To be revered as a saint by both the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church, one must have led an extraordinary life. Such is the life of Olga of Kiev, a ruler whose deadly deeds and bureaucratic triumphs led to her reputation as a vindictive family-loyal autocrat who executed vengeance. Her life makes for chilling reading, but she had her admirable traits to consider too. She was entirely three-dimensional, and complex.
Olga of Kiev’s early life is an overshadowed mystery and lost to historians. Even her exact birthdate isn’t known. It may have been sometime between 890 CE and 925 CE, into a prominent Varangian—or Viking raider—family in Pleskov (now known as Pskov, a city in northwestern Russia). How she was educated is also an unsolved riddle, but she was likely prepared in some way for the duties and responsibilities of a royal bride.
What we do know about Olga begins with her advantageous marriage to the heir of the Rurik dynasty, Igor of Kiev. Igor was the ruler of Kievan Rus’, a loose tribal federation covering what are now parts of Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus. In 945, Igor would make a fatal mistake while attempting to enact "poliudie", the practice of collecting tributes in the form of money and goods from the Drevlian tribe, with whom his empire already had a shaky and temperamental rapport. Igor himself was reportedly an arrogant and impractical character.
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After demanding far more tribute than what was owed, without the backing of his army to protect him, Igor was captured by the outraged Drevlians, who brutally executed him by tying him to two bended trees, releasing them, and tearing his body in half. He left behind his widow Olga and their only child and son Sviatoslav, who was too young to ascend to leadership. Olga would ascend in his place, as regent, and the Drevlians would soon feel her righteous wrath.
The Drevlians, emboldened by their victory over Igor, attempted to enforce a new marriage on Olga, whom they believed to be feeble, both as a woman and a grieving widow. Though she did grieve for Igor, Olga was far from weak. Prince Mal, Olga’s intended, sent an entourage of ambassadors to negotiate for her hand. They travelled by boat, and Olga announced that she intended to honor them by having her own people carry the boat to her court like a palanquin.
The ambassadors were unaware of the trap being set for them. Lifted by the arms of the citizens of Kiev, the ambassadors were escorted not to Olga’s court, but to an open ditch that had been prepared for them the night before. They were dropped in, ship and all, and buried alive, their screams for mercy and pardon ignored.
Next, Olga requested that Prince Mal send new representatives of even higher rank to her, claiming that she had been insulted by the low status of the first batch. Prince Mal, who had not yet been informed of the gruesome fate of his tribesmen, agreed to Olga’s demand. Olga outdid herself this time with the second horrific punishment contrived against the Drevlians. This group was burned alive in the bathhouse that had been prepared for them upon their arrival.
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Olga wasn’t finished yet. She ordered the Drevlians to prepare a funeral feast for her husband, insisting that she could only wed Prince Mal after she had mourned her husband with the proper rituals. The loss of her husband must have been felt deeply and sincerely, as she did sob over his grave when she arrived, but her tears were short-lived, as she had a massacre to carry out.
At the feast following the funeral service, the Drevlians were encouraged to drink mead, and as much of it as they could consume. It was a celebration too, after all; Olga and their prince were to be united in marriage soon. But the wedding would never take place. That very night, Olga’s followers slaughtered the Drevlians, who were too intoxicated to defend themselves, and the body count may have been as high as 5,000. Naturally, after this bloody event, there was war, which—according to legend—Olga won by releasing an army of pigeons and sparrows with pieces of burning sulphur attached to their feet and burning the city of Iskorosten (now known as Korosten) to the ground.
Olga’s competency as sole ruler over Kievan Rus' embellishes a more human side to her character and cements her in history as an unwed politician equal to Elizabeth I of England. She created a fairer and more productive system of collecting tributes, effectively rectifying her husband’s foolish, tragic mistake. This action is the first recorded legal reform in Eastern Europe and was supposedly a smart move, ensuring a steadier income for the state by appointing reliable, hand-chosen officials to carry out the collections. She also worked to stabilize better trade within her empire and promoted religious tolerance. Olga, it seemed, was ruthless towards her enemies, but not a tyrant towards the ordinary population.
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Olga’s celebrated conversion to Christianity has a rather amusing backstory. Sometime between 948 and 955 CE, Olga made a political pilgrimage to Constantinople in the Byzantine Empire with the purpose of establishing better relations with Emperor Constantine VII. After becoming better acquainted with Olga, Constantine wanted a more intimate relationship. The idea of remarrying, which would constitute relinquishing her hard-earned power to a consort, was repulsive to Olga, and so with some clever maneuvering, she avoided this fate. Her plan was simple, yet brilliant. She would convert to Christianity.
Olga threw herself into the study of her new religion with fervor, and her devotion seemed to have been genuine. When she was baptized, she took on the new name of Helena, after Constantine’s mother, and Constantine himself proudly stood as her godfather. But when he proposed a marriage alliance, he quickly realized he’d been duped, as Olga was able to safely reject him on the basis that a marriage between them would be considered incestuous. He was her godfather now, after all.
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According to The Russian Primary Chronicle, Constantine admitted defeat with impressive grace: “Olga, you have outwitted me." History can admire the friendly relationship the two managed to maintain even after this interesting episode.
Olga died in 969, after she and her grown son Sviatoslav had jointly expelled the Pechenegs from their home city following what is now known as the Siege of Kiev. Olga’s son honored her Christian conversion and allowed a Christian priest to conduct the funeral. She was later named a saint and the patron of widows and converts by the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church. Today Olga is remembered and honored in Ukraine as a living symbol of strength, power, and fortitude.
Sources: The Conversation, World History Connected