Igor Of Kiev: The Mysterious Prince

(Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Igor I of Kiev ruled from AD 913 until his death in AD 945. Although he had a relatively long reign, many aspects of his story remain a mystery to historians. His story comes to us primarily from the 12th-century Russian Primary Chronicle, which documents his rise to and fall from power.

Portrait of Igor of Kiev
Igor I of Kiev. (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Who was Igor of Kiev?

Igor I of Kiev is thought to be the son of semi-legendary Viking king Rurik (also spelled Rorik, Hrorekr, or Russian Ryuik). According to the twelfth century Primary Chronicle, Rurik was the chieftain of the Rus people, who gained control of Ladoga (in modern-day Russia) and the lands located around it in AD 862. That same year, Rurik established a government in Novgorod (also found in modern-day Russia) and expanded the city as a crucial settlement. Rurik is considered the founder of the Rurik dynasty, which ruled the Kievan Rus’ and its successor states.

Rurik ruled over his lands until his death in AD 879. On his deathbed, he appointed his relative Oleg as his successor. His son Igor was left in Oleg’s custody until he came of age to rule. Oleg looked to increase both lands and power during his rule. Gradually, Oleg expanded his control along the Dnieper River, eventually conquering the important city of Kiev. Oleg named Kiev the capital of his newly created state, the Kievan Rus’.

As Igor grew up, he followed after Oleg and obeyed his instructions. In AD 913, Igor succeeded Oleg and became Igor I of Kiev.

Oleg at his horse's remains
Drawing of Oleg from “The Lay of Wise Oleg”. (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

The Rus’-Byzantine War (AD 941–945)

The early reign of Igor I of Kiev is still a puzzle to historians, as the Primary Chronicle only focuses on his later life. Although there is a gap in information on Igor’s early life, the Primary Chronicle does a good job laying out the events of Igor’s later life. One of the major events that took place over the span of three years (AD 941–944) was his attempts to beseige Constantinople and the Byzantine people.

Before his death, Oleg had managed to achieve peace with the Byzantines (who were referred to as Greeks in Slavic historiography) through a treaty. However, during Igor’s rule, something happened to make Igor rethink this peace treaty. In AD 941, perhaps because Igor knew that Byzantines were occupied in a conflict with the Arabs in the Mediterranean, Igor decided to attack the Byzantine capital, Constantinople. He assembled a massive fleet of 1000 ships and started sailing to Constantinople.

page from the Russian Primary Chronicle
Page from the Russian Primary Chronicle depicting Oleg’s campaign in Constantinople before his death. (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

The Byzantine Emperor, Romanos I Lekapenos, got wind of Igor’s plan to attack and came up with a plan to stop Igor’s advancing fleet. The Byzantines had a weapon known as Greek Fire. Although the details of this weapon have been lost to history, accounts of it make it seem similar to a modern-day flamethrower. The Byzantines attached their Greek Fire to their ships and used it to attack Igor’s fleet. The results were devastating for the Rus’ army. The Greek Fire destroyed many of Igor’s ships, and many of his soldiers were either killed or captured.

Those who survived this first Byzantine attack rallied together at the north coast of Asia Minor. There, Igor’s army recuperated in typical Viking fashion, raiding and pillaging the provinces of Bithynia and Paphlagonia, east of Constantinople. However, the Byzantines dealt the Rus’ army a surprise attack while pillaging, further damaging the remaining ships. When Igor’s army attempted to return home to Kiev, they found their passage blocked by the entire Byzantine navy, who once again utilized Greek Fire to crush Igor’s army. Igor managed to escape only with a small portion of his original army. The rest of the Rus’ army that didn’t escape were taken to Constantinople and executed.

Upon returning to Kiev, Igor immediately started recruiting men to attack the Byzantines again. Recruiting an army even larger than his first one, Igor attempted to attack Constantinople in AD 944. This time, Igor’s military might not only included a naval fleet, but also a contingent of foot soldiers moving across the land.

When the Byzantine Emperor heard of this huge force moving towards Constantinople, he intercepted Igor and offered tribute and trade privileges to the Rus’. Igor I of Kiev accepted the Byzantine offering and returned home to Kiev. Sometime in AD 945, the Byzantine Empire and Igor renegotiated trade agreements and signed the Rus’–Byzantine Peace Treaty, which ended the Rus’–Byzantine War.

Igor’s untimely death

In AD 945, just after  Rus’–Byzantine War ended, Igor decided to head to the Drevlians (who were a triple of Early East Slavs) to collect tribute from them. Igor collected this tribute by attacking and raiding the Drevlians. According to the Primary Chronicle, after this initial plunder, Igor decided he wasn’t yet satisfied and turned around and headed back to the Drevlians in search of more riches.

Upon hearing that Igor had turned around, the Drevlians approached their prince on what to do. He advised the Drevlians to intercept Igor and ask what he wanted. When the Drevlians found out that Igor was seeking more tribute, they rose up in revolt. The Drevlian’s decided to kill Igor in a cruel manner to discourage others from profiting off their land. They bent down two birch trees to Igor’s feet and tied them to his legs. They then let the tree straighten again, tearing Igor’s body apart.

Igor taking tribute from the Drevlians.
Medieval painting depicting Igor taking tribute from the Drevlians. (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Aftermath and revolt

Igor’s story doesn’t necessarily end at his death, for he was avenged by his wife, Olga. Olga took control of the Rus’ after Igor’s death because their son, Sviatoslav, was only three years old and too young to rule. After Igor’s death, Drevlian negotiators arrived in Kiev and proposed that Olga should marry their prince, Prince Mal. Olga, however, had these negotiators buried alive in a trench by the people of Kiev.

After Olga had the first set of negotiators killed, she sent a message to the Drevlians to send their “most distinguished men to her in Kiev, so that she might go to their Prince with due honor.” The Drevlians, who were unaware of the fates of the negotiators, sent more men to Kiev. She then had the people of Kiev draw these new Drevlian diplomats a bath and proceeded to burn down the entire bathhouse.

Olga then decided to go herself to the Drevlians to avenge her husband. After visiting Igor’s grave, Olga had 5,000 Devlians killed at the funeral feast held for Igor. She then went to Iskorosten, where her husband had been killed, and burned the city to the ground.

Olga at Igor's grave.
Painting depicting Olga at Igor’s grave. (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Igor’s son, Sviatoslav I

Although Igor I of Kiev died while his son Sviatoslav was only three, he probably would have been proud of his son’s ambitions as Grand Prince of Kiev. According to the Primary Chronicle, Sviatoslav assumed power around 963 when he reached maturity.

Sviatoslav was only in power for a decade, but he was very successful during that time, and his reign is marked by rapid expansion. Around 963, shortly after he gained power, he began campaigning to expand Rus’ control over the Volga valley and Pontic steppe region. From 963 to 965, he defeated the Khazars along the lower Don River. This was a huge victory as Khazaria (located in modern-day Russia and Ukraine) had previously been one of the strongest Eastern European states. Once he had conquered Khazaria, he opened the steppe up to other nomads. During this time, he also defeated and the Ossetes and Circassians in the northern Caucasus, as well as attacked the Volga Bulgars.

Sviatoslav I
Depiction of Sviatoslav I in the Tsarsky Titulyarnik, circa 1672.

In 967, Sviatoslav defeated the Balkan Bulgars to capture Northern Bulgaria. His intentions were to establish a Russo-Bulgarian empire with its capital at Pereyaslavets, located along the Danube River. In 971, however, Sviatoslav was defeated by a Byzantine force and Sviatoslav was forced to abandon his Balkan territory. While heading back to Kiev in 972, Sviatoslav was attacked and killed by the Pechenegs. Following his death, a war of succession broke out between his legitimate sons, resulting in two out of his three sons being killed.

Historical controversy

There are many controversial aspects to Igor of Kiev’s story. The first major issue is with the Primary Chronicle. This source is the primary source historians have that goes into detail on Igor’s life; however, many historians do not accept the Primary Chronicle as a valid historical source. This is because historians have pointed out that the Chronicle was compiled by many different authors centuries after the events that they were writing about. Thus, these authors had differing agendas and held different perceptions of the history they were writing about. The text also had to be translated from the Old East Slavic language, which is a very difficult task and could have led to errors.

There is also controversy around the years that Igor of Kiev himself reigned for. French historian Constantin Zuckerman, who revised the chronology of the Primary Chronicle, argues that Igor actually only reigned for only three years, between the summer of 941 and early 945. He argues that the Primary Chronicle believed him to have a 33-year reign due to a misinterpretation of Byzantine sources. This theory does make sense, as Igor’s political activities do not appear in the Chronicle until 941.

Depiction in popular culture

Igor I of Kiev does not have many shout-outs in popular culture, although he was featured in Season 6 of the popular show Vikings. Season 6 covers Igor’s life while he is an adolescent, and he is portrayed by actor Oran Glynn O’Donovan.

Oran Glynn O'Donovan as Igor in Vikings
Actor Oran Glynn O’Donovan portraying Igor I of Kiev in the television show Vikings. (Photo Credit: History/ MovieStillsDB)

More from us: Vikings Proved Not To Be The Blue Eyed Blonds History Has Recorded

Oleg is also a part of Vikings Season 6, and is part of Igor’s story just like in actual history. However, Igor is portrayed as completely terrified of Oleg in Vikings. Although Igor might have been afraid of Oleg at times in his actual lifetime, the Primary Chronicle only tells historians that Igor followed and learned from Oleg.

Vikings does portray Igor as the Prince of Kiev. Unfortunately, it was announced that there would only be six seasons of Vikings, so viewers will never know how Igor’s story truly ends.