Historical Tales: 8—Russian - Charles Morris

Oleg the Varangian

For ages and ages, none can say how many, the great plain of Russia existed as a nursery of tribes, some wandering with their herds, some dwelling in villages and tilling their fields, but all warlike and all barbarians. And over this plain at intervals swept conquering hordes from Asia, the terrible Huns, the devastating Avars, and others of varied names. But as yet the Russia we know did not exist, and its very name had never been heard.

As time went on, the people in the centre and north of the country became peaceful and prosperous, since the invaders did not cross their borders, and a great and wealthy city arose, whose commerce in time extended on the east as far as Persia and India, on the south to Constantinople, and on the west far through the Baltic Sea. Though seated in Russia, still largely a land of barbarous tribes, Novgorod became one of the powerful cities of the earth, making its strength felt far and wide, placing the tribes as far as the Ural Mountains under tribute, and growing so strong and warlike that it became a common saying among the people, "Who can oppose God and Novgorod the Great?"

But trouble arose for Novgorod. Its chief trade lay through the Baltic Sea, and here its ships met those terrible Scandinavian pirates who were then the ocean's lords. Among these bold rovers were the Danes who descended on England, the Normans who won a new home in France, the daring voyagers who discovered Iceland and Greenland, and those who sailed up the Mediterranean as far as Constantinople, conquering kingdoms as they went.

To some of these Scandinavians the merchants of Novgorod turned for aid against the others. Bands of them had made their way into Russia and settled on the eastern shores of the Baltic. To these the Novgorodians appealed in their trouble, and in the year 862 asked three Varangian brothers, Rurik, Sinaf, and Truvor, to come to their aid. The warlike brothers did so, seated themselves on the frontier of the republic of Novgorod, drove off its foes—and became its foes themselves. The people of Novgorod, finding their trade at the mercy of their allies, submitted to their power, and in 864 invited Rurik to become their king. His two brothers had meantime died.

Thus it was that the Russian empire began, for the Varangians came from a country called Ross, from which their new realm gained the name of Russia.

Rurik took the title of Grand Prince, made his principal followers lords of the cities of his new realm, and the republic of Novgorod came to an end in form, though not in spirit. It is interesting to note at this point that Russia, which began as a republic, has ended as one of the most absolute of monarchies. The first step in its subjection was taken when Novgorod invited Rurik the Varangian to be its prince; the other steps came later, one by one.

For fifteen years Rurik remained lord of Novgorod, and then died and left his four-year-old son Igor as his heir, with Oleg, his kinsman, as regent of the realm. It is the story of Oleg, as told by Nestor, the gossipy old Russian chronicler, that we propose here to tell, but it seemed useful to precede it by an account of how the Russian empire came into existence.

Oleg was a man of his period, a barbarian and a soldier born; brave, crafty, adventurous, faithful to Igor, his ward, cruel and treacherous to others. Under his rule the Russian dominions rapidly and widely increased.

At an earlier date two Varangians, Askhold and Dir by name, had made their way far to the south, where they became masters of the city of Kief. They even dared to attack Constantinople, but were driven back from that great stronghold of the South.

It by no means pleased Oleg to find this powerful kingdom founded in the land which he had set out to subdue. He determined that Kief should be his, and in 882 made his way to its vicinity. But it was easier to reach than to take. Its rulers were brave, their Varangian followers were courageous, the city was strong. Oleg, doubting his power to win it by force of arms, determined to try what could be done by stratagem and treachery.

Leaving his army, and taking Igor with him, he floated down the Dnieper with a few boats, in which a number of armed men were hidden, and at length landed near the ancient city of Kief, which stood on high ground near the river. Placing his warriors in ambush, he sent a messenger to Askhold and Dir, with the statement that a party of Varangian merchants, whom the prince of Novgorod had sent to Greece, had just landed, and desired to see them as friends and men of their own race.

Those were simple times, in which even the rulers of cities did not put on any show of state. On the contrary, the two princes at once left the city and went alone to meet the false merchants. They had no sooner arrived than Oleg threw off his mask. His followers sprang from their ambush, arms in hand.

"You are neither princes nor of princely birth," he cried; "but I am a prince, and this is the son of Rurik."

And at a sign from his hand Askhold and Dir were laid dead at his feet.

By this act of base treachery Oleg became the master of Kief. No one in the city ventured to resist the strong army which he quickly brought up, and the metropolis of the south opened its gates to the man who had wrought murder under the guise of war. It is not likely, though, that Oleg sought to justify his act on any grounds. In those barbarous days, when might made right, murder was too much an every-day matter to be deeply considered by any one.

Oleg was filled with admiration of the city he had won. "Let Kief be the mother of all the Russian cities!" he exclaimed. And such it became, for he made it his capital, and for three centuries it remained the capital city of the Russian realm.

What he principally admired it for was its nearness to Constantinople, the capital of the great empire of the East, on which, like the former lords of Kief, he looked with greedy and envious eyes.

For long centuries past Greece and the other countries of the South had paid little heed to the dwellers on the Russian plains, of whose scattered tribes they bad no fear. But with the coming of the Varangians, the conquest of the tribes, and the founding of a wide-spread empire, a different state of affairs began, and from that day to this Constantinople has found the people of the steppes its most dangerous and persistent foes.

Oleg was not long in making the Greek empire feel his heavy hand. Filling the minds of his followers and subjects with his own thirst for blood and plunder, he set out with an army of eighty thousand men, in two thousand barks, passed the cataracts of the Borysthenes, crossed the Black Sea, murdered the subjects of the empire in hosts, and, as the chronicles say, sailed overland with all sails set to the port of Constantinople itself. What he probably did was to have his vessels taken over a neck of land on wheels or rollers.

Here he threw the imperial city into mortal terror, fixed his shield on the very gate of Constantinople, and forced the emperor to buy him off at the price of an enormous ransom. To the treaty made the Varangian warriors swore by their gods Perune and Voloss, by their rings, and by their swords,—gold and steel, the things they honored most and most desired.

Then back in triumph they sailed to Kief, rich with booty, and ever after hailing their leader as the Wise Man, or Magician. Eight years afterwards Oleg made a treaty of alliance and commerce with Constantinople, in which Greeks and Russians stood on equal footing. Russia had made a remarkable stride forward as a nation since Rurik was invited to Novgorod a quarter-century before.

For thirty-three years Oleg held the throne. His was too strong a hand to yield its power to his ward. Igor must wait for Oleg's death. He had found a province; he left an empire. In his hands Russia grew into greatness, and from Novgorod to Kief and far and wide to the right and left stretched the lands won by his conquering sword.

He was too great a man to die an ordinary death. According to the tradition, miracle had to do with his passing away. Nestor, the prince of Russian chroniclers, tells us the following story:

Oleg had a favorite horse, which he rode alike in battle and in the hunt, until at length a prediction came from the soothsayers that death would overtake him through his cherished charger. Warrior as he was, he had the superstition of the pagan, and to avoid the predicted fate he sent his horse far away, and for years avoided even speaking of it.

Then, moved by curiosity, he asked what had become of the banished animal.

"It died years ago," was the reply; "only its bones remain."

"So much for your soothsayers," he cried, with a contempt that was not unmixed with relief. "That, then, is all this prediction is worth! But where are the bones of my good old horse? I should like to see what little is left of him."

He was taken to the spot where lay the skeleton of his old favorite, and gazed with some show of feeling on the bleaching bones of what had once been his famous war-horse. Then, setting his foot on the skull, he said,—

"So this is the creature that is destined to be my death."

At that moment a deadly serpent that lay coiled up within the skull darted out and fixed its poisonous fangs in the conqueror's foot. And thus ignobly he who had slain men by thousands and conquered an empire came to his death.