When you think of a saint, most people think of a gentle, Godly person with great patience and faith. Princess Olga of Kiev proves that a saint can be a woman of God, but not take any crap either.
No one is exactly sure of when Olga was born. Sources put it any where between 879 and 890. According to the Primary Chronicle, she was born in Pskov, a city northwest of Russia, to a family of Varyag origin. Varyag was the name given to Vikings or Norsemen who came to the area in the 8th and 9th centuries. Other sources say Olga was the daughter of Oleg Vershchy, the founder of the state of Kievan Rus. Still others state she is of Bulgarian heritage.
What we do know is that around 912, she was married to Prince Igor. Igor was a part of the newly founded Rurik Dynasty of Russian tsars. In 912, the two ascended to the throne of Kievan Rus and lived as peacefully as a Russian tsar can. In 942, a son named Svyatoslav was born to the couple. There are no reports of major disputes, and it seems like the couple had an amiable relationship. However, as with most royal marriages, we can never be sure of what goes on in a private bedroom. All of this is fairly normal for a royal couple of that time period. Here’s where things get interesting.
Three years after Svyatoslav was born, Igor met with the Drevlyans, a Slavic tribe that owed him tribute. As was wont to happen, there was a dispute over how much money was owed, which was settled by the Drevlyans killing Igor. That’s one way of settling a bill. Now that Igor was dead and his son was only three, there was a succession crisis. Despite it being far out of the norm, Olga set up a regency for her young son with the full backing of the Rus army. However, the Drevlyans were still the sticking point. There were not happy about having a female as a leader. In a bold move, the murderer of her husband sent Olga a matchmaker to propose her marriage to their Prince. These people did not know who they were dealing with.
There are several versions of what happened next. The Primary Chronicles describes what Olga did next, “Now Olga gave command that a large deep ditch should be dug in the castle with the hall, outside the city. Thus, on the morrow, Olga, as she sat in the hall, sent for the strangers, and her messengers approached them and said,
“Olga summons you to great honor.” But they replied, “We will not ride on horseback nor in wagons, nor go on foot; carry us in our boats….” So they carried the Derevlians in their boat. The latter sat on the cross-benches in great robes, puffed up with pride. Thus they were borne into the court before Olga, and when the men had brought the Derevlians in, they dropped them into the trench along with the boat. Olga bent over and inquired whether they found the honor to their taste. They answered that it was worse than the death of Igor’. She then commanded that they should be buried alive, and they were thus buried.”
Then in what had to have been either the bravest or stupidest move ever, the Drevlyans sent back more ambassadors with more suitors. Unsurprisingly, Olga killed them too. This group she locked in a bathhouse and set fire to it. Then Olga traveled to the land of the Drevlyans, and instead of running like sensible people they held a banquet for her. After all the nobles had been drinking and were far into their cups, she ordered them killed. All 5,000 of them.
Unbelievably, this was not Olga’s last run in with the Drevlyans. These people just never learned. In 946, Olga was traveling through the land gathering tribute and the town of Iskorosten refused to pay. According to legend, Olga seemed to soften and asked that each family present her with a a bird, such as a pigeon, sparrow or dove, as a gift. Everyone agreed thinking they got off cheap. Not so much. The Primary Chronicle describes the carnage:
“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.”
So why is this woman a saint? After Svyatoslav came of age, she converted to Christianity. Svyatoslav did not support her decision, but did not stop her from converting. Her influence on her grandson Vladimir the Great was strong. When Vladimir came to the throne, Eastern Orthodox Christianity was made the official religion of Kievan Rus in 980. Because of this, in 1547 Olga was made a saint and “isapostolos” or “equal to the apostles”, one of only five woman in history who have achieved this title.
Sources available on request