Olga (c. 890–969)

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Olga (c. 890–969)

Earliest female ruler of Russia who became the first Russian canonized by the Orthodox Christian Church. Name variations: Saint Olga, Ol'ga, or Olha; Helga (Scandinavian); Helen or Helena (baptismal name); Vesheii (wise). Born to a Slavic family around 890 in Pskov, Russia; died in Kiev, Russia, in 969; traditionally believed to be the daughter of a prince from Pskov; married Igor, grand prince of Kiev (r. 912–945); children: Svyatoslav also known as Sviatoslav I, grand prince of Kiev (r. 962–972); grandchildren: Vladimir, grand prince of Kiev (r. 980–1015).

In 945, Olga, widow of Grand Prince Igor of Kiev, was elevated to the regency in the name of their son Sviatoslav (I), then a minor. Her assumption of authority was based on old Slavonic customs that provided widows with equal rights and civic independence. The liberality of this custom accorded women a position considerably better than those in other European lands in the same period. Olga, much wiser than her husband, would use the regency to exact vengeance on her husband's murderers, improve revenue collections, strengthen law, convert to Christianity and prepare her son for his eventual inheritance. This remarkable woman would later be canonized by the Orthodox Christian Church and was given a prominent historical place as the first famous woman in Russian history.

Olga was born, according to legends, around 890 to a princely Slavic family in Pskov, Russia. Although her name is derived from the Scandinavian "Helga," anthropological studies of her direct descendants strongly suggests that she was of Slavic ancestry. There is some speculation that she received the Scandinavian name at the time of her marriage to Grand Prince Igor of Kiev, whom she met by chance when his hunting party visited Pskov. Olga became very wealthy and held landed estates in various parts of the kingdom. The Primary Chronicle, the earliest written source for Russian history, mentions that in her own right she owned Vyshgorod, Olzhichi, and several other villages, as well as hunting grounds and game preserves in the regions of Novgorod and Kiev.

Igor is described in the Primary Chronicle as a greedy, violent, and unsuccessful ruler who was a descendant of the legendary Varangian, Rurik. During his reign, Igor continued the policies of his predecessor Oleg (c. 879–912), who had been a great warrior and diplomat. Igor led a disastrous campaign into Transcaucasia in 913–14, though he did gradually bring the Slavic tribes between the Dneister and Danube rivers under his control. He also led an unsuccessful expedition against the Byzantine Empire in 941. Three years later, Igor's second campaign against the Byzantines resulted in a commercial treaty that had limited advantages for Kiev. Igor had to pacify the Pecheneg and Derevlian tribes living in the steppes north of the Black Sea. In 945, Igor was killed by the Derevlians while attempting to extract more than the customary tribute from the tribe.

Because Sviatoslav was a mere boy at the time of his father's death, his mother Olga assumed power as regent of the Kievan state. Olga had not been Igor's only wife but she apparently encountered no opposition from his other wives' families. Tradition says that Igor admired her more than his

other wives for her exceptional wisdom. Indeed, the Russian people called her vesheii (wise) out of admiration for her skillful and shrewd policies. The Primary Chronicle describes Olga as both clever and ruthless in her use of power. She was as strong-willed and energetic as Igor and certainly ruled more perceptively. With her accession to the regency, this extraordinary woman became the most powerful ruler over the most extensive lands in 10th-century Russia.

Olga's first action as regent was to avenge her husband's death. During this era of Russian history, family members were virtually required to avenge the murder of a relative. Olga's vengeance is one of the more dramatic episodes recorded in the Primary Chronicle. Following the murder of Igor, the Derevlians sent 20 men to Kiev to propose that Olga marry their leader, Prince Mal. Olga gave the Derevlians a gracious welcome, listened to their marriage proposal, pretended that their overtures pleased her, and requested the delegation return in a more formal manner the following day; her subjects would carry them in one of their boats. She then commanded her subjects to dig a large trench near the castle. Displaying arrogant pride, the Derevlians were carried to the castle but suddenly their boat was dropped into the trench, and they were buried alive by Olga's soldiers. Olga bent over and inquired whether they found so much honor to their taste.

Olga then sent emissaries to Prince Mal to announce her intentions to come to him, but her people insisted, she told him, that the noblest Derevlian lords should escort her. Mal, who intended to marry Olga, dominate the youthful Sviatoslav, and seize the Kievan throne, dispatched his nobles to Kiev. When the Derevlians arrived, they were offered baths before entering her presence. After they entered the bathhouse, Olga's men locked the doors and set it on fire. The Derevlians were burned to death.

She returned to her city of Kiev and dwelt at peace in it … the wisest of women.

—Russian Primary Chronicle

Olga then arrived at the court of Prince Mal with a small escort, saying her entourage would follow, and requested large amounts of mead and food to be provided for a funeral banquet at Igor's grave. After she mourned at the grave, she invited the Derevlians to share in the banquet. When they inquired about the Derevlian retinue which was sent to accompany her, Olga replied that they were with the rest of her train. With that, the Derevlians accepted the mead and became joyously drunk. Olga and her reinforced soldiers fell upon the Derevlians and killed 5,000 of them.

The Primary Chronicle reports that Olga returned to Kiev where she and her son Sviatoslav raised a larger army for the final conquest of the Derevlians. In 946, after ravaging the smaller towns, they besieged Mal's capital, Izkorosten. After a lengthy siege, she offered them peace if each house would pay a simple tribute of three pigeons and three sparrows. After the naive Derevlians paid the tribute, Olga ordered her men to attach sulphur and cloth firebrands to the birds' tails. The birds then flew to their roosts in the eaves and gables of the highly combustible thatched-roof houses in Izkorosten. As the people fled the burning city, they fell into Olga's ambushes. Thousands were killed, enslaved, or forced to become tribute-paying subjects of Kiev. Prince Mal was captured and executed on Olga's order. She also imposed a heavy tribute on the Derevlians, two parts of which went to Kiev, and the third part to her capital of Vyshegorod.

This account from the Primary Chronicle is based on mythology and legend, and the story of the incendiary birds is common in Scandinavian folklore. Portions of the narrative are probably true, and there are known historical facts in the account. Igor did try to extort additional revenues from the Derevlians, and they did murder him in 945. Olga did lead a successful and brutal retaliation against her husband's murderers in 946. The Derevlian towns were burned down, many nobles killed, and Prince Mal did not survive Olga's vengeance. The lands of the Derevlians did become revenue sources for Olga's treasury in 946. Whether the chronicler told events as they happened or embroidered his narrative with folklore, he described Olga's actions with undisguised admiration for her shrewdness and ingenuity.

One of Olga's greatest domestic accomplishments was the establishment of the first internal revenue system in Russia. Her principal objective was to prevent circumstances like the incident leading to Igor's death. She abolished the poliudie which was the customary and dangerous winter trip by the Kievan prince to collect the annual tribute. Olga instead divided the Kievan lands into districts called pogosts, each under the authority of an agent or board empowered to collect taxes. This reform established a system of uniform taxes paid by the entire population rather than tribute collected from individual tribes. It eliminated the autonomy of local princes while centralizing financial administration in the newly conquered lands of the Derevlians and Novgorodians. The lands previously owned by the Kievan princes had been under a similar, but less efficient, administration prior to Olga's regency. She personally traveled to collect taxes as far as Novgorod and Pskov by sleigh while wrapped in fur clothing and covers. Olga made it very clear, to all of her subordinate princes, who wielded the power in Kiev.

Her most notable claim to fame was her conversion to Christianity and her visit to Constantinople in 957. Olga became the first of the royal Kievans to adopt Orthodox Christianity, although the date of her acceptance is not totally certain. According to Russian sources, she was baptized in Constantinople in 957 in a ceremony attended by the Byzantine emperor and the patriarch of Constantinople. However, documents in Constantinople indicate that she was a Christian prior to her 957 visit. It seems likely that she was baptized in Kiev around 955 and, following a second christening in Constantinople, took the Christian name Helen. Olga was certainly not the first Russian baptized (there were Christians in Igor's court who had taken oaths at the St. Elias Church in Kiev for the Russo-Byzantine Treaty in 945), but she was the most important at the time of her christening.

In the midsummer of 957, when Olga left Kiev for Constantinople, she took with her a retinue of more than 100, including nobles, ladies, serving maids, 43 merchants, and her priest, Gregory. They arrived in the late summer but had to wait for several days in a palace outside the city of Constantinople. The chronicles report that Olga was beautiful and that she wore her best jewelry and clothes. On September 9, 957, she and her retinue were ceremoniously received by Emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus in one of his palaces which was embellished with silk curtains, marble columns, sculptured fountains, and gilded domes. Olga was escorted forward by two courtiers as her name was announced. She presented the emperor with gifts of sable, ermine and Derevlian slaves. Without a single word, she was dismissed and led from the chamber, while organ music filled the air.

Olga and her ladies were led through a maze of courts and corridors to a pavilion. After waiting for a maddening amount of time, they were summoned for a second audience with Empress Helena Lekapena. Olga had to then wait until several Byzantine women were presented to the empress before she and then her ladies were escorted to the throne. Later, a third reception was hosted by the imperial couple in a more informal way. After being seated, Olga was given a lengthy audience to discuss her business with them through interpreters. That same evening, Olga and her ladies attended an elegant banquet hosted by the imperial family while a second banquet was simultaneously held in an adjacent hall for the male nobles and merchants in her entourage. The guests did not sit at the same table as the hosts, but at a distance on a lower level. After the dinner, Olga was invited to join the imperial couple in another room for dessert, and she was informally seated with the emperor and empress.

Olga remained in Constantinople for more than a month. Twice during her visit, she and members of her retinue were presented with monetary gifts. Constantine also gave Olga gifts of gold, silver, clothing and ceramic vessels. On October 18, the imperial couple held a final meeting with Olga before her departure. Afterwards, the empress and the royal princesses—including Agatha and Theodora —held a banquet for Olga while the emperor presided over a separate banquet with the male members of her retinue. Olga left Constantinople with many rich gifts. Although she was probably impressed with the splendor of the emperor's court, she was apparently not humbled by her visit. The following year, Constantine sent her a message asking when he would receive the gifts she had promised him. Olga replied that he would receive the gifts after he came to Kiev and stood around her palace as long as she stood waiting in his.

Olga's visit to Constantinople to seek a metropolitan bishop for Kiev did not succeed. She was willing to recognize the authority of the patriarch of Constantinople as head of the church but demanded autonomy for the Russian Church. Olga and the Russian princes were afraid the Byzantine emperor would insist that they not only submit to the patriarch's authority but also acknowledge the authority of the emperor. This was a real consideration for Olga, given the closeness of church-state relations in Byzantium. When her efforts failed, she turned to the West and asked Holy Roman Emperor Otto I (r. 962–973) to appoint an archbishop to Kiev and send priests to Russia. When Otto sent Adalbert of Trier, an ordinary bishop with limited authority, Olga realized that the Russian Church would be subordinate to the German clergy. Upon Adalbert's arrival in Kiev, he met with such an unfriendly reception that he abandoned his mission and returned to Trier in 962.

Olga had accepted Christianity but failed to obtain an international recognition for the Russian Church. She also failed in her efforts to get her son Sviatoslav to accept Christianity. He once told her that his companions would laugh at him if he embraced her religion. Though he attained his majority in 964, he continued to let Olga dominate his government because he, like his father, was constantly involved in military campaigns. She could never persuade him to remain peacefully in Kiev and govern his people.

Olga died after a long illness on July 11, 969. Although he disapproved, Sviatoslav respected his mother's request that her priest, Gregory, conduct a Christian funeral without the ritual pagan burial feast. Her conversion and dedication to Christianity had certainly strengthened the Christian party in Kievan Russia but it did not result in the conversion of the entire kingdom. Sviatoslav I (r. 962–972) remained a pagan until his death while campaigning against the Pechnegs in 972. His son and successor, Vladimir (r. 980–1015), officially adopted Orthodox Christianity for the Russians in 988. Realizing that Olga and Vladimir marked the transition between pagan and Christian Russia, the Russian Orthodox Church canonized both of them. Olga's feast day is July 11. Her tomb remained for over two centuries in Kiev but was destroyed in 1240 by the Mongolian-Tatar armies of Batu Khan.


Cross, S.H., and O.P. Sherbowitz-Wetzor. The Russian Primary Chronicle. Cambridge, MA: Medieval Academy of America, 1953.

Dvornik, Francis. The Slavs: Their Early History and Civilization. Boston, MA: American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 1956.

Sokol, Edward D. "Ol'ga (?–969) Saint," in Modern Encyclopedia of Russian and Soviet History. Vol. 26, 1982, pp. 14–19.

Toynbee, Arnold J. Constantine Porphyrogenitus and His World. London: Oxford University Press, 1973.

Vernadsky, George. Kievan Russia. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1959.

Volkoff, Vladimir. Vladimir: The Russian Viking. Wood-stock, NY: Overlook Press, 1985.

suggested reading:

Dmytryshyn, Basil, ed. Medieval Russia: A Source Book 900–1700. Hinsdale, IL: Dryden Press, 1973.

Grekov, Boris. Kiev Rus. Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1959.

Paszkiewicz, Henry K. The Origin of Russia. London: Allen & Unwin, 1954.

Riha, Thomas. Readings in Russian Civilization. 3 vols. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1964.

Tikhomirov, M. The Origins of Christianity in Russia. Moscow: Foreign Language Publishing House, 1959.

Zenkovsky, Serge A., ed. Medieval Russia's Epics, Chronicles, and Tales. NY: E.P. Dutton, 1963.

Phillip E. E. , Professor of History, Jacksonville State University, Jacksonville, Alabama