The first Russian state was known as Kievan Rus, consisting of what today are parts of southwestern Russia and most of Ukraine. Though both Russia and Ukraine are currently in the news due to the many problems between them, they more or less have the same historical origins, both nations consisting of people of Eastern Slavic origin who had been loosely living on the plains of Eurasia from at least the 8th century AD.
The actual origins of Kievan Rus are not that clear. What seems likely according to historical records including what is known as the Primary Chronicle, also known as the Tale of Bygone Years by Nestor the Chronicler in 1113 is that in about 862, a local prince named Rurik came to power in the trading city of Novgorod, near the Baltic Sea. He was the leader of the Varangians, a warrior people most likely of Scandinavian origin (and not actually Eastern Slavs, who around that time had already been living in the area for centuries). About two decades later in 913 AD, his successor, Oleg, conquered the city of Kiev and made it the capital of his growing state, Kievan Rus. Oleg united other Eastern Slavic princes and tribes under his banner, making Kievan Rus an important state to be reckoned with in Central and Eastern Europe. In 911 AD after success in a battle with the Byzantine Empire, Oleg was able to secure favorable trading rights and treaties that allowed merchants from Kievan Rus to conduct trade in the Byzantine capital of Constantinople. This was no small feat as Constantinople in those days was the largest and wealthiest city in Europe. As a result of these trade ties, Kievan Rus prospered tremendously.
Just over 30 years later in 944, Oleg’s successor Igor secured another trade treaty with Byzantium. He married a woman named Olga from the area of Pskov and they had a son, Svyatoslav. According to the Primary Chronicle, Igor was killed while trying to collect extra taxes from the Drevlians, another Eastern Slavic tribe. According to the Byzantine historian Leo the Deacon, Igor was tied in between two birch trees that were bended to the ground and then pulled apart when the trunks were released. Igor’s son and successor was Svyatoslav, but as he was only three years old, his mother Olga became the princess regent and ruled in his stead (technically Igor was a prince, not a king, making Olga a princess). She then set out to avenge the death of her husband by punishing the Drevlians. I mean really punishing them.
Olga was definitely a very crafty woman. The story goes that in order to lay claim to Kievan Rus with some sort of legitimacy, the Drevlians wanted Olga to marry one of their own, Prince Mal. Olga refused this as it would have meant that Kievan Rus would pass to Prince Mal instead of her beloved son, Svyatoslav. The Drevlians then sent twenty of their best men to persuade Olga to marry Prince Mal. Instead, she had them killed by burying them alive. Seemingly having second thoughts, she sent word to Price Mal that she had reconsidered his marriage proposal but that in order for her and her people to accept it, he should send his most distinguished men to pick her up and accompany her to him. When the men arrived in Kievan Rus, she allowed them to rest in the town’s bathhouse for a bit. However, when they were all seated there, she had the bathhouse’s doors locked and the building set it on fire, burning all of the Drevlian dignitaries alive.
Olga then enacted a plan to wipe out the remaining Drevlians by inviting them to a feast in honor of her dead husband, Igor. The Drevlians arrived and ate and drank to their hearts content and fell into a drunken stupor afterward. Olga then had her servants and soldiers kill over 5,000 of them. She prepared to kill the rest but the remaining Drevlians begged for mercy and offered to pay Kievan Rus tribute. This she accepted, though not really. The Primary Chronicle describes what happened next:
The Derevlians then inquired what she desired of them, and expressed their readiness to pay honey and furs. Olga retorted that at the moment they had neither honey nor furs, but that she had one small request to make. “Give me three pigeons,” she said, “and three sparrows from each house. I do not desire to impose a heavy tribute, like my husband, but I require only this small gift from you, for you are impoverished by the siege.” The Derevlians rejoiced, and collected from each house three pigeons and three sparrows, which they sent to Olga with their greetings. Olga then instructed them, in view of their submission, to return to their city, promising that on the morrow she would depart and return to her own capital. The Derevlians re-entered their city with gladness, and when they reported to the inhabitants, the people of the town rejoiced.
Now Olga gave to each soldier in her army a pigeon or a sparrow, and ordered them to attach by thread to each pigeon and sparrow a piece of sulfur bound with small pieces of cloth. When night fell, Olga bade her soldiers release the pigeons and the sparrows. So the birds flew to their nests, the pigeons to the cotes, and the sparrows under the eaves. The dove-cotes, the coops, the porches, and the haymows were set on fire. There was not a house that was not consumed, and it was impossible to extinguish the flames, because all the houses caught on fire at once. The people fled from the city, and Olga ordered her soldiers to catch them. Thus she took the city and burned it, and captured the elders of the city. Some of the other captives she killed, while some she gave to others as slaves to her followers. The remnant she left to pay tribute. 1 These stories are most definitely quite exaggerated, but what is interesting is just how cruel and accepted such treatment of ones enemies was back in early Russia. What is also ironic is that this seemingly strong though extremely vengeful woman, Olga, would go on to become the first Russian ruler to accept Christianity and eventually be canonized as a Russian Orthodox Christian saint. That however is a story for another time.
Olga’s son Svyatoslav went on to defeat the great state of the Khazars in 966 AD and solidify their dynasty, the Rurik dynasty, as the most powerful of all the princes of the confederation of Kievan Rus until about the 16th century. Eventually internal squabbles weakened and brought down Kievan Rus, but not before forging a common identity of the Eastern Slavic peoples who would go on to become the Russians, Ukrainians and Belarusians. 2
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