by Ingert Kuzych

The founding family of Kyivan-Rus'

This article is the third of three detailing the lives of medieval Kyivan Rus' first "First Family" Ihor, Olha and Sviatoslav. The articles in this monarch series are illustrated, where possible, with related philatelic issues.

Sviatoslav the Conqueror


Sviatoslav is known by the epithet Khorobryi (The Brave) and there is no doubt that he was a daring, courageous and even gallant individual. He is also named Zavoyovnyk (The Conqueror), and he was that, too. Within the period of about a decade, he was able to carve out for himself the largest empire in Europe. He stands out in a century that had no shortage of such powerful and violent warlords.

A martial upbringing

Born about 942, Sviatoslav was raised from a very young age to be a warrior; among his teachers were his father and Ihor's troop commander, Sveneld. When Ihor was killed on a tribute gathering expedition to the Derevlianians in 945, his wife Olha had a large force assembled under the leadership of Sveneld, which marched the following year against the Derevlianians. Accompanying his mother on this expedition was the boy Sviatoslav. When the two armies met for battle, Sviatoslav was allowed to cast the symbolic first spear against the enemy. Although the weapon barely cleared the ears of the horse he was riding, the action served as a rallying point and the Rus' army prevailed._1_

Following the defeat of the Derevlianians, Olha spent many of the early years of her regency traveling through, inspecting and reorganizing her vast realm._2_ The raising of her son was left to a steward, Asmund, who served as a tutor. Military training was provided by the general Sveneld, who undoubtedly proved a major influence on the lad growing up._3_

By the time he was 20 (around 962), Sviatoslav had fathered three sons: Yaropolk, Oleh and Volodymyr. Presumably the first two were by a wife, for the PVL distinguishes Volodymyr as being the son of Malusha (Malfrid), Olha's favorite handmaiden, who became Sviatoslav's concubine. Yaropolk was almost certainly older than Oleh for in 970, when Sviatoslav appointed his sons as vice-regents, it was Yaropolk who received the more prestigious Kyiv, while Oleh was assigned the Derevlianian land. The illegitimate Volodymyr was granted Novhorod only after a petition by its citizens._4_ Even though Volodymyr's birth caused him a loss of status, he may well have been older than his brothers.

After Olha's conversion in 957, she tried unsuccessfully to win her son over to the new faith. Sviatoslav was already too much under the influence of his martial upbringing to consider such a move and felt the adoption of Christianity would only bring him ridicule. Nonetheless, he did not enjoin anyone else from being baptized._5_

First campaigns

Around the year 960 Sviatoslav assumed the kingship in Kyiv. In 962 he began carefully to plan his initial military venture; it would be against the Khazar Empire in the east. Although this empire was no longer as vast as it had been some 250 years earlier at its greatest extent, it was still a formidable steppe power in the mid-10th century.

The motives for the move against the Khazars have been fairly well established. In 962 the Khazars attempted to subdue the Goths living in Crimea, an incident of which is related in a Greek document of the period, the "Report of a Gothic Toparch."_6_ Unable to withstand the Khazars on their own, the Goths decided to invoke the protection of a "ruler north of the Danube who possessed a strong army and was proud of his military forces and from whose people they did not differ in customs or manner."_7_ Although the name of this ruler or his people is not specified in the document, there is little doubt that the reference is to Sviatoslav and the people of Kyivan Rus'.

A delegation was sent north to Kyiv and a treaty concluded whereby the Crimean Goths recognized Sviatoslav as their suzerain; he, in turn, promised to defend them against the Khazars. On their return trip, the delegates observed an unusual cosmologic phenomenon: "Saturn was at the beginning of its passage across Aquarius, while the sun was passing through the winter signs." According to astronomic calculations, the event could only have occurred at the outset of January 963. This is one of those rare occasions where a historic event can be firmly dated with the aid of astronomy._8_

So it was in the spring of 963, not 965 as given in the PVL, that Sviatoslav first moved against the Khazars by taking Gothia (Figure 1). The larger campaign against the empire itself may have taken a year or two of planning and preparation, and the year of 965 may well be accurate for the main thrust against the Khazar heartland. Before undertaking the this decisive strike, Sviatoslav shrewdly enhanced his chances of success by forging a partnership with the Turkic Oghuz, a people centered east of the Aral Sea, near the estuary of the Syr Darya River, and thus on the other side of the Khazar Empire. The Arab historian Ibn Miskawaihi records the Oghuz as attacking the Khazars in 965, so the allies most likely coordinated their attacks._9_

The PVL records that in 965 "Sviatoslav sallied forth against the Khazars. When they heard of his approach, they went to meet him with their Prince, the Kagan and the armies came to blows. When the battle thus took place, Sviatoslav defeated the Khazars and took their city of Bila Vezha. He also conquered the Yasians and the Kasogians."_10_

From Arabic sources we know that Sviatoslav continued his operations eastward, capturing the Khazar cities of Semender (on the Caspian Sea) and Itil (at the mouth of the Volga). The Khazars were thus totally subdued, and their empire ceased to exist.

Moving up the Volga, Sviatoslav's forces overran Bolgary, the capital of the Volga Bulgars. In 966 they subjugated the Viatichians, former Khazar vassals, and made them tributaries of the Rus'._11_ All of the links between the Volga and Dnipro rivers were now controlled by Sviatoslav.

These fast-moving and successful campaigns, following one after the other, were obviously carefully planned by Sviatoslav and reflect well on his military skills and strategic outlook. The chronicler of the PVL likens Sviatoslav to a leopard in the swiftness of his movements. "Upon his expeditions he carried with him neither wagons nor kettles, and boiled no meat, but cut off small strips of horseflesh, game or beef and ate it after roasting it on the coals (Figure 2). Nor did he have a tent, but he spread out a piece of saddle cloth under him, and set his saddle under his head."_12 _

The chronicles also praise Sviatoslav as a heroic and chivalrous figure. It is pointed out that he always warned his enemies that he was coming to attack with the message: "Idu na vas (or Idu na vy)" meaning "I am coming against you" (Figure 3).

Ingert Kuzych may be contacted at P.O. Box 3, Springfield VA 22150 or by e-mail at:

1. "Povist Vremennykh Lit" (The Tale of Bygone Years), English translation by Samuel Hazzard Cross and Olgerd P. Sherbowitz-Wetzor, "The Russian Primary Chronicle," Laurentian Text (Cambridge, Mass.: The Medieval Academy of America, 1953), hereafter PVL. This reference p. 80. [Back to Text]

2. PVL, pp. 81-82. [Back to Text]

3. PVL, p. 78. [Back to Text]

4. PVL, p. 87. [Back to Text]

5. PVL, p. 83. [Back to Text]

6. F. Westberg. "Zapiska Gotskogo Toparkha," Vizantiiskii Vremennik 15 (1908), pp. 71-132, 227-286. [Back to Text]

7. The Khazars, on the other hand, were considered different in customs and manners since they had adopted Judaism some 150 years earlier. [Back to Text]

8. A. A. Vasiliev, earlier "The Goths in the Crimea" (Cambridge, Mass.: The Mediaeval Academy of America, 1936), pp. 121, 128-129. [Back to Text]

9. Omeljan Pritsak, "The Origin of Rus'," Vol. I (Cambridge: Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute, 1981) p. 446. [Back to Text]

10. PVL, p. 84. [Back to Text]

11. PVL, Notes, p. 240. [Back to Text]

12. PVL, p. 84. [Back to Text]



Copyright © The Ukrainian Weekly, December 1, 2002, No. 48, Vol. LXX

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