top of page

24. Equality in Russia during 476-1000CE

MAR. 11, 2021


Discover the birth of Russia and meet one of history’s most badass women as Pete takes Ryan back to the Early Middle Ages to investigate equality.

This week’s episode takes us to Russia, or more properly the Russian Federation, in the Early Medieval period (476AD – 1000AD) on the topic of Equality.

First you have to understand that Russia is big. Really big. In fact it accounts for more than one-eighth of the Earth's inhabited land area, and is home to 142 million people.

The country is famous for many things, including furry hats, revolutions, a starring role in The Cold War and communism. And geographically it is also known for many things, from arctic tunra to the mountainous Urals to the sweeping steppes.

But what were they doing in 476AD to 1000AD?

This period is known as the Migration period, or Early Middle Ages, as well as the now out-of-favour Dark Ages, so-called because there is not a huge amount of recorded history in this period.

In fact what we know as Russia today started as the medieval state of Rus, which arose in the 800s – about 1000, a story told in a book called The Russian Primary Chronicles.

Said to have been written by a monk called Nestor, The Russian Primary Chronicle is a Letopis. This is different to a chronicle and an annal because an annal is an index of events by year, a chronicle is a narrative of events told in order, but not necessarily with the strict structure of Year – Event that is found in an annal, and a letopis is like a chronicle but tends to feature more in the way of myth and stories from the oral tradition. Don’t worry, it’s not really an important distinction, but good to know for pub quizzes.

The Chronicle is a history of the Kievan Rus' from about 850 to 1110, originally compiled in Kiev in about 1113. The book had 3 editions, but none of the originals survive and we rely on later books to understand what was in it.

And one of the things that was in it was Slavs.

About Slavs.

Slavs are an ethnolinguistic group (physically similar and with the same language). Typically they are Christians, following the Eastern Orthodox church.

The Chronicle claims that Slavs were descended from Japeth, one of the three sons of Noah. They settle in Europe in Hungary, Illyria (Bosnia/Croatia), and Bulgaria, but were attacked by Vlachs (wallachians, from southern Romania), so they moved on to various parts of Eastern Europe, breaking into different groups and tribes.

Some of these settled on the Dnieper river, Belarus/Ukraine and NW Russia. So there were a number of tribes in and around this area around 800AD.

But what was equality like in these tribes? Some quotes from the Chronicle might help illuminate that it wasn’t necessarily great for the females.

“When an Avar (a tribal group) made a journey, he did not cause either a horse or a steer to be harnessed, but gave command instead that three of four or five women should be yoked to his cart and be made to draw him”

“Polyanians … showed respect for their daughters-in-law and their sisters, as well as for their mothers and fathers…. They observed a fixed custom, under which the groom's brother did not fetch the bride, but she was brought to the bridegroom in the evening, and on the next morning her dowry was turned over. “

“The Derevlians, on the other hand, existed in bestial fashion, and lived like cattle. They killed one another, ate every impure thing, and there was no marriage among them, but instead they seized upon maidens by capture. “

The Radimichians… When the people gathered together for games, for dancing, and for all other devilish amusements, the men on these occasions carried off wives for themselves, and each took any woman with whom he had arrived at an understanding.”

But not all women of the time were powerless, as we are about to find out.
First, though, we must meet Rurik Rus, the first ruler of Rus (later to become Russia).

In Novgorod (in Northwest Russia) in 862AD, the Chronicle says that the people of Novgorod, tired of tribal warring decided visit a Viking tribe from the North and ask for someone to come and rule over them.

”Our land is great and rich, but there is no order in it. Come to rule and reign over us." They thus selected three brothers, with their kinsfolk, who took with them all the Russes and migrated.”

This was Rurik, who came with his two brothers and became ruler of the city and region of Novgorod. Rurik remained in power until his death in 879, leaving behind a son called Igor, who was too young to rule, and an interim leader in his place, Oleg.


Oleg looked after Rus quite well. He expanded the kingdom to also include the city of Kiev – which is the beginning of what’s known as Kieven Rus.

Oleg also conquered a local tribe called the Drevlians, requiring them to pay tribute. And he even attacks Constantinople.

Although sometimes known as a prophet himself, Oleg fell foul of prophecy in the end. His advisors warned him that his horse would kill him, saying,

"Oh Prince, it is from the steed which you love and on which you ride that you shall meet your death."

Not keen to die, Oleg gave the command to his men that the should look after his horse but to do it a long way from him. They do so and eventually the horse dies, and Oleg believes he has outsmarted the prophecy.

“"Soothsayers tell untruths, and their words are naught but falsehood. This horse is dead, but I am still alive."

Not content with a bit of light mocking, he then decided he’d like to see the bones of his old steed, so he heads of to check out the remains.

On seeing the bones, he declared,

“"So I was supposed to receive my death from this skull?"

And he stamped upon the skull with his foot.

At this point, in a turn of events that will not surprise keen prophecy-watchers, a snake crawls out of the horse’s lifeless skull and bites Oleg on the foot. And he dies.

You can’t beat a good prophecy.

So, power then moved on to Rurik’s son, Igor.


Igor grew up whilst Oleg was ruling the land and he married a nice young lass named Olga. When Oleg died, Igor took up where he left off, attacking Constantinople again, and once again attacking the Drevlians, this time demanding they pay tribute twice.

This upsets the Drevlians, who wonder how much longer they can suffer this insult. They say to their prince, Mal,
"If a wolf come among the sheep, he will take away the whole flock one by one, unless he be killed. If we do not thus kill him now, he will destroy us all."

The Drevlians all agree Igor must be killed, and they do so.

“They had bent down two birch trees to the prince's feet and tied them to his legs; then they let the trees straighten again, thus tearing the prince's body apart."


They Drevlians would come to regret this decision though. Because they were about to meet Olga.

Olga of Kiev

On her husband’s death, the Drevlians felt they could take over his lands by marrying their prince to Igor’s widow.

To that end, the Drevlians sent 20 of their finest people to negotiate a wedding. Olga replied,
"Your proposal is pleasing to me; indeed, my husband cannot rise again from the dead”

She then tells the Drevlians to go back to their boats and that she will send people to carry them in their boats to meet her tomorrow.
Then, in the night, she commanded her men to dig a very big pit.

The following day, as promised, Olga’s people are sent to pick up the Derevlians boat and carry them towards the castle. Well, as far as the big pit, anyway, where they tossed the Drevlians, boat and all.
Olga then orders them buried alive.

But this is only Revenge Phase 1.

“Olga then sent messages to the Derevlians to the effect that, if they really required her presence, they should send after her their distinguished men, so that she might go to their Prince with due honor, for otherwise her people in Kiev would not let her go.”

Apparently nobody thought to ask ‘what happened to the other 20 guys we sent’ because a bunch more nobles were duly despatched. On arrival, Olga greeted the nobles and offered the a bath.

A very, very warm bath.

On entering the bathhouse Olga’s men locked them in the room and set fire to the building, burning them all to death.

Revenge Phase 2 complete.
Next, Olga sends a message to the Drevlians

"I am now coming to you, so prepare great quantities of mead in the city where you killed my husband, that I may weep over his grave and hold a funeral feast for him."

Olga travels to the Drevlians home town and visits her husband’s grave. She then hosts a funeral feast, where her retinue serve the Drevlians.

They serve the Drevlians a large amount of booze, until everyone is drunk. Then her men attack, murdering 5,000 people in a single slaughter.

Revenge phase 3 complete.
Astonishingly, there was then a phase 4. Olga returned home to raise and army with which she duly attacked the Drevlians, striking down town after town.

Eventually she arrives at their main city, and the city where her husband was killed, Iskorosten. She seiged the city for a year without success, so eventually she sent the city a message.

"Why do you persist in holding out? All your cities have surrendered to me and submitted to tribute, so that the inhabitants now cultivate their fields and their lands in peace. But you had rather die of hunger, without submitting to tribute."

Nervous that this is a ploy, they demand reassurance that they aren’t all going to be killed. To whch Olga replied,

"Since I have already avenged the misfortune of my husband twice on the occasions when your messengers came to Kiev, and a third time when I held a funeral feast for him, I do not desire further revenge, but am anxious to receive a small tribute."

Ok, so what’s the tribute.

"Give me three pigeons," she said, "and three sparrows from each house.”

That sounded like a good deal to the people of Iskorosten, so they gather the birds together and deliver them to Olga.
“Now Olga gave to each soldier in her army a pigeon or a sparrow, and ordered them to attach by a thread to each pigeon and sparrow a piece of sulphur bound with small pieces of cloth.”
When night fell, Olga bade her soldiers release the pigeons and the sparrows. So the birds flew to their nests, the pigeons to the cotes, and the sparrows under the eaves. There was not a house that was not consumed, and it was impossible to extinguish the flames, because all the houses caught fire at once.

Anyone who escaped the flames were then hunted down and killed by Olga.

And only now is she finished getting her revenge.

Later, Olga goes on to convert to Christianity, convincing her son Sviatoslav to not persecute Christians. His son Vladimir later officially adopted Christianity in 988AD.

Although she wasn’t there to see it, having died in 969, Olga was later made a saint in recognition for her service to Christianity, giving her the the honorific Isapóstolos, "Equal to the Apostles" – giving Olga equality at last.

bottom of page