April 18, 2017 The prince was murdered, and the princess given two demands: surrender the kingdom, and marry the enemy prince. She said yes—but what she did instead, nobody saw coming. If this were a video podcast, it'd be banned in all territories.
Read a full transcript of this episode on the Something True website.
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Music on this week’s episode:
Kosta T – Red in Black
Jon Luc Hefferman – Ascent*
Free Piece of Tape – Burning School*
Paniks – Homage*
Kosta T – The Spirit of Russian Love (violin)
Paniks – Jelena*
*modified for the podcast.
Once upon a time, more than a thousand years ago, a band of tribesmen entered the city of Kiev bearing terrible news. These men were representatives of the Drevlians, a tribe from the forests west of the city. They demanded an audience with Princess Olga, who was wife to Prince Igor, ruler of Kiev and all the land between the Black and Baltic seas known as Kievan Rus. The Princess received them in the Royal Court, and the Drevlians made their announcement.
‘We have slain your husband, the Prince.’
‘Because he was like a wolf: crafty, and ravenous.’
‘But we are good guys, mostly.’
You’re listening to Something True – stories from the footnotes of history. Written by Duncan Fyfe and read by Alex Ashby. This week’s episode: Ruska Pravda.
The Drevlians were just one of the many tribes living independently outside Kiev before they had been forcibly united under the banner of the Kievan Rus state, and they weren’t happy about it. They liked their own princes, and were not thrilled at being suppressed by military force and required to pay regular tribute in vast quantities of fur.
When Igor, Olga’s husband, became Prince, the Drevlians quietly stopped paying, and hoped he wouldn’t notice. Igor did notice, and rode in with an entire army to correct the situation. Once he had sacked their lands, the Drevlians agreed to resume paying, but after Igor left, he turned his horse around and came back, screaming, ‘I WANT EVEN MORE FUR!’ and the Drevlians decided that instead, they would murder him.
Igor’s death, they realised, could be a really good opportunity. His son Sviatoslav, who was next in line to the throne, was only three years old, which was too young to rule even in those days. So, the Drevlians could have Olga marry their own Prince Mal, who the Drevlians were simply all about. ‘Isn’t he just a fantastic man,’ they would say to one another, ‘and she can hardly complain, can she? I mean, she is in her forties!’ Once married, Prince Mal and Olga would rule Kievan Rus as regents until Sviatoslav came of age and took the throne. That would be plenty of time for the Drevlians to convert the boy to the Drevlian way of thinking. Pretty soon, they’d have the toddler calling Prince Mal ‘Dad’. He’d be calling all the Drevlians ‘Dad’!
So when they came to Kiev to tell Olga that they had killed her husband, they also tried to persuade her that Prince Mal was a worthy substitute. ‘He is a good man,’ they told her, ‘a strong leader, with a remarkable tactical mind, and quite exceptional on the battlefield, for instance, his beautiful defeat and murder of your husband.’
The idea that the Drevlians might bend her son to their will terrified Olga, and of course she didn’t want to marry Prince Mal either. He had, after all, killed her husband. But she knew that if she refused, they would take everything they were demanding by force, killing or enslaving her, her son, and all of her people.
So, she said okay. ‘Your proposal is very pleasing to me. The timing of this is actually rather perfect. As you know, I have recently lost my husband, and it is so kind of you to think of me.
‘In fact, I’m so thankful, that tomorrow I would like to honour you before all of my people.’ Olga suggested that the Drevlians return to the boat in which they had arrived in Kiev, ‘And tomorrow,’ she said, ‘my messengers will come to you, and they will say that the Princess requests your presence. Now, as you are the conquerors of this land, you should say that the Princess does not summon the Drevlians, and if I really want to see you, then the only way you will deign to come to me is if my messengers pick the boat up with you in it, and carry you through the whole city, back here to the Royal Court.’
The Drevlians conferred. ‘This pleases us. I wonder if we might also cross our arms and scowl, while we are being carried?’
‘Yes, that’s fine, if you want to.’
And so, the next morning, the Drevlians were greeted by Olga’s messengers. ‘Princess Olga of Kiev requests your presence,’ they said, ‘if you would just follow us.’
‘Follow you?’ said the Drevlians. ‘On foot? Are we a fucking joke to you?’
So, the messengers lifted the boat up and carried it to the Royal Court, where Olga waited to receive them. She greeted the Drevlians cordially, and then ordered the messengers to throw the boat into a deep pit in the floor. Now, that was new. The previous night, after the Drevlians left, Olga had ordered the excavation of a huge trench in the Royal Court.
‘And what is this for, O Princess?’ the men had asked.
‘I’m going to throw a boat into it,’ she replied.
The wounded Drevlians now lay sprawled in the pit amidst the wreckage of their boat. Olga stood over the edge and called down to them, ‘There is the honour that you deserve. Is this what you like? Is this to your taste?’
‘No, we hate this!’ cried the Drevlians from deep in the pit. ‘This is horrible! This is as bad as what we did to your husband!’
‘Bury them,’ commanded Olga, ‘bury them alive.’ Her men slowly filled in the pit, while the Drevlians screamed and gnashed their teeth, desperately trying to climb their way out, but their anguish was all in vain. It was a glorious moment for Olga, but a brief one. She had avenged the death of her husband, after a fashion, but the most complicated work was just beginning.
Olga sent word to Prince Mal that she accepted his proposal, but added that the men that he sent were dipshits, unskilled in the ways of courtship. He should now send his absolute finest men, who could suitably escort Olga to meet him in the Drevlian lands in the style to which she was accustomed. Mal agreed this was reasonable, and twenty very fine Drevlians made the long journey to Kiev.
‘You look so very tired,’ Olga observed, ‘would you care for a bath? Kiev has the finest bathhouses you ever should see; we call it the city of bathhouses.’
‘Well, we wouldn’t say no!’ the Drevlians replied as they entered one of those famous bathhouses and became nude. Olga sealed the doors behind them, and ordered that it be set on fire.
‘Yes, those men were much better,’ Olga wrote to Mal. ‘I accept your proposal, and will now travel to meet you. Oh, just one more thing, if you wouldn’t mind: could you please set up a feast in the lands where my husband was slain, so that I might hold a funeral for him? Looking forward to it, thanks!’
Olga and her best men arrived at the site of Igor’s death, but with no grave to mark his murder, Olga knelt and wept upon the open battlefield. Meanwhile, the Drevlians were waiting nearby having brought giant kegs of honey and mead for the celebrations.
‘But where are our dudes? Where are all the dudes we sent to you?’
‘Oh, they’ll be here.’ And the feast began.
Being a funeral, the Drevlians were not having a lot of fun, so Olga encouraged them to drink—nay, to get wasted. The Drevlians liked the sound of that, and they imbibed wildly, through every orifice, until passing out. That was when Olga gave the order. Her men slaughtered the Drevlians, all five thousand of them. They returned then to Kiev, to amass an army that would once and for all bring the full might of Kievan Rus down on the Drevlians.
Olga and Sviatoslav, the future Prince, rode at the head of the grand siege. ‘You threw the first spear, my child,’ she would tell him in the years to come, ‘but you were very little then, and your spear hit your own horse in the ear, and well, it was just a disaster, I mean a real mess. But our army laid waste to the Drevlians, and they retreated behind their city walls like cowards. Only now they had realised the price to be paid for the crime against your father, and they ran from it in terror. They knew that you and I, my son, would never be theirs.’
For a year this siege lasted, but with the Drevlians dug in behind their walls, Olga made no further ground. She sent them a message: ‘Why do you persist in holding out? All of your neighbouring cities have surrendered to me, and the people who live there cultivate their fields and their lands in peace. Would you rather die of hunger than submit to tribute?’
‘Princess Olga,’ came the Drevlians’ reply, ‘holy shit, we would love to pay tribute. We would love that. But it is clear that you are hell-bent on avenging your husband, and no amount of tribute in the world could ever satisfy you!’
‘No, you are wrong,’ she said. ‘I have already avenged my husband. I avenged him once when I dropped a boat of your finest men into a pit and buried them alive. I avenged him a second time when I locked your second finest men in a bathhouse and burned them, again, alive. And I avenged him a third and final time when I spilled a river of Drevlian blood at a funeral feast held in his name. No, I seek no more blood for Igor. You have given enough. All I ask for now is submission, and tribute.’
The Drevlians were relieved. ‘Oh, that’s so great! No problem, you can have anything you want! We’ll give you our most valuable honey and furs. I mean, really just the absolute best stuff we have, you can have all of it.’
‘No, I have learned from the death of my husband, who already asked too much of you, and I will not invite the same resentment by taking your most valued possessions. All I will ask is, from each of your houses, three pigeons and three sparrows.’
The Drevlians were down with that. It took them some time to get all these birds together, but they did, and they presented them to Olga, like, here’s the shit-ton of birds you ordered, you whackjob.
‘And here’s what you,’ Olga explained to her soldiers, ‘are going to do with these’. To each of the birds, they attached a contraption of sulphur and cloth—a bomb. At night, the birds were set loose on the city where they settled in nests, coops, and dove-cotes, and within moments the city was consumed in flames. Olga’s soldiers captured or killed any who fled the gates until there were no free men left in the Drevlian lands, and Olga’s work was done.
Sixteen years passed, with Olga serving as Regent until Sviatoslav was crowned Grand Prince of Kievan Rus. He ruled adequately, in a state of constant warfare with neighbouring countries, expanding the boundaries of his empire by blood. Eight years into his reign he was ambushed and murdered by a Turkish tribe at the Dnieper River, and his failure to stabilise his empire or establish a clear succession plunged Kievan Rus into chaos.
In 2011, a Ukrainian, fishing the Dnieper, happened upon a tenth century sword crafted from gold, silver and copper. It belonged to Sviatoslav. The sword was given to the Museum of the Zaporozhian Cossacks, on the Ukrainian island of Khortytsia, where it is displayed today. The museum has an average rating of four point five on TripAdvisor, but of those users who have visited the museum, not a single one has made any note at all of the sword of Prince Sviatoslav the Brave, son of Olga of Kiev.
That was Something True, a podcast on the Idle Thumbs network, written by Duncan Fyfe and read by Alex Ashby, with artwork by Ray Chen. Music credits can be found in the description and on our website at somethingtrue.net. Follow us on twitter @atruepodcast, and join us again for the next episode: Entourage.