Olga of Kiev: Pious Saint or Murderous Queen?

Olga of Kiev was canonized centuries after her death for her religious efforts. What she is most well-known for, however, has nothing to do with her saintly deeds.

Feb 19, 2022By Deianira Morris, BA Anthropology w/ Archaeology Concentration
portrait olga of kiev medieval religious

 

In the Christian church, individuals throughout history have been raised to sainthood for a wide variety of reasons. Some, like St. Nicholas, were canonized for their generosity. Other individuals, such as St. Augustine, were canonized for their intellectual contributions to Christianity. Often hailed as the founder of Russian Christianity, St. Olga of Kiev was canonized almost 600 years after her death in honor of her efforts to introduce Christianity to medieval Russia. However, the legacy that Olga is known for has nothing to do with her saintly deeds. Rather, this Russian queen has achieved infamy through legends surrounding the campaign of brutal revenge she waged against a neighboring Russian tribe after they murdered her husband and threatened her throne. A subject of both contention and interest, the legends of Saint Olga have survived over 1,000 years as scholars and history enthusiasts grapple with the dualistic personas of the ancient monarch.

 

Olga of Kiev: Bride of the Rus

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Portrait of St. Olga of Kiev, by Nikolai Bruni, ca. late 19th-century, via ozy.com

 

There is little documentation regarding Olga before her marriage to Igor of Kiev, but she is believed to have been born around 900 CE in the city of Pskov. Records indicate that Olga of Kiev was likely a Varangian, a group of people who were descended from Vikings and Scandinavians who primarily lived near the Volga River. In 903 CE, Olga was married to Igor of Kiev, who was the leader of the Kievan Rus. At the time of Igor and Olga’s marriage, the Kievan Rus had transformed from a group of warring tribes into a small, but formidable, principality through the efforts of Igor’s father Rurik. Rurik, and later his son Igor, expanded the territory and political authority of the Kievan Rus by subjugating neighboring tribes and collecting tributes from them. As a result, the Rus collected a significant amount of wealth and power over a short period of time.

 

For the majority of Igor and Olga’s marriage, her husband often came into conflict with various tribes, or else was engaged in military skirmishes with the Byzantine Empire. The records of this period make little mention of Olga of Kiev beyond the birth of her son in 942 CE, who was named Sviatoslav. In 912 CE, while Igor was campaigning to expand his territory, many of the tribes that traditionally paid tribute to the Kievan Rus stopped sending payments. After Igor returned from his many campaigns in 945 CE, he decided to reinstate the taxation system and demand tribute from all the tribes that had stopped paying.

 

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Kievan Rus Pendant, ca. 11th – 12th century CE, via the Metropolitan Museum of Art

 

One of the tribes that Igor confronted was a group known as the Drevlians. The Drevlians (alternatively spelled Derevlians and Drevlyans) were an eastern Slavic tribe that had originally resisted the Kievan Rus but decided to ally with the Rus during their campaign against the Byzantine Empire on the condition that the Drevlians pay tribute. However, like many of the other vassal tribes, the Drevlians stopped paying tribute while Igor was away on campaign. When he confronted the Drevlians, Igor was initially successful in collecting tribute from them. However, for unknown reasons, the leader of the Kievan Rus was not satisfied with what the Drevlians had given and he went back to demand further tribute.

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In response to Igor’s demands, the Drevlians ambushed and killed the leader. A Byzantine historian, Leo the Deacon, stated that the Drevlians killed Igor by tying his legs to two birch trees that had been bent backward. The birch trees were then let go, and the force of the trees straightening themselves tore Igor in two.  Because the Kievan Rus were a patriarchal society, Igor’s crown passed to his son, Sviatoslav, upon his death. However, because the boy was only three years old at the time, his mother became the regent and effective leader of the Kievan Rus. As a result, Queen Olga of Kiev now found herself the widowed leader of a kingdom threatened by an uprising that had just taken the life of their king.

 

The Russian Queen’s Revenge

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Illustration of Queen Olga holding a funeral feast for her husband, ca. 1836, via ozy.com

 

After killing King Igor, Drevlian ambassadors came to Kiev and proposed that Olga marry their leader, Prince Mal. According to the Primary Chronicle, an essential source of information on the Russian queen, Olga responded to their offer by saying “Your proposal is pleasing to me; indeed, my husband cannot rise again from the dead”. She then asked the Drevlian ambassadors to return to her the next day and demand that the Kievan Rus carry the Drevlians into the city in their boat. That same day, Olga ordered her people to dig a large ditch outside of the city. When Olga’s representatives came to collect the Drevlians the next day, they did as the Russian queen instructed and demanded that the Rus carry them to the city in their boats. When the Russians delivered the Drevlians to Olga, she ordered her people to drop them in the ditch. Olga then had the Drevlian ambassadors buried alive in their boat.

 

Before the Drevlians could learn of their ambassadors’ fates, Olga sent another message to the tribe. In this message, Olga stated that she would meet their prince if the Drevlians sent their most distinguished men to accompany her. The Drevlians responded by sending their governors to bring the Russian Queen back. When the group arrived, Olga invited them to bathe in her bathhouse. After the Drevlian governors went inside, Olga set the bathhouse on fire and burned them to death.

 

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Artistic Rendering of Medieval Kiev, via Destinations

 

Following this, the Russian queen sent another message to the Drevlians informing them that she wanted to come to the city where the Drevlians had killed her husband (Iskorosten) so that she could visit Igor’s tomb and hold a funeral feast for him. The Drevlians, still unaware that Olga had killed their ambassadors and governors, welcomed Olga of Kiev into their city and helped her prepare a funeral feast. Once the feast was ready, Olga invited the Drevlians to eat and drink alcohol with her. After the Drevlians became thoroughly intoxicated, Olga ordered her people to massacre them and they killed roughly 5,000 people before returning to Kiev.

 

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Kievan Rus Jewelry, ca. 12th century CE, via the British Museum

 

The Kievan Rus then raised an army and marched on the surviving Drevlians. Unable to defeat the Rus in open combat, the Drevlians fled to their cities and barricaded themselves inside. Olga and her army then laid siege to the Drevlian city of Iskorosten for an entire year. When the Drevlians did not relent, Olga sent a message to them stating that she no longer wanted revenge. She asked them to pay tribute instead, specifically asking for three pigeons and three sparrows from every house in the city.

 

Olga of Kiev promised to lift her siege of the city if they paid her the tribute, so the Drevlians happily complied. That night, however, Olga ordered her men to tie a piece of sulfur and cloth to each bird, set the cloth on fire, and then released the birds. The birds immediately flew back to their coops in the city, which were built in the roofs and eaves of wooden buildings. Almost every building in the city was set on fire, and Olga was able to conquer the city with ease. The majority of the city’s populace was then killed or enslaved, while the rest were left to pay the heavy tribute that Olga imposed following the Drevelian’s defeat.

 

Olga of Kiev: The First Russian Christian

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Jaharis Byzantine Lectionary, ca. 1100 CE, via the Metropolitan Museum of Art

 

Following Olga’s subjugation of the Drevlians, records indicate that she returned to Kiev and ruled peacefully for a number of years. Using her authority as regent, the Russian queen established trading posts all over the region and set up a system of centralized administration. Olga also made changes to the tribute system of the Kievan Rus that constituted some of the first legal reforms in eastern Europe. In 948 CE, the Russian queen visited Constantinople in the Byzantine Empire, which was then ruled by Emperor Constantine VII at the time.

 

According to the Primary Chronicle, Emperor Constantine proposed to Olga and offered to let her rule beside him. However, Olga replied that she could not marry him because she was a pagan, so Emperor Constantine baptized her and gave her the name Helena. After baptism, the emperor prosed to the Russian queen again. This time, however, Olga replied that she was technically Constantine’s “daughter” by faith because he had baptized her and, an incestuous marriage was considered a sin in Christianity, so she could not marry him. The Chronicle states that Emperor Constatine then admitted that Olga had bested him, and he sent her home with gifts of gold, silver, silks, and other valuable objects.

 

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Jeweled Byzantine Bracelet, ca. 500 – 700 CE, via the Metropolitan Museum of Art

 

After returning home, Olga spent much of her remaining life championing the adoption of Christianity among her people, and the Russian queen tried to convince her son to convert. Although Sviatoslav refused to convert because he felt that his people would mock him for it, he did agree not to persecute anyone who converted. With this support, Olga successfully built churches in several Russian cities, such as Kiev and her hometown of Pskov. In 968 CE, Olga defended Kiev from an attacking Bulgarian army that had come to take Sviatoslav’s throne while he was away on a campaign. A year later, the formidable Russian queen died of illness in 969 CE.

 

A Complex Account: Bloodthirsty Monarch or Strategic Genius?

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Map of the Kievan Rus’ territory, via Smart History

 

Taken at face value, the story of Olga’s campaign against the Drevlians appears to be the classic tale of a vengeful queen enacting retribution of Biblical proportions for the murder of her husband. What is interesting about this tale, however, is the portrayal of the Russian queen as an adept political and military strategist. Confronted by the group that had just killed her husband, Olga was able to lead the Drevlians into fatal traps on several different occasions. Additionally, Olga was also adept at using her intellect to infiltrate the stronghold of the enemy or to break a siege when brute force failed. Correspondingly, it can also be argued that Olga’s entire campaign against the Drevlians provides a detailed account of medieval Russian strategics.

 

The death of Olga’s husband, Igor, would have jeopardized the political authority of the Kievan Rus at a time when the group needed to maintain its power over the tribes that Igor had spent the last few decades subjugating. If Queen Olga had married Prince Mal, this would have given the Drevlians control over the Kievan Rus and effectively relinquished the group’s autonomy. The Kievan Rus similarly risked the loss of their authority if the Drevlians were able to defeat them in battle. However, if the Drevlians were able to successfully challenge the Rus, it is possible that the Drevlians would have inspired other tribes to rebel even if they lost. As such, Olga could have spent years contending with a succession of uprisings from her other vassals. Records of Olga’s reign do not mention any more uprisings after her brutal suppression of the Drevlians, so it is entirely possible that the goal of Olga’s campaign against the Drevlians was to discourage the other tribes from rebelling against the Rus.

 

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Reconstruction of a Kievan Rus fort in Kiev, via Re-thinkingthefuture.com

 

In addition to larger political concerns, it could also be argued that Olga’s actions against the Drevlians were motivated by her personal position within the politics of the situation. Records indicate that Kievan Rus society was dominated by men, and the women of this culture did not have a significant amount of influence or political power. As a newly widowed monarch in a patriarchal society with a young son to protect, Olga was likely in a tenuous political position that would have made her vulnerable to both internal conflicts, as well as external domination. If Olga had married Prince Mal, she would have been forced to relinquish her power to the Drevlian prince and she likely would have lost the support of her people for submitting to the enemy. Arguably, Olga’s retaliation against the Drevlians served as a warning to anyone who threatened her while simultaneously winning the loyalty of her people through the defeat of the tribe that murdered their king. This would have bolstered her reputation and political influence as a leader, which would have helped to ensure the safety of herself and her family. Additionally, this influence could have contributed to her ability to enact political changes later in her regency.

 

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Kievan Rus ring, ca. 12th century CE, via The British Museum, London

 

Olga’s persona as a political strategist is further supported by an account of her visit to the Byzantine empire and her conversion to Christianity. Similar to her prospective marriage to Prince Mal of the Drevlians, Olga’s marriage to Emperor Constantine would have given the Byzantine empire control over the Kievan Rus and would have undermined the political independence of the Russian principality. However, Olga would not have wanted to offend Constantine because not only was the Byzantine empire far larger and more powerful than the Rus, Olga’s people were also heavily dependent on the Byzantines for trade revenue. As such, some scholars suggest that Olga’s conversion to Christianity was her way of maintaining her people’s alliance with the Byzantine empire without relinquishing her political autonomy.

 

A Tall Tale of Paganism and Christianity?

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Religious Mosaics in The Church of St. Sophia, built by the Kievan Rus ca. 1037, Kiev, Ukraine, via Smart History

 

Although scholars generally agree that the murder of Olga’s husband and her subsequent military action against the Drevlians did occur, some experts suggest that the details of the conflict may have been significantly exaggerated. The records that detail Olga’s conflict with the Drevlians were written over 200 years after her death and some scholars have pointed out that the main themes in Olga’s story, such as the vengeful widow, are common motifs in Scandinavian folklore. Based on this, some scholars theorize that this account may have been a myth that was used to illustrate Queen Olga’s cunning and bravery as a founder of Russian Christianity and of the Rurik dynasty. Supporting this theory is the fact that these records were written by monks that were being financially supported by Olga’s descendants.

 

Other scholars have suggested that the tale of Olga’s revenge against the Drevlians was a way to emphasize Olga’s brutality as a pagan monarch and to highlight her reform after converting to Christianity. This theory is supported by records such as the Primary Chronicle, which heavily emphasizes the Russian queen’s virtues and wisdom as a Christian convert who also tried to convert her people. Scholars have noted that the theme of ethical reformation following religious conversion is common in Christianity as well as other religions, such as Buddhism. It could also be argued that this theory is further supported by Olga’s refusal to remarry after the death of her husband, which illustrates the Christian virtue of fidelity to one’s spouse.

 

Olga of Kiev: The Sainted Russian Queen

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St. Olga, by Mikhail Vasilyevich Nesterov, ca. 1892, located State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg, via The Moscow Times

 

Although scholars still debate how much of Olga’s story is true, it is clear that the Russian queen herself was a real monarch who had an undeniable effect on both her people and the entirety of Russian history. The political and economic reforms that Olga of Kiev enacted during her reign laid the foundations that her descendants would use to unite all of Russia and found the first ruling dynasty. Named after Igor of Kiev’s father, the Rurik dynasty ruled for over 700 years before being replaced by the Romanov dynasty. Although Olga did not succeed in converting her son, her grandson Vladimir the Great would convert to Christianity in 988 CE and encourage the spread of Christianity among the Kievan Rus.  In 1547, the Russian Orthodox church canonized Olga of Kiev for her contributions to Russian Christianity.

 

Records state that when Olga died, the entire Rus principality wept for her. Medieval texts such as the Primary Chronicle immortalize the Russian queen as someone who “shone like the moon by night, and…was radiant among the infidels like a pearl in the mire”. When the church made Olga of Kiev a saint, she became the first Russian woman to be canonized and was given the epithet “equal to the Apostles”. Whether as a pious saint or a cunning and ruthless leader, Queen Olga clearly maintained a reputation as a respected and formidable leader that survived long after her death.



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By Deianira MorrisBA Anthropology w/ Archaeology ConcentrationDeianira is an archaeologist and museum enthusiast with a love for studying the ancient past. She holds a BA in Anthropology with a concentration on Archaeology from the University of Arizona, during which she also attained a Minor in Psychology. Her research focuses on how past societies used images and symbols to demonstrate communal identities and cultural worldviews. Deianira also has a passion for ensuring the preservation of cultural heritage and is pursuing a career as a museum professional. As a writer, Deianira’s goal is to make information about ancient history more accessible and interesting to the public.