get to the intro.

  10. I can’t get the yats to show up in my browser. Does anyone know if this is a font issue, or a browser issue, or what? The fonts I have installed have the yat in their character sets, but all I get online is the error block.

  11. Wimbrel, try installing Firefox and loading the page from it. Internet Explorer, if that’s the browser you’re using, won’t automatically substitute a character from another font if the font specified for the text in question doesn’t contain a given character, whereas Firefox will. http://www.getfirefox.com/ should point you to the install.

  12. Sorry, it didn’t even occur to me that would be a problem — I only use Firefox, so it all seems easy as pie.

  13. I’ve heard a dubious, but nice hypothesis that временных in Povest’ vremennykh let means the years of world existence. That is the history of the world before the second coming. It was planned as an account of human deeds in Kiev and around it to be presented and relied upon on the Day of Judgement.

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