by Ingert Kuzych

The founding family of Kyivan Rus'

Svaitoslav the Conqueror


Having largely subdued everyone to his east, Sviatoslav in 967 turned in the opposite direction and marched on the Balkans._13_ He was bribed to take this action by Byzantine Emperor Nicephorus' Phocas, who needed someone to subdue the troublesome Bulgarians while the Byzantines fought the Arabs. Sviatoslav's impressive lightning campaigns made him the ideal candidate as an ally. The monies paid to the Rus', while not insubstantial (1,500 pounds of gold), only hinted at the wealth that might be found on the Balkan peninsula._14_

Sviatoslav's military successes continued in the Balkans and all of northern Bulgaria was soon overrun (Figure 4). Eighty towns along the Danube are said to have been captured. The Rus' were impressed by the fertility of the region and Sviatoslav established his new residence at Pereiaslavets, a fortress that commanded the Danubian delta and that served as a convenient trade center.

According to the PVL, he is supposed to have stated that: "I do not care to remain in Kyiv, but I will live in Pereiaslavets on the Danube. That shall be the center of my realm, for there all good things flow: gold, silks, wine and various fruits from the Greeks; silver and horses from Hungary and Bohemia; and from Rus' furs, wax, honey and slaves."_15_

However, the Greeks of the Byzantine Empire were always fickle allies, and they habitually set foreigners to fighting each other (so as to prevent them from marching on Constantinople, the Byzantine capital). They had not foreseen that Sviatoslav would take a liking to the Danube region and stay on in the area. In 969, the Pechenegs - almost certainly at Byzantine instigation - raided Rus' and besieged Kyiv and its royal family.

Sviatoslav returned to Kyiv "and drove the Pechenegs out into the steppes and there was peace."_16_ A few days later Olha died. After burying his mother, Sviatoslav set up his sons in various cities as vice-regents and then returned to the lower Danube in 970. Rus' women accompanied the men to the south as Sviatoslav made efforts to expand the Rus' presence into the Balkans._17_

Second Balkan campaign

The situation in the Danube area had changed dramatically over the course of a year. The Bulgarians had settled their differences with the emperor and the Rus' now faced a combined front of Bulgarians and Byzantines. Sviatoslav moved swiftly and in the spring of 970 seized the Bulgarian capital of Preslav, capturing the young tsar, Boris, and his family. He dealt leniently with his captives and allowed the ruler to remain in Preslav with his imperial trappings. This indulgence helped gain acceptance from many Bulgarians and their warriors subsequently fought faithfully at the side of the Rus'._18_

The Rus' expeditionary force in the Balkans - although composed of fierce, loyal and seasoned warriors - was never that large. To supplement his forces, Sviatoslav also recruited Hungarian and Pecheneg nomads into his army. His ultimate plan seems to have been to raise revenues from trade along the Danube, some of which would be passed on as gifts to the steppe peoples, who would keep secure the routes between the Danube and the lands of Rus'._19_

Additional forays by the Rus' were made in 970. The city of Philippopolis was taken after an arduous siege and, according to Greek sources, 20,000 inhabitants were massacred. Although the figure seems inflated, it is possible that the Rus' army vented its fury in such manner after suffering heavy casualties. The city of Adrianople was also overrun, but at Arcadiopolis the Rus' were at length defeated and they withdrew north of the Balkan (Haemus) Mountains._20_

Meanwhile, in the Greek capital of Constantinople, palace intrigues took place typical of the kind of deviousness that gave rise to the term "Byzantine politics" Emperor Nicephorus best and most trusted general, John Tzimiskes, won the love of the empress and undertook a palace revolution. Nicephorus was murdered (December 10, 969) and his widow married John, who was then proclaimed the new emperor._21_

During 970, Tzimiskes tried to negotiate with Sviatoslav, but his offers of payments were rejected. Early the following year, Tzimiskes decided to take the war to his enemies. He quickly marched on Preslav, and despite ferocious resistance led by the Rus' garrison commander Sphangel (Sphenkel), the walls were stormed. The Bulgarian royal family, complete with their regalia, were led off into captivity._22_

Sviatoslav himself was in Dorostol (now Silistra), and many of the other Rus' that he now gathered to him were stationed along the Danube. A furious pitched battle was fought in which "twelve turns of the tide" were supposed to have occurred. Sviatoslav's Pecheneg and Hungarian allies melted away, encouraged most likely by Byzantine bribery. Eventually, the Rus' were driven into the town of Dorostol (April 23, 971)._23_

Three months of bitter inconclusive fighting followed, with neither side able to obtain a decisive advantage. At one point the desperate emperor even challenged Sviatoslav to settle the issue by single combat. The Rus' king, however, fearing further treachery, spurned the offer._24_

On July 22, Sviatoslav sent a message to the emperor, offering to withdraw to the north and to release his prisoners of war. The conditions were that his people receive grain and safe conduct. Additionally, the right of the Rus' to bring goods for sale to Constantinople in the future was reaffirmed. All of these requests were granted and, after terms had been drawn up, the two leaders agreed to meet. Tzimiskes was anxious to set eyes on the stubborn antagonist who had fought him to a standstill. A fascinating eyewitness description of the parley that took place was recorded by historian Leo Diaconus.

"The emperor arrived at the bank of the Danube on horseback, wearing golden armor, accompanied by a large retinue of horsemen in brilliant attire. Sviatoslav crossed the river in a kind of Scythian boat; he handled the oar in the same way as his men. His appearance was as follows: he was of medium height - neither too tall, nor too short. He had bushy brows, blue eyes and was snub-nosed; he shaved his beard but wore a long and bushy mustache. His head was shaven, except for a lock of hair on one side as a sign of nobility of his clan. His neck was thick, his shoulders broad and his whole stature pretty fine. He seemed gloomy and savage. On one of his ears hung a golden earring adorned with two pearls and a ruby set between them. His white garments were not distinguishable from those of his men except for cleanliness."_25_

Sviatoslav conversed with the emperor as an equal. He did not stand, but spoke while sitting on the main thwart of the boat. He had offered terms to the emperor, but had not surrendered.

Sviatoslav and his army also retained possession of the booty they had amassed on this second Balkan campaign. Sveneld, the wizened general, counseled Sviatoslav to return to Kyiv by horseback. Sviatoslav, however, ignored his senior commander and decided to ship back the loot by boat, perhaps mindful of the fate that had befallen his father. The withdrawal proceeded slowly - impeded, no doubt, by the many women that had accompanied the men - and autumn found the army still at the mouth of the Dnipro._26_

Meanwhile the Pechenegs had been informed by the Byzantines "that Sviatoslav was returning to Rus' after seizing from the Greeks great riches and immense booty, but that his troop was small." The Pechenegs deployed an ambush at the Dnipro cataracts, forcing Sviatoslav's army to overwinter where it was and to endure a terrible famine when supplies ran out.

"When spring came, in 972, Sviatoslav approached the cataracts, where Kurya, prince of the Pechenegs, attacked him; and Sviatoslav was killed. The nomads took his head and made a cup out of his skull, overlaying it with gold, and they drank from it." Sveneld and some of the army managed to return to Kyiv._27_ Sviatoslav was only about 30 when he died.

A dubious legacy

Sviatoslav is sometimes derided as a capable military strategist, but a poor politician and diplomat. He was able to win a war, but would lose the peace. This viewpoint is perhaps brought on by the famous excerpt in the PVL pronounced by the citizens of Kyiv. They call to their king saying: "Oh, prince, you visit and frequent foreign lands, yet you neglect your own country."

It is difficult to fathom what Sviatoslav's ultimate aims were in his many campaigns. He undoubtedly sought to extend trade routes and connections through his many conquests, and in this he was successful. Nevertheless, something of his Varangian background was not satisfied and he always longed for further victories and glories, shunning inaction and peaceful pursuits. He blazed an incredible path of conquest, creating the largest Slavic empire to that time._28_ Yet it could not be sustained and civil war broke out among his three sons soon after his death.

It would remain for the illegitimate Volodymyr to unify the Rus' (around 980) and to establish Christianity as the new state religion in 988.

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

13. A number of historians feel the year 968 is more likely. [Back to Text]

14. Franklin, Simon and Shepard, Jonathan, "The Emergence of Rus', 750-1200" (London: Longman, 1996): p. 145. [Back to Text]

15. "Povist Vremennykh Lit" (PVL), p. 86. [Back to Text]

16. PVL, p. 86. [Back to Text]

17. Franklin and Shepard, "The Emergence of Rus', 750-1200," p. 147. [Back to Text]

18. Franklin and Shepard, "The Emergence of Rus', 750-1200," p. 148. [Back to Text]

19. Franklin and Shepard, "The Emergence of Rus', 750-1200," p. 148. [Back to Text]

20. Franklin and Shepard, "The Emergence of Rus', 750-1200," p. 148, and PVL, Notes, p. 241. [Back to Text]

21. Vernadsky, George, "Kievan Russia" (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1948), p. 46. [Back to Text]

22. Franklin and Shepard, "The Emergence of Rus', 750-1200," p. 149. [Back to Text]

23. Franklin and Shepard, "The Emergence of Rus', 750-1200," p. 149 and Encyclopedia of Ukraine, Vol. 5, s.v. "Sviatoslav I Ihorevych," by Zhdan, A. and Zhukovsky, A. [Back to Text]

24. Franklin and Shepard, "The Emergence of Rus', 750-1200," p. 149. [Back to Text]

25. Leo Diaconus, "Historiae Libri Decem," Pt. 9, chap., xi, pp. 156-157. This personal description is very similar to those of Kozak hetmans from the 16th and 17th centuries, including even the lock of hair on a shaven head, the so-called "oseledets." [Back to Text]

26. PVL, p. 90. [Back to Text]

27. PVL, p. 90. The victory rite of fashioning a cup from the skull of a renowned adversary was fairly common among the steppe peoples. [Back to Text]

28. Svitoslav's empire encompassed most of present-day Ukraine, Belarus, European Russia, Moldova, Romania and Bulgaria. Tesla, Ivan and Tiutko, Evhen, "Istorychnyi Atlas Ukrainy" (New York: Ukrainian Historical Association, 1980), p. 32. [Back to Text]



Copyright © The Ukrainian Weekly, December 8, 2002, No. 49, Vol. LXX

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