In A Nutshell
Olga of Kiev has the distinction of being the one of the first Russian saints. Thought to be of Norse birth, Olga married Prince Igor I in 903. After he was murdered, she went on a revenge kick that ended with the scalding deaths of her husband’s murderers. She ruled for her young son until he came of age, putting down rebellions, slaughtering defenseless villages and burning others to the ground. It was only at the end of her life that she repented and was baptized (in a clever political move); she was eventually canonized for bringing Catholicism to Russia.
The Whole Bushel
She was known only as Olga of Kiev (and later as St. Olga, Princess of Russia), and piecing together the details of her life are tricky. She was born in the late 800s and came to power after the murder of her husband in 945, so with the lack of literary tradition and record-keeping in Russia at the time, it’s difficult to tell how much of her history is truth and how much was embellished later. The most accepted account of her life is the book The Tale of Bygone Years, in which a chronicler documents the life and times of the ruling family.
No matter what other sources the information comes from, it’s much the same—even according to the church.
Prince Igor was the second generation of the Rurik Dynasty of Russian tsars. He took power in 912 and was killed in 945 by a group of Slavs who didn’t take lightly to the Russian’s demands that they pay him more tribute.
And Olga, in turn, didn’t take lightly to the death of her husband. By this time, her son and the heir to the dynasty was only three years old, and Olga ruled in his stead. Her first act was coined “Olga’s Vengeance,” and set the tone for the rest of her rule.
The rebellious Slavs that had killed the Russian ruler had set their sights on marrying their leader to the new widow. By all appearances she was receptive to a meeting and talks. When the first group of ambassadors arrived and insisted on being carried from the river to the palace in their boat, they were promptly dumped into a hole and buried alive. The next group, unaware of what was going on, were locked in a bathhouse that was set on fire. The next group, still unaware, was invited to a feast near the fallen prince’s burial spot. Olga saw that they were drunk before her loyal troops massacred all 5,000 of them.
Within the year, Olga and her troops marched on the town of those that had been responsible for killing her husband. They were prepared to give her tribute, but had nothing, so she agreed to take a few birds for each household. When she had the birds in hand, she ordered flaming, sulfur-dipped rags to be tied to their feet. They were released, returned home, and set the entire village on fire.
Even after her son reached an age that he was to rule, he did so from a distance, traveling and conquering and securing tribute. Olga continued her rule from home, where she standardized the amount of tribute and taxes, minted coins and, finally, brought the Catholic Church to the previously pagan lands of Russia.
She was baptized in either 954, 955, or 957. According to the story, Constantine VII of the Byzantine Empire asked for her hand in marriage, but she replied that she was pagan and could not marry a Christian without being baptized—and she would only consent to being baptized by his hand. She was, and when he brought up marriage again, she pointed out that she was now his Christian daughter, and marriage was off the table as it was now officially weird in the eyes of their shared religion.
The move was a clever one; the Byzantine Empire was a powerful neighbor, and both converting to Christianity and being careful not to insult the emperor by turning down a marriage proposal gained them a powerful ally. (That was short-lived, as her son, Sviatoslav, provoked outright war with his attempts at expanding his own territory into lands controlled by the Byzantine Empire.)
Olga’s conversion opened the door for the Orthodox Church to oust a centuries-old tradition of paganism in Russia. Olga herself died not long after her son’s clash with the Byzantine Empire, and before she died she made sure she would be given a Christian burial.
In 1547, she was declared a saint by the Orthodox Church and elevated to a place alongside the apostles.