originally published May 30, 2014
It’s been quite some time since I’ve dropped a little bit of Eastern European history on y’all, and even longer since I last used the term “y’all”, which I think I should retire from my lexicon o’ forced quaintness.
I was not a fan of history in school. This was in part because the important stuff was often as dry and uninspiring as the Hawley-Smoot Tariff (jazzing up the cost of imported goods for 84 years strong!), and also because I didn’t have the right teacher to make history sparkle. Our past is full of righteous ass-kickers and bewildering tweaks of fate. History is about animals in warfare, rivers of urban poop, and trial by combat. Within every mandatory date of note or routine conquest, there are incredible tales of unfathomable whatthefuck.
It’s all how you look at it. Reading up on the history of tenth century rulers of Kiev has my fingers itching for the remote – even watching Charles Nelson Reilly on an old episode of Password would be better than this. To say that Olga of Kiev ruled as a regent in Kievan Rus between 945 and 963 before her son took over – that’s the kind of monotony that drains the joy out of social studies class. But once you hear how she ruled… that’s the fun part.
Princess Olga was married to Igor of Kiev, who commanded the area for more than three decades. Or maybe for only three years. That’s another thing they gloss over in history class – sometimes conflicting sources are a bitch to untangle. It’s not important; what matters is that Igor was a raucous ruler of the group of East Slavic tribes that would eventually become the Ukrainian, Belarussian and Russian people. While he was out collecting tribute from the Drevlians, a tribe that wasn’t overly fond of Igor, things turned ugly.
The short story is that Igor was assassinated. The much more awesome story is that the Drevlians, upset that Igor was being greedy and collecting his tribute twice within the same month, bent two birch trees to the ground, tied them to Igor’s ankles, then let them snap back up, tearing the guy in half. They made their point, and now it was time to shore up a little bit of power for themselves.
Olga, meanwhile, upon learning of her husband’s fate, was pissed.
The Drevlians wanted Olga to marry their own Prince Mal. This would give them power over Kievan Rus, and promote them from being subservient lackies of the tribal collective into making everyone else their bitch. Olga wanted none of that. She’d hoped that her son, Svyatoslav, would take control, but the kid was only three years old and by the rules of Kievan Rus, the king can’t be king until he’s grown up.
This meant she’d be facing an eighteen-year fight to keep her seat of power. Her enemies were (as evidenced by their treatment of Igor) vicious, and chances are they’d see Olga’s femaleness as an inherent weakness. Olga wasn’t afraid of this fact – actually, she was counting on it. What the Drevlians didn’t know was that Olga was one of the most devious and dangerous human beings on the planet, and that’s including any Vikings who were around back then.
The Drevlians tried to charm Olga into warming up to Prince Mal. They sent twenty of their best schmoozers to talk her into it. Olga had them all buried alive. She then sent word to Prince Mal, claiming that his envoy had been tremendously persuasive, and that she’d love to be his blushing bride. However, her people would need to be sold on the union, since the Drevlians weren’t generally too friendly with the Kievan Rus folk. Olga suggested that if Mal were to send over the Drevlians’ most distinguished and important people to accompany her on the voyage to be married, it would really send a positive message among her citizenry.
Mal saw the logic in this – after all, why would he want to rule a bunch of yokels who despised him? Best to get some good PR and begin his reign without a bunch of be-pitchforked grumblers hungry for his head on a stick. The Drevlian elite was dispatched to retrieve Mal’s queen-to-be. They arrived at Olga’s palace and were greeted warmly. Prior to the welcoming feast, Olga invited them to tidy up and enjoy the perks of her lavish bathhouse.
Then, once they were all inside, Olga locked the doors and burned the fucker down, Inglourious Basterds style.
The best and brightest Drevlians were now wiped out, and no one back in their home city was entirely certain how it happened. So when Olga sent an offer to all the Drevilian people to join her in a funeral and feast for her dearly departed husband, they showed up. Olga’s servants tended to the massive crowd, feeding them liquor and food and more liquor and desserts and even more liquor. Yes, she was getting them drunk.
Once the crowd was suitably hammered, Olga’s army stepped out from the shadows and proceeded to slaughter the Drevlians one sweaty throat at a time. Olga watched on bemused as more than 5000 Drevlians, too sauced to stand up straight let alone fumble for their sword, were butchered at her feet. This was revenge for Igor, and Olga wasn’t finished. She returned to Kiev and began readying an army for attack. She wanted the Drevlians wiped completely out.
The Drevlians didn’t have a lot of fight left in them. They begged for mercy, offering furs and honey if she’d just leave them alone. Olga did have a smidgen of mercy in her pocket, and she gently informed the Drevlians that if each household were to provide a tribute of three pigeons and three sparrows, she would spare the tribe her wrath. Everyone was thrilled to comply with such an easy request.
The birds were passed on to Olga’s soldiers, who released them at night into the Drevlian community, each with a small piece of sulfur bound with snippets of cloth tied to their legs. It was a time-bomb.
As each bird returned to its nest – the pigeons to the cotes and the sparrows to the eaves, the soldiers lit a few small fires. The birds took off, but brought the flames with them, tied to their legs. Literally every building in the city ignited, almost all at the exact same time. There was nothing the Drevlians could do but die or flee. And those who fled were captured and either killed, sold into slavery or in the case of a small handful of fortunate souls, released.
The historic lesson here – the one they won’t teach you in high school history class – is not to underestimate the badassery of the woman whose husband you just killed. Olga ruled her people safely until her son was old enough to take the crown because no one was going to fuck with the woman who wiped out an entire tribe. Class dismissed.