Saturday, January 18, 2014

Person of Interest: Princess Olga of Kiev

“Revenge is a dish best served cold.”

- Klingon proverb

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When it comes to revenge, they don’t come any more evil, cruel and heartless than Princess Olga, albeit that she was supposedly protecting the interests of her young son. It makes Game of Thrones look like a kindergarten gathering.

Here is her story . . .

Olga (890-969) was born in 890 in a village in either what is now Russia or Bulgaria, of Viking background. 

She became the wife of Igor of Kiev, a Varangian ruler of the state of Rus. The Varangians, or Varyags, was the name given by Greeks and East Slavs to Vikings, Rus being a Varangian settlement that was ruled by a king named Rurik. He had landed his ships on the coast of what is now the Ukraine and set up what is now Russia. Igor, Rurik’s son, took over in 912 when Rurik died, making Olga princess of an empire that spanned parts of Russia, the Ukraine, Belarus, and Poland. 

Igor was killed by a tribe of East Slavs known as Drevlyans, who opposed strongly any attempts to include them in Kievan Rus (the name given to the confederation for the period when the capital was Kiev). Igor’s death in 945, whilst collecting tribute from the Drevlyans, was recorded by the Byzantine historian and chronicler, Leo the Deacon: "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." According to his chronicles, this had been due to Igor’s collecting tribute a second time in the same month. Accounts also state that the Drevlyan leader, King Mal, subsequently dipped Igor’s skull in gold and used it as a goblet at dinner parties.

When Igor was killed, his son, Svyatoslav, was only 3 years old. This made Olga the official ruler of Kievan Rus until her son reached adulthood.

The Dervlyans wanted Olga to marry their King Mal, thereby making him the ruler of Kievan Rus. She, however, wanted to preserve the throne for her son.

When Igor was killed, the Drevlyans sent twenty of their best men to notify Olga that her husband’s skull was now a drinking goblet, to persuade Olga to marry King Mal and to give up her rule of Kievan Rus. She told them to wait in their boat whilst she pondered the request and that the next day the boat would be carried into the city to honour them. As assured, the next day the boat was carried into the city by its inhabitants, where it was dropped into a giant hole that had been dug. The city inhabitants then filled the hole, which has to this day not been found.

She then sent word to King Mal, who was unaware of the loss of his men, that she accepted the proposal and that she required their most distinguished men to accompany her on the journey in order for her people to accept the offer of marriage. The Drevlyans sent their best men, both soldiers and those who governed their land. Upon their arrival, she offered them a warm welcome and an invitation to clean up after their long journey, in a bathhouse. After they entered, she locked the doors and set fire to the building, burning them alive.


With the best and wisest men out of the way, she planned to destroy the remaining Drevlyans. She invited them to a funeral feast so she could mourn over her husband's grave, where her servants waited on them. After the Drevlyans were drunk, Olga's soldiers killed over 5,000 of them. 

She then returned to Kiev and prepared an army to attack the survivors. The Drevlyans begged for mercy and offered to pay for their freedom with honey and furs. She asked for three pigeons and three sparrows from each house, saying she did not want to burden the villagers any further after the siege. They were happy to comply with such a reasonable request.

Olga gave to each soldier in her army a pigeon or a sparrow. She ordered them to attach by thread to each pigeon and sparrow a piece of sulfur bound with small pieces of cloth. When night fell, Olga bade her soldiers release the pigeons and the sparrows with the cloth set alight. The birds flew to their nests, the pigeons to the cotes and the sparrows under the eaves. The dove-cotes, the coops, the porches, and the haymows were set on fire. There was not a house that was not consumed, and it was impossible to extinguish the flames, because all the houses caught on fire at once. The people fled from the city, and Olga ordered her soldiers to catch them. She took the city and burned it, and captured the elders of the city. Some of the other captives she killed, while some she gave to others as slaves to her followers. The remnant she left to pay tribute.

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Later life:

  • Olga’s son Svyatoslav took over once he was of age but was away most of the time on military campaigns, leaving his mother in charge in his absence. People saw Olga as their Queen and a capable one she was, leading her son to split power with him during his rule.
  • She divided the land into administrative units, set up the first taxation syem in Eastern Europe and built the first stone structures in Kiev.
  • In 957 she converted to Christianity. Emperor Cosntantine VII wanted to amrry her and unite their kingdoms. She responded that he first had to baptise her personally, which he did. She then pointed out that under the law at the time, marriage was forbidden to the person who baptises you.
  • In 968 Kiev was besieged by warriors from a Turkic tribe known as Pechenegs. With no hope of winning a battle, she sent a messenger to order a small detachment of Rus troops located outside the city to approach the city walls sounding trumpets and waving flags. When they did so, in full view of the enemy’s troops and archers, she came out to greet them, walking towards the approaching troops with arms outstretched. The Pechenegs thought it was the returning army of the 80 year old Queen’s son, Svyatoslav, and fled in fear.
  • Olga sent an angry letter to her son after the above events, demanding that he return and avenge the disgrace. He did so and killed the Pechengs.
  • Olga died a month later. She was buried as a Christian and was declared an Orthodox Saint and Equal to the Apostles, making her one of only five women in history to receive the honour.

Monument to Princess Olga in Kiev, with Slavic Cyril and Methodius on the right and the Apostle Andrew on the left, pointing to the Holy Kiev Hills.

Stature of Olga in New Jersey, USA


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