From Russia, no love: an 800-year-old letter

Published Nov. 26, 1993|Updated Oct. 10, 2005

Historian Valentin Yanin has spent nearly 50 summers unearthing treasures and artifacts from Russia's premier archaeological site, but nothing had prepared him for this summer's discovery of Russia's oldest love letter.

It was written around the year 1100 on birch bark, like hundreds of other letters Yanin and his team had found in the medieval city of Novgorod. As with the others, the archaeologists gingerly carried the muddy, rolled-up mess to a lab for cleaning, excited but expecting what they had mostly found before: a contract, a statement of debts, a business document of some kind.

But as they gently washed and soaked and unrolled the bark, a few phrases emerged which, along with the elegant female penmanship, showed that this was no ordinary missive. And after an hour of gentle cleansing, with the strips fully unfurled, Yanin read a plea from the heart that echoed mournfully across nine centuries, from Russia's first documented spurned lover.

"I have sent to you three times," she began, in a letter that tactfully omitted her lover's name. "What is the evil you hold against me, that you have never visited me this week? . . . Is it that I hurt you by sending to you, and you, as I see, do not like it? If you liked it, you would have broken free from (people's) eyes, and come."

The recipient had torn the letter in three, perhaps in anger, perhaps in fear of discovery; tantalizingly, the middle strip has not been found.

But after a few sentences that can be read only in fragments (". . . now someplace else . . . write to me about . . ."), the letter concludes, in the same calm and well-bred hand, with passion: "Even if I hurt you thoughtlessly, if you will begin mocking me, let God judge you, and my weakness."

Perhaps more than in most countries, Russians look to archaeology to score points: to prove that Russia can never be a democracy, or that its essence was always democratic; that Ukraine was never part of Russia, or that it always was; that Russians have always been backward, or that they once led the way.

The site at Novgorod, near St. Petersburg, has provided enough discoveries to both fuel and debunk countless myths. One of Russia's oldest cities, it is cherished by Yanin for a unique geology that has preserved everyday objects of wood, cloth and leather.

But on the summer day when he first read the love letter, Yanin, 64, found himself thinking, for once, neither of democracy nor of medieval trading patterns or toolmaking skills.

"A person lives and dies and suffers, and after two or three generations, no one on Earth remembers," Yanin said recently in his office at Moscow State University, where he teaches after Russia's short digging season ends. "Then 500 years pass, or 900 years _ and suddenly we learn her name _ we read her letters _ it's like a resurrection. This is a profoundly moving thing."

Novgorod, today a medium-sized Russian city with a well-preserved citadel, was a state of considerable size and importance between the 11th and 15th centuries, when Russia was a shifting mix of fiefdoms and tribes. While its rivals mostly fought each other across the steppes and through the forests, Novgorod managed to build a prosperous peace as a largely nonmilitary, westward-looking trading nation.

Moreover, while other parts of Russia were moving toward the absolutism embraced by czars and Communist tyrants, Novgorod enjoyed a kind of aristocratic democracy, with landowners often exercising more influence than the prince who was nominally in charge.

Much of this is known thanks to a thick layer of clay beneath Novgorod. Air and humidity are what eventually destroy most everyday objects, Yanin explained. If archaeology in the Middle East depends on dryness, in Novgorod it is just the opposite. Water cannot drain through the clay, so air cannot enter the saturated soil, and much is preserved.

"The sheer quantity of leather and wood objects is itself an important corrective to common perceptions," he wrote in Scientific American in 1990. "How misleading are museum exhibits that feature objects of metal, stone and glass, when 90 percent of household objects in medieval times were made of wood!"

Like a child opening his Christmas presents, Yanin recently displayed some of this year's finds, as excited as he must have been during his first Novgorod dig in 1947. There was a playing die with two faces showing four and two showing five, and none showing one or two. "You think we only recently learned how to cheat?" he asked.

His team has found Christian crosses and heathen amulets. There were beard combs and toy swords and oversized fishhooks that showed, Yanin said, that the salmon in the Volkhov River were heftier in pre-pollution days.

Most exciting for historians, however, has been the discovery over the years of 753 birch-bark letters. Medieval Russia was "rich in events, but poor in written sources," Yanin said. The letters help correct that.

They show, for example, that literacy was more widespread than previously believed, and that Novgorod's artisans and traders were more sophisticated and far-ranging, Yanin said.

Only about 2 percent of Novgorod has been excavated, Yanin said; at least 20,000 more birch-bark letters wait below.

"When the number we have discovered doubles or triples, we will know a lot that we cannot even imagine today," he said. "Who could even have dreamed this summer that we would find a letter to a lover who failed to make it to a date?"

The two strips of birch bark now lie, framed, in Yanin's office, to be studied and then returned to a Novgorod museum. The letters in Old Russian are written _ or rather, scratched by a specially made iron tool _ in a "beautiful and self-confident" hand, Yanin said.

The woman's language indicates religious training; she may have been a novice in a nunnery, he speculated. The place where the letter was found, and her level of education, indicate that she and her lover were both well-to-do.

Asked if he spent time imagining that heartbroken lover, the professor only laughed. "If I were younger, I'd probably try," he said.