Considered as the founder of Russia, Oleg remains a figure trapped between history and legend. Of Viking descent, Oleg forged a new nation that rose into one of the world’s great empires, but people have difficultly separating myth from reality in this early Russian leader. What the records do show is that he was a highly intelligent and capable warrior who built a powerful nation that one day dominated Eastern Europe.
The birth year of Oleg remains unknown, and even his family lineage remains open to argument. Oleg may have been the brother-in-law of Rurik, Russia’s first ruler.
Others believe that he came from Scandinavia and served as a vassal to Rurik, or of Rurik’s son, Igor. The dates of his reign also raise arguments, as some date the beginning from 912 and some from 922.
Oleg did take control of the state of Rus in 879 after Rurik died. However, it appears that not all in Rus acknowledge the legitimacy of his rule. He spent the next few years forcing the towns in this predecessor of Russia into submission, finally consolidating his rule around 900.
He receives credit for establishing the state of Rus because he moved the capital from Novgorod to Kiev. From there, he launched a famous raid on Constantinople in 911. Supposedly, the Byzantines attempted to poison Oleg, but he refused to drink the poisoned wine that they offered to him.
Oleg did win a favorable commercial treaty that eventually benefited both empires, after having the audacity to nail his shield on the very gates of Constantinople. The treaty was recorded by Russia, but no Byzantine sources mention it. Possibly, at the time, the state of Rus still seemed to inconsequential for the Byzantines to take serious note of them.
According to legend, Oleg had the power of prophecy. Supposedly, this power allowed him to avoid the poisoning attempt of the Byzantines, but later, led to his death. According to the legend, prophets had predicted that his horse would lead to his death.
To forestall this death, Oleg sent his horse away until he received reports that it had died. When he heard of the horse’s death, he asked to see the remains. Upon finding the bones, he kicked one, which disturbed a snake that bit him and led to his death, thus fulfilling the original prophecy.
Regardless of the cause of his death, Oleg died in 913, one year after turning the throne of Rus over to Igor, presumed to be Rurik’s son. As with much of his life, disputes abound over his burial site. Oleg’s corpse may rest in Kiev or Ladoga, depending upon which source a person trusts.
Recent scholars claim that the entire timeline of Oleg’s life may have been misdated. These scholars believe that while Igor descended from Rurik, he was a grandson instead of a son, and that an entire generation Russian leadership has disappeared from the record.
Oleg, then would have reigned until the 940s, and in this view of history, he warred with Igor, eventually losing to his successor. However, this claim has less evidence than the little that we do have about Oleg’s life.
While much mystery still surrounds Oleg’s life, he did lead the state of Rus to greater prominence and established the foundations of what would become Russia. His life will forever remain clouded by legend and lost records, but to him we continued to look for the origins of the Russian state.