Olga of Kiev
gigatos | November 20, 2021
Saint Olga (born c. 890-925, in Pskov – d. in 969 AD in Kiev) was regent of Kievan Russia in place of her son Sviatoslav from 945 to 960. Due to imperfect transliteration, the name Olga is synonymous with Olha. Because of her Varegian ancestry, she was also known in Church Slavonic as Saint Helga. She is known for eliminating the Drevlenes, the tribe that killed her husband, Igor of Kiev. Although her nephew Vladimir I converted the entire nation to Christianity due to his efforts to spread Christianity in Kievan Russia, Olga is venerated as a saint in the Orthodox Church with the epithet “Like the Apostles” and is celebrated on July 11.
Although the date of Olga”s birth is unknown, it could be from 890 AD to 925 AD. According to the Chronicle of the Old Times, Olga was of Viking origin and was born in Pskov. Little is known about her life before her marriage to Prince Igor I of Kiev and the birth of their son Sviatoslav. Igor was the son and heir of Ruric, the founder of the Rurik dynasty. After his father”s death, Igor came under the tutelage of Oleg, who had consolidated power in the region, conquering neighbouring tribes and establishing a capital in Kiev. This loose tribal federation became known as Kievan Russia, a territory covering what are now parts of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus.
The Drevlens were a neighbouring tribe with whom Kievan Russia, a growing empire, had a complex relationship. The Drevlens joined Kievan Russia in military campaigns against the Byzantine Empire and paid tribute to Igor”s predecessors. They stopped paying tribute after Oleg”s death and gave money to a local commander instead. In 945, Igor set out for their capital, Iskorosten (known today as Korosten in today”s northern Ukraine), to force the tribe to pay tribute to Kievan Russia. Faced with Igor”s larger army, the Drevlans changed their minds and paid the tribute. As Igor and his army headed home, he decided that payment was not enough and returned, with fewer troops, demanding a higher tribute. On arrival in their territory, the Drevlians killed Igor. According to the Byzantine chronicler Leo the Deacon, Igor”s death was a terrible act of torture in which he was “captured, tied to tree trunks and torn in two”. D. Sullivan has suggested that Leo the Deacon may have concocted this sensational version of Igor”s death, inspired by Diodorus Siculus” account of a similar method of murder used on the robber Sinis, who lived near the Isthmus of Corinth and was killed by Theseus.
After Igor”s death in 945, Olga ruled Kievan Russia as regent on behalf of their son Sviatoslav. Little is known about her tenure as ruler of Kiev, but the Chronicle of Times Past describes her ascension to the throne and her bloody revenge on the Drevlen for the murder of her husband, as well as some insights into her role as civilian ruler of the Kievan people.
After Igor”s death at the hands of the drevlen, Olga assumed the throne because her son was three years old and too young to rule. The Drevlens, emboldened by their success in capturing and killing the king, sent a message to Olga proposing that she marry the man who killed Igor, Prince Mal. Twenty Drevlen negotiators were sent to Kiev to deliver the message to their king and convince Olga. They arrived at her court and told the queen why they were in Kiev: “to report that her husband had been killed… and that Olga should marry their Prince Mal.” Olga answered them:
Your proposal pleases me, indeed, my husband can no longer rise from the dead. But I want to celebrate you tomorrow in the presence of my people. Return now to your boat and remain there with an air of arrogance. I will send for you tomorrow and you will say, ”We will not ride on horses, nor will we walk, we will go in our boat.” And you will be transported in your boat.
When the Drevlians returned the next day, they waited outside the courtyard for Olga to receive the honour she had promised them. When they repeated the words they had been taught to say, the people of Kiev stood up, carrying the Drevlans into their boat. The ambassadors thought this a great honor, as if they were being carried in a palanquin. The men brought them to a courtyard where they were thrown into the ditch, which Olga had ordered to be dug the day before, and buried alive. It is written that Olga bent down to watch them as they were buried and “asked if they considered this honour to be to their taste”.
Olga then sent a message to the Drevlenese that they should send “their distinguished men to Kiev, so that she would agree to go to their Prince with all due honour”. The Drevlens, who did not know what had happened to their first envoys, assembled another team of ambassadors, “the best men who have governed their country Dereva”. When they arrived, Olga ordered her men to give them a bath and invited the men to appear before her after they had bathed. When the Derevans entered the bath, Olga set fire to them from the door, so that all the ambassadors burned to death.
Olga sent another message to the Drevlans, this time ordering them to “prepare large quantities of bread in the town where they killed her husband, to weep at his grave and to organize a funeral feast for him.” When Olga and a small group of companions arrived at Igor”s grave, she actually wept and held a funeral feast. The Drevlans sat down to join them and began drinking heavily. When the drevils got drunk, she ordered her men to kill them. According to the Chronicle of Times Past, five thousand drevils were killed that night, but Olga returned to Kiev to prepare an army to kill the rest of the survivors.
The initial conflict between the armies of the two nations went very well for the Kievan forces, who won the battle and drove the survivors back to their cities. Olga finally took her army to Iskorosten (where Korosten is today), the town where her husband had been killed, and laid siege to the town. The siege lasted for a year, without success, and then Olga came up with a plan to trick the Drevlans. She sent them a message: “Why do you continue to resist? All your towns have surrendered and submitted to tribute, so the inhabitants are now cultivating their fields and lands in peace. But you would rather starve yourselves than pay tribute.” The Drevlans replied that they would submit to the tribute, but that they feared she still intended revenge for the murder of her husband. Olga replied that the murder of the messengers sent to Kiev, and the events of the night of the feast were enough for her. She then asked them for “three doves … and three sparrows from each house”. The Drevlans were delighted at the idea of raising the siege for such a small price and did as she asked.
Olga then instructed her army to put a piece of sulphur tied with small pieces of cloth on each bird. At nightfall, Olga told the soldiers to set fire to them and let the birds go. They returned to their nests in the town, which resulted in the total burning of the town. According to the Chronicle of Times Past, “There was not a single house that was not burned down because it was impossible to extinguish the flames, as all the houses caught fire at the same time.” As the people fled the burning town, Olga ordered the soldiers to capture them, killing some and making others slaves for her subjects. She left a remnant of men among them to pay tribute.
Olga remained the regent ruler of Kievan Russia with the support of her army and people. She changed the system of tribute collection (poliudie, полюдье) into the first legal reform to be recorded in Eastern Europe. She continued to evade marriage proposals, defended the city from the Pechenegs during the siege of the capital Kiev in 968, and saved the power of the throne for her son.
After the dramatic subjugation of the Drevlenese, the Chronicle of the Old Times tells how Olga “went through the land of Dereva, accompanied by her son, laying down laws and imposing tribute. Her trading posts and hunting reserves still existed.” As queen, Olga established trading posts and collected tribute along the Msta and Luga rivers. She established hunting grounds, border posts, towns and trading posts throughout the empire. Her work helped centralize state rule with these trading centers, called pogosti (погостъ), which served as administrative centers in addition to their mercantile roles. The queen”s network of pogosti may have been important in the ethnic and cultural unification of the Russian nation, and her frontier posts led to an early establishment of the kingdom”s national boundaries.
During her son”s long military campaigns, she remained in charge of Kiev, residing in the castle in Vishhorod where she lived with her grandchildren.
The Chronicle of the Past does not go into further detail about the time of Olga”s regency, but tells the story of her conversion to Christianity and the subsequent effect on the adoption of Christianity in Eastern Europe.
In the 950s, Olga travelled to Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire, to visit Emperor Constantine VII. Once in Constantinople, Olga converted to Christianity with the help of the emperor and the patriarch. While the Chronicle of Times Past does not reveal Olga”s motivation for her visit or her conversion, it does give detailed accounts of the conversion process, how she was baptized and instructed in the ways of Christianity:
The reigning emperor was named Constantine, son of Leon. Olga came before him, and when he saw that she was very fair and wise, the emperor wondered at her intellect. He talked with her and remarked that she was worthy to reign with him in his city. When Olga heard his words, she replied that she was still a heathen, and that if he wished to baptize her, he should perform the office himself; otherwise he would not wish to accept baptism. The Emperor, with the help of the Patriarch, baptized her accordingly. When Olga was enlightened, she rejoiced in soul and body. The Patriarch, who had taught her in the faith, said to her, “Blessed are you among the women of Russia, for you have loved the light and left the darkness. The sons of Russia “will bless you to the last generation of your descendants”. He taught her the doctrine of the Church and taught her about prayer and fasting, about almsgiving and maintaining chastity. She bowed her head and, like a sponge soaking up water, eagerly drank in his teachings. The princess bowed to the Patriarch, saying: “By your prayers, Holy Father, may I be preserved from the wiles and attacks of the devil!” At her baptism she was christened Helen, after the ancient empress, mother of Constantine the Great. The Patriarch then blessed her and concluded the ceremony.
While the Chronicle of Times Past mentions that Olga was named “Helena” after Constantine the Great”s mother, Jonathan Shepard claims that Olga”s baptismal name comes from the emperor”s wife, Helena Lekapene. The remark that Olga was “worthy to rule with him in his city” suggests that the emperor was interested in marrying her. While the Chronicle explains Constantine”s desire to take Olga as his wife as resulting from the fact that she was “fair and wise”, marrying Olga could certainly have helped him gain power over Kievan Russia. The chronicle of times past tells of Olga asking the Emperor to baptize her, knowing that if he would be her godfather at her baptism, according to the rules of spiritual kinship, it would make the marriage between them a kind of spiritual incest. Although her desire to become a Christian would have been genuine, this request was also a way for her to maintain her political independence. After her baptism, when Constantine repeated his marriage proposal, Olga replied that she could not marry him because church law forbade the godchild to marry her godfather:
After her christening, the emperor called Olga and made it known that he wanted her to become his wife. But she replied, “How can you marry me after you have baptized me and called me your daughter? For Christians it is illegal, as you well know. ” Then the king said, ”Olga, you have outdone me.” He offered her many gifts of gold, silver, silk and various vases and rejected her, still calling her his daughter.
Francis Butler argues that the marriage proposal story was a literary embellishment, describing an event that is highly unlikely to have ever occurred. In fact, by the time of her baptism, Constantine already had an empress. In addition to uncertainty about the truth of the Chronicle”s account of events in Constantinople, there is controversy about the details of her conversion to Christianity. According to Russian sources, she was baptised in Constantinople in 957. Byzantine sources, however, indicate that she was a Christian before her visit in 957. It seems likely that she was baptized in Kiev around 955 and, after a second baptism in Constantinople, took the Christian name Helena. Olga was not the first person in Kievan Russia to convert from her pagan beliefs – there were Christians in Igor”s court who were sworn in at the Church of St. Elias in Kiev as part of the Russo-Byzantine Treaty of 945, but she was the most powerful person in Kievan Russia to be baptised during her lifetime.
The chronicle of times gone by reports that Olga received the Patriarch”s blessing for her journey home and, once there, tried unsuccessfully to convert her son to Christianity:
Now Olga lived with her son Sviatoslav, and she urged him to be baptized, but he did not listen to her suggestion, at that time when a man wanted to be baptized, he was not prevented, but he was mocked. For to unbelievers the Christian faith is foolishness. They do not understand it, because they walk in darkness and do not see the glory of God. Their hearts are hardened, neither can they hear with their ears nor see with their eyes. For Solomon said, “The deeds of the unrighteous are far from wisdom. Inasmuch as I have called you and you have not heard me, I have sharpened my words and you have not understood. But you have listened to all my counsel and have not heard my reproaches. For they hated knowledge and had no fear of Jehovah. They have listened to none of my counsel, but have despised all my reproof.
This passage highlights the hostility towards Christianity in Kievan Russia in the 10th century. In the Chronicle, Sviatoslav declares that his followers would “laugh” at him if he accepted Christianity. While Olga tried to convince her son that his followers would follow her example if they converted, her efforts were in vain. However, her son agreed not to persecute those in his kingdom who converted, which marked a crucial turning point for Christianity in the area. Despite her people”s resistance to Christianity, Olga built churches in Kiev, Pskov and elsewhere.
Seven Latin sources document Olga”s links with the Holy Roman Emperor Otto I in 959. The Benedictine monk Regino of Prüm mentions that her envoys asked the emperor to appoint a bishop and priests for their nation. The chronicler accuses the envoys of lying, commenting that their trick would not be revealed later. Thietmar of Merseburg says that the first Archbishop of Magdeburg, St. Adalbert of Magdeburg, before being promoted to this high rank, was sent by Emperor Otto to Kievan Russia (Rusciae) as a simple bishop, but was expelled by the pagan allies of Sviatoslav I. Similar accounts are repeated in the annals of Quedlinburg and Hildesheim.
According to the Chronicle, Olga died of the disease in 969, shortly after the siege of the city by the Pechenegs. When Sviatoslav announced that he intended to move his throne to the Danube region, the seriously ill Olga persuaded him to stay with her during her last days. After just three days, she died and her family and everyone in Kievan Russia mourned her:
Sviatoslav told his mother and his boyars: ”I don”t care if I stay in Kiev, but I should prefer to live in Pereiaslaveț on the Danube, because this is the centre of my realm, where all riches are concentrated; gold, silk, wine and various fruits from Greece, silver and horses from Hungary and Bohemia, as well as from the Russians ”furs, wax, honey and slaves”. But Olga replied, “You see my weakness. Why do you want to turn away from me?” For she was already in poor health. So she asked him to stay with her, first to bury her and then to go wherever he would. Three days later Olga died. Her son mourned her with great grief, as did her grandchildren and all the people. So they took her outside and buried her in her grave. Olga had given orders not to hold a funeral feast for her, because she had a priest who performed the last rites on the holy princess.”
Although he disapproved of his mother”s Christian tradition, Sviatoslav respected Olga”s request that her priest, Gregory, give her a Christian funeral, without a pagan burial ritual. Her tomb remained in Kiev for more than two centuries, but was destroyed by the Mongol-Tatar armies of Batu Han in 1240.
At the time of his death, it seemed that Olga”s attempt to make her country a Christian land had been a failure. However, Olga”s Christianisation mission would be completed by her grandson Vladimir I, who officially adopted Christianity in 988. The chronicle of the times highlights Olga”s holiness, in contrast to the pagans around her during her lifetime, and the significance of her decision to convert to Christianity:
Olga was the forerunner of the Christian earth, just as spring day precedes the sun and dawn precedes day. For she shone like the moon at night and shone among the infidels like a pearl in the mire, since men were defiled and had not yet purified themselves of their sin through holy baptism. But she herself was cleansed by this sacred purification…. She was the first person from Kievan Russia to enter the Kingdom of God, and since her death faith in God has spread.
In 1547, almost 600 years after her death in 969, the Russian Orthodox Church named Olga a saint. Because of her proselytising influence, the Orthodox Church, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church and the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church call Saint Olga with the honorific Isapóstolos, “Like the Apostles”. She is also a saint in the Roman Catholic Church. Olga”s feast day is 11 July, the day of her death. According to her own biography, she is the patroness of widows and converts.
Olga is venerated as a saint in countries of Slavic origin, where churches use the Byzantine rite: in the Orthodox Church (especially in the Russian Orthodox Church), in the Greek Catholic Church (especially in the Greek Catholic Church of Ukraine), in the Lutheran churches of the Byzantine rite, in the Roman Catholic Church of Russia (of the Latin rite).
As an important figure in the history of Christianity, the image of Olga as a saint has persisted. But questions have been asked about Olga as a historical figure and as a character in the Chronicle of Times Past.
The historical characterization of Olga as a vengeful princess, superimposed over her consideration within the Orthodox tradition as a saint, has produced a variety of modern interpretations of her story. Scholars tend to be more conservative with their interpretations, focusing on what the Chronicle of the Olden Times says explicitly: Olga”s role in the spread of Christianity in Eastern Europe and Russia. These texts generally focus on Olga”s role as advisor to her son, whose decision not to persecute Christians in Kievan Russia was a pivotal moment in the religious history of Russia and its neighbours. Scholarly research on her life tends not to rely on narrative twisting and turning her story, instead focusing on extracting historical facts from the story.
Modern publications, however, have focused on her as a historical figure. Journalists have written articles with headlines ranging from “Saint Olga of Kiev is the best warrior princess you”ve never met” to “Meet the murderous Viking princess who brought faith to Eastern Europe”. These texts, written for a wider audience, tend to focus on exploring her life as a kind of historical drama. Her Viking heritage is always mentioned and often used as an explanation for her fiery spirit and military achievements. The authors focus on the most dramatic details of her story: her murder of the two groups of Drevlen ambassadors, her cunning deception of the Drevlen ruler, and her ultimate conquest of her people. A number of sources make her a proto-feminist figure, a woman who did not allow herself to lose her leadership role to contemporaries who believed that only men could have leadership roles in society.
Although a number of these contemporary sources refer to Olga as a “warrior princess”, there is little evidence to suggest that she actually participated in fighting and killing enemies. Based on historical precedent, it is more likely that she was a commander of troops, a kind of general or commander-in-chief, rather than a warrior of special skill. However, these claims have made their way into the public imagination, as evidenced by the appropriation of her image in the heavy-metal-esque scene.
This duality of his character – on the one hand a revered saint, on the other a bloody commander of troops – made him an attractive figure to subversive artists. In some cases, her image has been captured in the heavy metal scene, notably as a muse and on the cover of A Perfect Absolution, a concept album by French band Gorod about Olga from Kiev.