Slavic peoples

The Slavic peoples are the most numerous ethnic and linguistic body of peoples in Europe. They speak Slavic languages and reside chiefly in Eastern Europe, but are also found in Asia.


Ethno-cultural subdivisions

One can customarily divide the Slavs into the following subgroups:

(*) Classification disputed.

The emergence of Proto-Slavic

The Proto-Slavic (or Proto-Balto-Slavic) language branched off at some uncertain time in an unknown location from common Proto-Indo-European, becoming a separate Indo-European language: Proto-Slavic, a hypothetical (reconstructed) language whence Common Slavonic and the later individual Slavic languages emerged.

The Slavic homeland Debates

A common theory is that the Proto-Indo-Europeans, and also the later Proto-Slavs, originated from the steppes of Ukraine and southern Russia (see Kurgan hypothesis). However, other scholars believe that the Proto-Slavs had been in north-east Central Europe since very early times, and were the bearers of the Lusatian culture and later the Przeworsk culture (and were also part of the Chernyakhov culture). However, this latter theory does not contradict the Kurgan hypothesis.

There are thus two major historical theories that address the issue of the original homeland of Slavs:

  1. the autochthonic theory assumes that Slavs had lived north of the Carpathian Mountains since the Lusatian culture (before 1000 BC).
  2. the allochthonic theory assumes that the Slavs came there in the 5th or 6th century AD.

Germans and different Slavic nations have employed either of these theories as tools of political propaganda, resulting in general confusion. Some scientists (such as Kazimierz Godlowski or Zdenek Vana) consider both theories absurd: they think that Slavs as such appeared and differentiated themselves from other tribes some time after 1 AD.

Many regions have been proposed as the hypothetical Slavic homeland. Suggestions include today's Poland, the marshes of Polesie, Volhynia, areas around the upper Dniepr river, and even Central Asia. Slavs first appeared in history living in the Pripyat Marshes area (Polesie).

Around 500 BC, Celtic tribes settled along the upper Oder river (Odra), and Germanic tribes settled on the lower Vistula and the lower Oder rivers. The lands of the Elbe, Oder, and Vistula regions all came to be known as Magna Germania by ca. 100 AD. It has not been verified whether any Slavic tribes were settled in these regions at that time.

One theory suggests that two waves of Slavs existed: Proto-Slavs (called by these theorists "Venedes" or "Wenets"), and the Slavs proper; and that these two groups were mixed to become today's Slavs. However, the claim that the Venedes were a Slavic or even a proto-Slavic people is very controversial, and many scholars believe that the Venedes belonged to another Indo-European branch, rather than Slavic.

Another recent theory, relying on the multiregional origin hypothesis claims an autochthonous Slavic origin from pre-glacial times. The Slavic homeland would thus have included areas described by Tacitus as Germania. This theory has little support among scientists.

Still more confusion comes from the fact that some Slavic peoples have originated as a result of complete assimilation of non-Slavic peoples. Myth-weavers often seize upon this phenomenon (which happened in some cases) to create spurious pseudo-histories (see connection between Poles and Vandals).

Finally, several new theories of the origin of Slavs were published, and found large numbers of followers, in the 1990s and 2000s, fueled by the rise of nationalism in Ukraine and Russia. Most of them attempt to establish a direct connection between the Slavs and Aryans. Some even claim that Slavs existed as an entity as early as the 7th to 5th millennium BC and were ancestors of the Sumerians. They say that the fabled Sumerian city of Aratta was located in Ukraine.

There is plenty of archeological evidence for settlements in northern Ukraine and Poland as far back as 3rd millennium BC (Trypillian, Tishinets, Peshevor, Zarubinets cultures). People who lived there supported themselves principally by means of agriculture; some of them had mastered the use of metal by the 8th century BC. The absence of a written language leaves it open for debate whether those people were in any way related to modern Slavs.

Ethnonyms applied to Slavs

The peoples we now know as Slavs appeared in early histories as "Venedes" or "Wends", but as noted above, their connection to the Venedes mentioned by Tacitus, Ptolemy and Pliny remains uncertain, and the similarity of the two names may have come about spuriously, by way of a later misidentification.

Some later writers recorded the names of Slavic peoples as Sclavens, Sclovene, and Ants. Jordanes mentions that the Venets sub-divided into three groups: the Venets, the Ants and the Sklavens. Traditionally the name "Venets" has become associated with the Western Slavs, "Sklavens" with the Southern Slavs, and the "Ants" (or "Antes") with the Eastern Slavs.

Etymology of 'Slav'

Even the origin of the word "Slav" remains controversial. In the Old Slavonic language that word is "Sloveane", or something similar, with obvious similarities to the word slovo meaning "word, talk". Thus Sloveane would mean "people who speak (the same language)", i.e. people who understand each other, as opposed to the Slavic word for Germans, nemtsi, or "dumb, speechless people" (from Slavic nemi - mute, dumb; compare the Greek coinage of the term "barbarian"). Another obvious similarity links "Slavs" to the word slava, that is "glory" or "praise" (with a root in common with slovo - one who is often spoken of). Some linguists believe, however, that these obvious connections mislead, despite the early translation of the Greek word orthodoxos ("Correct/right", "glorifying/praising") having its equivalent in pravoslavni with pravo meaning "right" or "correct" and slavni meaning "those who praise" or "those who glorify" [God].

Slavs in the Historical period

Slavs emerged from obscurity when the westward movement of Germans and Celts in the 5th and 6th centuries AD (necessitated by the onslaught of peoples from Siberia and Eastern Europe: Huns, Avars, Bulgars and Magyars) started the great migration of the Slavs, who followed in the Germans' wake: westward into the country between the Odra and the Elbe-Saale line; southward into Bohemia, Moravia, much of present day Austria, the Pannonian plain and the Balkans; and northward along the upper Dnieper river.

When their migratory movements ended, there appeared among the Slavs the first rudiments of state organizations, each headed by a prince with a treasury and defense force; and the beginnings of class differentiation, with nobles who pledged allegiance to the Frankish and Holy Roman Emperors.

In the 7th century the Frankish nobleman Samo, who supported the Slavs fighting their Avar rulers, became the ruler of the first known Slav state in Central Europe. Karantania in today's Austria and Slovenia was one Slavic state; very old also are the Principality of Nitra and the Moravian principality (see under Great Moravia). In this period there existed central Slavic groups and states, such as the Balaton Principality or the Severans, but the subsequent expansion of the Magyars and Romanians, as well as the Germanisation of Austria, separated the northern and southern Slavs. An explanation of the distinction between the western and eastern Slavs remains to be written.

In the early history of the Slavs, and continuing into the Dark Ages, non-Slavic groups were sometimes assimilated by Slavic-speaking populations: the Croats and the Bulgars became Slavicized and their non-Slavic tongues disappeared; in other cases, Slavs themselves were assimilated into other groups such as the Romanians, Magyars, Greeks, etc.

Scarcely any unity developed among various Slavic peoples in the early historic period, although faint traces of co-operation sometimes appeared. Because of the vastness and diversity of the territory occupied by Slavic peoples, there were several centers of Slavic consolidation, a process that was never completed for many reasons. In the 19th century, Pan-Slavism developed as a movement among intellectuals, scholars, and poets, but it rarely influenced practical politics. The common Slavic experience of Soviet communism after World War II within the Eastern bloc (Warsaw Pact) was a forced high-level political and economic alliance, but nothing more, and it was hegemonical in favor of certain groups. A notable political union of the 20th century that covered many South Slavs was Yugoslavia, but it broke apart as well.

Nazi Germany, whose proponents claimed a racial superiority for the Germanic people, particularly over Semitic and Slavic peoples, plotted an enslavement of the Slavic peoples, and the reduction of their numbers by killing the majority of the population. As a result, a large number of Slavs were slain during World War II.

Religion and alphabet

In religion, the Slavs traditionally divided into two main groups:

  1. those associated with the Orthodox Churches - most Russians, most Ukrainians, most Belarusians, some Carpatho-Ruthenians (Rusyns), most Serbs, most Bulgarians and most Macedonians
  2. those associated with the Catholic Church (both Roman Catholic and Greek Catholic) - Poles, some Sorbs, some Czechs, most Slovaks, Croats, Slovenians, some Ukrainians, a few Serbs, a few Macedonians and some Belarusians.

Some Sorbs profess Protestantism, as do certain Slovaks, and a few Czechs and Slovenians. Most Bosniaks, Pomaks, Gorani, and Torbesh are Muslims.

The Orthodox/Catholic religious divisions become further exacerbated by the use of the Cyrillic alphabet by the Orthodox and Uniates (Greek Catholics) and of the Roman alphabet by Roman Catholics. However, Serbian language can be written in both Cyrillic and Roman alphabets. There is also a Latin script to write in Belarusian, called Lacinka alphabet. Bosnian language was written in Arabic alphabet until the 20th century.

See also

bs:Slaveni de:Slawen eo:Slava Grupo he:סלאבים hr:Slaveni it:Slavo lt:Slavai ja:スラヴ人 nl:Slavische volkeren pl:Słowianie ro:Slavi ru:Славяне sl:Slovani sv:Slaver fi:Slaavit uk:Слов’яни


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