Oleh, Prince

Image - Prince Olehs campaign against Byzantium (13th-century illumination from the Radziwill Manuscript).

Oleh, Prince (Russian: Oleg; Norse: Helgi), b ?, d autumn of 912 (according to the Laurentian Chronicle) or 922 (according to the Novgorod First Chronicle). Semilegendary Varangian prince of Kyivan Rus’. A relative of Riuryk of Novgorod, he was Prince Ihor's guardian and regent in Novgorod the Great. According to the Kyivan Rus’ chronicles, in 882 Oleh sailed down the Dnipro River with a force of Varangians, Slavs, and Finns and captured Smolensk, Liubech, and finally Kyiv. He had Kyiv's rulers Askold and Dyr murdered, and proclaimed himself prince of Kyiv. By 885 Oleh had extended his rule over the Derevlianians, Siverianians, Radimichians, and Polianians, but he did not succeed in turning the Ulychians and Tivertsians into tributaries. Oleh's campaigns against the Khazars were less successful, but they ended Khazar domination in the middle Dnipro region. The Primary Chronicle describes Oleh's successful land and sea campaign against Byzantium in 907, which resulted in the acquisition of extensive commercial privileges for Kyivan Rus’ merchants in the Byzantine Empire. A second treaty, signed in 911 by 15 of Oleh's envoys and the Byzantine emperors Leo VI, Alexander, and Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus, regulated the noncommercial aspects of Kyivan Rus’–Byzantine relations.

Some scholars (eg, R.H. Dolley, H. Grégoire, Omelian Pritsak) consider Oleh's Byzantine campaign and Oleh himself to be an invention of the chroniclers, but they concede the likelihood that a treaty was signed by a Kyivan prince and Byzantium in 911. The reliability of the Primary Chronicle has been accepted by most scholars. Contemporary historiographers, however, differentiate between the legendary Oleh the Seer of the Primary Chronicle and the Oleh of Rus’ who negotiated a favorable treaty with Byzantium. In folk oral literature the legend of Oleh as a ruler with supernatural powers (therefore ‘the Seer’) endured.

Vasiliev, A. ‘The Second Russian Attack on Constantinople,’ Dumbarton Oaks Papers, 6 (1951)
The Russian Primary Chronicle: Laurentian Text, trans and ed S. H. Cross and O. P. Sherbowitz-Wetzor (Cambridge, Mass 1953)
Sakharov, A. Diplomatiia drevnei Rusi: IX–pervaia polovina X v. (Moscow 1980)
Pritsak, O. The Origin of Rus’. Old Scandinavian Sources Other than the Sagas (Cambridge, Mass 1981)

Mykhailo Zhdan, Arkadii Zhukovsky

[This article originally appeared in the Encyclopedia of Ukraine, vol. 3 (1993).]

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