The Russian Primary Chronicle (Russian: Повесть временных лет, Povest' vremennykh let, which is often translated in English as Tale of Bygone Years), is a history of the early East Slavic state, Kievan Rus, from around 850 to 1110.
For a long time the original compilation was attributed to a monk named Nestor, and hence it was formerly referred to as Nestor's Chronicle, or Nestor's manuscript. Among many sources he used were earlier (now lost) Slavonic chronicles, Byzantine annals of John Malalas and George Hamartolus, native legends and Norse sagas, several Greek religious texts, Russo-Byzantine treaties, oral accounts of military leaders and much more. Nestor worked at the court of Sviatopolk II of Kiev and probably shared his pro-Scandinavian policies.
The early part is rich in anecdotal stories, among which are the arrival of the three Varangian brothers, the founding of Kiev, the murder of Askold and Dir, the death of Oleg, who was killed by a serpent concealed in the skeleton of his horse, and the vengeance taken by Olga, the wife of Igor, on the Drevlians, who had murdered her husband. The account of the labors of Saint Cyril and Saint Methodius among the Slavic peoples is also very interesting, and to Nestor we owe the tale of the summary way in which Vladimir the Great suppressed the worship of Perun and other idols at Kiev.
In the year 1116, Nestor's text was extensively edited by hegumen Sylvester who appended his name at the end of the chronicle. As Vladimir Monomakh was the patron of the village of Vydubychy where his monastery is situated, the new edition glorified that prince and made him the central figure of later narrative. This second version of Nestor's work is preserved in the Laurentian codex (see below).
A third edition followed two years later and centered on the person of Vladimir's son and heir, Mstislav the Great. The author of this revision could have been Greek, for he corrected and updated much data on Byzantine affairs. This latest revision of Nestor's work is preserved in the Hypatian codex (see below).
The original of the chronicle is lost, and the earliest known copies are the Laurentian codex and the Hypatian codex, so it is difficult to establish the original content of the chronicle, word by word.
The Laurentian codex was copied by the Nizhegorod monk Laurentius for the local prince Dmitry Konstantinovich in 1377. The original text he used was a lost codex compiled for the Grand Duke Mikhail of Tver in 1305. The account continues until 1305, but the years 898-922, 1263-83 and 1288-94 are for some reason omitted. The manuscript was acquired by the famous Count Musin-Pushkin in 1792 and subsequently presented to the Russian National Library in St Petersburg.
The Hypatian codex was discovered at the Ipatiev Monastery of Kostroma by the great Russian historian Nikolay Karamzin. The Hypatian manuscript dates back to the 15th century, but it incorporates much precious information from the lost 12th-century Kievan and 13th-century Halychian chronicles. The language of this work is Old Church Slavonic with many East Slavisms.
The Primary Chronicle may be one of the most intensively studied texts in history. Numerous monographs and published versions of the chronicle have been made, the earliest known being in 1767. Aleksey Shakhmatov published a pioneering textological analysis of the narrative in 1908. Dmitry Likhachev and other Soviet scholars partly revisited his findings. Their versions attempted to reconstruct the pre-Nestorian chronicle, compiled at the court of Yaroslav the Wise in the mid-11th century.
Unlike many other medieval chronicles written by European monks, the Tale of Bygone Years is unique as the only written testimony on the earliest history of East Slavic peoples. Its comprehensive account of the history of Kievan Rus is unmatched in other sources. It is also valuable as a prime example of the Old East Slavic literature.
- A collation of the chronicle by Donald Ostrowski in Cyrillic is available at http://hudce7.harvard.edu/~ostrowski/pvl/ together with an erudite and lengthy introduction in English. This is an interlinear collation including the five main manuscript witnesses, as well as a new paradosis, or reconstruction of the original.
- Extracts from the chronicle translated into English are available at http://www.dur.ac.uk/~dml0www/kimohist.html. Note that this page also contains documents not from the chronicle. Chronicle extracts have the source noted at the end of the extract page.
- There is an English translation and commentary by Samuel Hazzard Cross and Olgerd P. Sherbowitz-Wetzor, The Russian Primary Chronicle. Medieval Academy of America Publication No. 60 (Cambridge: Mediaeval Academy, 1953).
- The main codices (Laurentian, Hypatian, Novgorodian) are available in Cyrillic on http://litopys.org.ua/