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Prince Ihor: The Unjust Verdict of History

14 January, 00:00

Tough and unfair as history may be towards figures of a certain epoch, it will put everyone, sooner or later, into his/her proper place. Ihor, who succeeded Oleh on the Kyiv throne, never became an epic hero, nor did the popular belief vested him with supernatural powers, while the Tale of Bygone Years chronicler, although calling Ihor gallant and wise, still condemns his cruelty and takes quite a dim view of him. The prince still bears the stigma of condemnation despite the fact that he headed a colossal political system consisting of twenty principalities ruled by those who did not descend from Rurik. Clearly enough, it was difficult for him to find a common language with them. Prince Ihor, who signed an advantageous agreement with the Byzantine Empire, was distinguished for religious tolerance: the years of his rule saw peaceful coexistence of the pagans and Christians. His attitude to women can serve as an example even for today’s men. But why does folklore portray Ihor as a militarily unsuccessful prince — the worst-ever verdict for a warrior? Let us try to answers these questions, for they have repercussions on the current time.

Ihor ascended the Great Prince of Kyiv’s throne after the death of Oleh in 913 (according to the Ipatiev copy of The Tale of Bygone Years). As to his origin, The Tale recalls that in the year 879, shortly before dying, Rurik handed over his principality to Oleh. The chronicle does not say when Ihor was born but indicates that he married Olha in 903 and the son Sviatoslav was born to them in 942 (i.e., when Ihor was in a rather advanced age). This information is open to question... Mykhailo Hrushevsky suggests in The History of Ukraine-Rus that Ihor might have become Great Prince of Kyiv far later, and another prince, whose name we do not know, perhaps ruled between Oleh and Ihor. Ihor was no longer living in 948-953, for Constantine Porphyrogenitus refers to those times in his treatise De Administrando Imperio as the epoch of Olha and Sviatoslav, the son of Ihor.

According to the chronicle, Ihor ruled until 945, i.e., for about 33 years. After Oleh’s death, the tribes he had subjugated, including the Drevliany and Ulychy, refused to obey Kyiv and the new prince. Ihor considered it necessary to root out these tendencies in order to keep Rus from disintegration. In 914 he launched an expedition against the Drevliany. Winning a complete victory, Ihor demanded that they pay a tribute larger than the one imposed by Oleh. Besides, as numerous historical studies show, Ihor destroyed the political organization of the Drevliany’s principality. Ihor also fought for three years against the Ulychy, finally capturing their capital Peresichen and imposing unendurable tribute on them. Driven off the Rus territory, the Ulychy left the Middle Dnieper basin and set off for the area between the lower Dniester and the Southern Bug.

Should Ihor be condemned or condoned for those actions? Undoubtedly, every people has the right to self-determination, but the separation of feudal principalities from Kyiv was dangerous because the hordes of the Pechenegs (nomadic people of the Turkic family — Ed.) were already prowling along the borders of Rus. Ihor first encountered them in 915. A chronicle notes that he made peace with the Pechenegs, so they went away to the Danube. Rus was thus saved for some time from barbarian forays. The chronicle also recalls that Ihor also fought the Pechenegs in 920. Ihor is unlikely to have made war against the Pechenegs if they had not threatened Rus. Historians suppose that a third party intervened. For overcoming the enemy by means of another people was the Byzantine Empire’s favorite military strategic method. It is probable that the fear of an increasingly stronger Rus prompted Constantinople to provoke the Pechenegs to use military force against it. At the same time, Rus continued to be the Byzantine Empire’s ally until the 930s.

In all probability, when Ihor learned about the Byzantine emperor’s duplicity, he marched on Constantinople in 941. The chronicle describes the cruelty of Ihor and his troops, “They disemboweled those captured; others were used as targets, shot dead with arrows and had their spines broken... They also set a lot of holy churches on fire.” The latter claim raises a doubt because Ihor pursued a tolerant religious policy in Kyiv. Ihor lost the battle after “the Greeks” had sent in a 40,000-strong reinforcement: Slavic boats were burning, and the warriors were jumping overboard, with only a few of them managing to survive. The Byzantine Empire defeated Rus by means of an unheard-of military technique — burning the Ruthenian boats with tube-blown fire (incidentally, the Ruthenians did not use at that time such inflammable substances as saltpeter, sulfur, or petroleum).

Back in Rus, Ihor began “to muster warriors and sent for the Varangians overseas, luring them into going against the Greeks, for he himself wanted to go against them.” This proves the great importance of blood feud in the Rus of those times. In 943 Ihor marched again on Constantinople and concluded a peace treaty. The chronicle says that in 944 Ihor gathered a mighty force of Varangians, Ruthenians, Poliany, Sloviny, Kryvychy, and Pechenegs and went against the Greeks on boats and horses, for he “aspired to avenge himself.” It should be noted that Ihor chose a very appropriate moment for the attack: the Byzantine Empire was then weakened by wars against the Bulgarians and Arabs and by palace intrigues. The Byzantine Emperor Roman was told that “Rus covered the sea with ships.” The Greeks offered Ihor gold, and he turned back to Kyiv.

In 945 (944) Constantinople sent envoys to Kyiv “to renew the previous treaty.” Some gains of the treaties signed by Oleh were lost. For instance, the new treaty imposed restrictions on pavoloka (luxury textile — Ed.) sales to Rus merchants, abolished duty-free trade, introduced articles on the return of fugitive slave, on the buy- out of prisoners of war, etc. The treaty also contained the article “On the Korsun War,” whereby the Rus prince undertook to refrain from attacking the Greek colony of Korsun (Chersonesus) in the Crimea. The treaty also has an interesting provision that, while earlier the merchants and envoys traveling to Constantinople were to have golden and silver seals, now they were to carry a written message from the Kyivan prince to the Byzantine emperor. This demonstrates a high level of literacy in Rus.

The treaty’s text was “in two charters,” i.e., in two authentic copies. The agreement was first signed in Constantinople in the presence of Rus envoys and then in Kyiv in front of Byzantine ones. It is interesting to point out here the chronicler’s note that the treaty was allegedly concluded in two dimensions. Firstly, the chronicle notes that the christened Ruthenians “swore by the church of Saint Elijah and the exalted true cross.” Secondly, “the non-christened Ruthenians” swore by putting their unsheathed swords on the shields. Then comes the concluding part, “Should any of the princes or Ruthenian people, Christian or non-Christian, violate all that is written in this charter, he shall be put to death with his own weapon and cursed by God and Perun (chief pagan deity — Ed.) alike as a traitor.” For Ihor allowed the Ruthenians to practice Christianity; he never persecuted Christians — in fact he even reckoned with them. It is not known exactly whether the Christians were of the local or Varangian origin. One of the treaty’s articles says, “Should a Christian kill a Ruthenian or vice versa, let the killed person’s blood relative go and wreak deadly vengeance on the killer.” This applied not only to the interstate relations between the Byzantine Empire and Rus but also to domestic affairs, when the Ruthenian side presents itself as equally Christian and pagan during the ratification of an international treaty.

In his attitude to his wife Olha, Ihor looks truly chivalrous, with their first romantic meeting being shrouded in legends. Although the chronicle says nothing about this, later sources, particularly the 17th-century Life of Olha, the 16th-century Great Book, and especially Dmytro Tuptalo’s Chetya-Mineyas (Kyiv, 1705), tell us the story of their meeting. They met when Ihor was hunting for marten. Olha enthralled Ihor with her intelligence. When the young prince attempted to take the girl by force in the woods, she said, “You will take less but lose more!” Scorning force and respecting intellect, Olha advised Ihor to be guided by reason rather than by passion. Adoring force, military pursuit, hunting, and brawling, Prince Ihor still bowed to Olha’s intelligence. Legends are ambiguous about the clan Olha came from. Some sources claim she came from Pskov-Novhorod, others say she was from Bulgaria. After marrying Olha, Ihor admitted that “a good wife takes her husband’s sadness away.”

In the fall of 945, Ihor customarily went to exact tribute from the Drevliany. This was not quite a rational act, for “he arbitrarily demanded additional tribute and let his warriors resort to excessive violence.” Moreover, having received the first tribute, Ihor turns back halfway with a small detachment in order to grab more! Then the Drevliany with Prince Mal at the head made a historic conclusion, “If a wolf begins to chase a sheep, it will soon reach all the sheep one by one unless it is killed. The same with this man: if we do not kill him, he will wipe all of us out.” So the Drevliany killed Ihor and buried him “in the woods, and his grave can still be found near Iskorosten.” The chronicle gives no exact description of how the prince died, only mentioning his death in a battle. According to Byzantine historian Leo the Deacon, the Drevliany tied Ihor to two bent-down trees and then let the trees straighten again, thus tearing the prince apart.

Compared to his predecessor Oleh and successor Sviatoslav, Ihor is looked down upon in The Tales of Bygone Years. He was a militarily unlucky and avaricious (a serious drawback, indeed) prince. Naturally, Ihor committed some mistakes and was cruelly punished for them. But it is he who, continuing the policy of Oleh, knitted Rus together, putting about twenty “radiant Ruthenian principalities” under the authority of Kyiv and placing his son Sviatoslav in Novhorod. Ihor attached great importance to economic growth of the cities that paid tribute to Kyiv. Mykhailo Hrushevsky is sure that the role Ihor played in the evolution of the Ancient Rus state far outweighs his negative characteristics. It is thus obvious that he was an energetic, talented, wise, and strong nation-builder because he kept such a gigantic empire from collapsing.

After Ihor was killed, Olha, our first Christian woman ruler, ascended the Kyiv throne. By virtue of her nature, this great woman pursued a policy absolutely different from that of Oleh and Ihor, the two descendants of Rurik...

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