In 945 AD, Igor the Old ruled the loose federation of eastern European territories known as the Kievan Rus, which had united under his father. Igor had ruled for more than 30 years and has successfully expanded and controlled his vast territory in that time.
Now, he travelled to his internal allies the Drevlians, expecting to be received as their lord and to extract his expected tribute. Little did he know he was walking into a trap.
The Drevlians, tired of their harsh overlord, captured Igor and his train. The old ruler was tied to two birch trees which had been bent to the ground, and when they were released, his body was torn to pieces and flung into the air.
Igor’s death plunged the Rus into confusion and uncertainty, as he had left only an infant son as his successor. But the child Sviatoslav would turn his territories into an empire, changing the face of Europe.
Sviatoslav’s campaigns brought about the collapse of two of eastern Europe’s great powers, namely the First Bulgarian Empire and the empire of the Khazars. He reigned over the Kievan Rus for more than a decade, rapidly expanding into the Pontic Steppe, the Volga River valley, and the Balkans.
Born to Rule
Despite being the son of Grand Prince Igor and his wife Olga, very little is known about the childhood of Sviatoslav. It was his mother who took control of the Rus after the death of her husband, brutally punishing the Drevlians and ruling as regent in Kiev.
Asmud, a Varangian (Swedish Viking), was known to be the tutor of Sviatoslav. Until the 11th century, it was a prominent tradition that the Varangian tutors were employed to tutor the sons of the ruling princes.
Sviatoslav grew up ti be a bellicose and active ruler, with little patience when it came to administration. He spent his life in continuous warfare against the different neighboring states.
As per the Primary Chronicle, a 12th century record of the Kievan Rus, when Sviatoslav went on expeditions, he did not carry kettles or wagons. He did not even boil meat. Instead, he cut small beef or horse flesh strips, roasted it on coal, and then ate it. Moreover, he did not even have a tent but preferred using a horse blanket.
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In terms of appearance, Sviatoslav was only of average height, but was remembered for his bright eyes. He appeared of sturdy build, with a wispy beard and a bald head. He preferred to dress in white garments and wore one large earring of gold.
Somewhere between 945 to 957, his mother converted to Christianity. But, unlike his mother, he remained a pagan, and the Rus remained pagan with him, worshipping the same gods as his warriors: Veles, Perun, and Svarog. It would be his son, Vladimir, who would convert and bring Christianity to the Rus.
Eastern Campaigns of Sviatoslav
Very shortly after Sviatoslav ascended to the throne, he started campaigning to expand Rus’s control and enter the Pontic steppe and Volga valley to his east. From there, his army swept south and faced the mighty Khazaria, a dynasty of Khazars centuries old.
Khazaria was a strong state in eastern Europe, and the conquest of Khazaria was one of his greatest successes. While the roots of the conflict between Rus and Khazaria are not clear, there was a clear trade benefit for Sviastoslav capturing the Volga valley. The Khazars may have simply been in his way, or the Byzantine Empire may have had a hand in instigating the aggression.
Sviatoslav started gathering the East Slavic vassal tribes of the Khazars to his banner. Those who denied joining his cause were attacked and made to pay a tribute forcefully to the Kievan Rus. Travelling by the Volga and Oka rivers, Sviatoslav also attacked Volga Bulgaria, another ancient state in the area.
In around 965, Sviatoslav destroyed Sarkel, a city in Khazar. After destroying the city, he established Belaya Vyezha, a Rus settlement. Subsequently, he went on to destroy the Khazar capital of Atil.
No branch, leaves, or grapes remained in Atil after the attack made by Sviatoslav. With the Khazar empire destroyed, the Kievan Rus was no the dominant power over the north-south trade routes inn the region.
Campaigns in the Balkans
With the Khazars subjugated, Sviatoslav turned his attention to other conquests. There existed close military ties between Byzantium and Kievan Rus. In around 967 or 968, Nikephoros Phokas, the Byzantine emperor, sent one of his agents to convince Sviatoslav to join the Byzantines against Bulgaria.
Sviatoslav received about 15,000 pounds of gold for assisting the Byzantines, and led an army of 60,000 to war. Meeting the Bulgarian ruler, Boris II, in battle, Sviatoslav defeated him and took control over northern Bulgaria.
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However, Nikephoros was defeated and killed by his nephew, John Tzimiskes, who became the new emperor of Byzantium. The new emperor tried to convince Sviatoslav to leave Bulgaria.
John failed in his first attempt, but soon launched a counteroffensive. Faced with the might of the Byzantine army, Sviatoslav agreed to the terms John and decided to abandon the Balkans.
In return, the emperor of Byzantium provided Rus with the food and other essential supplies required for a safe journey home. As per the Primary Chronicle, the journey home was still a hard one, and Sviatoslav’s camp was devastated due to famine over several months.
Dead Before His Time
The new Byzantine emperor was afraid that the peace with Sviatoslav would not last for long. Byzantine foreign policy had long sought to encourage discord between the Rus and the Pecheneg, a nomadic khanate on the northern shores of the Black Sea.
The Byzantine emperor therefore entreated the Pecheneg khan, Kurya, to kill Sviatoslav before he could reach the safety of his capital, Kiev. Sviatoslav was warned of the danger and to avoid the river crossing at the Dnieper rapids, but he did not pay attention.
Here he was trapped and killed by the Pechenegs in early 972, aged only 29. The Pecheneg khan kept his skull and turned it into his personal drinking vessel.
After his death, there was a lot of tension between his sons, which eventually led to a war between two of them, Yaropolk and Oleg. But it would be Vladimir who won the battle for dynastic succession, becoming sole ruler of the Kievan Rus.
Sviatoslav took a loose federation of Slavic kingdoms and carved out an empire across eastern Europe, rising to look the mighty Byzantine empire eye to eye. Before his betrayal, his campaigns changed the political situation across Europe, and the empire he carved out faced down its neighbors for centuries to come.
Top Image: Sviatoslav won himself an empire before he was 30. Source: sakurazx / Adobe Stock.
By Bipin Dimri