Young Folks' History of Russia - Nathan Dole

The Glory of Kief under Iaroslaf

It was about half a century before the battle of Hastings that St. Vladimir, called the Apostle, died, leaving a dozen sons, among whom he distributed the cities of his realm. His nephew, Holy Host, usurped the throne of Kief and treacherously put to death Boris and Glieb, the sons of Vladimir. The Prince of the Forest Folk met the same fate, and the lame Fiery Fame, Prince of Novgorod, saw that he must defend himself.

Shortly before some of his turbulent subjects had massacred his Norman guard, and as a punishment he enticed the chief citizens of Novgorod into his castle and put them to death. Consequently Novgorod was angry with him, but when he appeared before the town-council and wept for his cruel conduct in presence of the people and humbly besought their aid they cried with one accord,—

"Prince, though thou hast wickedly shed the blood of our brethren, yet we promise to fight for thee."

With an army of a thousand Normans and forty thousand soldiers from many tribes, Fiery Fame marched against Holy Host, and on a wintry day after a hard-fought battle Holy Host's army was put to rout. Many of his men broke through the ice and were drowned, and Holy Host himself took refuge with his father-in-law, the fat, brave king of Poland. Fiery Fame entered Kief in triumph.

The next year, as he was on a certain day fishing by the banks of the Dnieper, word was brought that the King of Poland was coming against him with a great army. Fiery Fame threw down his fishing-pole and left his fish, but he had little time to collect an army ere his enemy was upon him. The King of Poland clove the gate of Kief with his mighty sword which an angel was said to have given him, and took possession of the city. Fiery Fame escaped with only three companions to Novgorod, and gathered ships to cross the sea to the Normans, but the men of Novgorod were brave and burnt his ships, and said,—

"We will measure our strength once more with the enemy."

They raised taxes in furs and money and gathered a great army, and Fiery Fame again took the field.



Meantime Holy Host had quarreled with his father-in-law and driven him away after massacring his men. Deprived of his powerful aid, Holy Host fled at his cousin's approach and brought against him an army of barbarians. The battle took place on the banks of the Alta, and the plain along the river was red with the blood of warriors. "Now it was a Friday," says the chronicle, "and since daybreak the battle had raged, and the combat became terrible and fierce; the like had never been seen in Russia. The fight was hand-to-hand; twice the tide of victory ebbed and flowed, and with such fury that the blood of the slain seemed like a mountain torrent. At last, at even-tide, Fiery Fame won the day." The impious usurper fled "pursued by the wrath of God," and perished miserably in the deserts of Bohemia.

The history of Vladimir's successors recalls that of the heirs of Clovis. The murder of the sons of Clodomir is paralleled by the assassination of Boris and Glieb, sons of Vladimir, by the order of Holy Host, the usurper of the throne of Kief. His two victims were canonized, and henceforth became inseparable in the orthodox calendar.

Fiery Fame, after many civil wars with his brothers and nephews, made himself master of all Russia and reigned gloriously at Kief. He founded new towns and made his name renowned from the Baltic to the Black Sea, in Finland and Bulgaria. He captured many cities belonging to the King of Poland, and he put to rout and entirely destroyed the Petchenegs who attacked Kiel in his absence. His dealings with the Eastern emperors were not so fortunate. He intrusted his son, the Prince of Novgorod, with the charge of an expedition to Constantinople to settle a mercantile dispute by dint of arms. The Greeks sent envoys to offer favorable terms, but Fiery Fame's son scornfully rejected them and drove them away loaded with insults.

A naval battle was fought in the Bosphorus and the Prince of Novgorod was vanquished; the Russians were not able to resist the terrible Greek fire; moreover a sudden tempest arose and scattered their fleet; eight thousand of their men who reached shore and tried to fight their way back to Kief by land were surrounded and cut to pieces; the Greeks took with them to Constantinople eight hundred prisoners and put out their eyes.

It is said that a prophetic inscription was found in the boot of one of the bronze statues of Byzantium, declaring that the day was coming when the capital of the Greek empire would fall a prey to the men of the North, but it was not the destiny of Fiery Fame to fulfill the prediction. To this day the Russians look with greedy eyes upon the tsar-city  of the Dardanelles.

Under Fiery Fame Kief reached the pinnacle of its glory. Like Constantinople it had its Cathedral of St. Sophia and its Golden Gate; it was surrounded with walls and ornamented with gilded towers. It was called the city of the four hundred churches, and the religious services gave employment to a host of Greek singers and priests. St. Sophia was Fiery Fame's special pride. Colossal mosaics on backgrounds of gold adorned "the indestructible wall." The frescos painted by the artists from Constantinople have been preserved or carefully restored, and everywhere cover the pillars and the gilded vaults. Many of the mosaics and the Greek inscriptions still exist, and the traveller marvels at the quaint images of saints and doctors, angels and cherubim, the Virgin Mother of God, and the Last Supper, where a double Christ is represented giving his body to six of his disciples and to six others his blood.

Ancient Russian gateway


Kief at this time was composed of three separate parts, each with its own fortifications, churches, and schools. Merchants came from Holland, Hungary, Germany, and the far North, and made the eight markets lively with their babel of tongues, and covered the Dnieper with their ships and boats. Situated on the Great Water-Way to Constantinople, the city seemed a part of the empire to the Western writers, who called it the rival of the sceptre of Constantinople and the most famous glory of Greece.

The Russia of that early and heroic time was closely connected with Western Europe. Thither came as refugees a Swedish prince and Edwin and Edward, sons of Edmund Ironside, driven from England by the cruel young Cnut the Dane. St. Olaf, King of Norway, and his two sons spent their exile at the court of Kief. Fiery Fame married the daughter of King Olaf, and his sister, Marya, married Kasimir, King of Poland. His sons took for their wives the princesses of Poland and Constantinople, of Germany and England; his eldest son, the Prince of Novgorod, married Githa, daughter of Harold, King of England. His daughters also became the wives of kings: Anna married Henry I. of France, and the first King Philip was her son; Agmunda married Andrew I. of Hungary; and Harold the Brave, Prince and King of Norway, scorned the love of the Greek Empress Zoe, and fought the infidels in Africa and Sicily to prove himself worthy of the Princess Elizabeth, for whom he wrote this poem eight hundred years ago:—

"My ships have sailed the Sicilian Sea;

Their storm-browned hulls alive with intrepid warriors

Bore us on full of hope and dreaming of glorious combat.

I saw my vessel heed my voice and dash through the waves

And cross the wide seas. Alas, no more! I love;

And she whom I love, the daughter of Russia, scorns my love

"While young I was acquainted with dangers;

The inhabitants of Drontheim felt my courage.

They were an hundred to one;

How terrible our combat!

By my sword perished their haughty chief.

Vain success! A maid of Russia scorns my love.

"One day our vessel skimmed the waves.

Suddenly the sky grew black,

The wind roared, the waves submerged our deck,

But courage and ready hands defeated death.

My heart burned with hope.

O maid of Russia, wherefore scorn my love?

"I have a dozen claims for glory.

Bold in combat; I can tame the fiery steed;

Can swim the stormy sea, can skate the glassy ice;

Can pierce the bull's-eye with my spear;

And steer the fickle boat;

And yet the maid of Russia scorns my love!

"Wilt thou deny it, maiden young and proud?

Have I not come back from the walls

Of the Southern city, the hero of an hundred fights?

'Twas there I made my arms renowned,

And left the eternal memory of my name.

Why then, O maid of Russia, scorn my love?"

Fiery Fame founded schools and monasteries, he caused the Scriptures and many books written by the holy fathers—the lives of saints and romances—to be translated into Russian, and had coins struck for him by Greek founders with his Slav name on one side and his Christian name, George, on the other. He left a curious and somewhat barbarous code of laws: an assassin was left to the vengeance of his victim's family; a money-fine was to be paid for theft, assault, or other crimes; innocence or guilt was established by the ordeal of handling red-hot iron or plunging in boiling water. The judicial duel was also a part of the code; an Arabian writer thus describes it:—

"When one Russian hath a grievance against another he summons him to the tribunal of the prince and both present themselves before him. When the prince hath given his sentence his orders are executed. If his judgment is disputed, he bids them settle the matter with their swords. He whose sword cuts the sharpest gains the cause. When the duel takes place the friends of the two adversaries appear, armed to the teeth, and close the lists. The combatants then come to blows, and the victor can impose such conditions as he pleases."

Fiery Fame also confirmed the liberties and privileges of Novgorod and founded there another Cathedral of St. Sophia, one of the most precious remains of the Russian past.

Cathedral of St. Sophia, Novgorod


When he felt the end of his days draw nigh he summoned his children to his bedside, and said:—

"Behold, I am going to leave this world. Love one another, for you are children of the same father and the same mother. Let friendship and union reign among you; then will our Saviour abide with you, your enemies will be crushed, and you will live in peace. But if you hate each other and are divided you will come to destruction, and this country which your ancestors conquered with so much pains will be utterly overthrown."

Fiery Fame distributed among them his cities, and bade them obey their eldest brother, the Grand Prince of Kief, as they would obey their father; and he died and was buried in St. Sophia in a sarcophagus of white and blue marble sculptured with birds and trees.