Russian Saints: Saint Olga

Olga was the first Russian saint, but before converting to Christianity, she conducted her affairs with brutal efficiency of legendary stature.

Russian history is filled with fascinating characters. The first saint of the land is a prime example. Olga, wife of Igor, ruler in the year 945 A.D., hardly sounds like a saintly figure.

She first enters the history books shortly after the death of her husband at the hands of the Derevlians. Her husband, Igor, had conquered them and collected tribute, but then he went back alone in search of more booty. His greed got him killed and left his wife Olga unprotected in the capital city of Kiev with their son Svyatoslav.

After killing Igor, the Derevlians decided to go and capture Olga, presenting her as war booty to their Prince Mal. So they dressed up 20 of their men and sent them to Olga by boat.

Olga gave them a gracious welcome and summoned them to her castle. She asked them why they were calling on her. According to the Russian Primary Chronicle, they replied that their tribe had sent them to report that "they had slain her husband, because he was like a wolf, crafty and ravening, but that their princes, who had thus preserved the land of Dereva, were good, and that Olga should come and marry their Prince Mal."

Olga appeared to consider their offer, replying very kindly, "Your proposal is pleasing to me; indeed my husband cannot rise again from the dead. But I desire to honor you tomorrow in the presence of my people. Return to your boat, and remain there with an aspect of arrogance. I shall send for you on the morrow, and you shall say, "˜We will not ride on horses or go on foot; carry us in our boat.' And you shall be carried in your boat."

This sounded like quite the romp to these tribesmen, so they went back to their boat and waited for the next day. Their charming hostess, however, did not rest. She instead ordered that a deep ditch be dug before the castle.

The next morning she sent for the messengers. They demanded that they be carried in their boats. The Kievan people played their part well, moaning and lamenting that Olga was going to marry the Derevilian prince. They carried the boats while the messengers "sat on the cross-benches in great robes, puffed up with pride. Thus were they 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."

But that wasn't the end of Olga's story. Her thirst for revenge was not yet sated, so she sent her own messengers to the Derevlians telling that if they really wanted her to come, they needed to send their distinguished men after her so that she could go with an appropriate honor guard. Otherwise, she claimed, her people would not let her go.

The Derevlians, obviously not yet knowing of the fate of their previous messengers, gathered up the best men in Dereva, those who governed and led the land. They arrived in Kiev, and Olga ordered that a steam bath should be made read for them and said she would receive them after they had bathed. The bathhouse was heated and the Derevlians entered. Olga's retainers closed up the bathhouse, barred the doors, and set it on fire, killing all within.

She then sent a messenger to the Derevlians saying, "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."

One begins to wonder at the naïveté of the Derevlians, but they did as she asked. Olga took a small escort and traveled to Igor's tomb. There she wept for him and ordered her followers to pile up a great mound. She then gave permission for the funeral feast to begin. The Derevlians sat down to drink and Olga had her followers to wait on them. It was then that the Derevlians asked where all the men were that they had sent to be her retinue. She said that they were following with her husband's bodyguard.

Olga and her followers continued to wait on the Derevlians until they were drunk. She then ordered those same followers to slaughter the Derevlians. She went through the field, egging on the massacre until 5,000 of them were dead.

By this time, Olga was almost finished toying with the Derevlians. She gathered her husband's armies and returned to attack the survivors. After the siege had gone on for some time, the Derevlians offered to pay any tribute that Olga demanded. According to the chronicle she replied, "Give me three pigeons 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 Derevlians celebrated, and quickly collected the tribute that Olga demanded. Olga sent them back to their city and promised that she would leave the next day and return to her capital. That evening, Olga gave each of the pigeons and sparrows to her soldiers and told them to tie a piece of sulfur and small pieces of cloth to their legs. That night, they released the birds who flew to their nests in the haymows, dove-cotes, pigeon coops, and porches, setting all of them on fire. All of the city's homes were consumed in the fire. As the people ran from the city, her soldiers captured them, killing some, enslaving others, and finally leaving some to pay a heavy tribute.

Finally, Olga decided her husband was avenged and returned to Kiev.

Several years later, Olga visited Constantinople, or Tsargrad as the Rus called it. She had mellowed somewhat by this time and conquered the Emperor Constantine with her charm rather than her fury. She was received into his court and began to learn of Christianity. While she was learning, Constantine became enamoured with her. The Russian Primary Chronicle reports, "When he saw that she was very fair of countenance and wise as well, the Emperor wondered at her intellect. He conversed with her and remarked that she was worthy to reign with him in his city."

Olga considered Constantinople a nice place to visit, but she didn't want to live there. So she expressed a willingness to convert to Christianity, but said that she would accept baptism only at the Emperor's hands. The Emperor, with the help of the Patriarch, agreed and had her baptized in 957. He then summoned her and said that he planned to marry her. She feigned surprise and responded, "How can you marry me, after yourself baptizing me and calling me your daughter? For among Christians that is unlawful, as you yourself must know."

Although the Chronicles don't record it, we can see the Emperor shaking his head with a rueful smile. They do record his response. He replied, "Olga, you have outwitted me." He gave her gifts of gold, silver, silks, and artwork and sent her away, still calling her his daughter.

Olga returned to Kiev where it was soon obvious that her conversion was not simply a ploy to avoid a marriage. Her Christianity had taken hold and she worked hard to convert others in Rus. While she was unsuccessful in converting her son, her grandson, Vladimir, recalled her example when he became prince and was successful in converting the land to Christianity.

The Russian Orthodox Church canonized Olga as its first saint, and her feast is celebrated on July 11 each year.

The Russian Primary Chronicle closes its records of Princess Olga with the statement, "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."

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