Re: Steppenwolves

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February 19, 2006 by AK

The Kipchaks, nomads who used to wander in the steppes north of the Black Sea and disappeared completely by the 17th century, are famous in a peculiar way: who hasn’t heard the first tune from The Polovtsian Dances, which crown the second act of Borodin’s only opera, Prince Igor? Polovtsy is the old Russian word for “Kipchaks” (I use “Russian” to mean “of old Rus'” in this entry) although that piece is actually a song of captive, non-Kipchak girls.

The etymology of polovtsy has always been a problem; some say it has to do with polova, straw — the Kipchaks supposedly had light, yellowish hair. But how do we know? Elena Ch. Skrzhinskaya (1897–1981) offered a different etymology: polovtsy are people from “the other side” — the left bank of the Dnieper. In arguing her point, Skrzhinskaya mentions a curious Polovtsian custom, which is the reason for this entry:

There is no description of the Kipchaks extant in Russian chronicles; one finds various negative attributes but no general description of the Kipchaks as a tribe (for they are “of another tribe”). It might be that no such descripiton could exist, for the Kipchaks — for all the risks and dangers encounters with them entailed — were, so to say, a common occurrence in a Russian’s life. It is rarely that Russian sources convey details that distinguish the Kipchaks from other peoples they fought with — the Russians, the Poles, the Hungarians, the Byzantines.

One of these mentions is a brief but colorful depiction in a chronicle of a night sally into a field by a Kipchak khan, Bonyak, before the battle of Peremyshl (1097). Bonyak was trying to foretell the outcome of a battle between his Kipchaks, allies of the Vladimir prince, David Igorevich, and Hungarians, allies of the Kiev prince, Svyatopolk Izyaslavich: “And it was midnight, and Bonyak arose, rode away from the warriors, and began to howl as wolves do, and a wolf howled back to him, and many a wolf began to howl then.”


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