It seems everyone in the US is (justifiably) getting riled up over the impending demise of the National Endowment for the Arts. But thank goodness we have only such problems to contend with. They don’t quite compare to the bloodshed between brothers going on in Ukraine, even right now. There is so much hatred between Russians and Ukrainians that it’s hard to imagine how it could ever have gotten to this point. They are, after all, genetically the same people. (There are even studies that suggest that south Russians are genetically closer to Ukrainians that even to north Russians).
My second novel, The Garden in the Heart of the World, is set in a world similar to the early days of Kievan Rus. It examines a world torn apart by brotherly bloodshed. Unfortunately, such brotherly hatred was present even in the very beginning of Russia. One of the pivotal events of that early period is the tragic murder of princes Boris and Gleb at the hand of their own brother Sviatopolk. What seemed to have been a “typical” dynastic murder became an event of spiritual importance for early Rus.
The brothers were almost immediately canonized by the Church, an almost unheard-of event, especially in cases of political murders. But the canonization was not a political act in the least. It was a bottom-up event, a populist movement among the common Rus who began to report occurrences of miracles in astonishing profusion. Perhaps the most famous of these is the appearance of Boris and Gleb to Prince Alexander Nevsky right before a battle against the Livonian knights. The Rus were hopelessly outnumbered, and yet won a decisive victory on the Neva River.
For centuries, the order to kill Borin and Gleb was ascribed to Sviatopolk. However, there are some historians who dispute this. Arzamas Academy recently asked historian Savva Mikheev about this issue. He studied Swedish legends and Icelandic sagas and came up with an astonishing theory. It wasn’t Sviatopolk who killed his brothers, but the universally respected Yaroslav, dubbed “the Wise.” (Read the original Russian article here)
In the Chronicle, Prince Sviatopolk is clearly painted as a villain. He fought a long and bloody battle with Yaroslav the Wise. Later, he won for himself the nickname “accursed.” That was most likely because he ordered the murders of his brothers Boris, Gleb, and Sviatoslav. However, it’s possible that this version of Sviatopolk is not impartial. The history may be a bit more convoluted.
Sviatopolk was the lawful heir of Prince Vladimir, the baptizer of Rus. Before his conversion, Vladimir was a famous libertine, and he had many children from his several wives and even more concubines. However, it’s possible that Sviatopolk was the the son of Vladimir’s brother Yaropolk, because Vladimir took Yaropolk’s pregnant wife as his own after Yaropolk’s death. Sviatopolk, thus, may have had “two fathers.”
Yaroslav (the Wise) was roughly the same age as Svaitopolk, his half-brother, and ruled over Novgorod. According to the Chronicle, Yaroslav planned to fight his father Vladimir, because he didn’t want to pay tribute to Kiev. After Vladimir’s death, Yaroslav decided to try to unseat his brother and become the grand prince of Kiev. In his fight, he leaned on the military might of Novgorod, as well as mercenaries Vikings. To cement his relationship with the Vikings, he married the daughter of King Olaf Ingigerd of Sweden.
The conflict between the brothers was bloody and inconclusive. First Sviatopolk escaped to Poland (his wife was the daughter of the Polish king), only to return with an army of Polish-German mercenaries led by his father-in-law. Then, Yaroslav escaped to Novgorod and gathered more Vikings to his cause. Then, Sviatopolk got the Pechenegs (Asian nomadic tribes) involved. Finally, in 1019, Yaroslav won Kiev and ruled it until his death in 1054. Sviatopolk simply disappeared from the pages of the Chronicle.
Boris, Gleb, and Sviatoslav were all victims in this internecine conflict. Even in the 11th century, the place where Borin and Gleb were buried became a place of local veneration. Soon, a church was built over their graves. A new version of the Chronicle was written in the 1070’s, after the relics of Boris and Gleb were triumphantly moved to a new church. This new redaction had to include the details of the political murder, simply because their veneration had become universal.
There’s a curious detail in the Chronicle about the murder of the brothers that is worth noting. Boris was attacked when he was on his way back to Kiev after a battle with the Pechenegs. Boris was wounded, and his servant’s head was chopped off. The reason was, ostensibly, a golden necklace that the servant wore. This detail, as you’ll see, is curious and may hold the key to a deeper mystery.
Interestingly, the short conflict between brothers was also recorded in Scandinavian sources, after the mercenary Vikings returned from the war. One of the lesser Icelandic sagas tells of the Russian adventures of a Norwegian king named Eimund. Eimund and his twin brother Ragnar came to help Yarisleiv (Yaroslav) in Holmgard (Novgorod) in a conflict with his brother Burislav.
Here’s an interesting twist in the Icelandic saga. Before one of the battles, Eimund kills Burislav. He sneaks into his camp and gives wine to all of Burislav’s followers. Then he pulls down the branches of a nearby oak and ties a rope to the top of Burislav’s golden tent. As soon as night falls, he cuts the rope, and the branches snap up, lifting the tent and leaving Burislav exposed. Eimund then chops off Burislav’s head.
If we try to put together the Russian Chronicle and the Icelandic saga, there are a few conflicting moments. Historians have tried to figure out who exactly is “Burislav”. Perhaps it’s a compound name, including elements of Boris, Sviatopolk, and Boleslav (Sviatopolk’s father-in-law, the king of Poland). Some historians see this as proof that Yaroslav the Wise ordered the murder of Boris and Gleb, while others think this is how Sviatopolk the Accursed actually died.
The key to the riddle was found in an old Swedish legend. The legend tells of the King Agni who was choked to death by his own golden necklace. In a 10th century poem written by Tjodolv fra Hvinir, we read how a woman named Skjalv hanged Agni by his own golden necklace. According to an anonymous Latin “History of Norway,” written in the second half of the 12th century, Agni was “killed by his own wife, who hanged him on a tree by a golden thread.”
Snorri Sturluson, who compiled the Eddas, wrote a more detailed version of the legend. King Agni had a very successful campaign against the Finns. He took Skjalv, the daughter of the king of Finland, back home with him as his new wife. On his way home, he made camp near the place where Stockholm now stands. There, he ordered a memorial feast for Skjalv’s father. Completely drunk, he fell asleep with his golden necklace still around his neck.
Skjalv ordered that the sleeping king then be hanged on a tree by his golden necklace. The necklace, by the way, was itself accursed, because it was stolen by Agni’s ancestor. The witch who uttered the curse, named Hild, predicted that in Agni’s family, kin would murder kin for generations.
As you can see, the legend of Agni contains two unique elements that occur both in the Russian Chronicle and the Icelandic saga. Namely:
- Boris’s servant’s golden necklace (why was a servant wearing a gold necklace?)
- Eimund tying the golden tent by a rope to a tree
Both of these odd elements only really make sense when we read the legend of Agni. The most logical explanation is that this Swedish legend is based on the historical murder of one of the sons of Vladimir of Rus.
Could Burislav be not Boris, but Sviatopolk? Perhaps, but it’s unlikely. Could the man who hired Eimund to do the killing have been Sviatopolk, not Yaroslav? Perhaps, but it’s difficult to see how, considering that Sviatopolk had no alliance with Vikings, but Yaroslav did. This is the most logical explanation of this strange convergence of details. Yaroslav Vladimirovich (called “the Wise” in the 19th century) ordered the death of his brother Boris. As for who ordered the deaths of Gleb and Sviatoslav, that remains an open question.
If you enjoyed this post, and would like to read more about Russian history and traditions, join my Readers’ Group. As a thank you, I’ll send you two chapters from my novel. A Lamentation of Sirin, my first novel, will be published on July 1 of this year. Just drop your email into the sign-up form below.