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In March 2016, I presented my third lecture for SASS at The Bedford (the others were on King Olaf I and Yi-sun shin). The theme was “Royal March Madness” so I spoke about the little-known Olga of Kiev. Below are the slides and script…
Before there was Russia as we know it, there was Kievan Rus, a formal collection of tribes under the rule of the Rurik dynasty since the year 862 AD. Now, I know there’s a meme out there about Russians being crazy, unpredictable, cynical—you are about to see that that is entirely true, and has been for over a thousand years. Tonight, we’ll focus on Olga of Kiev, who is either the sanest or craziest ruler of them all.
Olga was born in Pskov in 890, and other than that, not much else is known about her early life. In the Primary Chronicle, Olga’s name doesn’t show until she gets married to Igor of Kiev, ruler of the Rus. Her introduction reads “A wife, Olga by name, was brought to him from Pskov.” This happened in 903, by the way, when Olga was 13 years old. When you get married so young, there’s no room for an “early” life.
Let’s talk about Igor. This guy right here. He was born sometime in the 870s to Rurik, the first ruler of Kievan Rus. After his father died in 879, his trusted co-conquerer Oleg acted as regent until the young Igor came of age. In 914, Igor was finally coronated and took the reins of the Rus. Unfortunately, he was kind of a fuckhead. Olga could already tell what she married into. Look at her.
This is the empire he inherited. For modern reference, here is Finland, Sweden, Poland, etc. One of the tribes under Igor’s rule were the Drevlyans, which sound like an alien race from Star Trek.
Again, there is little known about their history. In the Slavic language, their name means “dwellers of the forest” and archaeological evidence shows basic mastery of farming of handicrafts. Politically, we know they initially resisted Kievan rule but eventually submitted in 912. None of that matters because this story is from Olga’s point of view.
So we will dehumanize them.
Let’s fast forward to 945. Igor personally visited the Drevlyans to collect tribute from them, as he did every month. They gave him furs and honey and then he left. But do not forget, he is a fuckhead, so he came back and requested more tribute, having felt shorted the first time around, and threatened violence if they did not pay up. You’ve seen The Wire. You know what this looks like.
The Drevlyan Prince Mal felt cornered. The Kievans suddenly turned into an existential threat. When questioned for a solution, Mal uttered, “If a wolf come among the sheep, he will take away the whole flock one by one, unless he be killed. If we do not thus kill [Igor] now, he will destroy us all.”
And that’s exactly what they did.
It’s funny how the lines of succession twist and turn and somehow choose unexpected individuals, which is the opposite of their intent. And this is a great example. As per custom, Igor’s son, Sviatoslav, was to inherit the crown, but young Sviatoslav was only 3 years old at the time, so the regency fell on Olga’s shoulders until her son came of age.
With an inexperienced ruler in Kiev, Prince Mal thought his enemy was politically vulnerable. He began a campaign to take the crown, but it was not a military campaign.
Olga was a bachelorette, back on the market. Prince Mal thought he would make a great second husband. He would court Olga into a marriage and alliance that would protect both of them, from each other. Now, Olga just got out of a relationship, so she wasn’t ready to start something new, but the Prince was persistent.
Mal sent 20 Drevlyan warriors to Kiev by boat. Kievan guards escorted them to her court where they announced her husband’s death and then proposed marriage to their Prince. Olga needed a day to think about the proposal. That night, while the Drevlyans slept at the docks, Olga had her slaves dig an enormous ditch inside the castle walls.
In the morning, she summoned the Drevlyans to return to her court. When they received the call—and I don’t know why they did this—they said, “We will not ride on horseback nor in wagons, nor go on foot; carry us in our boats.” Like some fuckin NYU kids studying abroad. Whatever man. She got her slaves to pull the entitled Drevlyans in their boats toward the castle, but instead they got dumped in the trench dug earlier.
Olga looked down at her helpless suitors. Was she ready to make the first political decision of her life? She bent down and asked, “Do you find the honor to your taste?”
And so she buried them alive.
One down. Two to go.
Step 2 of revenge required bait, which came in the form of a lie. Olga sent a message to Prince Mal saying she accepted the proposal but required the escort of the Drevlyans most distinguished elders for her arrival his castle, as anything less would be unbecoming to her honor. Mal could not say no to his future wife.
So he dispatched his council to Kiev, where Olga greeted them at the royal bath house. She offered them a full spa treatment before discussing business and marriage. The old men were relieved to settles their sores after a long journey.
When the Drevlyan elders were at their soggiest, Olga ordered the bath house to be burned to the ground, killing everyone inside.
She sent another message to Prince Mal declaring her arrival in a few days time, and that a feast of mead should be waiting in order to celebrate her homecoming to Iskorosten, the capital of Dreva.
Olga arrived to the feast with a scant entourage—most notably, without the Drevlyn elders. Once they finally sat down face-to-face, Mal asked her where the rest of his retinue was. She said they were following her bodyguard, but fell behind a few miles. Prince Mal was a dumbass, so he ignored her comment and drank vigorously into the night with his bro’s.
At midnight, Kievan warriors descended upon the hall and massacred soldiers and serfs alike. In the morning, 5,000 Drevlyans laid dead in the city, while Olga and her army fled into the day.
The next year, in 946, Olga returned to Iskorosten with a full-fledged army—which, by the way, were probably the sons of land tenants conscripted into service. She sieged the city for a full year, hoping to starve out the few remaining Drevlyans.
Eventually, she sent a messenger to the city wall. He asked why they persisted? The rest of the country is under Kievan rule. Why resist tribute?
The Drevlyans said that they were no longer against tribute, but that they were afraid of Olga. She countered that she had already avenged her husband 3 times, and no longer harbored hate for their tribe. Of course, this wasn’t about hate. This was about honor.
When the Drevlyans accepted Olga’s rule, they offered her honey and furs as the first tribute of a new relationship. That was not to her taste. You want to know what she demanded?
…like the bird.
She demanded 3 pigeons from every house. I’m confused too, but when someone spares your head for 3 pigeons…sure, take 10 pigeons. Whatever.
This is how diabolical Olga was. She ordered each pigeon should have a piece of sulphur tied to their leg. Now, for those of you that are unfamiliar with chemistry, sulphur is highly flammable. It’s one of the two main ingredients in gunpowder.
And for those of you unfamiliar with biology, pigeons have a natural homing instinct that allows them to find their way back to their nests—made of straw, tucked inside wooden houses. Once the pigeons were released, Olga launched a barrage of fire arrows into the city, which rapidly erupted into flames. Iskorosten was effectively destroyed.
Of the few who lived through the flames, many were impressed into slavery. Only a handful families were spared so that they could pay next month’s tribute. Other than that, that’s it for the Drevlyans. Their land was eventually absorbed into the land of Vruchiy, and their final note in history occurred in 1136, when they sold the last of their lands to the Orthodox Church.
Olga’s approach to diplomacy was aggressive, but I think she actually considered it to be a defense. There was a future she was guarding, and if she married Prince Mal, that future would be sacrificed. What laid in that future?
In the future was converting from paganism to Eastern Orthodox Christianity in 957. As the first Christian royal in Kiev, she set forth the tradition of orthodoxy in Russia that continues to this day.
She had her young son, Svyatoslav, to raise so that he could mature into a formidable king. In this time, she established a new tributary system called “poliudie” where she sent bureaucrats to the provinces to collect tribute on her behalf, thus creating the first administrative office in the region.
Svyatoslav reigned from 963 to 972, and expanded Kiev’s borders into the Balkans and the Volga River valley. And sure, Christianization, conquest, etc. — the Drevlyans would have done the same had they reigned the Rus. Maybe all of this was inevitable, but Olga decided to take ownership of this legacy, to be associated with turns in history so that she may never be forgotten, as she was in her early life.
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