Olga of Kyiv: The Vengeful Saint

The Viking queen with an axe to grind.

Saint Olga by Mikhail Nesterov

The year is 945 CE. Igor of Kyiv, after attempting to extort tribute, has just been assassinated by the Drevlians. The heir to the throne, Svyatoslav, was only a child. The regency turned to the widowed queen Olga.

Olga ruled the principality of Kyiv until her son was ready to take the throne in 964. She is celebrated as the first female ruler in Russia and the first ruler of Kyiv to adopt Christianity.

She also dedicated 15 years of her life to plotting revenge on the Drevlians, the people who had killed her husband. Her acts of vengeance are some of the more ingenious in history.

Who Was Olga?

Olga was a descendent of the Varangians, a Nordic group who settled in what is now Russia. She was likely around 15 years old when she married the heir to the Kyivan throne, Igor. By all accounts, the marriage was a happy one.

Igor’s adoptive father, Oleg, had established the capital in Kyiv and consolidated power among some of the tribes. While he could never gain complete control of the Drevlian tribe, they agreed to pay nominal tribute. That ended when Oleg died.

When Igor went to try to come to terms with the Drevlians, they brutally killed him. One Byzantine source said, “They had bent down two birch trees to the prince’s feet and tied them to his legs. Then they let the trees straighten again, thus tearing the prince’s body apart.”

A Queen’s Vengence

What happened next was something out of a Quinton Tarantino film. Immediately after her husband’s death, Olga began to plot her revenge. And her enemies gave her plenty of opportunities.

Shortly after Igor’s murder, the King Mal of the Drevlians proposed marriage to Olga. He hoped to consolidate his territory with Kyiv. Mal sent twenty dignitaries to propose the marriage.

Disgusted with the proposal, Olga still saw an opportunity to take her revenge. She welcomed the dignitaries and promised to honor them with a grand welcoming ceremony. While the dignitaries prepared for the ceremonies, Olga had her men dig a ditch. When the dignitaries arrived, they were pushed into the ditch and buried alive.

End of phase one. But Olga was not finished yet. She was just getting started.

Before word of what happened to the dignitaries could reach Mal, Olga sent a letter asking him to send his best men as an escort to bring her to him.

Radziwiłł Chronicle/Wikimedia Commons

Mal sent his best chieftains to bring his potential bride back with honor. When the men arrived, Olga offered the men to use her bathhouse to freshen up after the journey.

Once the men were inside, the doors were bolted locked from the outside. The building was then set on fire. No one escaped alive.

Still, Olga was not finished. But she had to act fast.

Outrunning the news of her previous acts of vengeance, Olga headed north to the Drevlian capital. She held a funeral feast for her dead husband and invited the Drevlian soldiers to drink to her husband’s memory. Once the soldiers were good and drunk, Olga’s men slaughtered all 5,000 men.

The End of the Drevlians

By now, news of Olga’s vengeance had reached the Drevlians. They feared the queen would stop at nothing to wipe them from the earth. The tribe offered her tribute and swore allegiance to Kyiv.

Instead, she laid siege to their capital for a year. Then, when they were worn down, she considered coming to peace terms.

Her request was strange but not reasonable. “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.”

Radziwiłł Chronicle/Wikimedia Commons

The Drevlians, amazed at how lightly there were getting off on the deal, quickly gathered the birds. However, Olga was not finished.

She ordered her men to take one of the birds and tie a cloth to the bird’s foot. To the other end of the fabric was placed some burning sulfur. The birds were released and returned to their nests in the capital that night.

The city was burnt to the ground. Olga’s soldiers captured anyone who fled. Some captives she killed, others were sold into slavery, and a small group was allowed to rebuild the city.

The Drevlians never caused Olga trouble again. Her vengeance was complete; she went about ruling Kyiv until her son came of age to rule.

The Queen Who Became a Saint

The nearby Byzantines were on a mission to convert the pagans of the Slavic regions. Around 957, Olga became the first Kyivan ruler to be baptized in the Eastern Orthodox Church during a trip to Constantinople (modern Istanbul, Turkey).

Olga then urged her people to convert to Christianity and discard their pagan beliefs. While her son resisted the country's conversion, Olga’s grandson Vladimir continued the promotion of the new faith.

Olga died peacefully in 969. In the year 1547, the Russian Orthodox Church made Olga a saint. She is considered the patron saint of converts and widows.

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