Libmonster ID: RU-14963
Author(s) of the publication: Andrei BOGDANOV

Articles in this rubric reflect the opinion of the author. - Ed .

Pages. 77

by Andrei BOGDANOV, Dr. Sc. (Hist.), RAS Institute of Russian History

Historians are still uncertain as to who was the founder of the early Russian state. Some say it was an alien prince, Ryurik, ostensibly invited to Novgorod in the ninth century to arbitrate and ward off Viking raids, and have for three recent centuries been arguing about his origin. Others tend to see the chief character in Oleg (Ryurik's voivode, or warlord and the tutor of his son Igor) who, by hook or by crook, united the tribes of Drevlyane, Severyane and Radimichi along the "way from Varangians to Greeks" and, as the lore has it, in the year 907 raided even Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire.

The point is that the scientific concept of the origins of our state dates back to the 1700s - 1800s, while the key sources of early Russian history, the chronicles, were not yet objectively scrutinized. It was not until the late 1800s that Acad. A. Shakhmatov of the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences started their reconstruction on the basis of complete reconciliation of the surviving texts; he was succeeded in the 1900s by Academicians D. Likhachev, L. Cherepnin and M. Tikhomirov. Their efforts have conclusively confirmed what was known to medieval chroniclers: the key role in the cultivation of Rus belongs to Olga of Pskov, the widow of Prince Igor.

And this is what the compiler of the Original Russian Historical Tale wrote back in the late 900s. As for the information about "the pristine" athelings (princes), it first appeared in the chronicles of the late 1000s - early 1100s and is most likely of legendary nature. However, the observations of the above reputable scholars have not evolved into a cogent scientific concept, and the quest for truth is still going on. Let us try and piece together the findings of chronicle scholars over the past 100 years into a coherent story of who and how built the Russian state.


The original annals compiled by monks of the Kievo-Pechersky monastery in the late 1000s report: Prince Igor of Kiev brought his wife, Olga, from Pskov. She "was clever and wise and begot a son, Svyatoslav". This entry is not dated but stands at the beginning of the narration about the personages of Ryurik's House-right before the reference to the 920 events.

The next date in the Princess' life is indicated precisely: in 945 the Drevlyane murdered her husband, and she avenged him herself because their son Svyatoslav was too young (he began to enlist warriors and take raids in 964 only). It looks like Olga lived with Igor at least 25 years (920 - 945) and at the close of this time, long past her green years, gave birth to her only child.

At this point it is important to remember the "social purpose" of the Original Annals Code. Not only was it complemented by old sagas and broken down by year, after the pattern of Byzantine chronicles, but it also purported to make the ruling dynasty "older". Thus, Igor's disastrous raid on Czargrad (Constantinople) when Greeks burned the Russian fleet, is dated 920. However, according to the reliable Byzantine chronicles (and then the Russian "Povest vremennykh let"

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(The Tale of Bygone Years) created in the early 1100s, this event happened in 941. The same time gap exists between Igor's wedding of Olga and the birth of their heir. But if we are to bring these events closer in times they will fall on the 940s, again at variance with "The Tale of Bygone Years". But it was most popular in Rus and ushered in nearly all subsequent chronicles and, most importantly, painted Olga's ancestry so glorious and venerable that in this respect it even outdid the Code. For example, the chroniclers dated Igor's wedding of Olga to the year 903. Their purpose directly stated in the text was to make the history of the Ryurikovichi dynasty as close as possible to the first known mention of Rus in the "Greek Annals" - the year 852. That is why the appearance of Ryurik was dated 862, while Igor and Oleg (in the Code he is named not "a prince" but just "a voivode, or warlord") were given 33 years of rule each. Oleg's famous raid on Constantinople culminating in his shield being put up onto the town's gate is described in the Code under the year 922, while in The Tale - under 907.

Such discrepancies are plenty in these two chronicles. Practically, none of their stories about the first Ryurikoviches coincides with others - on the contrary, quite often they are at variance: Igor's feats of the Original Code are attributed to Oleg in The Tale, and to a different year too. Comparison with foreign sources has confirmed just two events described in the two chronicles: Russian raids on Czargrad (Constantinople) in 866 and 941. By the way, the princes are mixed up here too. Byzantine authors attributed the 941 raid to Igor, while the Khazars - to Oleg.

But The Tale has preserved the Original Code's evidence about the time of Svyatoslav's birth. He was apparently born to the 66-year old father and the mother who had been 42 years in wedlock. Otherwise it was impossible to explain why he had not helped Olga who, after her husband's death, remained all alone and had to protect her child and herself on her own.

It is hard to give preference to either of these historic documents unless they are supported by other sources, since errors crop up in both. Incidentally, The Tale reports another raid by Igor on Greeks in 944 which ostensibly yielded a rich war booty but is missing from the Original Code. That is barely credible: in the autumn of the same year the druzhina (host) complained to their prince about their penury: "Sveneld's men (Sveneld was a voivode sent by Igor to take tribute from the Drevlyane. - Auth.) are armed and dressed, and we are bare." This catch phrase is identical in both codes. Such was the outcome of the reign of athelings who lived off raids and loot.

The Oldest Tale of the late 900s begins just with Prince Igor's stay in Kiev with his impoverished host. This is the oldest and most consistent part of the Russian chronicles and is largely free of legend; and, most importantly, has no variances in any copy. It encompasses the period from the beginning of Olga's reign up to the consolidation of power by her grandson Vladimir I (from 980 on) - the future "Baptist of Rus".

The narration by the compilers of the Tale of Igor's Princedom coincides with the description of the Russian rulers' way of life given in the treatise

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On Imperial Rule by the Byzantine Emperor Constantine VII the Porphyrogenitus (913 - 959). And in 971 Emperor Joann Cimexus, at war with the grown-up Svyatoslav, recalled his father, Igor, in particular, his death, and made some notes concurring with what we can read in the Oldest Tale.

As for the heroic athelings called to Rus by the people craving for order, who united the tribes of Eastern Slavs and Ugro-Finns, put up a shield onto the gate of Czargrad, they first appeared in chronicles written 100 and more years later. However, the chronicles did not in the least change the substance of the Olga tales: against the background of the legendary princes' deeds she remained the founder of Rus after all.


So what did the compiler of the Oldest Tale and his contemporaries know about Olga? Widowed, she did stay alone with no one to rely upon. But a widowed mother in Rus was free and remained a subject of power in the absence of husband, and her son was a heir apparent. That is specifically indicated by the chronicler: "Now, we have killed the Russian Prince, - the Drevlyane talk among themselves sending envoys to Kiev, - let us wed his wife Olga to our prince Mai, and take Svyatoslav, and do to him whatever we like."

But who would avenge her murdered husband? According to Greek sources (treaties with Rus), he had nephews Igor and Hakun, and Uleb and a whole bunch of other kin. But they had either perished with the prince or fallen into disgrace and therefore were justly excluded from chronicles. One thing is certain: Olga had no efficient troops. Essentially, the host that had been collecting tribute together with Igor in Derev Land left him there with a small band, since they had sworn no fealty to him, but just gathered under his leadership for raids.

That was the essence of "invited" power: the prince, under a treaty with the tribal union, would come for "feeding" to a particular town with his "band" of soldiers (as the famous 1800s historian, Member of the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences S. Solovyov put it). "Feeding" meant that the prince and his men retained revenues for their own use. As an arbitrator he was the guarantor of domestic peace to the parties of the pact from whom he took tribute for keeping a host of career warriors. Such treaties were made with a view to securing the key trade itinerary - the way from Varangians to Greeks"-and pooling forces for marauding raids.

That is why the Kievans, who provided for Igor, couldn't care less about his widow. The above-mentioned Sveneld, who took tribute himself (according to chronicles), was not the prince's vassal but rather his ally. And having forces, this voivode would not avenge Igor or help Olga. We know nothing about her kin from Pskov. The juvenile Svyatoslav, if we are to trust the arbitrary dating made by Constantine VII the Porphyrogenitus, nominally reigned in Novgorod. But, as all annals point out, its citizens at that time paid high tribute to Varangians "for peace' sake". That is to say, they preferred to pay ransom, rather than build their own troops.

Therefore, the only force Olga could rely upon was her own mind. When the Drevlyane came and told her about her husband's assassination and proposed to marry their atheling Mai, she resorted to a ruse to kill them. In a similar way the Princess disposed of the second embassy too, and she did it quite in secrecy for the Derev land. Then with a small band of loyal men she went to the very heart of the adversary estate, their capital Iskorosten, where her husband had been mauled and buried, to grieve over his grave. The trizna (funeral feast)

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was bloody indeed: the drunken Drevlyane, - the most prominent of their chieftains capable of raising people against Kiev, - were massacred by a handful of Olga's men. And that was done so covertly that the pursuit was started too late, and Olga got safely back.

Avenging Igor she did what should have been done by his successor. Igor's men, Sveneld's warriors and assorted soldiers of fortune, were attracted by Olga's "lucky stars"; however, they could not even think of being in a woman's service. She had to put an end to the Drevlyane's menace. So, the mother, assembling "many a brave man" next year, had to risk her son on the battlefield. Actually, the host was to obey the prince. Svyatoslav, still underage, was mounted on a horse; Asmund and Sveneld rode by his side. The boy "threw a javelin at the Drevlyane", and it fell between the horse's ears. "The Prince has begun! - the tutor and the voivode shouted. - Let us follow the Prince!"

The Drevlyane were shattered and levied a heavy tribute. Two thirds of it went to Kiev, and one to Vyshgorod, the residence of Igor's widow. The fact is that the princely court in the capital already belonged to Svyatoslav: he had "thrown a javelin", i.e., started the battle, and thus, according to the custom, had become a full-blown ruler. As for the distribution of tribute, it reflected the host's idea of the contribution to victory: the valuation of a woman's input at one third was very high indeed.


Olga could not put up with a situation when the prosperity of the land depended on the mettle of warriors. Therefore, she went to the Derev land with her son and the host (her own, not Kievan). The wise mistress of the vast expanses, she established ustavy and uroki, put up stanovishcha and lovishcha, "which still are", as the chroniclers said.

Ustavy were universal laws not known yet in Rus. Uroki meant tax and duty rates arbitrary that prohibited plundering. Stanovishcha - strongholds of power where the prince dispensed justice and received taxes. Lovishcha - sanctuaries set up throughout Europe then.

The princess did not limit herself to establishing an "occupation regime" in Derev land. Olga's administrative and legal activities covered all vassal territories. First she moved north - to the sovereign Novgorod and the dubious Pskov, both paying tribute to Varangians; and put them to order. Next she went to the Msta river (the extreme northeast of her domain), to Luga (northwest), down the Desna river (west) and the Dnieper (south). And everywhere she built towns and boroughs-places where officials dispensed justice and collected fixed taxes. These first state institutions were to be positioned in such a way (possibly, provided with paved roads), so as to be accessible to officials and the military. No less important was the creation of "perevesishcha" - river crossings essential for overland transport. Earlier, Rus had only water ways suitable for seasonal trade or raids on major towns but not for regular defense and maintaining order in the land.

Consolidating power and placing her tiuns (governors) over the huge territory, so that centuries later people would proudly point to Olga's sledge preserved in Pskov, was more than a feat. The princess did what seemed impossible: without armed conflicts she established a civil administration and secured one third of income for Vyshgorod - not only from the Drevlyane but from entire Rus. In this case the princess' diplomatic talents came in handy, and they were admired by the

Pages. 81

author of the Old Tale and the chroniclers. She managed to attain the desired results only by convincing influential people locally concerning the benefits of her innovations facilitating foreign trade above all.

Easily accessible by water, the Byzantine Empire was the most attractive partner for Russian merchants. Thither the princess made her way, presumably, in 957. The Russian story of her voyage to Constantinople is corroborated by Byzantine sources. Received at the level of petty barbarian rulers, Olga humbly took her place amidst Greek ladies. But as they fell prone before entering Elena, the wife of Constantine VII the Porphyrogenitus, the ruler of Rus remained standing. The Emperor who later described the reception in his treatise On Ceremonies quickly corrected the mistake personally inviting Olga to take her seat at the table beside his family.

Mindful of ceremony, the Caesar took down the expenses of the Russian embassy which suggests the importance attached to its members. Svyatoslav's people received 5 silver coins each, priest Gregory accompanying the Princess and her maids - 8; translators, solicitors and envoys of other Russian athelings - 12, Olga's own translator - 15, her people - 20, her nephew - 30. And she was presented 500 coins "on a gold plate decorated with gems". All that is easily explained: Constantinople at that time had active trade with its northern neighbor, and before the reception of the embassy the Emperor made close inquiries. To him the situation was obvious: the Princess was the autocratic ruler of the land, and Svyatoslav was just his mother's son.

Olga wished to be converted to Christianity. The Caesar became her godfather, and patriarch Polyeuctus baptized her in the name of Elena, in honor of the woman who did so much for the propagation of Christianity, the mother of the Roman Emperor Constantine I the Great (she lived at the turn of the 3rd and 4th centuries). That event was described by Byzantine chroniclers: in 1000s - by Joann Scilica, in 1100s - by Joann Zanara. It should be pointed out that on her return to Rus the neophyte Princess had a conflict with pagans. It was described as the mother's dispute with Svyatoslav who asked: "How can I get converted alone? My host will laugh at me!" And Olga wisely answered: "If you get baptized, everybody will follow suit." But her son, brought up among warriors, neglected her advice. And the

Pages. 82

host did not adopt Christianity for a long time.

Since the Byzantine Empire wanted Rus to be its vassal obliged to serve it and pay ransom, it deemed the spreading of Christianity as a reliable tool of influencing "the barbarians". But Olga denied Constantinople her services. Moreover, she sent envoys to the German King Otto I (this event is not mentioned in Russian chronicles but narrated by German annals) asking to send his bishop. But then she refused to receive him. Anyway, she demonstrated Rus' independence on the international arena, in particular, as far as the matters of faith were concerned. On the whole, having secured respect, Olga managed to settle matters with Constantinople, while Christianity got state support in Rus.


What was beyond her powers were the military to whom she lost her son. The Princess herself was tolerated only because her activities aimed at "the cultivation of Rus" suited the interests of the host. They were waxing rich, the collection of tribute no longer looked like a military operation. Profits from selling tribute goods overseas were used for procuring better weapons and increasing the strength of the host.

Brought up in their midst, Svyatoslav became a true "pard", and the money amassed by his mother allowed him to build up a large efficient host. That was no longer "a band" living off loot and forming the core of militia for big plundering raids to the Black and Caspian Seas, but a mobile force capable of strategic operations.

Having lost her son as an associate and successor, Olga could at least channel the energy of warriors under his command for the good of the land. She just had to do so as a stateswoman, otherwise the warriors would have started to seek "honor and glory" at home.

Olga's predecessors were not a bit concerned that a considerable part of Eastern Slavs (including those of the present Moscow area) remained outside their sphere of influence. The Vyatichi, who lived along the Oka river up to the Volga, were vassals of the Khazar Chaganate which controlled the access to the Caspian Sea, a coveted object for plunder. The athelings could not afford strife with such a neighbor. But the new state system made the acquisition of the Vyatichi practicable, the more so since in the upper reaches of Volga the Slavs had successfully colonized the lands of the associated tribes of Muroma and Merya with the capitals in Murom and Rostov.

Further, down the rivers of Sheksna and Mologa stretched the domain of the Novgorod Slovenes who controlled the water route to the Baltic area. The Princess was extremely interested in it from the point of view of transit trade, perhaps, more profitable that the export of goods to Constantinople. The fact is that the southward route-down the Volga to the Caspian Sea-was blocked at three points. In the middle reaches of the Volga Bulgarians charged fees from merchants and often even robbed them. The Volga area and the Don steppes were the domain of the Khazar Chaganate, and the sea, apart from the long familiar belligerent tribes, was now frequented by equestrians of the Arab Caliphate.

The story-teller shows just how ignorant Svyatoslav was of geopolitical problems. Having become of age he developed enormous physical power and strived to exercise it in the battle-

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Pages. 84

field. Coming in 964 to the Oka and the Volga, the prince "found the Vyatichi" there. "Who do you pay ransom to?" - asked he. "To Khazars"-was the answer. A year later Svyatoslav victoriously attacked the Cha-ganate. He seized the Sarkel fortress on the Don built by a Byzantine engineer and renamed it to Belaya Vezha. The Russian troops defeated the Yasses and the Kasogs, the Khazars' allies, and later also the Vyatichi on whom Kiev levied tribute. That is how Olga's plans were implemented in practice.

Oriental authors filled up the gaps of Russian chronicles: in 968 the Russians came on 500 ships to the capital of Volga Bulgaria and burned it. They conquered the Mordva, went down the Volga and seized the Khazar towns in the lower reaches of the Volga: Itil, Khazaran, the Moslem Se-mender in Transcaucasia and Kerch in the Crimea. By that time the prince had subjugated Germanassa (Tmutarakan) on the Taman peninsula. Presumably at the same time the Radimichi made a treaty with Svyatoslav and joined Rus. The fact that their town of Lyubech in the middle reaches of the Dnieper had not belonged to the domain of Kievan princes is still another proof that there was no single state before Olga.

But now it came into being and had sovereignty over the above two waterways of international importance and also a few regional ones: the Onega-White Sea-Sukhona- Northern Dvina-Pechora; the Severski Donets and the Don - the Sea of Azov- the Kerch Strait - the Black Sea with a traction passage between the Don and the Volga; the Zapadnaya Dvina - the Baltic Sea; the Pripyat-Bug. The consolidation of such a vast territory under one rule could have let any great ruler rest on laurels.

At that point Olga found herself facing a generally foreseeable trouble. Svyatoslav decided he was a great strategist and got duped by the Byzantines into the Danube war. He conquered the feuding Bulgars and chose to stay in their land. His mother realized that Constantinople would not tolerate her son's getting foothold there but was unable to dissuade him. Meanwhile nomadic Pechenegs, bribed by Greeks, besieged the Princess in Kiev left without a garrison. The voivode Pretich with a small band went flying to the rescue of Olga and her grandsons. Luckily, the Pechenegs mistook his troops for Svyatoslav's vanguard and made peace.

Shamed by his mother, "the Pard" returned to Kiev, dispersed the nomads, completed the job on the Volga (in Khazaria and Bulgaria) and "burned" to get back to the Danube. "Bury me and go wherever you like", said the Princess, and three days later, on July 11, 969, she died. Grieving over her coffin were her son and grandsons: Yaropolk, Oleg and Vladimir. Having buried Olga the Blessed in a Christian way, the pagan Prince divided among them the Princedom fixed by his mother, laying the ground for a future feud. It broke out after the death of the gallant warrior in 972.

Still for another 100 years Olga's monolithic state stood up to all attempts to tear it apart into apanage principalities. Its memory was reflected in all chronicles and became the ideological basis for the unification of the eastern Russian lands into the Tsardom of Muscovy in the second half of the 1400s. It was then that the heading of the Chapter "Olga's Reign" in the text of the First Sophiyskaya Chronicle was singled out in vermilion, and soon after the Stepennaya Kniga (the Book of Degrees) described her reign as the major stage in the history of Rus.


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