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Pigeons, Sparrows and Kievan Rus

January 24, 2011

I’ve never really stopped to think about pigeons. In fact, I barely even consider them birds. OK, full disclosure — I’ve eaten pigeon and the whole experience was just fine by me. When it comes to sparrows, they frustrate me because there are about thirty different kinds of sparrow and all of them look identically brownish with some sort of stripes or a sprinkling of orange-ish brown spots.

The other day, I was rereading my favorite part in the Russian Primary Chronicle (Tale of Bygone Years) wherein Olga of Kiev takes revenge on — and thoroughly decimates — the Derevlians (an east Slavic tribe that nobody really talks about much, except in conjunction with Olga’s monumental revenge) for murdering her husband Igor in the most creative ways possible. I had completely forgotten about the presence of pigeons and sparrows in this narrative. It’s a stunning part of the Chronicle (written in 1111-1113 about the founding of Kiev in the 9th century) because it’s the first time a robust, exciting female character appears. Olga is fearless and means business: once poor Igor is killed by the Derevlians, she invites all of their ambassadors to Kiev, gets them rip roaring drunk in her steam bath (banya) and sets the place on fire!

She then proceeded to massacre 5000 other Derevlians before coming up with her ultimate revenge. She asked the Derevlians to hand over three pigeons and three sparrows from each house, which they did without suspecting anything (I’m gathering, at this point, that the Derevlians are a somewhat SLOW people), and she had her soldiers attach a match and a piece of cloth to each bird. Once the birds reached their porches, coops, and houses, they set the entire town on fire! The Primary Chronicle writes, “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.”

Go pigeon, go! And that was pretty much the end of the Derevlians. Olga went on to become the first woman of Rus to convert to Christianity and was instantly canonized by the Orthodox Church. I love her for her ingenuity and fearlessness; she adds dramatic tension to the Chronicle and arms me with great cocktail party tales of medieval Russian lore.

Hopefully no pigeons and sparrows were harmed in this story. The Primary Chronicle doesn’t tell us either way.

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