Prince Igor of Kiev (Kyiv): War and Diplomacy in the Early Rus’
The early beginnings of the Kievan (Kyivan) Rus’ are a highly researched subject that is a defining part of the history of the eastern Slavic peoples. The roots of Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia are deeply tied to this early medieval Slavic state governed by a Viking ruling dynasty. Soon after its emergence, it became a cardinal power in Europe and influenced some of the major events that came to shape the future. Throughout the history of the Kievan Rus’ and its Rurikid dynasty, many prominent rulers came to its head. Some ruled in glory and success, while others ruled with an obvious lack of the same. One of the rulers that falls into the latter category is Prince Igor of Kiev (Kyiv). The memory of the early Rurikid ruler remains somewhat shrouded in mystery, but with some dedication, we can piece the puzzle of his somewhat short life and bring you this thrilling story.
Rurik and his brothers, both Varangian Vikings, arriving in Staraya Ladoga. (Public domain)
Backdrop to the Ascension of Prince Igor of Kiev
The Rurikid Dynasty that came to the head of the Kievan Rus’ takes its name from Rurik, its first ruler. His name is a Slavic adaptation of the Old Norse Hrærekr. Rurik (Old Church Slavonic: Рюрикъ) came to the lands of the Slavs in order to govern them. The Varangian Vikings always had pretentions to the rich land of the Slavic tribes. At first, their advances to tax and rule these tribes were rejected through conflict, but when the Slavic tribes could not govern themselves, they decided to invite the Varangians instead. So it was that Rurik and his retinue came to control Lake Ladoga and the lands around it in 862, and subsequently expanded Novgorod as the crucial settlement. His brothers Sineus and Truvor established themselves as rulers of Beloozero and Izborsk respectively, but it is documented that they died not long after, thus leaving Rurik with control of their lands. The nature of their demise remains unknown, but we should not exclude the possibility that Rurik simply took them out of the game through warfare.
Rurik continued to rule his lands until his death. Before dying, he named his own kinsman, Oleg (Old Norse Helgi) as his successor. He left his own son, Igor (Old Norse Ingvar), in his custody, until the boy came of age to rule. And so it was that the young prince Igor came to be under the protection of the rather capable Varangian chieftain, Oleg (Old East Slavic: Ѡлегъ). Oleg rose as a capable and motivated ruler, who quickly sought to increase his lands and power. He gradually expanded his control along the Dnieper River, seizing important cities. He eventually managed to conquer an important city on the Dnieper – Kyiv (Kiev) – by murdering the two brothers who ruled it, Askold and Dir. After this, he moved his capital to Kyiv, and thus laid the very foundation of the state of Kievan Rus’ (or Kyivan Rus) that would emerge. Oleg also managed to exert control over most Finnic and Slavic tribes in his vicinity, and forced one of the powerful Slavic tribes of the area, the Drevlians, pay tribute to him. He eventually used these tribes as his army, launching a raid against Constantinople in 907.
Rus warriors sent by Igor of Kiev killing Greeks in the 941 campaign. (Public domain)
Facing the Greek Fire: A Fiery Naval Conflict
After the death of Oleg, power was passed to Igor, son of Rurik. The early rule of Igor is still a puzzle. It is safe to assume that he was a crucial figure in Oleg’s expeditions against the Byzantines in the early 900’s, some of which ended unfavorably for the Varangians. Even so, before his death, Oleg managed to achieve a treaty with the Byzantines (known as Greeks in Slavic historiography) that brought with it peace. However, during Igor’s rule, something happened that prompted him to renew the conflict with the Byzantines. The exact reason remains a mystery, but whatever it was prompted him to attack.
In the early summer of 941, he assembled a massive flotilla of 1,000 ships, and sailed against the Byzantine capital Constantinople. The Byzantine navy was at that time engaged with the Saracens, and so it is possible that Igor sought to make the most of their temporary disadvantage. What happened next feels like a plot straight out of a novel. The Byzantine Emperor, Romanos I Lekapenos, devised a cunning plan to stop the advance of such a massive Varangian fleet. Since his fleet was away fighting, he only managed to gather a tiny fleet of fifteen old and patched up barques, which he fitted out with something known as “Greek fire”. This incendiary weapon and its method of operation are unknown today, but it was much akin to a modern flamethrower, and could presumable burn even on water. That made it a very potent naval weapon, one which the Greeks utilized with terrifying effect.
The Emperor then directed these fifteen deadly ships to guard the Bosphorus, giving command to Protovestiarius Theophanes. The Byzantines came upon Igor’s fleet near the Strait of Hierum and the 1,000 ships of Igor could not vanquish the fifteen battered old hulks that the Emperor had sent. The flames of the Greek fire were a devastating and catastrophic weapon. It left the fleet of the Rus’ in panic and with many losses. The ships got scattered as they fled, and only eventually rallied at the north coast of Asia Minor. Once there, Igor’s army recuperated and proceeded to raid and pillage the provinces of Bythinia and Paphlagonia, in familiar Viking fashion. But as the robbing was underway, the Greeks surprised part of Igor’s army and dealt a major defeat.
The rest of Igor’s army eventually gathered with the intent of sailing back to Kyiv (Kiev), only to find their passage back home barred. Only this time it wasn’t just fifteen battered ships, but the entire Byzantine navy led by Theophanes. The naval blockade of Igor’s army was a very efficient tactical move. The Rus’ fleet was utterly crushed as they attempted to flee, once more facing the terror of the Greek fire. Igor managed to escape with only a small part of his army and return to his capital. Those that were captured were taken to Constantinople and executed.
Igor’s fleet was utterly crushed thanks to the use of Greek fire by the Byzantine navy. (Public domain)
Hard to Dissuade: Igor Tries Again
This was the first major failure suffered under Igor and it certainly marked his rule for all time. He fled to Kyiv (Kiev) with his tail tucked between his legs, with the nightmarish memories of his fleet aflame in the Bosphorus. Even so, he sought vengeance against the Byzantines, perhaps in order to redeem himself as a ruler. At once he began to recruit fresh troops. This time he turned to Sweden in search for reinforcements, which came soon enough. He also enlisted the easternmost Slavic tribes under his control, as well as massive numbers of Pechenegs. The latter were fierce Turkic horsemen of the Steppes, which would be a big foe of the Rus’ in the latter centuries.
In 944 AD, just three years after his devastating defeat, Igor of Kiev (Kyiv) set out once more against Constantinople. This time, he amassed an even larger fleet, but also had a contingent of foot soldiers moving across land. But the Byzantine Emperor Romanus received word of a large host moving southwards, and intercepted Igor, only not with an army, but with envoys too. Igor was pacified with promises of gifts, and he concluded a favorable treaty for himself. His Pecheneg troops, thirsty for loot, were let loose upon Bulgaria to raid, while Igor and all his remaining host returned to Kyiv. Further diplomatic discussions followed in 945 and ended in a treaty.
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The terms of the treaty help paint a clear picture of the power relations of the era. The foreign policies of Kyiv were still somewhat controlled: Igor swore to protect the Chersonese from the Bulgars and to leave the mouth of Dnieper river free for commercial fishing without molestation. In return he was given occasional military aid from the Greeks, alongside peace and lavish gifts. This diplomatic meeting and treaty was attended and witnessed by the Byzantine party, as well as fifty commissioners and delegates of the Rus’.
Some of the names of the Rus’ delegation are recorded which helps historians deduce an interesting fact: Sixteen names are distinctly Scandinavian, while only two are recognized as clearly Slavic. This shows us that the ruling class was still largely dominated by Norsemen. Also noted is the fact that there were now an increasing number of Christian converts amongst the Scandinavians, even at the time when Rus’ was still pagan. In the end, it can be agreed that the peace treaty was not so advantageous for Igor. His greed and ambition did not bring about a glorious end.
Igor of Kiev taking tribute from the Slavic tribe of the Drevlians. (Public domain)
You’re Tearing Me Apart! Death at the Hands of the Drevlian Slavs
Prince Igor met his own demise in an equally inglorious manner. Some years before, he managed to subdue the Slavic tribe of Drevlians (Drevlyani) which inhabited large areas of modern day Ukraine and Belarus. They lived on the west side of the Dnieper River, on the so-called Right Bank Ukraine, and were one of the powerful Slavic tribes of the period. However, Igor managed to control them and to exact tribute from them.
In 945 however, only a year after his last campaign, Igor went himself with his own retinue to gather the tribute from the Drevlians. Once there, he actually demanded tribute for the second time that month, a fact that greatly enraged the Slavic Drevlians. In response to Igor’s greedy demands, the people revolted and took him captive. They then proceeded to execute him in the traditional manner. They bent two tall, young birch trees, and tied their ends to Prince Igor’s feet. Once the birches were released, they straightened up with great speed and force, tearing Igor apart. And thus perished Igor, Prince of the Rus’.
The messy death of Igor of Kiev at the hands of the Slavic tribe of the Drevlians. (Public domain)
Igor’s death was avenged in a very harsh way, this time by his own wife, Olga of Kyiv. She took control after Igor, and immediately went to war against the Drevlians. This she did ruthlessly, capturing their noblemen and ambassadors and burning them all alive alongside their capital of Iskorosten. Alongside minor settlements, Iskorosten was completely sacked and burned to the ground, and the whole of the Drevlians conquered. Their capital was then moved to Vruchiy, and those who were not murdered were sold into slavery, with only a minor part of the tribe remaining to pay tribute.
Olga ruled after Igor until their son came of age, a boy who became none other than Svyatoslav I the Brave, Grand Prince of Kyiv (Kiev), and whose glorious rule was wholly different to that of his father. He managed to expand the boundaries of his state immensely and led several successfully campaigns against his enemies. He was also the first ruler of the Rurikid Dynasty to bear a wholly Slavic name, adopting Slavic customs and pagan religion, and acting as an example of the gradual assimilation of the Varangian Vikings into Slavic society. His three sons, Yaropolk, Vladimir, and Oleg, ushered the Kievan Rus’ into one of its most famous epochs, which ended with the Christianization of the Kievan Rus’ and the rise of Vladimir the Great.
After the death of Igor of Kiev, his wife Olga took control and immediately avenged the death of her husband. (Public domain)
A Son to Redeem the Father
There is no doubt that the early ventures of the Norsemen into the lands of the Slavs brought many difficulties and new challenges. But the wealth and the vastness of this new territory was too tempting for the Vikings, and eventually the most skilled and powerful chieftains managed to create a foothold amongst the Slavs.
From Rurik who eliminated his competition, to his successor Oleg who created the foundation of the Kievan Rus’ state, these ruling Norsemen are remembered for their competence, conquest, and diplomacy. Igor managed to mar this reputable image with his overly ambitious campaigning and greedy approach to diplomacy. Even his brutal death, at the hands of the Slavs, was equal to his rule: messy, uncalled for, and hasty. Even so, his time as ruler was an important stepping-stone for the emergence of the Kievan Rus’, and the glorious successes of his son Svyatoslav.
Top image: Igor of Kiev wasn’t the most successful ruler of the Kievan Rus’. Source: Public domain
Dimnik, M. 2003. The Dynasty of Chernigov, 1146-1246. Cambridge University Press.
Kendrick, T. D. 2012. A History of The Vikings. Courier Corporation.
Somerville, A. and McDonald, A. 2014. The Viking Age: A Reader, Second Edition. University of Toronto Press.