While Olga's birthdate is unknown, it could be as early as 890 AD and as late as 925 AD. Olga was probably of Varangian origin, and according to the Primary, Chronicle was born in Pskov. Little is known about her life before her marriage to Prince Igor I of Kyiv and the birth of their son, Sviatoslav. According to Alexey Karpov, a specialist in the history of ancient Russia, Olga was no more than 15 years old at the time of her marriage. Igor was the son and heir of Rurik, the founder of the Rurik dynasty. After his father's death, Igor was under the guardianship of Oleg, who had consolidated power in the region, conquering neighboring tribes and establishing a capital in Kiev. This loose tribal federation became known as Kievan Rus, a territory covering what are now parts of Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus. The Kievan Rus were descendants of Vikings who left their native Sweden and traveled east. Where other Vikings went to America, Greenland, Iceland, Ireland, England, France, and Spain. The Swedish Vikings went to Russia. In fact, the name of the country came from these same people- Kievan Rus.
The Drevlians were a neighboring tribe with which the growing Kievan Rus' empire had a complex relationship. They had made agreements to cooperate with the Rus against a common enemy, but when that enemy was not in the mix, the Drevlians were not as friendly. In the past, the Drevlians had joined Kievan Rus' in military campaigns against the Byzantine Empire and even paid tribute to Igor's predecessors. Yet when Igor’s father died, they immediately stopped paying tribute to Oleg's death and instead gave money to a local warlord. This traitorous act incensed Igor. Therefore, in 945, Igor set out to the Drevlian capital, Iskorosten, to force the tribe to pay tribute to Kievan Rus'. He was committed to getting the Drevlians to comply with his orders just like they had done for his father before him.
Confronted by Igor's much larger army, the Drevlians backed down and paid him immediately. As Igor and his army rode home he thought more and more about this act of treason. He asked for the money they were owed but he never asked for anything more to cover the cost of the men he had to send to pick up this money so he decided the payment was not enough and returned, with only a small escort, seeking more tribute. This turned out to be a great mistake
Upon his arrival in their territory, the Drevlians murdered Igor. According to the Byzantine chronicler Leo the Deacon, Igor's death was caused by a gruesome act of torture in which he was "captured by them, tied to tree trunks, and torn in two." Here the Drevlians stripped two birch trees of their branches and bent them completely over. They then tied one leg of Igor to one tree and the other leg to the other tree. They tied down the trees with sturdy bands. They cut the bands forcing the trees to snap upright and tearing the body of Igor into pieces.
After Igor's death at the hands of the Drevlians, Olga assumed the throne because her three-year-old son Sviatoslav was too young to rule. The Drevlians, emboldened by their success in ambushing and killing the king, sent a messenger to Olga proposing that she marry his murderer, Prince Mal. Twenty Drevlian negotiators boated to Kyiv to pass along their king's message and to ensure Olga's compliance. They arrived in her court and told the queen why they were in Kyiv: "to report that they had slain her husband...and that Olga should come and marry their Prince Mal."Olga responded:
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 now 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 nor go on foot, carry us in our boat." And you shall be carried in your boat.
When the Drevlians returned the next day, they waited outside Olga's court to receive the honor she had promised. When they repeated the words she had told them to say, the people of Kyiv rose up, carrying the Drevlians in their boat. The ambassadors believed this was a great honor as if they were being carried by palanquin. The people brought them into the court where they were dropped into a trench that had been dug the day before under Olga's orders where the ambassadors were buried alive. It is written that Olga bent down to watch them as they were buried and "inquired whether they found the honor to their taste."
Olga then sent a message to the Drevlians that they should send "their distinguished men to her in Kyiv so that she might go to their Prince with due honor." The Drevlians, unaware of the fate of the first diplomatic party, gathered another party of men to send "the best men who governed the land of Dereva." When they arrived, Olga commanded her people to draw them a bath and invited the men to appear before her after they had bathed. When the Drevlians entered the bathhouse, Olga had it set on fire from the doors, so that all the Drevlians within burned to death."
Olga sent another message to the Drevlians, this time ordering them to "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." When Olga and a small group of attendants arrived at Igor's tomb, she did indeed weep and hold a funeral feast. The Drevlians sat down to join them and began to drink heavily. When the Drevlians were drunk, she ordered her followers to kill them, "and went about herself egging on her retinue to the massacre of the Drevlians." According to the Primary Chronicle, five thousand Drevlians were killed on this night, but Olga returned to Kyiv to prepare an army to finish off the survivors.
The initial conflict between the armies of the two nations went very well for the forces of Kievan Rus', who won the battle handily and drove the survivors back into their cities. Olga then led her army to Iskorosten (what is today Korosten), the city where her husband had been slain, and laid siege to the city. The siege lasted for a year without success when Olga thought of a plan to trick the Drevlians. She sent them a message: "Why do you persist in holding out? All your cities have surrendered to me and submitted to tribute so that the inhabitants now cultivate their fields and their lands in peace. But you had rather die of hunger, without submitting to the tribute." The Drevlians responded that they would submit to tribute, but that they were afraid she was still intent on avenging her husband. Olga answered that the murder of the messengers sent to Kyiv, as well as the events of the feast night, had been enough for her. She then asked them for a small request: "Give me three pigeons...and three sparrows from each house." The Drevlians rejoiced at the prospect of the siege ending for so small a price and did as she asked.
Olga then instructed her army to attach a piece of sulfur bound with small pieces of cloth to each bird. At nightfall, Olga told her soldiers to set the pieces aflame and release the birds. They returned to their nests within the city, which subsequently set the city ablaze. As the Primary Chronicle tells it: "There was not a house that was not consumed, and it was impossible to extinguish the flames because all the houses caught fire at once."As the people fled the burning city, Olga ordered her soldiers to catch them, killing some of them and giving the others as slaves to her followers. She left the remnant to pay tribute.
In the 950s, Olga traveled to Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire, to visit Emperor Constantine VII. Once in Constantinople, Olga converted to Christianity with the assistance of the Emperor and the Patriarch. While the Primary Chronicle does not divulge Olga's motivation for her visit or conversion, it does go into great detail on the conversion process, in which she was baptized and instructed in the ways of Christianity:
The reigning Emperor was named Constantine, son of Leo. Olga came before him, and 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. When Olga heard his words, she replied that she was still a pagan and that if he desired to baptize her, he should perform this function himself; otherwise, she was unwilling to accept baptism. The Emperor, with the assistance of the Patriarch, accordingly baptized her. When Olga was enlightened, she rejoiced in soul and body. The Patriarch, who instructed her in the faith, said to her, "Blessed art thou among the women of Rus', for thou hast, loved the light, and quit the darkness. The sons of Rus' shall bless thee to the last generation of thy descendants." He taught her the doctrine of the church, and instructed her in prayer and fasting, in almsgiving, and in the maintenance of chastity. She bowed her head, and like a sponge absorbing water, she eagerly drank in his teachings. The Princess bowed before the Patriarch, saying, "Through thy prayers, Holy Father, may I be preserved from the crafts and assaults of the devil!"
If the story ended here, you might have gotten the wrong idea about St. Olga. She is the first Saint of Kyiv. Russia claims here but she is from Kyiv and it was through her efforts that many Churches were built in different parts of her kingdom. Yet, it was her Grandson, St. Vladimir, who converted his people to Christianity. Now today we need to call upon the efforts of these two noble Saints to avoid a battle over the homeland of these two saints. This war would be over the land of the Kievan Rus and an area that both claim to recognize today as Saints.
Eastern Hymn For St. Olga
In this time of turmoil and upheaving. Let us remember our heritage and let us turn our attention to the east. The east was where Jesus came from, the east was the home of St. Olga, and today it is in the east that were praying for peace and religious harmony. The following is a special hymn that could be used as help during this time. A kontakion is a poetic form frequently encountered in Byzantine hymnography. It was based on Syriac Aramaic hymnographical traditions, which were transformed and developed in Greek-speaking Byzantium. It was a homiletic genre and could be best described as a "sermon in verse accompanied by music". In character it is similar to the early Byzantine festival sermons in prose — a genre developed by Ephrem the Syrian — but meter and music have greatly heightened the drama and rhetorical beauty of the speaker’s often profound and very rich meditation.
O God of Israel and of all mankind, Who blesses nations and individuals, have mercy upon us as we praise the holy convert to Christianity: the Grand Princess and Saint Olga. Baptized in Constantinople and named Helen, she courageously brought the True Faith to her family and to the pagan and barbaric peoples in her homeland of Kievan Rus. In the days before the official division between East and West, she used her leadership to worship the God of the Christians before an entire nation of unbelievers. We, therefore, honor her wisdom and discernment, saying:
Pray for us, Saint Olga, the first saint of Russia and Equal-to-the-Apostles.
Saint Olga, since you converted to Christianity as an adult, and since you were a ruler of diverse peoples, you felt a deep concern for the welfare and unity of your nation. Such is the plight of many converts who embrace the light of Christ amid the complications of their environment. Strengthen all Christians, Saint Olga, in acceptance of Jesus Christ and in the fruitfulness of the spiritual life. Even those who are raised in the Faith have burdens to place upon His mighty shoulders and therefore, in the inseparability of our Faith, each one of us brings these supplications to you:
Pray for us, that all followers of Jesus Christ may be gathered into one catholic and apostolic Church.
Pray for us, that all believers may intercede for one another and for this troubled and divided world.
Pray for us, that we may be united in the fatherland of Heaven through the tender mercies of God.
Pray for us, that we may esteem our ancestors and preserve the True Faith for our descendants.
Pray for us, Saint Olga, the first saint of Russia and Equal-to-the-Apostles.
Your son, whose name was Svyatoslav, did not accept Christ, contrary to your desire for his salvation and enlightenment. However, that did not stop you from building churches, including in honor of two Russian Christian ancestors: the Church of Saint Sophia on the gravesite of Dir, and the Church of Saint Nicholas on the gravesite of Askold. Eventually, Saint Olga, the whole land of Russia would become Christian. Just as you showed respect for your forerunners, we venerate your renunciation of paganism and your introduction of Christianity, saying: Alleluia.
Saint Olga, help us, whose families are wayward or unbelieving, to be patient and constant in faith. Let us be thankful for our Baptism. Guide us, so that we do not become fainthearted in our prayers, or descend into the worldly vices which surround us. Let us be true followers of Christ — in thought, word, and deed — so that our light may shine before others and that we may confidently turn to you, Saint Olga the Wise, with our needs and requests:
Pray for us, that all families may unify in truth and love: helping one another faithfully.
May St. Olga, a Saint In The East and West, please intercede on the behalf of her blessed homeland, and may this area obtain peace. Amen