Prominent Russians: Princess Olga of Kiev
Princess Olga’s life was full of great deeds described in numerous historical records, as well as legendary facts that are still disputed by historians today.
According to the most traditional theory, recorded in the Primary Chronicle, Olga was born in Pskov (currently a city in the northwest of Russia) into a family of Varyag origin. Varyags were also known as Vikings or Norsemen, who came to the territory of current Russia, Ukraine and Belarus during the 8th and 9th centuries. This theory about Olga’s birth also explains the origin of her name, which is derived from the Scandinavian “Helga.” Other historical versions state that Olga was either a daughter of Oleg Veshchy, the founder of the state of Kievan Rus, or had Bulgarian roots.
Oleg Veshchy initiated Olga’s marriage with Prince Igor, who was the son of the Novgorod Prince Rurik, a founder of the Rurik Dynasty of Russian tsars. After the death of Oleg in 912, Igor became the ruler of Kievan Rus. In 945 Prince Igor went to the Slavic tribe of the Drevlyans to gather tributes. After he demanded a much higher payment, the Drevlyans killed him.
The death of the Kievan Prince raised a question about the next ruler of the country. Igor’s son, Svyatoslav, was only three years old, and hence Olga took the power into her hands. Interestingly, she had the full support the Rus army, which attests to the great respect she held among the people.
After killing Igor, the Drevlyans sent their matchmakers to propose that Olga marry their Prince Mal. The Princess took revenge upon her husband’s death, killing all of the ambassadors.
The Old Russian annals describe four types of vengeance organized by Olga. First, she ordered the capture of the 20 matchmakers who had come to Kiev and had them buried alive. The Princess then asked the Drevlyans to send better ambassadors to her, but as soon as they arrived, they were burned in a bathhouse. Soon after that Olga went to the land of the Drevlyans, supposedly to have a funeral feast in memory of her murdered husband. Having made her enemies drunk during the feast, the governess then ordered them all killed. The annals report about five thousand victims in this third act of revenge.
The last vengeance took place in the year 946 when Olga traveled around the land of the Drevlyans in order to gather tributes. She besieged the town of Iskorosten, which refused to pay her. According to legend, the Princess asked that each household present her with a dove as a gift. Then she tied burning papers to the legs of the doves and let them fly back to their homes. As a result, the entire town was destroyed by fire.
Olga’s rule over Kievan Rus officially lasted until her son reached his full age. Having grown up, Svyatoslav preferred to spend most of his time abroad, organizing military campaigns in order to widen and strengthen the borders of his state.
Olga, left in charge of the internal policies of Kievan Rus, became known for establishing the system of tribute gathering, which is sometimes considered to be the first legal tax system in Eastern Europe. She ordered the creation of centers of trade and taxation. The lands subjugated to Kiev were divided into administrative units, which were controlled by the Princess’s representatives. Olga set fixed amounts of tributes, with a detailed schedule for their gathering.
Princess Olga is also thought to have been the initiator of the first stone city building in Kievan Rus, especially in the cities of Kiev, Novgorod and Pskov.
One of the most well-known among Olga’s actions was her conversion to Christianity. She was one of the first to bring this religion to the pagan society of Kievan Rus. According to the Primary Chronicles, Olga was baptized in Constantinople either in 955 or 957. Her son Svyatoslav didn’t support his mother’s decision and was worried about losing the respect of the army because of Olga’s new faith. Apparently, she had a big influence on her grandson, Vladimir the Great, who in 988 made Christianity the official religion of Kievan Rus.
In 957 Olga paid an official visit to the Byzantine emperor, Constantine VII, in Constantinople. Presumably, the negotiations didn’t bring the expected results, since the historical records describe a cold greeting for the
Byzantine ambassadors during their return visit to Kiev.
Western European sources mention that in 959 Olga sent her ambassadors to Otto I, the Emperor of the Roman Empire, asking them to appoint an archbishop and priests to serve in her country. The chronicle accuses the Princess’s envoys of lying, but details in conflicting
historical records make it is difficult to say whether Olga was sincere in her request or not. The Emperor’s bishop, Adalbert of Magdeburg, having spent some time in Kievan Rus, decided that all his efforts to develop Christianity in the country were in vain. On his way back to Italy all his companions were killed (supposedly) by Svyatoslav’s allies, and Adalbert himself barely survived.
At the time the Christian church was not yet divided into Roman and Greek branches. The separation officially took place in 1054, though in fact it had began a long time before that. Olga’s attempts to build connections with both the Byzantine and Roman Emperors, the highest church authorities, are assessed differently. She either hesitated about which to choose, or conducted a forward-looking policy of bringing pressure on Constantinople, in order to gain the most beneficial positions in the Eastern Christian Church.
It is difficult to say when Svyatoslav began his full reign; though up to 959 both Byzantine and Western European records name Olga as the main ruler of Kievan Rus. Apparently, Svyatoslav shared power with Olga until her death.
In 968, when Svyatoslav was away conducting a military campaign, Kiev was attacked by the Pechenegs, a semi-nomadic Turkic people. Princess Olga, together with her young grandchildren, had to organize the defense of the city. She died soon after Kiev’s siege in 969. In honor of his mother’s will, Svyatoslav ordered Olga buried according to Christian canons.
In 1547 the Orthodox Church proclaimed Princess Olga a saint and equal-to-the-apostles. She became one of only five women to be honored with this status in the history of Christianity.