It seems like the Russian president could use a lesson from the Primary Chronicle (or “The Tale of Bygone Years” – an Old East Slavic chronicle of Kievan Rus’ from about 850 to 1110, originally compiled in Kyiv around 1113). If he were to delve into the history of Ukraine even a little, he would learn that local women are not to be messed with!
‘Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned’ – this sentence perfectly describes the life of the Grand Princess Olga of Kyiv and what is probably the bloodiest revenge story of all times.
Her deeds sound like scenes from Game of Thrones, but compared with Grand Princess Olga of Kyiv, Cersei Lannister is a total beginner.
Olga lived at the beginning of the 10th century AD and was of Varangian (Viking) origin. Her date of birth is unknown but we do know that in the year 903 she was brought to marry Prince Igor I of Kyiv, the son and heir of Rurik, founder of the Rurik dynasty. 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, so she probably was born between 889 and 891. As a curiosity, the newlyweds settled in the Pripyat basin and that’s where the Chernobyl Zone extends today.
After his father’s death, Igor was under the guardianship of the temporary regent, Oleg of Novgorod, who had consolidated power in the region, conquering neighboring tribes and establishing a capital in Kyiv, and, by doing so, laying the foundation of the powerful state of Kievan Rus’. It was a tribal federation from the late 9th to the mid-13th century, encompassing a variety of polities and peoples, including East Slavic, Baltic, and Finnic. The new empire covered the territory of what are now Ukraine, Belarus and western Russia (the last two countries derive their names from it). At its greatest extent in the mid-11th century, Kievan Rus’ stretched from the White Sea in the north to the Black Sea in the south and from the headwaters of the Vistula in the west to the Taman Peninsula in the east, uniting the majority of East Slavic tribes.
Together with her husband, fair Olga ruled Kievan Rus for a short while. The word “short” here refers to co-governance, because her husband, Igor son of Rurik, was killed by the Drevlian tribe, with which the growing Kievan Rus empire had a complex relationship. The Drevlians had joined Kievan Rus in military campaigns against the Byzantine Empire and paid tribute to Igor’s predecessors. However, they stopped the payments when Igor became Grand Prince and instead gave money to a local warlord. In 945, Igor of Kyiv set out to the Drevlian capital to force the tribe to pay tribute to him. Confronted by the huge Kievan Rus army, the Drevlians backed down and paid.
Unfortunately on his way back home, Igor decided the payment was not high enough and returned, with only a small escort, seeking more tribute. And that’s where he went wrong, because upon his arrival in their territory, the Drevlians captured and killed Igor in a gruesome act of torture that would make Ramsay Bolton proud. His legs were tied to bent birch trees, which once released, tore the prince’s body apart.
Since Igor’s son and heir, the three-year-old Sviatoslav, was too young to rule, Olga assumed the throne. The Drevlians, emboldened by their success in ambushing and killing the ruler of Kievan Rus, sent twenty negotiators to his widow, proposing that she marry his murderer, Prince Mal, who would “take care of her and her son and help in governing the country”. Twenty warriors sailed to Kyiv to report that they had slain Olga’s husband and to ensure her compliance.
The Grand Princess politely thanked for this generous offer, saying “Your proposal is pleasing to me, and indeed, my husband cannot rise again from the dead.” Then the lady stated that she needed to think it over and that the messengers shall return in the morning, because she was so unprepared to receive distinguished guests with the honors they truly deserved.
What was the lack of preparation? No make-up? Her clothes were not pretty enough? Nope.
Olga ordered her servants to dig up a deep trench behind the palace overnight, and then the next day to throw the surprised ambassadors there. And bury everyone alive. Legend has it that Olga bent down to watch them as they were buried and “inquired whether they found the honor to their taste.”
Right after dealing with the envoy, Olga sent a letter to the unsuspecting Drevlians saying that she was willing to marry Prince Mal, but she had to be treated with respect. Otherwise, her own people would not let her out of Kyiv and would not hand her over to such barbarians. She requested the Drevlians to gather a bigger group of “the best men who govern the land of Dereva” and delegate them to her in Kyiv, so that she as a bride might go to their Prince with due honor.
Do you smell a trap? Of course! Did the Drevlians see it through? No. Naive as they were, the enemies complied with Olga’s request.
When the men arrived, the gracious hostess offered them a lovely, relaxing bath. Afterall, what’s better than hot water after a long and hard journey, right? She invited them to appear before her after they had refreshed themselves. When the Drevlians entered the bathhouse, Olga ordered the doors bolted and had the building set on fire, so that all the Drevlians within burned to death.
As news traveled rather slowly in those days, before anyone in the Drevlian country realized that two groups of ambassadors were murdered, Olga invited herself to visit in order to honor her late husband. At Drevlians’ expense, of course, with plenty of food and drink. Especially the drink.
She humbly asked Prince Mal to “prepare great quantities of mead in the city where you killed my husband, so that I may weep over his grave and hold a funeral feast for him.” Mead is an alcoholic beverage made by fermenting honey mixed with water, and sometimes with added ingredients such as fruits, spices, grains, or hops. The alcoholic content ranges from about 3.5% ABV to more than 18%.
The Grand Princess and a small group of attendants did indeed weep at Igor’s tomb and at his wake. The Drevlians sat down to join them and began to drink heavily. Before long, the party was in full swing. Olga had ordered her soldiers to abstain from alcohol. When the Drevlians got drunk and fell asleep, the warriors from Kyiv killed them all. According to the Primary Chronicle, five thousand Drevlians died in the massacre that night, but Olga was not fully satisfied yet. She hurried back to Kyiv and returned soon after with a huge army to invade Drevlians, plundering what she could and finishing off the survivors.
She led her troops to Iskorosten, the capital, where her husband had been slain. The siege of the city lasted for a year without success. Since Olga did not manage to get it by force, she decided to do it… well, by means of deception. The clever lady thought of a plan to trick the Drevlians.
The Grand Princess sent a message to the inhabitants of Iskorosten, asking them to pay a proper tribute. The townspeople responded that they would submit to tribute, but were afraid she would intent to avenge the death of her husband. Olga answered that the murder of the messengers sent to Kyiv, as well as the events of the feast night (aka “mead funeral”), had been enough for her.
She kindly asked them for only “three pigeons and three sparrows from each house” as a sign of peace. The Drevlians did as she asked, rejoicing at the prospect of the siege ending for such a small price.
And when the Drevlians were about to breathe a sigh of relief that they had gotten rid of the vengeful woman, all the birds returned to their nests, bearing awful “gifts”. Olga had instructed her army to attach a piece of sulfur bound with small pieces of cloth to each bird. At nightfall, soldiers set the pieces aflame and released the birds, who flew into the city, subsequently setting the wooden and thatched buildings ablaze. The Primary Chronicle tells us that “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, they were either killed or given as slaves to Olga’s followers. She left the remnant to pay tribute. Daenerys Targaryen and her dragons have nothing on Olga and her sparrows.
“Was Olga punished for her cold revenge?,” you might ask. And how did such a blood-thirsty ruler become a saint, venerated in both the Catholic and the Eastern Orthodox Church with the epithet “Equal to the Apostles”?
Well… not only did the subjugation of the Drevlians, the tribe that had killed her husband Igor of Kyiv, strengthen her power, but also started an alliance with the Byzantine ruler. In the 950s, Olga traveled to the capital of the Byzantine Empire, to visit Emperor Constantine VII, who became her Godfather. Once in Constantinople, she converted to Christianity, adopting the name Helena (after the ancient Empress, mother of Constantine the Great). The Primary Chronicle tells the story of her baptism and subsequent effect on the acceptance of Christianity in Eastern Europe, especially her unsuccessful attempts to convert her son. Sviatoslav remained a Pagan till his death. Despite the resistance of her people, Olga built Christian churches in Kyiv, Pskov, and elsewhere.
Even though it would be her grandson Vladimir who officially adopted Christianity in 988 and converted the entire nation, Olga is still considered the spiritual mother of the Eastern Orthodox Christianity and for that she got the halo of a saint.
After Igor’s death in 945, Olga ruled Kievan Rus’ as regent on behalf of their son for 15 years. She changed the system of tribute gathering (poliudie) in the first legal reform recorded in Eastern Europe. The widow continued to evade proposals of marriage, defended the city during the Siege of Kyiv in 968, and saved the power of the throne for her son and successor, Sviatoslav the Brave. During her son’s prolonged military campaigns, she remained in charge of Kyiv, residing in the castle of Vyshgorod with her grandsons.
According to the Primary Chronicle, Olga died from illness in 969, soon after the Pechenegs’ siege of the city. Although he disapproved of his mother’s Christian beliefs, Sviatoslav heeded Olga’s request that her priest, Gregory, conduct a Christian funeral without the ritual pagan burial feast. Her tomb remained in Kyiv for over two centuries, but was destroyed by the Mongolian-Tatar armies of Batu Khan in 1240.
Sviatoslav I (943–972) achieved the first major expansion of Kievan Rus’ territorial control, fighting a war of conquest against the Khazars. Vladimir the Great (980–1015) introduced Christianity with his own baptism and, by decree, extended it to all inhabitants of Kyiv and beyond. Kievan Rus’ reached its greatest extent under Yaroslav the Wise (1019–1054); his sons assembled and issued its first written legal code, the Russkaya Pravda (“Rus’ Justice”), shortly after his death.
In 1547, nearly 600 years after her 969 death, the Russian Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church named Olga a saint. Because she was the first from Rus’ to convert, the Eastern Orthodox Church, the Ruthenian Greek Catholic Church, and the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church call Olga by the honorific Isapóstolos, “Equal to the Apostles”. Olga’s feast day is July 11, the date of her death. In keeping with her own biography, she is the patron of widows and converts.
In the current war, many Ukrainians light candles for Olga, praying for her support in military efforts. If I were the president of Russia, I would be seriously worried about the possible interference of this badass saint and a great warrior.