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Grand Princess Olga: Pagan Vengeance and Sainthood in Kievan Rus

Heidi Sherman


Figure 1
The Baptism of Grand Princess St Olga (Sergei Kirillov, 1992) (Painting One of the triptych Holy Rus)

     It is a strange historical twist that the first "Russian" woman to be canonized in the Orthodox Church was a Viking warrior princess who spent much of her life as a pagan. Olga earned her sainthood by becoming the first member of the house of Riurik, the dynasty that ruled European Russia and parts of Ukraine and Belorus for more than seven centuries (860s – 1598), to convert to Christianity. But the role of this battle maid in the spread of Christendom to the eastern Slavs is only part of her remarkable contribution to the history of Eastern Europe.

     Olga is the only woman for whom we possess significant biographical details in the written sources for the Kievan Rus period of Russian history (860s – 1240). In contrast with Western Europe and the Byzantine Empire, medieval Russian women did not participate in literary culture aside from the occasional inscription or letter of the type found on birch bark in the excavations of medieval Novgorod. The laws of the period reveal that women enjoyed few legal protections compared with their male peers. Women could inherit property from their parents or husbands, but only in the absence of brothers and sons. If the sons were young, the widow managed the family's estate until the sons reached their majority.

     Olga is in this way typical of the free elite women of Kiev.1 For nearly two decades (945 to 962) Olga ruled the rapidly expanding kingdom of Kievan Rus,2 which received its name from its capital Kiev on the middle Dniepr River, as regent for her young son Sviatoslav. And she did so in stunning fashion despite significant obstacles. Olga assumed power at a time when the realm was shaken by tribal violence and administrative disorder. She bloodily pacified rebellious tribes and replaced tribute taking with a regular system of taxation. Olga's decision to convert to eastern Christianity instead of Catholicism was also a fundamental step in the spiritual and political alliance of Kievan Rus with the Byzantine Orthodox world rather than with Latin Christendom. In short, it took the will and perspicacity of a barbarian widow to begin the transformation of the Rus lands from a loosely knit pagan chieftaincy into a more stable and centralized Christian kingdom.                 

     Reconstructing Olga's story is a complex matter because there was very little that was written down during her lifetime, when Kievan Rus was as yet a mainly pagan kingdom without a literary tradition. Chroniclers may have begun to record the actions of the dynasty after the official adoption of Christianity a generation after Olga's death, but these early records unfortunately have not survived. The most important account of Olga's life comes from a source written many generations after Olga's lifetime, The Tale of Bygone Years, a chronicle that was completed by the monks Nestor and Silvester who lived at the Kievan Caves monastery, which was supported by the Riurikid princes of Kiev. As Riurikid dependants, the author-monks organized the narrative around the role of the ruling family's ancestors in creating the Christian state. Because much of the chronicle covered events that took place many generations prior to its compilation, the authors appear to base the tale upon oral accounts, some clearly inspired by legend. The result is a rich and often dramatic history that is reflective of the multi-ethnic traditions, Eastern Slavic, Scandinavian, and Finnic, that made up the culture of Kievan Rus. Olga's story as told in The Tale of Bygone Years is a product of this type of chronicle writing. We are fortunate that the chroniclers fashioned an exciting portrait of Olga, one that can be corroborated occasionally by contemporary sources from Western Europe and the Byzantine Empire. An examination of Olga, therefore, is in effect an exercise in early medieval source criticism.

     The power of the Riurikid chieftaincy was based on its ability to control and exploit the natural wealth of European Russia, Belorus, and Ukraine. This territory stretched across four latitudinal landscape zones, each amenable to different forms of economic exploitation. From north to south stretched tundra (hunting-gathering), boreal forest and intermediate forest-steppe (hunting gathering and agriculture), and the steppe (pastoral nomadism). The forest zones were especially rich in fur-bearing animals (pine marten, fox, sable, squirrel), honey, and wax. The more densely settled regions also supplied slaves. The Volkhov-Lovat, Dniepr, Volga, and Don river systems linked these diverse resource zones. Through this river network linked by a system of portages it was possible to travel by boat from northern Europe to the great empires of early medieval western Eurasia--the Byzantine Empire and the Islamic Caliphate. The furs, honey, wax, and slaves could be exchanged in Constantinople and Baghdad for silks, spices, and, most importantly, silver in the form of coins, called dirhems, which were struck in enormous quantities annually in the Moslem lands. In the early Middle Ages, there were very few active silver mines in Western and Northern Europe, but the need for this commodity was great due to the expansion of Anglo-Saxon and Carolingian economies. It must have been apparent to many by the ninth century that opportunity for great wealth presented itself to those who could control the Russian river system and its people.

     The Vikings were Scandinavian farmers, traders, and summer raiders, and the consummate commercial opportunists of the early middle Ages, and it is they who seized control of Russia's trade routes and supplied Western Europe with Islamic silver for two centuries. According to The Tale of Bygone Years, a group of Vikings led by the warlord Riurik accepted an invitation proffered by a confederation of Slavic and Finnic tribes "to come and rule over them". The chronicler informs that the Slavs and Finns were at war with one another and required a neutral party to bring peace and order to the realm. It is important to note that the author was writing a piece of royal propaganda intended to glorify the dynasty. We are told that, in 862, Riurik and his clan arrived in northwestern Russia and established bases of power in several towns. By 879, Riurik's clansman Oleg (d. 912) captured Kiev, proclaiming that it would be "the mother of Russian cities".3

     Oleg and his successor Igor (912 – 945) spent their reigns subjugating the tribes along the major river systems. Once conquered, each tribe was absorbed into a rudimentary tax collection system in which the Kievan princes extracted "tribute" in the form of furs, wax, honey, and slaves from the various tribes by means of an annual winter tour called the poliudie, loosely translated as "to the people." The booty was forwarded on to Kiev, where it was bundled into large dugout canoes and transported each spring down the Dniepr river to the Black Sea. The commercial flotilla's ultimate destination was Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire and the most powerful city in western Eurasia in the tenth century. Of course, the Byzantine emperors recognized the peril of opening the gates of the imperial capital to a horde of Vikings and they needed to be convinced of the benefits of peaceful trade with Kiev. Accordingly, the Vikings from Rus attacked the Byzantine Empire five times (860, 907, 912, 941, 944) in less than a century. Most of the campaigns resulted in commercial treaties between Kiev and Constantinople. Provisos in these treaties included restrictions on the number of Rus allowed into the city at one time (fifty) and the requirement that the Vikings check their weapons at the gates.

     While Olga does not appear to have played a major role in Kievan politics during this period, she lived at the Kievan court and would have been witness to the phenomena described above. According to The Tale of Bygone Years, Olga joined the Riurikid family when she married Igor in 903. The source knows little of her early years, but states that she was born in Pskov, a major town near Lake Peipus (on the Estonian-Russian border), in 890. Olga is not mentioned again until 942, when she gave birth to Igor's son, Sviatoslav, at the rather mature age of fifty-two. It is important here to recall that The Tale of Bygone Years was compiled more than a century and a half after Olga's lifetime. Chronological slips are par for the course with medieval authors, and it is likely that some of these dates are erroneous.

     What is certain is that Olga's life changed suddenly with the violent death of her husband Igor at the hands of one of his subject tribes. In 945, Igor and the men of his retinue, desiring a higher standard of living, extorted an unusually large tribute from the Derevlians, a Slavic tribe living in the marshes and forests south of the Pripet river (to the northwest of Kiev).4 Dissatisfied even with the extraordinary amount collected, Igor decided to return back for more. Upon learning of his imminent arrival, the Derevlian leader Prince Mal cautioned his men: "If a wolf come among the sheep, he will take away the whole flock one by one, unless he be killed. If we do not thus kill him now he will destroy us all."5 Igor was then duly ambushed and killed. The actions of the Derevlians were a logical reaction to Igor's initiatives. He had already collected the annual tribute. Returning for more tribute so soon violated tradition, and Igor had lost his "legitimacy by contract" with his tributary subjects.

     The Riurikid family's control over the realm teetered on the brink of collapse. Igor's successor, Sviatoslav, was a mere toddler, necessitating that the widow Grand Princess Olga become regent. Immediate action had to be taken against the Derevlians since they threatened both the realm and the dynasty. Olga's handling of the rebels, known as "Olga's Vengeance," constitutes one of the most colorful episodes in eastern Slavic history.

     After laying Igor to rest under a large mound outside the Derevlian capital of Iskorosten, their Prince Mal decided to propose marriage to Olga with the aim of controlling young Sviatoslav. Olga met the Derevlian embassy outside the gates of Kiev, responding that she was intrigued by the proposal, but wanted to honor the delegation in a public ceremony the next day to which they would be carried in their boats. Duly flattered, the Derevlians retired to their camp. It is clear from this point that Olga had no intention of marrying Prince Mal. Upon her command, the Kievans spent the night digging a deep ditch in their city. The next day the Derevlian embassy presented itself in sumptuous dress, demanding that they be carried into town aloft their wooden boats. According to plan, the boats were dumped into the ditch and the men were buried alive. Olga then sent word to Prince Mal requesting a company of his best men to accompany her to the Derevlian capital. Unaware of his first embassy's gruesome demise, Prince Mal complied with the wishes of his future bride. When the best men of Dereva arrived in Kiev, Olga invited them to bathe before seeing her. Once they were in the bathhouse, however, it was set on fire and the men burned alive. Olga then set out for the Derevlian capital Iskorosten. As she approached the gates of the city, the grieving widow asked to hold a funeral feast at Igor's burial mound. Still oblivious to the fate of the embassies sent to Kiev, the Derevlians happily joined her in a great feast at which copious amounts of adult beverages were consumed. When full inebriation ensued, Olga and her army slaughtered more than five thousand drunken Derevlians. But Olga's plan had not yet reached full execution. The next year she invaded the land of Dereva. In a final battle, she laid siege to Iskorosten. After a year, the Derevlians offered to pay tribute, but they did not have any honey or furs on hand, so what could they offer her? Olga requested three pigeons and three sparrows from each household. Upon their receipt, her men attached rags dipped in sulphur to the feet of each bird. When the birds returned to their nests, they lit the city on fire and the Derevlians perished in their homes.6 Olga's vengeance was now complete.

     How are we to understand this seemingly fantastic account? Early medieval tales of grieving widows on the warpath should not be taken at face value, since they were employed as a literary device intended both to entertain and, in the case of Olga, to demonstrate a stark moral makeover brought on by her soon-to-follow conversion to Christianity. With the description of the pagan Olga's brutality, the monk authors thus demonstrated the miraculous transformative powers of conversion, much as Buddhist writers attributed brutal acts of oppression to the Indian Emperor Ashoka prior to his conversion and subsequent valorization of ahimsa, or non-violence. This does not mean, however, that the story in either or both cases is pure fantasy. Independent corroboration of Igor's assassination is found in the tenth-century Byzantine source written by Leo the Deacon who related that Igor "was captured by them, tied to tree trunks, and torn in two."7 It is certain that military retribution followed. The tale of Olga's vengeance, however, plays another role as a literary allegory reenacting a Scandinavian pagan mortuary ritual. First, the burying alive of the Derevlian embassy in their boats mirrors the Viking practice of a ship burial, in which the deceased was often interred in a boat with a ritual sacrifice. Second, the burning of the next embassy in the bathhouse reenacts a ritual cleansing by fire. Third, the slaying by Olga's army of five thousand of the intoxicated enemy represents a funeral feast and an attendant sacrifice. It is known that Scandinavian widows of elite warriors practiced sati (or suttee), but this was not an option for Olga, whose son was too young to rule. Given the circumstance, it was important for the chronicle authors to demonstrate that Olga was both a dutiful wife and cunning military leader, attributes that were highlighted in the story.

     Resubjugating the Derevlians was only a partial measure towards securing the Riurikid position in the realm. The system that had been in place for several decades, the poliudie, did not bring in sufficient revenue to support the Kievan princes and their followers. In attempting to collect a secondary tribute soon after an unusually high annual payment, Igor violated tradition and put himself in a dangerous position, which led to his murder. The success of the poliudie depended on mutual trust, cooperation from tribal leaders, and tribal custom. Olga replaced this essentially ad hoc practice with a series of trading stations (pogost) staffed by her own officials, who would levy a standard tax on the subject tribes. Like the earlier tribute, the tax was still paid in the resources abundant in each region (furs, honey, wax), but now the state could depend on receiving set amounts. Additionally, the use of royal officials in the collection process freed the ruler to engage in other matters and protected him or her from the wrath of angry taxpayers. The permanent trading posts also appear to have played a role in expanding the territory of Kievan Rus, especially to the north, from which royal officials could assert the suzerainty of Kiev in areas heretofore dominated by tribal chiefdoms. As a further administrative refinement, Olga organized the minting of coins, the first of the Riurikid rulers to do so, an action that helped facilitate trade, exchange, and the payment of taxes to the princely treasury.

     In 954 or 955, Olga traveled to Constantinople, where she took the historically momentous step as the first Riurikid to convert to Christianity. According to the story as told in The Tale of Bygone Years, the Byzantine Emperor Constantine VII was so struck by the Kievan Grand Princess' beauty and intellect that he "remarked that she was worthy to reign with him in his city." Olga replied that this was not possible since she was a pagan "and that if he desired to baptize her he should perform this function himself; otherwise she was unwilling to accept baptism." The baptism was officiated by the Patriarch, the official head of the Church and the Emperor served as Olga's godfather. Following the christening, the Emperor reminded Olga of his marriage proposal. Olga thought it over 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." The Emperor then exclaimed, "Olga, you had outwitted me." She returned to Kiev with a blessing from the Patriarch and rich gifts from the Emperor, including "gold, silks, silver, and various vases."8

     Olga's conversion was a bold move because she now belonged to a small religious minority. The overwhelming majority of the population of Kievan Rus practiced a variety of religions that can be loosely characterized as paganism. The Slavs, for example, venerated a series of gods connected with fertility (Dazhbog), the sky (Stribog), and cattle (Veles). The Finns practiced shamanism, which involved the communication with animal spirits through a shaman. Their main god appears to have been a fertility goddess called Mokosh. Finally, the warrior elite led by the Riurikid clan followed the cult of Perun, god of lightning, who resembled closely the Viking god Thor. By the time of Olga's conversion in the mid tenth century, at least a small part of the population was Christian, judging from a Byzantine-Rus commercial treaty dated to 944 that mentions "Christian Rus". Among the warrior class, however, the number of Christians was certainly small. As its leader, the Riurikid family could ill afford to alienate the constant influx of pagan warriors from Scandinavia by a forced conversion to Christianity. Why would Olga potentially undermine the hard-won stability of the realm be making what must have been a controversial move to abandon the religion of her ancestors and most important adherents?

     The answer rests in a broader pattern of decision making designed to consolidate Riurikid authority domestically and strengthen Kiev's position in relation to its much more powerful neighbor, the Byzantine Empire. With her administrative reforms Olga established a permanent royal presence in far-flung areas of the realm through the installation of appointed officials and more formalized tax collection. How the tax, which was largely paid in the form of honey, wax, or furs, was to be converted into cash or luxuries for the court depended largely on Kiev maintaining positive relations with the Byzantine Empire, since the items collected were bound for markets in Constantinople. Commercial relations with the Emperor, however, were far from equal, since from the Byzantine perspective the Kievan merchants were dangerous pagan idolaters. The Byzantines prohibited the merchants from overwintering in the Dniepr estuary and placed limits on the amount of silk they could purchase in Constantinople. As mentioned above, Kiev's rulers resorted to military force multiple times in the first half of the tenth century to garner commercial treaties with the Empire. But commercial advantages were not the only driving force in Olga's path to conversion. In the ninth century, Kiev's Slavic neighbors, Moravia and Bulgaria, had already adopted Christianity as their official state religion, and in 966 Poland would follow. Even the Viking kingdom of Denmark was adopting the new religion. As a pagan holdout, Kiev would find itself increasingly isolated from the diplomatic circles of Christian Europe. Without doubt, Olga also understood that having the entire Kievan realm follow a single religion under the auspices of a Church controlled by the state, such as that which existed in the Byzantine Empire, would encourage centralization of the kingdom.

     Establishing a state church in tenth-century Europe was a perilous exercise. Christianity was divided into two rival institutions, the Catholic Church centered in Rome and the Orthodox Church in Constantinople, and each was controlled by a powerful state. The Holy Roman Emperor in Germany dominated the Roman Papacy and the Byzantine Emperor the Patriarch in Constantinople. While the Church Schism, which was the actual break between the East and West, would not occur until 1054, the ninth and tenth centuries witnessed an intense period of rivalry between the two in which they both sought to create spheres of influence through the conversion of the remaining pagan peoples of Europe. This was done by sending missionaries to non-Christian areas or offering pagan rulers incentives such as the great honor of marrying one of the emperor's relatives. The converts would then receive priests, religious books, and a Church hierarch. Most often the newly founded state Church institutions would remain under the control of the Patriarch in Constantinople or the Pope in Rome, providing the emperors opportunity to meddle in the local state affairs of the new converts and thus exercise considerable religious and secular influence.

     Olga appears to have been aware of the potential threat to Kievan autonomy during her visit to Constantinople. Her hesitation is evinced by her clever refusal of the Byzantine Emperor's proposal of marriage. In this way Olga averted Byzantine conquest of Kiev through marriage. The implication is clear although not explicitly stated that Olga sought specific demands, such as enhanced commercial privileges and, perhaps, a Church in Kiev independent of Constantinople, one that would be autocephalous (with its own "head"). The failure of her talks with the Emperor became clear by the fall of 959, when Olga sent a request to the Byzantine Emperor's arch nemesis, Emperor Otto I, the secular protector of the Papacy. The German chronicler Adalbert records that Olga asked for "the ordination of a bishop and priests for. . . [her] people." Adalbert made the journey to Kiev, but later abandoned the mission because his efforts for "those things on account of which he had been sent" had produced negligible results.9

     Olga's goal of founding a Church institution in Kiev would not be realized until the reign of her grandson Vladimir. Her failure, however, likely helped preserve Kiev's autonomy from Germany and Byzantium because both of these states were enormously powerful in the 950s/960s, and a Kievan Church controlled by either of them might well have proved detrimental for the future strength of the realm. It also appears that Kiev's warrior elite were resistant to the new faith, as seen through Olga's efforts to convert her son Sviatoslav: "My son, I have learned to know God, and am glad for it. If you know this, you will rejoice," to which Sviatoslav replied, "How shall I alone accept another faith? My followers will laugh at me."10

     In 962, Sviatoslav came of age and began his rule in Kiev. Like his father, the young ruler was a warrior, who crushed the Khazar state in the lower Don-Volga region and tried to expand Rus territory to Bulgaria in the lower Danube, which brought him into conflict with the Byzantine Emperor. Olga ruled Kiev in her son's long absences, taking care of his young sons Yaropolk, Oleg, and Vladimir. In 968, Sviatoslav's warmongering against the Empire provoked an all-out attack on Kiev by the Byzantine allies, the Turkic Pechenegs. The siege that ensued was a lengthy one and the Kievan people, led by Olga, endured significant hardship while Sviatoslav remained in Preslav, Bulgaria. The now elderly Olga had to escape across the Dniepr River by boat with her grandchildren in tow. A seemingly contrite Sviatoslav then returned to Kiev and drove the Pecheneg army away. Olga died soon after of old age, but not before she arranged for herself a funeral in the Christian rite officiated by a priest. She wanted neither a burial mound nor a funeral feast, which were pagan traditions.

     The two decades after Olga's death were turbulent ones for her son and grandsons. In 972, Sviatoslav, having continued his wars against the Byzantine Empire, was killed by the Pechenegs, who celebrated their victory by making a gilded drinking cup from his skull. Sviatoslav's sons Yaropolk, Oleg, and Vladimir fought a long civil war, which resulted in the deaths of the first two and the ascension of Valdimir as sole ruler over Kiev. A devout pagan during the early part of his reign and leader of a pagan revival, Vladimir saw an opportunity to strengthen his standing in relation to the Byzantine Empire in the late tenth century, when the Emperor was in the throes of a civil war and needed troops to support his campaign in the Crimea. In exchange for military assistance, Vladimir was offered in marriage the hand of the Byzantine Emperor's sister, a great honor offered to very few foreigners. It seemed of little consequence to the Emperor that Vladimir already had three wives and three hundred concubines. The Emperor also gave Vladimir great latitude in establishing a state Church in Kiev, again because he needed a Kievan army to help stave off rebellion. Vladimir's conversion to Orthodox Christianity in 988/989 and its adoption as the Kievan realm's official religion no doubt swept clean the Grand Prince's sins as a misguided pagan.

     The major incentive for Vladimir's baptism was certainly a diplomatic and political one, but we cannot overlook his grandmother Olga's influence during his formative years in the 960s. Her family revered Olga and, while she failed to persuade her son and grandsons to convert during her lifetime, the memory of her devotion to Orthodoxy in later life played a not insignificant role in the family's eventual turn to Byzantine Christianity. Centuries later Olga's deep piety was repeatedly mentioned by medieval authors, who describe her as "radiant among infidels like a pearl in the dung,"11 "the sainted Olga" who always "sought the wisdom of God,"12 and "although she was a woman in body, she possessed a man's courage."13 The exact date of her canonization by the Russian Orthodox Church is unknown, but it followed closely upon the elevation to sainthood of Vladimir in the late thirteenth century, making Olga the only woman to be included in this first group of homegrown Russian saints.

Heidi Sherman is an Assistant Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. She can be contacted at


1 Simon Franklin and Jonathan Shepard, The Emergence of Rus 750 – 1200 (New York: Longman,1996), 292 – 303.

2 The Riurikids continued to rule parts of the region under Mongol administrative occupation during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. A branch of the Riurikid family, the Danilovichi based in Moscow, expanded its control over European Russia and eastern Ukraine during the second half of the fifteenth and the sixteenth centuries. During this period the region is known as Muscovy.

3 The Russian Primary Chronicle: Laurentian Text, ed. and trans. Samuel Hazzard Cross and Olgerd P. Sherbowitz-Wetzor (Cambridge, MA, 1953), 61.

4 The "Derevlians" means "forest dwellers", highly appropriate given their location.

5 The Russian Primary Chronicle, 78.

6 For a discussion of Olga's revenge in the Scandinavian context, see Jenny Jochens, Women in Old Norse Society (Ithaca, New York, 1995), 111 – 115.

7 The History of Leo the Deacon. Byzantine Military Expansion in the Tenth Century, translated and annotated by Alice-Mary Talbot and Denis F. Sullivan, Dumbarton Oaks Studies XLI (Washington, D.C.: 2005), 156.

8 The Russian Primary Chronicle, 82 – 3.

9 Franklin and Shepard. The Emergence of Rus, 136 – 37.

10 The Russian Primary Chronicle, 183 – 4.

11 Ibid, 86.

12 Ibid, 83.

13 "Memorial and Encomium for Prince Volodimir of Rus'," in The Hagiography of Kievan Rus', Translated and with an Introduction by Paul Hollingsworth (Cambridge, Mass: 1992), 169.



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