Ukraine: Cradle of Russia

Saints and Sieges

The nucleus of modern Russia was an enclave of Eastern Slavs dominated by a ninth-century incursion of Danish Vikings called the Rus (approximate pronunciation: “roos”) established by Rurik and centred on Novgorod. On his deathbed in 879, Rurik entrusted the care of his young son, Igor, to his kinsman, Oleg, who he named as his successor. Oleg moved the capital of the principality to Kiev, for which the people became known as the Kievan Rus.

Death of Oleg

According to the Primary Chronicle, a 12th-century compendium of history and legend, Oleg asked his magicians how he would die. They said his death would come through his stallion. So Oleg commanded that the horse be taken away and properly looked after. Many years later he asked what had become of the horse. He was told that it was dead. He went to the place where it had died, looked at the skeletal remains and laughed: “The magicians lied. The horse is dead but I’m still alive.” He kicked the horse’s skull in derision. A poisonous snake slithered out of the skull and bit him, and he died.

Death of Igor

The following year, 913, Igor became prince. He extended the rule of the Kievan Rus to dominate a loose federation of tribes and principalities that alternately quarrelled and allied with each other. Igor had to repeatedly subdue his nearest neighbour to the west, Dereva, a heavily forested principality where a major industry was fur-trapping. The Primary Chronicle states that the Derevlians (the name means “forest dwellers”) “existed in bestial fashion, and lived like cattle. They killed one another, ate every impure thing, and there was no marriage between them, but instead they seized upon maidens by capture.” The Rus mockingly referred to them as “tree people”, the equivalent of “hillbillies”.

The Derevlians had been dragging their feet on paying a tribute that had been levied by Oleg and later doubled by Igor. In 945, Igor went with an army and collected it after quickly defeating them. On his way back to Kiev, the idea occurred to him that he should have doubled the tribute again. Overconfident following his easy victory, he turned back to their capital, Iskorosten (modern Korosten), about 80 miles (130km) northwest of Kiev, with only a small retinue and made his demand. Encouraged by their prince, Mal, “to rise and slay the wolf who was bent on devouring their whole flock,” the Derevlians killed him. The tenth-century Byzantine chronicler Leo the Deacon reported that years later, when Igor’s son, Svyatoslav I “the Brave”, threatened the Romans toward the end of his short but active life – he died at 30 – they reminded him of “the wretched fate” of his father: “tied to tree trunks, and torn in two”.

Olga’s Revenge

Mal sent a delegation of 20 prominent citizens to Kiev to propose marriage to Igor’s widow, Olga (890-969). The Derevlians arrived in a boat and sent a message informing Olga of the purpose of their visit. She understood that Mal’s intention was to annex Kiev by controlling her and the then three-year-old Svyatoslav, in whose interests she was acting as regent. She told them to spend the night in their boat, and her people would show their respect by carrying them in the boat to her palace in the morning, where she could greet them formally. Then she had a deep ditch dug in the courtyard of her palace. When the delegation arrived in the morning, they were tipped into the ditch with the boat on top of them. The ditch was filled in, burying them alive.

The Primary Chronicle reports: “Olga then sent messages to the Derevlians to the effect that, if they really required her presence, they should send after her their distinguished men, so that she might go to their Prince with due honour, for otherwise her people in Kiev would not let her go.” When “the best men who governed the land of Dereva” arrived, Olga suggested they refresh themselves in the bathhouse before she received them. Once the visitors were all inside, the Kievans closed and locked the doors and set fire to the building.

Then she sent a message to Dereva to say that she was on her way to Iskorosten, “so prepare great quantities of mead in the city where you killed my husband, that I may weep over his grave and hold a funeral feast for him.” They did so. When she arrived with a small escort, she told her people to stay sober and serve the drink to the Derevlians. The funeral feast was well under way before the Derevlians thought to inquire as to the whereabouts of the nobles they had sent to Kiev to accompany her. She assured them that they were following with her husband’s bodyguard. When the Derevlians were drunk, she ordered her people to kill them. They massacred five thousand.

Olga returned to Kiev and assembled an army for a full-scale invasion of Dereva. She succeeded in subduing the countryside and smaller cities and towns, but Iskorosten was too well defended, and she laid siege to it. After a year, she sent a message: “Why do you persist in holding out? All your cities have surrendered to me and submitted to tribute, so that the inhabitants now cultivate their fields and their lands in peace.” They replied that they would gladly submit to tribute, but they were afraid of her vengeance. She said she had enough revenge, and, since they were now impoverished by the siege, she would return to Kiev on receiving a mere token tribute: three sparrows and three pigeons from each household. The Derevlians gladly complied with the generous offer and returned to the city rejoicing.

Olga instructed her soldiers to attach a piece of tinder enclosed in cloth to the birds’ feet. After dark, they lit the tinder and loosed the birds, which predictably flew to their nests in the eaves of the houses and barns. The whole city was instantly engulfed in flame. Many of those who weren’t killed in the fire were slaughtered as they tried to escape. Olga took some as slaves and left just enough of the elders to pay tribute. She then ranged through Dereva establishing trading posts and appointing local tax collectors, so that never again would the Kievan Rus prince have to risk his life gathering tribute personally.

Olga would certainly have been familiar with stories of earlier occasions, perhaps legendary, when fire-bearing birds were used to destroy a city under siege. One of many examples was when a Dane named Fridleif used the same trick to take Dublin at an unspecified date, as reported by the 13-14th-century Danish historian Saxo Grammaticus. Probably the best known is the burning of Cirencester by the Saxons in 552 (ST motif K2351.1). See chapter “The Birds of Cirencester”. During the Second World War, the United States developed a similar scheme for dropping Bat Bombs on Japan, but it was abandoned in favour of the atomic bomb. There is a curious current rumour or urban legend that Korosten has recently filed a lawsuit against Kiev demanding compensation for Olga’s destruction of the city.

Kiev Under Siege

Olga and Igor’s son, Svyatoslav, had been busy expanding the Kievan Rus sphere of domination and was away from Kiev when the Pechenegs invaded the Rus heartland and laid siege to Kiev at the instigation of the Byzantines, who were worried about the increasing power of the Rus. Olga was in the city with her grandsons, including Vladimir, who became Grand Prince after Svyatoslav’s death. The city, which is on the Dnieper River and is now divided by it, was so tightly encircled that a small band of Rus warriors camped on the other side of the river was unable to help, nor could anyone escape from the city. The citizens were suffering from hunger and thirst and were ready to surrender. A young man who was fluent in the Pecheneg language volunteered to try to cross the river to inform the warriors of the dire situation.

He sneaked out of the city with a bridle in his hand and ran among the Pechenegs asking if anyone had seen a loose horse. They assumed he was one of them and didn’t realize what he was up to until he threw off his clothes and dived into the river and began to swim across it. They shot at him, but he was picked up uninjured by the Rus warriors in a boat. When he told them that unless help arrived by the following day the city would surrender, the leader, Pretich, came up with a bold plan.

In the morning before dawn they set off across the river blowing their trumpets, and the people in the city shouted with jubilation, assuming that Svyatoslav had arrived with his army. The Pecheneg soldiers assumed the same thing and started to scatter. Olga and her grandsons came out and boarded the boats. The Pecheneg leader saw this and approached Pretich and asked if he was Prince Svyatoslav. Pretich told him that he was the leader of the vanguard, and that Svyatoslav and his army were close behind him, so the Pecheneg leader formally lifted the siege.

Olga and Vladimir Convert to Christianity

Perhaps sensing the way the political wind was blowing, Olga decided to become a Christian in 957. She asked Emperor Constantine VII (905-959) to be her godfather, ostensibly for the prestige, but also for another good reason. She knew he was in love with her and wanted to marry her. She wasn’t interested, but it would not have been politically expedient to refuse his offer. She deflected his hints by saying that she would have to be baptized first. After the ceremony, he formally proposed. She pointed out that he was now her father in God, and the Christian Law did not permit a father to marry his daughter. Constantine admired her cleverness and took the rejection gracefully.

Olga was declared a saint of the Russian Orthodox Church in 1547 with the title of isapóstolos, which means “equal to the apostles”, one of only a handful of saints so honoured.

Svyatoslav rebuffed Olga’s urgings to become Christian, but his son Vladimir the Great (c. 958-1015), a dedicated pagan early in life, investigated various religions before eventually choosing Eastern Orthodox Christianity and making it the state religion. He is recognized as a saint in Eastern Orthodoxy and other faiths. Two of his sons were Saint Boris and Saint Gleb.

One More Siege

Vladimir founded the city of Belgorod in 991. The Rus were in continual conflict with the Pechenegs, and in 997 he went to Novgorod to recruit reinforcements to help him settle the problem. The Pechenegs discovered his absence and laid siege to Belgorod. The citizens were unprepared and had few provisions, and they were soon on the brink of starvation. They held a council and decided to surrender. Even though some of them might be killed, they felt it was better than all starving to death. An old man had a better idea.

He told them to dig two pits for two tubs, gather oats, wheat and bran to make a porridge in one tub and pour diluted honey in the other. When this was done, he told them to send ten messengers as goodwill hostages to the Pechenegs and invite ten of them to enter the city to see what was happening.

When the Pechenegs arrived, they were told that even if they kept up the siege for ten years they could never take Belgorod, because the people would never run out of food. As proof, the citizens led the Pechenegs to the tubs where the porridge and honey seemed to be delivered ready-to-eat directly from the earth. They ate some themselves to show it was safe and gave the visitors a taste. The Pechenegs were amazed. They took bowls of the food back to their leaders, who saw the futility of the siege and went home.

From A World of Tricksters.