A saint in both the Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church, Olga of Kiev seems as unsaintly as one could possibly be. Here All About History explores why this fierce leader was no angel
Olga of Kiev was one of the most vicious and vengeful rulers in the history of the Kievan Rus’ – the principality that would eventually give birth to modern Russia, Ukraine and Belarus, stretching at its height from the Baltic Sea in the North to the Black Sea in the South.
Born sometime around 903 CE in Pskov, Russia, history gives Olga scarcely a glance for much of her life – including her marriage to Igor, Prince of Kiev and the birth of her son.
With her husband’s death though, Olga becomes more than a wife and mother, and without sacrificing either of those duties, takes centre stage.
Like all rising empires, Kievan Rus’ had grown at the expense of its neighbours and one tribe had grown wary of their smothering embrace.
The relationship between the Drevlians and Kievan Rus’ was complex – they had joined the Rus’ in military campaigns against the Byzantine Empire and paid tribute to Igor’s predecessors, but stopped in 912 when the previous prince died and instead paid this glorified protection money to a local warlord.
Igor’s attempted to restore his privileges in 945 with a trip to their capital of Iskorosten (now Korosten in Northern Ukraine). This visit – as if the previous 33 years simply hadn’t happened! – was a slap in the face and the Drevlians fought back, seizing the prince and murdering him in a gristly display.
“They had bent down two birch trees to the prince’s feet and tied them to his legs,” wrote Byzantine chronicler Leo the Deacon, “then they let the trees straighten again, thus tearing the prince’s body apart.”
With their son, the three-year old Svyatoslav, too young to take the throne of Kiev, Olga stepped up to rule as regent in his stead.
The Drevians would soon know her well, but for now they thought they were dealing with just another demure noblewoman who could be easily cowed and arrange to marry her to their own Prince Mal. Not only would they be free from paying tribute to the Kievan Rus’ – they would rule the Kievan Rus’.
The Drevians sent 20 of their best men to try and persuade Olga to marry the living symbol of her husband’s murder. Telling them to wait in their boat, she had a ditch dug and next morning had had the emissaries buried alive.
Rather than just leave it at this, a pretty definitive refusal if ever there was one, she sent word back to Prince Mal that should would accept his proposal, but only if the Drevians sent a part of their great and good to accompany her back to their territory, after all it was important that the proud Keivan Rus’ see just how important this matchmaking was.
Her would-be suitor obliged, sending a party of their chieftains to collect her. Extending a suitably grand welcome, she invited the visitors to wash up in her bath house and then locking the doors, burned the entire company alive.
Amazingly this wasn’t the end of the matter.
With the whole of the Drevian ruling class cruelly exterminated, Olga hatched a plan to do away with the rest of them all together and announcing that she would be soon arriving at the Drevian capital of Iskorosten and asked for them to arrange a funeral feast where they could mourn over her husband’s death in that the very city.
Despite the not having heard from either of the missions they’d dispatched to Olga’s court, the Drevians set about preparing the feast and after drinking themselves insensible on mead, Olga’s soldiers put 5,000 of them to the sword.
Even this orgy of bloodletting wasn’t enough to satiate her need for vengeance and Olga gathered an army to wipe out her foes for good. The surviving Drevians begged for mercy and offered to pay in honey and furs to escape her anger.
She seemed to soften, although at this point you’d think they’d know better…
“Give me three pigeons,” she said, according to the Primary Chronicle, “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.”
The Chronicle records in great detail the feat of precision-guided pyromania that followed:
“Now Olga gave to each soldier in her army a pigeon or a sparrow, and ordered them to attach by thread to each pigeon and sparrow a piece of sulfur bound with small pieces of cloth. When night fell, Olga bade her soldiers release the pigeons and the sparrows. So the birds flew to their nests, the pigeons to the cotes, and the sparrows under the eaves. The dove-cotes, the coops, the porches, and the haymows were set on fire.
“There was not a house that was not consumed, and it was impossible to extinguish the flames, because all the houses caught on fire at once. The people fled from the city, and Olga ordered her soldiers to catch them. Thus she took the city and burned it, and captured the elders of the city. Some of the other captives she killed, while some she gave to others as slaves to her followers. The remnant she left to pay tribute.”
The Drevians paid after all, in lives and homes, as well as in tribute to Keivan Rus’.
By why, despite this horrific carnage, is Olga of Kiev still venerated as a saint over a thousand years after her death (in 963 CE, in case you wondered)?
She was the first ruler of the Kievan Rus’ to adopt Christianity and Olga’s efforts to covert the rest of her people (although not her son, who remained a pagan) earned her the title Isapóstolos: “Equal to the Apostles.”
“She shone like the moon by night,” frothed the Primary Chronicle, “and she was radiant among the infidels like a pearl in the mire, since the people were soiled, and not yet purified of their sin by holy baptism.”