Young Folks' History of Russia - Nathan Dole

How the Russians Made Expeditions
against Constantinople

While Rurik was busy quelling insurrections among the people of Novgorod, and teaching them to obey, Askold and Dir, with two hundred long-boats filled with Norman Vikings and soldiers, made a descent upon the Grecian Empire.

Constantinople, the richest city of the East, the rival of Rome, built on seven hills, beside the blue waters of the Bosphorus, with its many-domed churches, its precious relics of bygone days, with its fisheries and its tolls, its bazaars, where merchants from every nation of Europe and Asia brought their costliest wares, the capital of Constantine the Great, the old. Byzantium of the Greeks, the Istanbul of the Faithful, the Tsar of Cities, was ever the goal of the eager hordes which sought their fortunes in the fields of war. Innumerable sieges its towers and walls sustained; Goth and Hun, Turk and Tartar, Norman and Russian alike, looked with envious eyes on the beautiful city by the Golden Horn, which guards the Dardanelles and commands the sea of Marmora, the Euxine, and the Mediterranean.



The Emperor Michael was waging war with the Arabs on the shores of the Black Sea, when a messenger came post-haste with the news that Askold and Dir were putting his subjects to death and laying siege to Constantinople. He hastened back to his capital, and with the Patriarch spent the night in prayer before the shrine of the Holy Mother of God in the church built by his ancestor, the Emperor Marcian.

At daybreak the Patriarch took the wonder-working robe which the Virgin Mary had worn, and dipped it into the Bosphorus, while the priests chanted the canticles, and the choirs of boys sang sacred hymns.

"Instantly," says the chronicle, "the waves, which before were smooth and still, arose in anger and began to roar, and the ships of the idolatrous Russians were dispersed, dashed upon the shore and broken to pieces, so that few escaped the disaster or chanced to reach their own land again." The leaders of the fleet came back to Kief, and there reigned.

Meanwhile, Rurik the Peaceful, after ruling Novgorod for seventeen years, died and left his son Igor, a boy four years old, in care of his kinsman Oleg, a prince of talent and enterprise.

Oleg immediately gathered together an army of Normans, Finns, and Slavs, and proceeded to enlarge his boundaries. He went against the southern tribes by the Great Water Way, captured many cities, and at last reached the walls of Kief, which he took by means of a stratagem. Leaving the greater part of his army behind him, and hiding a band of trusty warriors in a galley or two, he approached the city in the guise of a Norman merchant, and sent a messenger to the princes Askold and Dir, saying:—

"Come and buy pearls and a thousand beautiful things of some Norman merchants, your countrymen, who are on their way to Greece."

Hardly had the over-trustful princes drawn near the river, when Oleg's soldiers leaped from their hiding-places, and seized them, and Oleg cried:—

"You are neither princes nor boyars, but I am a prince."

Then pointing to the boy Igor, whom he held by the hand, he said:—

"This is the son of Rurik, and your master."

Askold and Dir were put to death, and buried in one tomb. Oleg was pleased with the situation of Kief, and resolved to settle there, saying:—

"Let it be henceforth the mother of Russian cities."

He also united under his sceptre all the Slavic tribes along the Dnieper, forced them to pay him a tribute of marten skins, and build strongholds in their lands.

When Igor was a young man, his kinsman left him in charge of Kief, and with a fleet of two hundred boats, each holding forty men, and with an army of cavalry, prepared to besiege Constantinople both by land and sea. His galleys rowed down the Dnieper, and the horsemen kept them company along the banks. As they drew near the Bosphorus, the inhabitants, panic-stricken, hastened to Constantinople and entrenched themselves behind palisades. Oleg landed his forces, and began to plunder the land, and burn the churches and convents. He put to the sword, or terribly tortured, all the Greeks whom he met. According to the legend, he fitted wheels to his vessels, and spread the sails, and soon a favorable wind arose and blew his fleet across the fields to the very gates of the city.



Then the Emperor sent ambassadors with food and wine, and promised to pay tribute if Oleg would spare the city. But it was discovered that the food and wine were poisoned, and, as a punishment for their treachery, Oleg obliged the Court to pay his army of eighty thousand men six pounds of silver apiece, besides gifts to all of the Russian cities under his protection. Then he made peace, swearing by the God of Thunder and the God of the Flocks, by Perun and Volos, while the Greek Tsars kissed the crucifix. After fixing his shield upon the Golden Gate, he returned to Kief, taking with him silken stuffs, embroidered in silver and gold, fruits and wines, and all manner of precious things; and Nestor says that "from this time he was called the magician, because his people were foolish and idolatrous."

He afterwards sent ambassadors to Constantinople to renew the treaty, and the Emperor showed them the beauty and magnificence of the city, the gilded churches, the rich treasures which they held in gold, silver, and precious stones, and the instruments of the passion, the crown of thorns, the nails of the cross, the purple robe, and many relics of the saints. Then he sent them home, laden with costly gifts.

One day Oleg asked a soothsayer to predict the manner of his death, and the soothsayer declared that the horse which he best loved would cause his death. Oleg sent away the horse on which he was mounted, and five years later heard that it was;1.dead. So he mocked the sooth sayer, saying:—

"All that soothsayers prophesy is false. My horse is dead, and I am still alive."

Then he went to view the carcass, and dismounting, kicked the skull, and said,—

"Behold the beast which was to be my death!"

Immediately a poisonous serpent came forth and stung the prince in his foot, and he died, greatly lamented by the people of Kief over whom he had ruled three and thirty years.

Oleg was succeeded by Igor, the son of Rurik, and the Forest Folk rose against him, but he subdued them, and allowed his favorite captain, Svieneld, to receive their tribute. And Igor, with many thousand galleys, made a new expedition against Constantinople, but instead of attacking the city he ravaged the provinces with fire and sword, mutilating, crucifying, and torturing his prisoners, destroying churches and prosperous towns. The Byzantine generals, uniting their Macedonians and Thracian and all their Eastern forces, attacked Igor's army and destroyed it. Igor himself put out to sea, pursued by a few brave sailors who hastily manned some unserviceable vessels, and attacked his galleys with "a kind of winged fire which leaped upon the Russians and made them take to the water to save themselves, but many of them were drowned by the weight of their helmets." Those who reached home said to their countrymen:—

"The Greeks have a fire which runs through the air like lightning, and they threw it upon us and burned our vessels, and thus we failed to conquer them."

Three years later Igor organized still another expedition to avenge his defeat. He secured the help of the Petchenegs, a cruel and treacherous tribe which had recently come from the plains of the Ural, and with an innumerable throng of boats set forth. When the Roman emperor heard that he was coming he sent an embassy, offering to pay a greater tribute than had been given to Oleg, and Igor was persuaded to turn back. The Greek ambassadors came to Kief and signed the treaty, and while some of Igor's men went to the Church of St. Elias and took the oath, after the manner of the Christians, Igor himself and most of his captains went to the hill of Perun, where stood an idol to the thunder-god; and there the prince and his heathen followers took the oath before the altar, throwing upon the ground their shields, their naked swords, their rings, and their most valued possessions, and saying

"May we never have help from Perun, and may our shields afford us no shelter, if it enter our minds to break this peace. If any one, prince or subject, violate it, may he be cut in pieces by his own sword, be destroyed by his own arrows, and be a slave in this world and the world to come."

Prince Igor swore to keep peace and friendship with the Greeks as long as the sun should shine or the world stand, and he sent back the ambassadors with gifts of furs and wax and slaves.

The next year he went to raise tribute from the Forest Folk, for his jealous followers said to him:—

"The men of Svieneld have beautiful arms and fine garments, while we all go naked. Come with us, prince, and levy a new tribute, that thou and we may become rich." "So he yielded," says Nestor, "and led them against the Forest Folk to raise the tribute." He increased the first imposts and did violence unto them, he and his men; and after he had taken all he wanted he returned to his city. While on the road he took council with himself, and said to his followers: "Go on with the tribute; as for me, I will go back and get some more out of them." Leaving the greater part of his men, he returned with only a few, to the end that he might better himself. But the Forest Folk, when they knew that Igor was coming back, said to Mal, their prince:—

"When the wolf enters the sheep-fold he slays the whole flock unless the shepherd slay him. Thus it is with us and Igor. Unless we slay him he will despoil us entirely." And they sent deputies, and said to him, "Why dost thou come again unto us? Hast thou not collected all the tribute?"

Igor would not listen to them, so the Forest Folk came out of their city and fell upon his band, and put them to death. And they tied Igor to two saplings bent to the earth, which taking their natural direction tore him to pieces.