In today’s Biographics we are covering our first Saint worshipped both by the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches, revered for having first introduced Christianity amongst the Rus. These were a pagan people of Nordic descent, who ruled over a vast land in the early Middle Ages, from the Baltic to the Black Sea. But her holy title should not fool you, as she did not dedicate her life solely to prayer and converting the heathen. This Saint was a ruler, the regent of the Principality of Kiev, and one of the most powerful women of the early Middle Ages.
Most of her life is lost to the shadows of history, while the rest has emerged from the mists of legend. In today’s Biographics, we will learn how this widow of a Prince, with an infant son, defended her throne against insidious suitors, hostile tribes, and invading nomadic raiders. Most of all, we will hear about the incredible story of how she avenged her husband with acts of escalating, ruthless cunning. Please welcome today’s protagonist, Princess Olga of Kiev.
Before I begin the story of how Princess Olga defended her family and her lands, allow me to give you some context. Who were the Rus people and what lands did they rule over?
The Rus, sometimes also called Varangians, were people of Scandinavian ethnicity who had founded the ‘Kievan Rus’ — a political federation that lasted from 862 to 1242. This state was located in modern-day Belarus, Ukraine, and western Russia, which is actually named after the Rus. The capital city of this federation was Kiev, in modern-day Ukraine. `Kievan Rus’ can simply be translated as “the lands of the Rus of Kiev”.
Their Scandinavian origin was first mentioned by a Byzantine diplomat (and eventual Saint) named Bertin, who first recorded their presence in his Annals of 839.
But most of the stories about the origin of the Rus comes from the Primary Chronicle, known also as the Tale of Bygone Years, an early Russian text from the 12th Century. According to the Chronicle, the original dwellers of the area in the mid-ninth century had invited the Rus – described also as Vikings – to rule and maintain order in their country. One of these Vikings was called Rurik, and he founded his own dynasty, which ruled over the area for more than seven centuries. The first Tsar of Russia — Ivan IV, or Ivan The Terrible — was a direct descendant of Rurik’s.
The Kievan Rus, however, had ceased to exist as a political entity long before Ivan. Between 1237 and 1242, the federation was overrun by the unimpeded advance of the Mongol hordes! The federation was divided into smaller, disjointed countries, which eventually evolved into Ukraine, Belarus and Russia.
But now, back to Rurik, as his bloodline is directly involved in our main story today.
At an unspecified time, in the second half of the 9th Century, Rurik had established his capital in Novgorod, and his men had begun raiding the surrounding area, in true Viking style, even going as far as attacking Constantinople. When Rurik died of natural causes, his first-born son Igor was too young to rule, and was put under the care of Oleg of Novgorod.
After more campaigns to conquer and consolidate territories around Novgorod, Oleg moved the capital to Kiev, to seize the enormous wealth amassed by two former allies of Rurik.
In 912, Oleg died, and in a very interesting way, too. A prophecy had foretold him that his favourite horse would be the cause of his death. Oleg, a superstitious man, had made sure the horse was cared for as far as possible away from him. When he heard that the horse had died, Oleg considered himself freed of the curse, and mockingly kicked at the poor animal’s skull.
He chose poorly: a snake beneath the carcass was startled, bit Oleg on the foot, and killed him.
In the meantime, Igor had come of age, and so he ascended to the throne, formally becoming Prince Igor of Kiev. By this time, he had already married a Varangian Lady named Olga.Olga of Kiev
Following in the footsteps of his father and his guardian, Igor continued engaging in successful conquests, raiding the neighbouring territories and exacting heavy tributes to fill his coffers.
But Igor was greedy, and he wanted more.
In 945, he considered paying a visit to the land of the Drevlians, a local tribe which had been an ally to Rurik, joining his raiders in attacks against the Byzantine Empire. Later, the Drevlians had paid tribute to Oleg, but had stopped when he had kicked the horse’s head. Since then, the Drevlians had paid what was effectively protection money to a rival landlord. Igor saw this as a perfect occasion to collect some late payments and set off on his mission.
According to the Primary Chronicle, he raided the land of Dereva and collected his tribute by violence. But on his way back to Kiev, he still felt a thirst for more gold and riches. He ordered his men to return home, except for a few followers. With them in tow, he rode back to the Drevlians
“desirous of still greater booty.”
Like Oleg, he had tried his luck once too many. His returning party was spotted by the Drevlians, who reported back to their leader, Prince Mal. The Prince had had enough, proclaiming,
“If a wolf come among the sheep, he will take away the whole flock one by one, unless he be killed. If we do not thus kill him now, he will destroy us all.”
The Drevlian warriors then rode forth from their city of Iskorosten, massacred Igor’s soldiers and reserved for him a gruesome execution. I will leave the description to Byzantine chronicler Leo the Deacon:
“They had bent down two birch trees to the prince’s feet and tied them to his legs.”
“They let the trees straighten again, thus tearing the prince’s body apart.”
With this threat disposed of, the Drevlians planned their counterattack. They would take over Kiev itself, not by conquest, but by marriage. Prince Mal ordered for some emissaries to visit the now widowed Olga to ask for her hand in marriage. It is not clear if this was a common habit at the time, or if Mal was simply very arrogant.
Back in her capital, Olga awaited for Igor’s return in vain. By her side, she had her boy son Svyatoslav, who too young to fight, let alone rule. Mal’s idea was that by becoming his stepfather, he could influence the little prince into doing his own bidding.
So the delegation of the Drevlians sailed a boat along the river Dnipro. Mal had sent twenty of his best advisors to put forward his proposal, clearly believing they would be welcomed with open arms.
This is when the Primary Chronicle, and our own story, centres on Olga. The Princess sent her own emissaries to ask for the reason of the Drevlians’ visit. They announced that they had slain her husband, because
“He was like a wolf, crafty and ravening”
but that Prince Mal was a good leader and that Olga should come to the land of Dereva and marry him.
Olga’s reply was what the delegation was expected. In fact, she said that their proposal was pleasing to her ears, but asked for the delegates to wait on their boat, and that they would be picked up the following morning.
As the twenty Drevlians waited, Olga had the hall of her castle prepared to give them their deserved welcome. The morning after, when the Rus came to collect the Drevlians, the latter demanded to be carried into the castle in their own boat. The Rus complied, as this was the same order they had received from Olga. When they arrived in the castle, they found what surprise lay waiting for them: during the night, the Princess had commanded for a large, deep ditch to be dug within the castle walls.
The Drevlians did not have time to react, as the Rus hurled them, boat and all, inside the trench. The delegates protested to no avail, as Olga ordered that they be buried alive.
With her simple trap, the Princess had wiped out a large part of the enemy leadership. That was only the beginning of her revenge.
A Feast of Mead
Prince Mal was unaware of what had happened in Kiev, so he was not suspicious of the message he received from Olga. She insisted that she was eager to meet, but she would do so only if Mal sent more of his own distinguished men to pick her up.
The Prince, who it is safe to say, was quite a gullible man, agreed to it, and gathered more of his chieftains, warriors, and advisors to pay homage to the Rus Princess. When this second delegation arrived in Kiev, Olga demanded that they bathe before she would give them audience.
The Drevlians, surely tired, sweaty and covered in dirt from the journey, eagerly complied and entered the bathhouse that had been readied. As they relaxed inside the sauna, they were startled by a sharp noise: somebody was locking the bathhouse doors from outside. Their attempts to force their way out were futile. In horror, they heard Olga’s stern voice through the wooden doors. She had just given orders to set the house on fire.
First by earth, then by fire, the Princess regent had sealed her first two murderous campaigns against the enemy tribe, with their leadership almost entirely decapitated.
But she wasn’t done yet.
Before Mal could become suspicious of the long absence of his men, she sent another message:
“I am now coming to you, so 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.”
Mead was a popular alcoholic beverage in medieval times, made with fermented honey and water. When they received the message, the Drevlians set to work, preparing gallons of mead and a lavish feast.
Olga arrived shortly thereafter, with a small escort in tow. She arrived at Igor’s tomb and asked her men to build a funeral mound, around which the Drevlians gathered for the funeral feast. Some Drevlian who was smarter than the others asked what had become of the two delegations they had already sent, to which the sly Olga replied that they were on their way, escorted by her late husband’s guard of honour.
With the Drevlian judgment clouded by the rivers of freely flowing mead, they swallowed the lie easily. Olga asked her men to wait upon the Drevlians, ensuring their cups were never empty. She waited patiently until they were all drunk and at her signal, the massacre started.
Taken by surprise, her enemies fell one by one under the blades of the Rus. According to the Chronicle, five thousand Drevlians were cut down at the Red Funeral.
Revenge Is a Dish Best Served on Fire
A five-thousand man massacre still was not quite enough. Olga was bent on complete, total reprisal. Again moving swiftly, the Princess returned to Kiev and gathered her army. The boy Prince Svyatoslav joined his mother, and together, they marched back to the land of Dereva. He was just a child, but when his troops made contact with the enemy, Svyatoslav was the first to cast a spear from atop his horse. His arms were obviously too weak, and the spear barely cleared the horse’s ears. Regardless, Olga’s Generals, Sveinald and Asmund, proudly announced that the prince had already begun battle, and pressed the vassals to follow his example. The Rus charged forward and completely routed the Drevlians.
The surviving men, women and children of the unfortunate tribe sought refuge within the walls of their main city, Iskorosten.
Olga and her troops besieged the city, but the Drevlians valiantly repelled their assaults. They knew that this was a fight for their own existence and would resist to the bitter end.
In the meanwhile, other towns and cities of their land had capitulated, and were now living in relative peace with the Rus. They were of course, paying their tribute!
After one year, Iskorosten still stood firm, and Olga had to think of another plan to resolve the stalemate.
One day, the besieged citizens received a message from the Princess:
“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 lands in peace. But you had rather die of hunger, without submitting to tribute.”
The Derevlians started to buckle and replied that they would be glad to pay tribute, but that they could not trust her, as she was still determined to avenge Igor.
Olga was apparently relieved to start negotiations with the defenders and let them know that she considered her slain husband to have been already avenged, not once, not twice, but thrice. After all, she had already massacred two delegations, plus those who had attended the funeral feast. In order to seal the peace, she demanded one last, small tribute from the Drevlians, after which she would return home.
Olga’s request was surprisingly modest, as she realised that the city had been impoverished by the siege: she only wanted three sparrows and three pigeons from each house.
The Drevlians were elated. They collected the small flocks of six birds from every household and sent them to Olga, who promised to lift the siege the following morning.
This was the last act of Olga’s plan of total revenge and annihilation. If one year of frontal assaults and siege engines could not achieve victory, the intellect of a Princess definitely could. And she would so by turning innocent, harmless, pet birds into a weapon of mass destruction.
She ordered her soldiers to take one bird each and to attach to their talons a piece of sulphur, bound in cloth. When night fell, the soldiers released the sparrows, and the pigeons. Their silent wings carried them back to their nests, their dove-cotes, under the eaves of their homes. One by one, the houses of Iskorosten were lit by fires. Soon, the whole city was burning, its inhabitants either killed in their sleep or running in terror, unable to extinguish the flames.
Some of them fled outside the city walls, but they were quickly seized by Olga’s soldiers. She kept the elders captive, had some of the others sold as slave, and many more were killed on the spot.
This was the final and total triumph of Princess Olga of Kiev, victor of Iskorosten, scourge of the Drevlians, Mother of Sparrows.
[Note to the Team: I liked the idea of giving her a string of titles like another vengeful Queen of a popular series of books and TV shows. Victor of Iskorosten is quite logical. Scourge of the Drevlians I heard it on a podcast about her revenge story, but it did not have source. But again, difficult to argue with. Mother of Sparrows, is a title I gave her myself, which I think sounds good and ties back to that other Queen, who despite her dragons wasn’t half as effective]
A New Faith
In the following years, until 948, Olga continued to act as regent for her boy prince Vyaroslav. The Drevlians had been completely subdued and paid regular tribute to the Rus. The Principality was at peace and grew prosperous.
Finally, the Princess set on a journey to Constantinople, or as the Rus called it, Tasr’grad, the City of Caesars. The Chronicle does not offer a reason for this visit, but we can assume it was of a diplomatic nature. The Rus and the Byzantine Empire had a love-hate relationship, characterised by raids and attacks by both sides, but also by trade and occasional cooperation. It was during this period that Byzantine Emperors actually started to recruit Rus warriors in their elite Varangian guard.
In 948, the Emperor was Constantine VII, who upon meeting Olga, immediately took a liking to her. Impressed by her beauty and intellect, Constantine remarked that she was worthy to reign with him. We have learned by now that Olga did not take well to suitors, but in this case, her reaction was… well, less violent, at least.
The Princess did not outright reject the proposal, but simply stated that being a pagan, she could not marry a Christian monarch. But, if he really insisted, he could baptize her. The Emperor agreed, and with the assistance of the Patriarch of Constantinople, had her converted into the Christian Orthodox faith. The Chronicle reports that Olga accepted very eagerly the teachings of the Church
“like a sponge absorbing water.”
At her baptism, she was christened Helena, and the Emperor acted as her godfather at her own insistence.
After receiving the sacrament, Olga, or Helena, was summoned by Constantine who renewed his proposal. There were no obstacles now; she should become his wife! But she replied that this was not possible. He was her godfather, after all, which made her his daughter in the eye of the church. It was unlawful for a man to marry his own daughter!
The Emperor considered her reply, then simply said
“Olga, you have outwitted me.”
He then covered her in gifts, gold, silver, and silks, and bade her farewell.
Olga had barely returned to Kiev when she received a message from the Emperor. Apparently, those gifts were not entirely for free and he expected slaves, wax, furs and mercenaries in return. What a cheapo. Olga was unfazed and simply replied to the Byzantine envoy that she would pay back her due only if the Caesar was willing to spend as much time in Kiev as she had spent in Constantinople. It is not recorded whether the Emperor paid her a visit, so we will assume he didn’t … and she had outwitted him again!
Now, as a recently converted Christian, Olga tried to spread her new-found religion amongst her people, starting with her own son. But Prince Svyatoslav was not convinced, fearing he would be mocked by his subjects if he did so. Olga accepted this refusal as her only defeat so far, but according to the Chronicle, she prayed day and night for God to forgive the heathen souls of Svyatoslav and the Rus.
By 956 Prince Svyatoslav had come of age, and, hungry for conquest, he built a valiant army and set off on several lengthy campaigns away from Kiev. While he was away, the land of the Rus was invaded by the Pechenegs, a nomadic tribe. They swept through the country and eventually attacked Kiev. Olga shut herself up in the city with her grandsons, Yaropolk, Oleg, and Vladimir. Now it was her turn to be under siege.
The only chance of survival for the Kievans was to send a message to a relief force, on the other side of the river Dnipro. A clever boy, whose name was never recorded, volunteered for the sortie. He could speak the language of the Pechenegs and so he simply walked out of the city with a bridle in his hand, asking the nomadic riders if anybody had seen his horse. The ruse worked and he was able to jump into the river and swim to the other shore.
The relief army soon arrived and their general, called Pretich, convinced the leader of the Pechenegs that his was just the vanguard of a massive army led by Vyaroslav. These Rus were crafty people, indeed, and all their foes were a bunch of yokels, apparently: the Pechenegs bought the lie and agreed to a truce. In the meanwhile, Olga had sent a messenger to recall the Prince, who returned in time to decisively drive the Pechenegs back into the steppes.
For many years Svyatoslav remained in Kiev, finally fulfilling his duties of ruler, in addition to his early honors as a conqueror. But in 969 he announced to his mother and his advisors, the boyars, that he had no intention to remain in Kiev anymore. During his earlier campaigns, he had established his base in the city of Pereyaslavets, where all his riches were concentrated:
” Gold, silks, wine, and various fruits from Greece, silver and horses from Hungary and Bohemia, and from Rus furs, wax, honey, and slaves.”
If that was the truth, he had a point. But Olga was sad to see him depart once again. Now aged 70, the Princess was in poor health and begged him first to await her death, and then go wherever he would like. The Prince yielded, but he did not have to wait long. Three days after Olga had made her plea, she died.
Her son, her grandsons, and all of her people wept for her in mourning. Olga had given command not to hold a funeral feast for her, as was part of the pagan traditions. Instead, she had called for a Christian priest to perform the last rites in a subdued ceremony.
It was her grandson Vladimir the Great who eventually converted all of the Kievan Rus to the Orthodox faith, but Olga was hailed by later generations as Equal among the Apostles, for her role as a precursor to the widespread introduction of Christianity. In the Primary Chronicle, it is written that she was as the dawn that precedes the day.
“She shone like the moon by night, and she was radiant among the infidels like a pearl in the mire. She was the first from Rus to enter the kingdom of God, and the sons of Rus thus praise her as their leader, for since her death she has interceded with God in their behalf.”
Princess Olga of Kiev was canonized in 1547, officially becoming Saint Olga. She is probably the only mass murderering Saint in history, but I may be wrong. Other monarchs and Popes have been canonized over the centuries, and these rulers can rarely have a career without getting their hands at least a little bit bloody.
So, I hope you liked today’s video. As I mentioned at the start, it is difficult to discern which parts of Olga’s life belong to the realm of history, and which to the realm of myth. What parts do you think were true and what parts do you believe were medieval propaganda? Please comment, share and subscribe … and as usual, thank you for watching!
The Primary Chronicle: https://ia600608.us.archive.org/10/items/TheRussianPrimaryChronicle/the%20russian%20primary%20chronicle.pdf