Empresses & Queens
Died At Age: 54
Also Known As: Saint Olga, Grand Princess of Kiev, St. Olga
Born Country: Russia
Born in: Pskov, Russia
Famous as: Regent of Kievan Rus
Spouse/Ex-: Igor of Kiev (m. ?–945 AD)
father: Oleg Vershchy
children: Sviatoslav I of Kiev, Uleb Igorevich
Died on: July 11, 969
place of death: Kyiv, Ukraine
Olga of Kiev was a regent of Kievan Rus on behalf of her son, Svyatoslav I, from 945 to 960, and was named a saint by the Russian Orthodox Church nearly 600 years after her death because of her efforts in spreading Christianity through Kiev. She became the ruler of Kiev as the guardian of her three-year-old son after her husband, Igor I of Kiev, was murdered by the Drevlians while attempting to collect tribute. According to the 'Primary Chronicle', she exacted brutal revenge on the tribe in various ways following his death. She reformed the tribute gathering system and established trading-posts and hunting grounds throughout her empire. She was converted to Christianity in around 957 in Constantinople by Patriarch Polyeuctus with Emperor Constantine VII as her godfather. Emperor Constantine VII - who later built several churches in her region despite resistance from her son. Her grandson, Vladimir, later converted the entire nation to Christianity, because of which both of them are treated as saints.
Childhood & Early Life
Olga of Kiev was born sometime between 890 AD and 925 AD in Pskov, currently a city in the northwest of Russia, into a family of Varyag or Viking origin. The Norsemen had entered the territory of current Russia, Ukraine and Belarus during the 8th and 9th centuries.
According to some sources, she was the daughter of Oleg Vershchy, the founder of the state of Kievan Rus, and the guardian of Prince Igor I of Kiev, heir to the Rurik dynasty. Oleg initiated the arrangement for her marriage to Igor, and their son Svyatoslav was born in around 942.
Igor I became the ruler of Kiev after the death of Oleg in 912, however, the neighbouring Drevlian tribe stopped paying tribute upon Oleg's death and instead gave money to a local warlord. In 945, Igor journeyed to the Drevlian capital, Iskorosten, with a large army to force them to pay tributes.
While he was successful in gaining tributes from the Drevlians, while returning, he felt that the tribute amount was not fair and rode back with a small envoy to ask for more tribute. This time, upon his arrival to the Drevlian land, he was brutally murdered.
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Ruler of Kiev
After the death of her husband Igor, Olga of Kiev became regent on behalf of their son Svyatoslav, who was still a child. While not much is known about her tenure as ruler of Kiev, she immediately engaged in a bloody revenge on the Drevlians for her husband's murder.
The Drevlians had sent twenty negotiators to Olga to inform her that her husband was dead and to propose that she marry his murderer, Prince Mal. She assured them that they will be honored properly the next day, and ordered a trench to be dug overnight, where the negotiators were buried alive the next day.
She then sent message to the Drevlians to dispatch their distinguished men to Kiev to take her to the Prince with due honor, which the unsuspecting Drevlians did, without knowing the fate of the negotiators. This time, she promised to meet them after they had taken bath, and ordered her men to set the bathhouse on fire from the doors so that the Drevlians inside are burned to death.
She again sent another message to the Drevlians, instructing them to "prepare great quantities of mead" so that she could weep over her husband's grave and hold a funeral feast for him. She arrived at Igor's tomb with a small group of attendants and indeed mourned him and held a feast, but as soon as the Drevlians were drunk, she ordered her people to kill them.
While some sources maintain that nearly five thousand Drevlians were killed that night, she still prepared an army to finish off the rest and laid siege to the city of Iskorosten, where Igor was killed. Following a year-long siege, she tricked the Drevlians into gifting her pigeons and sparrows, and sent the birds flying back with burning cloths bound to their legs that burned down the city.
As a ruler, her most significant achievement was to reform the system of tribute gathering, (3) which was a first in the recorded legal reform in the history of Eastern Europe. She is also credited for establishing several hunting grounds, boundary posts, towns, and trading-posts across the empire.
Conversion to Christianity
Olga of Kiev is best known for her conversion to Christianity and for attempting to spread the religion in Kiev, even though the 'Primary Chronicle' does not clearly state her motivation behind the decision. According to some sources, she took the decision to maintain political independence and fend off marriage proposals from Byzantine Emperor Constantine VII, who was impressed with her beauty and wisdom.
She travelled to Constantinople in 957, and converted to Christianity with the assistance of the Emperor and the Patriarch, which made her his goddaughter. Following the conversion, when the Emperor proposed marriage, she reminded him how such a relationship was unlawful among Christians as he himself baptized her.
The authenticity of the accounts of her conversion is disputed because Emperor Constantine already had an Empress at the time, and according to Byzantine sources, Olga was already a Christian before her 957 visit. Also, she was not the first person from Kiev to become Christian as there were Christians in Igor's court, but she was the most powerful among the early converts.
Olga was unsuccessful in converting her own son Svyatoslav, who was worried about losing the respect of the army because of his mother's new faith. However, she greatly influenced her grandson Vladimir the Great, who made Christianity the official religion of Kievan Rus in 988.
Despite resistance from her son and the people of Kiev, she built churches in Kiev, Pskov, and elsewhere, and made her son agree not to persecute those in his kingdom who converted to Christianity. She had also sent envoys to Holy Roman Emperor Otto I in 959, requesting the Emperor to appoint a bishop and priests for her nation.
Death & Legacy
According to both Byzantine and Western European records, Olga of Kiev was the main ruler of Kievan Rus even in 959, and shared power with her son Svyatoslav I. She also took care of her grandsons in the castle of Vyshgorod while her son was out on military campaigns, and played a crucial role during the Siege of Kyiv by the Pechenegs in 968.
She was ill when her son announced plans to move his throne to the Danube region in 969, and was able to convince him to stay with her during her final days. She died a few days later from illness and was given a Christian funeral by her priest.
Despite her failure to make Kiev a Christian territory, it eventually happened thanks to her grandson's efforts, recognizing which the Russian Orthodox Church named Olga a saint in 1547. She is seen as 'Equal to the Apostles' by the Eastern Orthodox Church, the Ruthenian Greek Catholic Church, and the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church.
Olga of Kiev was christened 'Helena' after the ancient Saint Helena; however, some argue that it was after the contemporary emperor's wife, Helena. Her original name, 'Olga', is derived from the Scandinavian name 'Helga'.