Olga of Kiev

Saint Olga of Kiev
St Olga by Nesterov in 1892.jpg
Saint Olga by Mikhail Nesterov
Grand Princess of Kiev, Equal to the Apostles
Died11 July 969
Venerated inIn East Slavic-speaking countries where churches uses the Byzantine Rite: Eastern Orthodox Church (in Russian Orthodox Church and Ukranian Orthodox Church)
Greek Catholic Church (especially in the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church)
Byzantine Rite Lutheranism[1]
Roman Catholic Church in Russia (Latin rite)[2]
FeastJuly 11/24

Saint Olga (Church Slavonic: Ольга, Old Norse: Helga; born in Pskov,[3] died 969 AD in Kiev) was a regent of Kievan Rus' for her son Svyatoslav from 945 until 960. Due to the imperfect transliteration between Old East Slavic and the English language, the name Olga is synonymous with Olha. Because of her Varangian origin, she also is known in Old Norse as Saint Helga.[4] She is known for her obliteration of the Drevlians, a tribe that had killed her husband Igor of Kiev. Even though it would be her grandson Vladimir that would convert the entire nation to Christianity, her efforts to spread Christianity through the Rus’ earned Olga veneration as a saint. She is venerated in the Russian Orthodox Church as apostle-like saints. Remembrance day in Russia is the 11th of July.[5]


Early life

While Olga's birthdate is unknown, it could be as early as 890 AD and as late as 925 AD.[6][7] According to the Primary Chronicle Olga was a Viking born in Pskov. Little is known about her life before her marriage to Prince Igor I of Kiev and the birth of their son, Svyatoslav.[8] Igor was the heir of Oleg, who had consolidated power in the region, conquering neighboring tribes and establishing a capital in Kiev.[9][10] This loose tribal federation became known as Kievan Rus’, a territory covering what are now parts of Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus.

The Drevlians were a neighboring tribe with which the growing Kievan Rus’ empire had a complex relationship. The Drevlians had joined Kievan Rus’ in military campaigns against the Byzantine Empire and paid tribute to Igor's predecessors. They stopped paying tribute upon Oleg's death and instead gave money to a local warlord. In 945, Igor set out to the Drevlian capital, Iskorosten (today known as Korosten in northern Ukraine), to force the tribe to pay tribute to Kievan Rus’.[9] Confronted by Igor's larger army, the Drevlians backed down and paid him. As Igor and his army rode home, however, he decided the payment was not enough and returned, with only a small envoy, seeking more tribute.[11] Upon his arrival in their territory, the Drevlians murdered Igor. According to the Byzantine chronicler Leo the Deacon, Igor's death was caused by a gruesome act of torture in which he was “captured by them, tied to tree trunks, and torn in two.”[12] D. Sullivan has suggested that Leo may have invented this sensationalist version of Igor's death, taking inspiration from Diodorus Siculus’ account of a similar killing method used by the robber Sinis, who lived near the Isthmus of Corinth and was killed by Theseus.[12]


Princess Olga meets the body of her husband. A sketch by Vasily Surikov.

After Igor's death in 945, Olga ruled Kievan Rus as regent on behalf of their son Svyatoslav.[13] Little is known about Olga’s tenure as ruler of Kiev, but the Primary Chronicle does give an account of her ascension to the throne and her bloody revenge on the Drevlians for the murder of her husband as well as some insight into her role as civil leader of the Kievan people.

Drevlian Uprising

Romanov Imperial icon created in 1895 of St. Olga. Silver, gold, color enamel, tempera. Collection V.Logvinenko

After Igor’s death at the hands of the Drevlians, Olga assumed the throne because her three-year-old son Svyatoslav was too young to rule. The Drevlians, emboldened by their success in ambushing and killing the king, sent a messenger to Olga proposing that she marry his murderer, Prince Mal. Twenty Drevlian negotiators boated to Kiev to pass along their king’s message and to ensure Olga’s compliance. They arrived in her court and told the queen why they were in Kiev: “to report that they had slain her husband...and that Olga should come and marry their Prince Mal.”[14] Olga responded:

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.[14]

When the Drevlians returned the next day, they waited outside Olga's court to receive the honor she had promised. When they repeated the words she had told them to say, the people of Kiev rose up, carrying the Drevlians in their boat. The ambassadors believed this was a great honor, as if they were being carried by palanquin. The people brought them into the court where they were dropped into the trench Olga had ordered dug the day before and buried alive. It is written that Olga bent down to watch them as they were buried and “inquired whether they found the honor to their taste.”[14]

Olga then sent a message to the Drevlians that they should send “their distinguished men to her in Kiev, so that she might go to their Prince with due honor.”[14] The Drevlians, unaware of the fate of the first diplomatic party, gathered another party of men to send “the best men who governed the land of Dereva.”[14] When they arrived, Olga commanded her people to draw them a bath and invited the men to appear before her after they had bathed. When the Drevlians entered the bathhouse, Olga had it set on fire from the doors, so that all the Drevlians within burned to death.[14]

Olga sent another message to the Drevlians, this time ordering them to “prepare great quantities of mead in the city where you killed my husband, that I may weep over his grave and hold a funeral feast for him.”[14] When Olga and a small group of attendants arrived at Igor's tomb, she did indeed weep and hold a funeral feast. The Drevlians sat down to join them and began to drink heavily. When the Drevlians were drunk, she ordered her followers to kill them, “and went about herself egging on her retinue to the massacre of the Drevlians.”[14] According to the Primary Chronicle, five thousand Drevlians were killed on this night, but Olga returned to Kiev to prepare an army to finish off the survivors.

The initial conflict between the armies of the two nations went very well for the forces of Kievan Rus’, who won the battle handily and drove the survivors back into their cities. Olga then led her army to Iskorosten (what is today Korosten), the city where her husband had been slain, and laid siege to the city. The siege lasted for a year without success, when Olga thought of a plan to trick the Drevlians. She sent them a message: “Why do you persist in holding out? All your cities have surrendered to me and submitted to tribute, so that the inhabitants now cultivate their fields and their lands in peace. But you had rather tide of hunger, without submitting to tribute.”[15] The Drevlians responded that they would submit to tribute, but that they were afraid she was still intent on avenging her husband. Olga answered that the murder of the messengers sent to Kiev, as well as the events of the feast night, had been enough for her. She then asked them for a small request: “Give me three pigeons...and three sparrows from each house.”[15] The Drevlians rejoiced at the prospect of the siege ending for so small a price, and did as she asked.

Olga then instructed her army to attach a piece of sulphur bound with small pieces of cloth to each bird. At nightfall, Olga told her soldiers to set the pieces aflame and release the birds. They returned to their nests within the city, which subsequently set the city ablaze. As the Primary Chronicle tells it: “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.”[15] As the people fled the burning city, Olga ordered her soldiers to catch them, killing some of them and giving the others as slaves to her followers. She left the remnant to pay tribute.


Olga remained regent ruler of Kievan Rus with the support of the army and her people. She changed the system of tribute gathering (poliudie) in the first legal reform recorded in Eastern Europe. She continued to evade proposals of marriage, defended the city during the Siege of Kiev in 968, and saved the power of the throne for her son.

After her dramatic subjugation of the Drevlians, the Primary Chronicle recounts how Olga “passed through the land of Dereva, accompanied by her son and her retinue, establishing laws and tribute. Her trading posts and hunting-reserves are there still.”[15] As queen, Olga established trading-posts and collected tribute along the Msta and the Luga rivers. She established hunting grounds, boundary posts, towns, and trading-posts across the empire. Olga's work helped to centralize state rule with these trade centers, called pogosti, which served as administrative centers in addition to their mercantile roles. Olga's network of pogosti would prove important in the ethnic and cultural unification of the Russian nation, and her border posts began the establishment of national boundaries for the kingdom.

During her son's prolonged military campaigns, she remained in charge of Kiev, residing in the castle of Vyshgorod with her grandsons.


The Primary Chronicle does not go into additional detail about Olga's time as regent, but does tell the story of her conversion to Christianity and subsequent effect on the acceptance of Orthodox Christianity in Eastern Europe.

The Lemko church of Saints Vladimir and Olga, now located at the Museum of National Folk Architecture and Rural Life in Lviv


In the 950s, Olga traveled to Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire, to visit Emperor Constantine VII.[16] Once in Constantinople, Olga converted to Christianity with the assistance of the Emperor and the Patriarch. While the Primary Chronicle does not divulge Olga's motivation for her visit or conversion, it does go into great detail on the conversion process, in which she was baptized and instructed in the ways of Christianity:

The reigning Emperor was named Constantine, son of Leo. Olga came before him, and when he saw that she was very fair of countenance and wise as well, the Emperor wondered at her intellect. He conversed with her and remarked that she was worthy to reign with him in his city. When Olga heard his words, she replied that she was still a pagan, and that if he desired to baptize her, he should perform this function himself; otherwise, she was unwilling to accept baptism. The Emperor, with the assistance of the Patriarch, accordingly baptized her. When Olga was enlightened, she rejoiced in soul and body. The Patriarch, who instructed her in the faith, said to her, ‘Blessed art thou among the women of Rus’, for thou hast loved the light, and quit the darkness. The sons of Rus’ shall bless thee to the last generation of thy descendants.’ He taught her the doctrine of the Church, and instructed her in prayer and fasting, in almsgiving, and in the maintenance of chastity. She bowed her head, and like a sponge absorbing water, she eagerly drank in his teachings. The Princess bowed before the Patriarch, saying, ‘Through thy prayers, Holy Father, may I be preserved from the crafts and assaults of the devil!’ At her baptism she was christened Helena, after the ancient Empress, mother of Constantine the Great. The Patriarch then blessed her and dismissed her.[17]

While the Primary Chronicle notes that Olga was christened with the name “Helena” after the ancient Saint Helena (the mother of Constantine the Great), Jonathan Shepard argues that Olga's baptismal name comes from the contemporary emperor's wife, Helena.[18] The observation that Olga was “worthy to reign with him in his city” suggests that the emperor was interested in marrying her. While the Chronicle explains Constantine's desire to take Olga as his wife as stemming from the fact that she was “fair of countenance and wise as well,” marrying Olga could certainly have helped him gain power over Rus’. The Chronicle recounts that Olga asked the emperor to baptize her knowing that his baptismal sponsorship, by the rules of spiritual kinship, would make marriage between them a kind of spiritual incest.[19] Though her desire to become Christian may have been genuine, this request was also a way for her to maintain political independence. After the baptism, when Constantine repeated his marriage proposal, Olga answered that she could not marry him since Church law forbade a goddaughter to marry her godfather:

After her baptism, the Emperor summoned Olga and made known to her that he wished her to become his wife. But she replied, ‘How can you marry me, after yourself baptizing me and calling me your daughter? For among Christians that is unlawful, as you yourself must know.’ Then the Emperor said, ‘Olga, you have outwitted me.’ He gave her many gifts of gold, silver, silks, and various vases, and dismissed her, still calling her his daughter.[17]

Francis Butler argues that the story of the proposal was a literary embellishment, describing an event that is highly unlikely to have ever actually occurred.[20] In fact, at the time of her baptism, Constantine already had an empress. In addition to uncertainty over the truth of the Chronicle’s telling of events in Constantinople, there is controversy over the details of her conversion to Christianity.[21] According to Russian sources, she was baptized in Constantinople in 957. Byzantine sources, however, 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 not the first person from Rus’ to convert from her pagan ways-- there were Christians in Igor's court who had taken oaths at the St. Elias Church in Kiev for the Rus'–Byzantine Treaty in 945--but she was the most powerful Rus’ individual to undergo baptism during her life.[22]

Efforts to Christianize Kievan Rus'

The Primary Chronicle reports that Olga received the Patriarch's blessing for her journey home, and that once she arrived, she unsuccessfully attempted to convert her son to Christianity:

Now Olga dwelt with her son Svyatoslav, and she urged him to be baptized, but he would not listen to her suggestion, though when any man wished to be baptized, he was not hindered, but only mocked. For to the infidels, the Christian faith is foolishness. They do not comprehend it, because they walk in darkness and do not see the glory of God. Their hearts are hardened, and they can neither hear with their ears nor see with their eyes. For Solomon has said, ‘The deeds of the unrighteous are far from wisdom. Inasmuch as I have called you, and ye heard me not, I sharpened my words, and ye understood not. But ye have set at nought all my counsel, and would have none of my reproach. For they have hated knowledge, and the fear of Jehovah they have not chosen. They would none of my counsel, but despised all my reproof.[17]

This passage highlights the hostility towards Christianity in Kievan Rus’ in the tenth century. In the Chronicle, Svyatoslav declares that his followers would “laugh” if he were to accept Christianity.[17] While Olga tried to convince her son that his followers would follow his example if he converted, her efforts were in vain. However, her son agreed not to persecute those in his kingdom who did convert, which marked a crucial turning point for Christianity in the area.[23] Despite the resistance of her people to Christianity, Olga built churches in Kiev, Pskov, and elsewhere.[24]

Relations with the Holy Roman Emperor

Seven Latin sources document Olga's embassy to Holy Roman Emperor Otto I in 959. The continuation of Regino of Prüm mentions that the envoys requested the emperor to appoint a bishop and priests for their nation. The chronicler accuses the envoys of lies, commenting that their trick was not exposed until later. Thietmar of Merseburg says that the first archbishop of Magdeburg, Saint Adalbert of Magdeburg, before being promoted to this high rank, was sent by Emperor Otto to the country of the Rus' (Rusciae) as a simple bishop but was expelled by pagan allies of Svyatoslav I. The same data is repeated in the annals of Quedlinburg and Hildesheim.