From its earliest years Christian Europe has been under assault by diabolic forces. Muslims from the Near East and Africa spent centuries making war on the remnants of the Roman Empire, while the Asiatic pagan tribes harassed the Christian Slavs of Eastern Europe. Against this threat God raised up many pious heroes who risked their lives to counter the menace.
One such hero was Prince Igor Sviatoslavich who defended the Rus lands against the Turkic Polovetsians in the 12th century. Igor is notable not only for his bravery, but also for his piety as recorded in chronicles and epic poetry.
In the Introduction to his translation of the old Russian epic The Tale of the Campaign of Igor (W.W. Norton and Company, 1973), Robert C. Howes describes the background of Igor’s campaign and Igor’s contrition that follows his initial defeat.
“Prince in Novgorod-Seversk since 1178, Igor was an active participant in the internecine wars of his time. In 1180 he and other Ol’govichi (Oleg’s descendants), with Polovetsian allies, invaded Smolensk and fought against Prince David Rostislavich. Then, with Khan’s Konchak and Kobyak, Igor moved against Kiev in support of Grand Prince Svyatoslav, whose claim to the throne of Kiev was not secure. Although successful in driving Grand Prince Ryurik from Kiev, Igor and his Polovetsian allies were subsequently defeated.”
Evidently at this period the ambition of Christian princes not only drove them to war against each other, but also to engage the aid of pagans in slaughtering their own people. This shameful infidelity to his fellow Christians would be a source of great pain for Igor at a later date.
Within a few short years the pagan Polovetsians became Igor’s enemies.
“[O] April 23, 1185, Prince Igor…set out with his son Vladimir (who was fifteen at the time), his brother Vsevolod, and his nephew Svyatoslav of Ryl’sk, on a campaign into the Polovetsian steppes.”
“There was apparently opposition to this campaign among members of Igor’s retinue. On May 1, 1185, there was an eclipse of the sun, which the Nikonovskaya Chronicle describes: ‘A portent. That same year, in the month of May, on the 1st day, there was a portent in the sun; it was dark, and this was for more than an hour, so that the stars could be seen, and to men’s eyes it was green, and the sun became as the [crescent] moon, and from its horns flaming fire was emitted; and it was a portent terrible to see and full of horror.’
While acknowledging that the eclipse was from God, Igor did not allow it to dissuade him from carrying out his duty.
“Igor insisted that the campaign continue, saying: ‘No one knows the mysteries of God. God is the maker of this sign and of the whole world. And whether that which God does to us is for good or for ill, this too we shall see.”
Although initially victorious against a smaller Polovetsian force, Igor’s wise counsel to withdraw was ignored.
“Prince Igor’s estimate of the situation had been correct. The following morning, Saturday, Polovetsian troops ‘began to appear like a forest.’ The Russians, alarmed, held a council of war. Some argued for retreat, but now Igor insisted that they stand their ground, saying: ‘If we flew we shall ourselves escape, but we will leave the black people [the common foot soldiers]. That will be a sin against us from God, having betrayed them. Let us go: we shall either die or be alive in one place.'”
Igor is subsequently defeated and taken prisoner, but this expression of solidarity with his fellow Christian soldiers develops into deeper repentance during his captivity. Igor displays a thoroughly Biblical understanding of how God deals with his covenant people.
“According to the Chronicle Prince Igor, early in his captivity, became deeply troubled by feelings of guilt. The prince, blaming himself for the disastrous campaign, said: ‘I remembered my sins before the Lord my God: how I caused many killings and [much] bloodletting in a Christian land; how I showed no mercy to Christians, but took by storm the city of Glebov….I was not worthy to live. And lo, now I see the vengeance of the Lord my God. Where now is my beloved brother? Where now is the son of my brother? Where is the child to whom I gave birth? Where are the boyars of my council? Where are my brave nobles? Where are the men of my line?…Lo, the Lord has repaid me for my lawlessness and for my evil. This day my sins have descended upon my head…But O Master, O Lord my God, do not reject Me utterly! But as Your will is, O Lord, so is Your mercy towards us, Your servants.”
Igor eventually escaped from captivity. Although his exploits were not of great historical importance, his story was immortalized by the epic poem The Tale of Igor’s Campaign.
May those who wish to defend Christendom today come to have the same mind of humility and reliance upon God.
“Having sung a song to the old princes,
Then to the young ones sing:
Glory to Igor Svyatoslavich,
To Wild Ox Vsevolod,
And to Vladimir Igorevich!
Health to the princes
And to their retinues,
Who fight for Christians
Against the armies of the pagans!
Glory to the princes and their retinues!
(closing stanza of The Tale of the Campaign of Igor)