Who was Oleg of Novgorod?
Oleg of Novgorod, also known as Oleg Veshchy, was a ninth century Viking prince, who is believed to have founded the Kievan Rus, the first East Slavic state, located in the Dnieper basin. He was a semi-legendary figure, and the little that we know about him comes mainly from the ‘Rus Primary Chronicle’ and the ‘Novgorod First Chronicle’. Believed to have moved either from Staraya Ladoga or from Veliky Novgorod, both of which fall under modern day Russia, he became an army commander under Prince Rurik, a kinsman. Although the nature of their relationship is not known, he must have won the prince’s confidence because before his death, Rurik made him the custodian of both his young son and his land. Beginning his reign sometime in 879, he soon decided to spread his domain, eventually transferring his capital to Kiev, which he captured in 882. Going further south, he attacked Constantinople in 907, eventually concluding a favorable political as well as a trade treaty with the Byzantine Emperor. After his death, he was succeeded by Rurik’s son, Igor of Kiev.
Childhood & Early Life
Oleg of Novgorod was born in the ninth century into a Scandinavian princely family that originated from the Varyags or the Vikings. It is likely that he was either from Staraya Ladoga or from Novgorod the Great. However, the exact year or place of his birth remains unknown.
According to 'Rus' Primary Chronicle', he was a kinsman of Prince Rurik, the founder of the well-known Rurik dynasty. However, the Novgorod First Chronicle, states that he was not related to Rurik, but was an army commander, who enjoyed Rurik’s confidence.
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Before his death in 879, Rurik appointed Oleg of Novgorod the custodian of his minor son, Igor, as well as his domain. Thus Oleg began his reign in 879, possibly as the regent for Prince Igor. At that time, they had their capital at Novgorod, which largely depended on trade.
To rebuild the town’s weakened economy, he now decided to take control of the trade route, which connected Scandinavia and Rus to Constantinople. To give effect to his plan, he soon assembled an army of Varangians and East Slavs, setting out on a long expedition in 880.
Traveling south, he began to capture important cities and prosperous trading outposts, setting up garrisons at Smolensk and Lyubech. In 882, he reached Kiev, which was then ruled by two of Rurik’s kinsman, Askold (Oskold) and Dir, who were boyars, a rank below the prince.
According to some historians, Askold (Oskold) and Dir lived in different times, giving rise to a doubt in the authenticity of the chronicle. However, it could also be true that Askold and Dir was the same person or that there were two Dirs.
On reaching Kiev, Oleg of Novgorod hid his soldiers, leaving some behind, hiding others in his boat. Representing himself as a stranger on a mission to Greece on behalf of Igor and Oleg, he sent a message to Askold to meet them at his boat as they belonged to the same stock.
Askold and Dir fell for the trap and as they entered the boat, Oleg told them that they had no right to rule because they were not of princely blood, also presenting young Igor as the lawful heir to Rurik. Eventually the soldiers jumped on them, killing them instantly.
Shifting the Capital
On capturing Kiev in 882, Oleg of Novgorod realized that the city was placed in a strategically important position. He therefore moved his capital, along with his armed forces, from Novgorod to Kiev, proclaiming himself the new ruler.
He soon proclaimed Kiev as “the mother of Rus towns” and waged war against the neighboring Easters Slavic people. In 883, he made the Drevlians, a tribe of early Eastern Slavs, pay tribute to Kiev. Shortly, he also subjugated the Polians, the Severians, the Vyatichs and the Radimichs.
Treaty with Constantinople
Slowly Oleg of Novgorod began to spread his sphere of influence to middle Dnieper, which was earlier held by the Khazars. Thereafter, he set his eyes on Constantinople, organizing a military campaign against it in 907. At that time known as Tsargrad, it was the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire.
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In order to make full use of the Dnieper River, he built two thousand longboats in order to transport his eighty thousand men. Moreover, as described in 'Rus' Primary Chronicle', he also had wheels made, which were fixed under the longboats once they reached their destination.
To protect their city, Emperor Leo VI the Wise ordered the city gates to be closed and the bay, which led directly to the city to be closed by chains. But Oleg of Novgorod had other ideas. On his order, the longboats waited for favorable wind with their sails spread at some other point.
When such wind arose, it drove the wheeled boats towards the city through the land. As a result, the city was besieged both from sea and land. However, they could not breach the city walls, but they lay in wait. Eventually, the Greeks were forced to start peace negotiation.
On Oleg’s demand, in addition to regular tributes to Kievan Rus, the Greeks agreed to pay 12 grivnas of silver per boat. Oleg was also able to secure a favorable trade term for Kiev, thus becoming the first man in history to undertake a trading agreement
Oleg of Novgorod also promised to provide military help to the Byzantine Emperor, thus making the agreement beneficial for both the countries. As a sign of his victory, he nailed his shield on the city gate of Constantinople.
According to tradition, while he was at Constantinople, the emperor tried to murder him by offering poisoned food. However, for some reason, Oleg refused to take it, which saved his life. People took his refusal as a sign of his predictive power and began to call him a “Prophet.”
Death & Legacy
There is a contention about the place and year of Oleg’s death. According to the Primary Chronicle, he died in Kiev in 912, while the Novgorod First Chronicle states that he died in Ladoga in 922. However, both the chronicles talk about the same legend concerning his death.
According to the legend, it was foretold by some volkhvs, who were of the priestly class, that his death would come from his favorite horse. To cheat death, and not wanting to kill his beloved steed, he ordered him to be taken away.
Years later, as Oleg of Novgorod came to learn about the horse’s death, he wanted to see his mortal remains and was taken to the place where his bones were lying. As he touched the horse’s skull with his boot, a snake came out slithering and bit him immediately, causing his death.
Because he unified the Eastern Slavs, he is remembered in history as the founder of the state of Kievan Rus.