Few figures are as singular and as enigmatic as Kiev’s Queen Olga. A figure of paradoxes and complexities, she navigates the chronicles of the past as a multifaceted character whose life bore witness to a saga of love, loss, and triumph over adversity. It was these events that set her on a path to becoming one of the most revered figures in the Eastern Orthodox Church.
In the narrative of Olga of Kiev, the personal and the political, the sacred and the profane are not mutually exclusive. They are the threads that intertwine, reflecting the character of a leader who defied conventions, shattered stereotypes, and embarked on a path that would forever change the religious contours of the Kievan Rus’. Regent Olga was a veritable tour de force.
As we delve into her life and times, we unravel a story of resilience, retribution, and redemption — a testament to a ruler whose influence transcends the boundaries of time and culture and whose legend has endured for a thousand years.
This is the astonishing story of Olga of Kiev, the first Christian ruler in the history of the Rus.
The Early Years of Saint Olga of Kiev
Olga was born around the late ninth or early tenth century, with estimations ranging from 890 AD to 925 AD, probably in the Russian city of Pleskov, now known as Pskov.
The ancestry of Kiev’s Queen Olga may have been of Varangian origin. The Varangians were Viking conquerors from modern-day Sweden, who founded the mediaeval nation of Kievan Rus’, what is now generally Belarus, Ukraine and Russia.
Nothing is known of Olga’s early life until she married Prince Igor I of Kiev, the son of a Varangian chief named Rurik. It’s believed she was no more than fifteen when she married and they had a son, Sviatoslav.
The Prince & The Drevlians
The Drevlians were an East Slavic tribe who inhabited the territories of present-day Ukraine. During Igor’s rule, the Drevlians were subjugated under his authority, and they were obliged to pay tribute as a mark of their subservience. However they either stopped paying altogether or reduced their tribute, instead channelling funds to a local warlord.
Igor took an army to the Drevlian heartland demanding further tribute be paid to Kievan Rus’. Though they agreed, on his return home, Igor decided the amount was insufficient and went back for more.
By this time – around 945 AD – the Drevlians had had enough of Igor’s constant demands and murdered him. The story is largely told through the Primary Chronicle, the main source of information about Kievan Rus’ between the ninth and twelfth century.
This set in motion a dramatic series of events to which the legend of Olga of Kiev was born.
The Revenge of Kiev’s Queen Olga
After the death of Igor, and since Sviatoslav was too young to rule Kievan Rus’, now Regent Olga assumed the throne, from where she spent much of the next fifteen years plotting to destroy the people who killed her husband.
It didn’t take long for at least twenty Drevlian messengers to arrive at the court of Olga of Kiev proposing she marry their Prince Mal, who may have been her husband’s murderer.
She’s alleged to have replied, saying: Your proposal is pleasing to me, indeed, my husband cannot rise again from the dead. But I desire to honour you tomorrow in the presence of my people. Return now to your boat, and remain there with an aspect of arrogance. I shall send for you on the morrow.
Indeed she did send for them, but instead of welcoming them, she is said to have dropped them into a trench and buried them alive.
Next, the future saint, Olga of Kiev summoned a further Drevlian delegation. On their arrival, they were offered a bathhouse to refresh. It’s said she had the doors locked and set the building on fire.
However, her revenge did not end there. She sent word to the Drevlians that she would like to hold a funeral feast at the place where her husband was slain. The feast was organised and when the Drevlians were drunk, it’s said she had her men massacre them. The Primary Chronicle reported that five thousand Drevlians were killed that night.
And yet Olga de Kiev still wasn’t finished, such was the pain caused by the Drevlians robbing her of a husband and her son of a father. She returned to the ancient city of Kiev to raise an army. When she and her men arrived back in the Drevlian heartland of Iskorosten (the modern-day northern Ukranian city of Korosten), they begged her for mercy, offering a substantial tribute in return for peace.
The story goes that all she asked for was three pigeons and three sparrows. The Drevlians happily obliged. In a dramatic final act of revenge, she had her men tie a sulphur-soaked cloth to each bird and as night fell, the cloth was lit and the birds released. Each bird flew back to its nest in roof spaces and within a day, the city had burned to the ground. The Primary Chronicles reported ‘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.’
Those who survived the furnace were either killed or sold into slavery. A fortunate few were left to rebuild the city. The revenge of Saint Olga of Kiev was finally complete.
It must be noted that the accounts of Olga’s revenge against the Drevlians may be exaggerated, mythologised or even apocryphal. Such stories are not uncommon in historical chronicles and serve to create a certain image or reputation for the person in question.
The Reign of Olga of Kiev
During her reign of Kievan Rus’, Regent Olga dismissed many marriage proposals and reorganised the system of gathering tribute, believed to be the first legal reform recorded in Eastern Europe.
She established trading posts all over the region and set up a system of centralised administration. When her son was old enough to assume leadership, she kept a watching brief over her nation while living in a castle in the city of Vyshgorod in central Ukraine.
Conversion to Christianity
In the history of Kievan Rus’ and of modern-day Russia and Ukraine, one of the most transformative events was the conversion to Christianity of Olga of Kiev.
It’s believed to have occurred around 957 AD during her visit to Constantinople, the seat of the Byzantine Empire, a bastion of Christianity in the mediaeval world which, in the east at least, was still largely pagan. Her baptism, reportedly performed by the Patriarch Polyeuctus, marked a distinct shift in her personal life, and more significantly, in the religious fabric of her nation.
Taking the Christian name Helena – possibly in honour of the Christian saint Helena, mother of Constantine the Great who was revered for her piety – she was the first Christian ruler in her nation’s history. Indeed this was no small feat in a region steeped in pagan rituals and beliefs, and her conversion symbolised a stark departure from the religious norms of her people.
Olga of Kiev proceeded to build churches and spread the Christian word, devoting herself to her faith, however she was unsuccessful in her attempt to convert her son. Nevertheless, the seeds that Kiev’s Queen Olga planted bore fruit in the next generation. Her grandson, Vladimir the Great, officially converted to Christianity. In 988 AD, he declared it the state religion of Kievan Rus’. Regent Olga had forever changed the religious landscape of Eastern Europe.
The Death & Legacy of Saint Olga of Kiev
Olga died from illness in 969 AD. She was given a Christian funeral by a priest named Gregory. She was laid to rest in Kiev but her tomb was reputed to have been destroyed by the armies of Mongolian ruler Batu Khan – a grandson of Genghis Khan – in 1240.
She became Saint Olga of Kiev in or around 1547 after she was canonised by the Russian Orthodox Church, and given the honorific ‘Isapostolos’, meaning ‘Equal to the Apostles.’
She is worshipped as a saint in much of Eastern Europe. Rather fittingly, she is the patron saint of widows and converts.
The story of Olga of Kiev is one of the joyous highs and extreme lows of human morality. Indeed historian Thomas Craughwell, an author specialising in the history of saints, said ‘she took viciousness to a new level.’ However she was also a leader who demonstrated the ability to rule with strength, determination and decision and eventually found a path to redemption. She serves as a symbol of enduring faith, resilience and transformation.
Her legacy continues to resonate in the annals of Eastern European history, reflecting a compelling narrative of defiance, devotion, and change that has shaped the region’s destiny.