She was the eminent Kyiv princess, the first Christian governess of Kyiv Rus and the first Ukrainian canonized saint. Some consider the princess Olga as a one of the cruelest and the most imperious rulers, while others think of her as a perfect mother, faithful wife and the wisest woman in Kyiv Rus history. So, what do we know about this princess who was respected by all men and who gained the throne of ancient Kyiv Rus?
According to the chronicles, Olga was born around 894 near Pskov. There are few versions about her origin. Some historians think that she was a daughter of the famous prince Prophetic Oleg and she inherited his gift of prophecy. Other say that she had Scandinavian origins and her real name was Helga.
In 903, Olga was given in marriage to Igor, the son of Ryurik, the future great prince, who was 25 years old in that time. The legend says that Igor and Olga occasionally met in the forest where the young prince was hunting. He was impressed by intelligence, beauty and independent behavior of Olga. At the moment of her official marriage, Olga was a little girl, so for the first years her marriage was formal.
Life with Igor
Igor became a full-fledged ruler of Kyiv Rus at the age of 35. Olga, who was already a grown-up woman, was a faithful and loving wife. Their mutual love gave birth to Sviatoslav, who was destined to become one of the most powerful Kyiv princes, known under the name Sviatoslav the Brave. Igor often left home to take part in distant war battles, so in these periods Olga was involved in the actual ruling of the state. Igor had to fight with nomads, and the worst of them were Drevlians tribe that regularly violated borders of Kyiv Rus and ravaged the country by cruel raids.
The chronicles say that the prince Igor died in the battle with Drevlians in 945 after numerous attempts to levy tributes from them. That time, Olga was waiting for her husband to come back from war, but she experienced terrible dreams and signs and felt that Igor was killed. Unfortunately, her intuition did not lie to her. The warriors that returned from the battle gave her Igor`s sword and told her that he fell in a battle. Drevlians murdered Igor in a very violent way – they ripped his body in half.
The prince Sviatoslav was only three years old, so the princess Olga became the actual ruler of Kyiv Rus and the representative of rightful heir of the throne. Igor`s troops accepted her new status, appreciating her strong will, intellect and wisdom.
Olga`s Revenge to Drevlians
Left alone with her little son, the first thing that Olga had to do was to rein in Drevlians. The chronicles tell about ingenious and brutal revenge of Olga to Drevlians that was divided in four stages.
Right after the death of Igor, Drevlians sent affiancers to Olga, proposing her to marry their prince Mal. 20 affiancers came in the boat. Olga ordered her men to carry the boat with Drevlians to her yard and throw it into a deep pit that had been specially dug there in advance. After that, Drevlians were buried in that pit alive together with their boat.
Then Olga asked Drevlians to send her another affiancers – the most noble and high-powered ones. The Drevlians, who thought that maybe the princess could change her mind, accepted her request. However, it was not the best decision for them: the envoys were burned alive by Olga in a bath while they were washing up preparing for a meeting with the princess.
After these events, the princess have come to the land of Drevlians with a small group of troops to hold a traditional funeral feast on the grave of her husband Igor. The insidious princess gave Drevlians too much to drink, and after they fell asleep, she ordered her warriors to hack them to death. The chronicles say that 5 000 Drevlians were killed on that day.
After the massacre, Olga came again to Drevlian`s lands with her army in 946. The Drevlians took shelter in their city Iskorosten that had strong defense fortifications. Then Olga used again her brilliant mind to cheat the enemies. She promised them to drop back if she received a pigeon as a tribute from every home of Iskorosten. When Drevlians accepted her conditions, the princess tied smoldering wood splinters to the legs of each bird, and then let pigeons free. The birds flied back to their homes, so the city burnt to ashes. Victorious Olga passed through the land of Drevlians and imposed tributes and taxes all over it. Then she returned to Kyiv.
The princess Olga became the first governess of Kyiv Rus who was Christianized, while all her warriors and people were still pagans. Olga wanted to unite people with some great idea, and decided that Christian religion might be a good choice. Besides, she understood that she needed new connections, enforcing her power and support from other mighty states.
Therefore, in 955 Olga paid a visit to Constantinople. In Constantinople, she was Christianized and given Christian name Elena. There is an interesting story behind this event. The Byzantine emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogennetos was so charmed by outstanding personality and beauty of Olga that he decided to propose her. But Olga was a pagan, so it was impossible to arrange a marriage. The solution was obvious: Olga had to become a Christian. Olga accepted this, and Constantine personally performed the ceremony of her Christianizing.
However, then smart Olga, who did not plan to marry the emperor, said that they could not get married because she was not allowed to become a wife of her godfather. The emperor, impressed by her contrivance, gifted Olga valuable treasures and sent her home. In such a way, the princess Olga has achieved all her goals: the Byzantine Empire got aware about Kyiv Rus and began to support it. The fact that Olga was now a Christian became the guarantee of the emperor`s grace.
Olga`s governing and achievements
The period of Olga`s rule became a decisive turn in the history of Kyiv Rus. The country received a well-organized government and began to integrate into political system of the Christian world. Olga built monasteries and churches in Kyiv Rus and preached Christ. She was even canonized by the Christian church as a saint. Nestor the Chronicler mentioned her as harbinger of the Christian era in Kyiv Rus and called her “Predawn star”.
The list of Olga`s achievements in the period of her governing is very long. She precisely defined the lands where she collected tributes, established places for safekeeping gathered tributes and set central government points. Olga paid much attention to development, beautification and defense of Kyiv: she built a new residence “Olga`s yard” with stone tower, wooden Christian church and a system of reliable fortifications in the capital. Domestic policy measures taken by Olga helped to unite former tribal lands into one powerful state.
As for external policy, Olga preferred diplomacy to war. In 957, she signed agreement with Constantine VII Porphyrogennetos; according to this agreement, she sent her warriors to help the Byzantine Empire in its wars with Arabs, Northmen and Bulgarians. She also made the first attempt to establish diplomatic connection with Western Europe. In 959, she sent envoys to the German emperor Otto I with the request to assign a bishop for Christianization of Kyiv Rus. However, the Christian mission of German bishop Adalbert, that took place in 961- 962, became a failure. Olga truly wished to Christianize her people, but she did not achieve this goal. Only her grandson, Volodymyr, Christianized Kyiv Rus in 988.
The princess Olga died around 969, leaving behind a great contribution to the history and development of Kyiv Rus in the Х century. This brave and wise woman managed not only to retain the power in her land, but also reinforced it, and generally improved the image of Kyiv Rus in the whole world.