Bloody Wedding in Kyiv is based on a real person and real events, Olga, or Olha, of Kiev (b.890?-925?, d.969) though what is actually real is not known as it has been embellished in its re-telling over the centuries. Sacher-Masoch was obviously attracted to the tale of a beautiful, cruel, imperious woman exacting revenge on her husband’s murderers. I’m not going to concern myself with what is, or isn’t, true, or with any inaccuracies in the story but just concentrate on the story as a work of fiction.This edition actually comprises of two stories by two authors: Bloody Wedding of Kyiv (1866) by Sacher-Masoch and Kniahynia’s Comb(2015) by Petro Haivoronskyi. The full title is Bloody Wedding of Kyiv: Two Tales of Olha, Kniahynia of Kyivan Rus and was published by Sova Books in 2016. The translator is Svitlana Chornomorets and the beautiful cover is by Nikola Nevenov. The book also contains some illustrations of the events from The Radziwiłł Chronicle.
The story begins with Kniaz Ihor (or Igor of Kiev) having his chess game interrupted by the arrival of some diplomats from Derevlia. Ihor reluctantly agrees to see them. Their leader, Mak, asks Ihor to remove the levies that he has placed on the Derevlians claiming that they are crushing his people but Ihor, who doesn’t believe that they can’t pay him, refuses to retract the levy and threatens to collect it himself. His beautiful wife, whom Mak is besotted by, says that they shouldn’t be let off so slightly but should be tortured instead.
So Ihor goes to collect his tribute from the Derevlians. They meet and escort him to their capital, Iskorosten where he will be based. His soldiers meet resistance when they try to collect the tribute and it erupts into an uprising. This infuriates Ihor even more and when he personally goes out to assist he is confronted and killed by Maz. Ihor is buried outside Iskorosten and his troops return to Kyiv.
The Derevlians decide that it would be advantageous if Mak were to marry Olha which would bring Kyiv under their control. Also Mak is attracted to Olha. So Mak sends some diplomats by ship to Kyiv to offer Olha his hand in marriage. Olha tricks them and has them captured then they are buried alive, together with their ship, in a huge pit that has been dug. Another group of Derevlian diplomats, who are unaware of the fate of the first group, are burnt alive in a bathhouse, much to Olha’s delight. Olha then goes to meet Mak, ostensibly to marry him, but in fact to get revenge; she agrees to the marriage but it must be in Kyiv. When Olha is told that Mak is handsome she replies:
“He is handsome and noble,” added the Kniahynia, reflecting, “but his hands are awash with blood. The blood of my master, my husband – and a warrior demands revenge! I could love him, if I did not have to hate him with all my heart.”
So Mak arrives in Kyiv, prepared for marriage but curious as to what happened to his diplomats. There is a big feast and the Derevlians get drunk. When Mak approaches Olha in the wedding chamber she attacks him and with help from her guards they bind him. Meanwhile most of the Derevlians are massacred but for those that were involved in the murder of Ihor ‘inhumane tortures’ are invented. Limbs are chopped off, some are burnt alive, some buried alive.
Olha then takes up arms and completely subjugates Podillia, the land of the Derevlians. Villages are burnt and people massacred. On her return she decides on Mak’s cruel punishment.
And the cruel woman ordered that the Derevlian Kniaz’s arms and legs be severed. For the rest of his life he was to stay under her table and gather the breadcrumbs with his tongue.
Olha rules on behalf of her son, Sviatoslav, until he is old enough to rule himself. Olha is christened in 955.
The Kniahynia’s Comb by Petro Haivoronskyi is also based on Olha. In present day Ukraine some archaelogists discover a coffin from the tenth century which still contains a corpse. In the coffin there is a silver comb which has two names inscribed on it: ‘Prekrasa’ and ‘Vedmid’. ‘Pekrasa’ was Olha’s original name and ‘Vedmid’ was an early admirer of her. The story tells how Vedmid sacrificed his life to save Olha from assassination. The discovered comb appears to have some healing properties.