Slavs (sloviany). The largest group of ethnically and linguistically related peoples in Europe. They belong to the Indo-European linguistic family and are descended from the ancient Slavs mentioned in Greco-Roman and Byzantine sources. Occupying eastern and southeastern Europe, they are usually divided into the East Slavs (Ukrainians, Russians, and Belarusians), West Slavs (Poles, Czechs, Slovaks, and Wends), and South Slavs (Bulgarians, Serbs, Croats, Slovenes, and Macedonians).
The original homeland of the ancient Slavs has not been identified, but by the beginning of the 1st millennium BC they were the dominant population in the region extending from the Elbe River and the Oder River in the west to the upper Dnieper River in the east. They were a peaceful people who practiced farming and animal husbandry and developed handicrafts and trade. Their religion was animistic (see Paganism): they worshiped ancestors and various spirits in nature and a pantheon of heavenly deities, such as Perun, Dazhboh, and Svaroh.
The division of the ancient Slavs into various branches and tribes began in the 2nd to 4th centuries AD, when the Germanic tribes, such as the Goths, moved south and split the Slavs into eastern and western groups. Then, at the end of the 5th century, when the Huns had been overcome, the Slavs expanded southward. In the south they formed two tribal confederations, of the Antes and the Sklavenes. Soon those disintegrated into separate tribes, including the Polianians, Siverianians, Derevlianians, and Volhynians. Some of those tribes were later brought together under Kyivan Rus’.
In the 19th century the idea of Slavic cultural and political unity (see Pan-Slavism) became influential among Slavic peoples who were undergoing a national revival. Some movements, such as the Slavophile one in Russia, tried to harness that idea to the imperial ambitions of Russia.
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[This article originally appeared in the Encyclopedia of Ukraine, vol. 4 (1993).]