OH Quick Facts: Olga of Kyiv
In twelfth-century Europe, most of the stories that have survived were written by monks, and they usually carried a moral lesson. The story of Olga of Kyiv who lived in the tenth century in what is now Ukraine was no different. Compiled by "Nestor the Chronicler" in The Primary Chronicles (c. 1113 CE), Olga's story has now become part of the fabric of Eastern European history and the history of the Church. It was extraordinary then and today: the story of a woman who exacted an ingenious, calculated, and apocalyptic-style revenge on the killers of her husband, and who was also canonized as a Christian saint.
Like many who rise to the occasion when history calls, Olga’s story depends very much on the local politics of the time. Born in Pleskov (or Pskov, Russia) between 890 and 925, she was married to Igor, the son of Rurik, the founder of the long-ruling Rurikid dynasty of Kievan Rus’. It could be argued that without Olga, this “dynasty” would have been a brief one. When Rurik died, Igor was too young to rule, and so the kingdom was held in regency by Oleg, Rurik’s second-in-command. Oleg united the tribes of the area and moved the capitol to Kyiv. With this group of united tribes, Oleg challenged the Byzantine empire in 907. As was customary, this loose confederation of tribes paid tributes to Oleg for protection.
When Oleg died (the date is usually put at 912, but this is disputed), one of these tribes - the Drevlians - decided that they would rather pay tribute to a neighboring warlord instead of to the Ruriks. The new ruler Igor let this go on for a while, but it bothered him because the Drevlians were actually relatively close neighbors; the Drevlian capitol was Iskorosten, which is the modern-day Ukrainian city of Korosten, about 170 km away from Kyiv. Igor himself was proven in battle, having laid siege to Constantinople in 941 and again in 944, when he secured a treaty with the Empire.
And so, in 945, Igor took his army and paid the Drevlians a visit, leaving Olga and their three-year-old son, Sviatoslav, in Kyiv. The Drevlians and their leader, Prince Mal, initially gave in, and agreed to reinstate the tribute to Igor. Everything in place, Igor left with his army to return to Kyiv. However, Igor began to have second thoughts about the amount of tribute he requested, and returned to the Drevlians with a smaller retinue, while sending his army on to Kyiv. Prince Mal and the Drevlians smelled opportunity, and brutally killed Igor on the spot.
The Drevlians then decided to make a play for the Kyiv throne. The Chronicles reports their thinking: "See, we have killed the Prince of Rus'. Let us take his wife Olga for our Prince Mal, and then we shall obtain possession of Svyatoslav (Sviatoslav), and work our will upon him." They decided to launch a charm offensive, and sent a group of negotiators down river to Kyiv. And with this fateful choice, Olga’s legend begins.
When the Drevlian contingent arrived, Olga appeared to receive them gracefully enough. The Drevlian negotiators conveyed the news of husband's death and the proposal of marriage to Prince Mal. At first, Olga seemed to take the news and proposal surprisingly well.
"Your proposal is pleasing to me; indeed, my husband cannot rise again from the dead. But I desire to honor 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, and you shall say, 'We will not ride on horses nor go on foot; carry us in our boat.' And you shall be carried in your boat."
This was, of course, a carefully crafted request, which offered just a first glimpse of Olga’s cunning. When the time came the next day, the Drevlians “puffed up” and insisted they were to be carried in their boats to the meeting with Olga, just as she had asked them to. But, during the night, Olga had commanded that a long, deep trench be dug “in the castle”. When the Drevlians arrived in their boats, they were dumped into the trenches along with their boats. She then ordered them buried alive.
Communication not being what it is today, the Drevlians were unaware of the fate of their first negotiating team. So, Olga sent word to the Drevlians saying that she was considering the offer, but that she needed the Drevlians to send a contingent of their “nobility,” or governing class as a sign of respect. The Drevlians were thrilled by her request, and quickly dispatched this elite group to Kyiv.
Olga received them at once, and offered them the bath house to clean up after their journey. Once inside, she ordered the doors closed and had the building set on fire, killing everyone inside. Now, the Drevlians had no governing class, except Prince Mal.
Not at all done with her vengeance, Olga then sent a message saying that she wanted to mourn her husband at his tomb in the Drevlian territory. She also made a request for large amounts of mead so that they could have a proper wake for Igor. She arrived with a small contingent, but apparently, it was enough to enact the next phase of her vengeance.
“When the Drevlians were drunk, she bade her followers fall upon them, and went about herself egging on her retinue to the massacre of the Drevlians. So they cut down five thousand of them; but Olga returned to Kiev and prepared an army to attack the survivors.”
Olga then returned to Kyiv to round up her army and to get her son. At the ensuing battle between the two forces, the Chronicle says that the young heir Svyatoslav threw the first spear and so rallied the troops. The Drevlians retreated to their capitol, Iskorosten, and Olga and her forces laid siege to it for a year without conquering it.
After a year, the Drevelians asked Olga what they could offer as tribute to appease her. They suggested honey and furs, but Olga causticly replied that they had neither, since they had been under siege for the past year. Instead, she said, "Give me three pigeons and three sparrows from each house. I do not desire to impose a heavy tribute, like my husband, but I require only this small gift from you, for you are impoverished by the siege." And the Drevelian’s “rejoiced” and quickly collected the birds and sent them to Olga.
Far from being an innocent or even symbolic tribute, Olga then had her men tie paper soaked in sulphur to the birds and then released them. The birds returned to their roosts in the city: in trees, dove-houses, and under the eaves of homes. The paper then ignited, setting all the city on fire all at once. Iskorosten was razed. Those who escaped the inferno were killed or put into slavery.
And so Olga avenged the death of her husband and secured the rule for her son, and his children. In 950, Olga went to visit Constantine VII in Constantinople, where he “wondered at her intellect.” The Emperor asked her to convert to Christianity, and she did, with the help of the Orthodox Patriarch.
Olga is still revered in Ukraine, and is seen as a righteous avenger and protector of families. After her death in 969, she was made a saint in both the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches, where she is the patron of widows and converts. She was even granted the status of “Equal to the Apostles” by the Church.
Do Your Own Research
The Primary Chronicle (also known as The Russian Primary Chronicle, or Tales of Bygone Years)
Poppe, Andrzej. “Once Again Concerning the Baptism of Olga, Archontissa of Rus’.” Dumbarton Oaks Papers, vol. 46, Dumbarton Oaks, Trustees for Harvard University, 1992, pp. 271–77, https://doi.org/10.2307/1291660.