Oleg of Novgorod, also known as Oleg Veshchy (Oleg the Prophet) was a Varangian prince. He is widely recognised as the founder and first ruler of Kievan Rus.

Founder of Kievan Rus

According to the Primary Chronicle, Oleg succeeded Rurik the Varangian as leader of Novgorod in 879. An aggressive leader, he quickly moved to expand his realm southwards, and took control of Kiev and a number of other cities along the Dnieper river. Recognising the strategic location of Kiev, Oleg made the city his capital and founded the kingdom of Kievan Rus.

Oleg continued to expand his kingdom in the following years, using military force to secure territory and favourable trade concessions. In less than a decade he conquered not only Kiev, but the Drevlians, the Polians, the Severians, the Vyatichs and the Radimichs.

Oleg Attacks Constantinople

Oleg was clearly a dynamic and visionary leader. Having quickly secured his base, his next priority was to secure favourable trade routes. To that end, in 907, he launched an audacious raid on Constantinople, capital of Byzantium.

Making full use of the Dnieper River, Oleg built 2,000 longboats and used them to transport his 80,000 men to Constantinople. On reaching the city, the Byzantine Emperor Leo VI the Wise sensibly closed the city gates and prepared to defend against the northern invaders.

At this point, Oleg’s pulled off a tactical masterstroke – he turned his fleet of longships into land-based tanks, powered by teams of horses and sails!

The Primary Chronicle records that:

“Oleg commanded his warriors to make wheels and to fit the ships with wheels. When a favorable wind rose up, they spread sail and bore down upon the city by land. The Greeks were frightened to see this and sent an embassy to Oleg saying, “Do not destroy the city, and we will pay whatever tribute you desire”.”

A tribute of 12 grivnas was paid for every boat in the fleet, plus an additional sum for every city in Kievan Rus. According to modern accounts, this was the equivalent to between 3,120 and 4,800kg of silver.

A detailed peace treaty and trade agreement was then finalised – much of which is also recorded in the Primary Chronicle:

“The Russians who come hither shall receive as much grain as they require. Whosoever come as merchants shall receive supplies for six months, including bread, wine, meat, fish, and fruit. Baths shall be prepared for them in any volume they require. When the Russians return homeward, they shall receive from your emperor food, anchors, cordage, and sails, and whatever else is needful for the journey.”

“If Russians come hither without merchandise, they shall receive no provisions. Your prince shall personally lay injunction upon such Russians as journey hither that they shall do no violence in the towns and throughout our territory. Such Russians as arrive here shall dwell in the St. Mamas quarter. Our government will send officers to record their names, and they shall then receive their monthly allowance, first the natives of Kiev, then those from Chernigov, Pereiaslavl, and the other cities. They shall not enter the city save through one gate, unarmed and fifty at a time, escorted by soldiers of the emperor. They may purchase wares according to their requirements, and tax-free.”

The tribute was more than enough to pay the costs of the raid. Perhaps more valuable, though, was the trade agreement, which did much to secure the long term future of Oleg’s fledgeling kingdom of Rus.

The Legend of Oleg’s death

Oleg’s death has entered into Russian legend, largely because of the fanciful account in the Primary Chronicle.

It records that Oleg consulted a magician, asking him what would cause his death. The magician told him “O Prince, it is from the steed which you love and on which you ride that you shall meet your death.”

Determined to cheat fate, but unable to kill his favourite horse, Oleg commanded that it be looked after, but never again brought into his presence.

After hearing that his horse died, Oleg made his fatal mistake – he visited its grave.

“He rode to the place where the bare bones and the skull lay. Dismounting from his horse, he laughed, and remarked: “Am I to receive my death from this skull?” And he stamped upon the skull with his foot. But a serpent crawled forth from it and bit him in the foot, so that in consequence he sickened and died. All the people mourned for him in great grief. They bore him away and buried him upon the hill which is called Shchekovitza. His tomb stands there to this day, and it is called the Tomb of Oleg.”

The legend has been retold many times in Russian literature, most famously by Pushkin in his poem ‘The Song of Wise Oleg’. But the truth is that no-one really knows how, or when, Oleg of Novgorod died.