When news reached Princess Olga of Kiev that a neighboring tribe had killed her husband, Prince Igor, she vowed revenge.
In 945, Igor, the ruler of the Kievan Rus in what is today Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia, traveled to the edges of his empire. A local tribe known as the Drevlians had stopped paying tribute. Igor demanded to know why.
In response, the Drevlians seized Igor and subjected him to a horrific form of torture. But soon, Olga would have her revenge.
For the next 15 years, Olga of Kiev would spend nearly every waking minute working to destroy the Drevlians. Then, in 1547, the Russian Orthodox Church named her a saint, and today, she remains Ukraine’s patron saint of widows and converts.
How Olga Became The Regent Of The Kievan Rus
Olga of Kiev was born around 900 C.E. in what is today Pskov, Russia, near the border with Estonia. But at the time, the city was part of a vast inland Viking empire known as Kievan Rus.
Olga herself was a Varangian, descended from the first Vikings who settled in the empire, and she was no older than 15 when she married Grand Prince Igor I, ruler of Kievan Rus.
A generation earlier, Igor’s predecessor and adoptive father, Prince Oleg, had consolidated power and established a new capital of Kyiv. (The city was formerly spelled “Kiev” in English until after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and Olga’s moniker derives from that historical orthographic link to “Kievan Rus.”)
But there was one tribe he could not fully control: the Drevlians. With their own identity and objectives, the Drevlians often sided with the Kievan Rus in wars with the Byzantine Empire and paid tribute to Oleg. But when he died in 945 C.E., they stopped paying.
And when Prince Igor went to their capital (today’s city of Korosten in northern Ukraine) to collect, they brutally murdered him. According to one Byzantine chronicler, “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.”
But the Drevlians vastly underestimated his wife, Princess Olga of Kiev. At the time, Olga was around 20 years old and had a three-year-old son, Sviatoslav. And because he was too young to rule, Olga became regent of Kievan Rus.
The Vengeance Of Olga Of Kiev
Immediately, Princess Olga of Kiev began plotting against the Drevlians. And her enemies gave her an opportunity to destroy them.
Even after tearing Olga’s husband in half, Prince Mal of the Drevlians proposed to the Kievan Rus princess. Now that Olga was single, Mal thought he could bring Kievan Rus territory under Drevlian control through the marriage.
Before Igor’s body was cold, Mal sent twenty dignitaries to Kyiv to convince Olga to marry him. But Olga had no intention of marrying the man who helped slaughter her husband.
Yet the Drevlian proposal gave Olga an opening. Instead of outright rejecting the proposal, Olga welcomed the envoys to Kyiv and promised to honor them. Then, she ordered her soldiers to dig a ditch.
The next day, the dignitaries arrived dressed in their finest robes. Olga led them to the edge of the ditch, and her soldiers threw them to the bottom. As Olga watched, her soldiers buried the men alive.
As the dignitaries slowly suffocated, Olga gazed down at them from the edge of the trench. She asked the dignitaries if they “found the honor to their taste.” The dying men called up that their suffering was “worse than the death of Igor.”
And Olga still wasn’t satisfied.
How Olga Took More Revenge By Burning A Bathhouse
After burying the Drevlian envoys alive, Olga of Kiev plotted her next act of revenge.
Before news of Olga’s brutal torture reached the Drevlians, the princess wrote to Prince Mal. Pretending that she was still open to marriage, Olga asked Mal to send his best men to Kyiv to escort her back to the prince.
Mal, ignorant of Olga’s fury — and the fact that she’d already killed twenty of his men — sent a group of decorated chieftains.
When the Drevlian chieftains arrived, Olga offered them her bathhouse to freshen up after their journey. But when they entered, Olga bolted the doors and burned the entire building to the ground. No one escaped alive.
And Olga still demanded vengeance, but she had to act fast.
Before Mal and the Drevlians realized the bloody fate of their dignitaries and chieftains. So Olga of Kiev traveled north to the Drevlian capital, outrunning the news of her brutal vengeance killings.
When she arrived, Olga hosted a funeral banquet for her husband and invited the Drevlian soldiers to show good faith. But as soon as the Drevlians got drunk, Olga’s loyal soldiers pulled out their swords and slaughtered 5,000 men.
Olga Of Kiev Decimated The Drevlians In Their Capital
At that point, the Drevlians feared Olga of Kiev would not stop until she wiped out their entire tribe. So the survivors pleaded with Olga to accept their tributes and return to Kyiv.
Olga considered their offer, then declined. Instead, she laid siege to their capital for over a year until they begged for mercy. And when they could take no more, Olga gave them an offer of peace.
“Give me three pigeons and three sparrows from each house,” Olga said, according to the Old East Slavic chronicle of the Kievan Rus known as the Tale of Bygone Years. “I do not desire to impose a heavy tribute, like my husband, but I require only this small gift from you.”
The Drevlians quickly agreed, surprised at the small price to pay for peace, and gathered the birds. But Olga had another plan.
“Now Olga gave to each soldier in her army a pigeon or a sparrow, and ordered them to attach by threat to each pigeon and sparrow a piece of sulfur bound with small pieces of cloth,” recorded the chronicler.
That night, Olga told her soldiers to release the birds. When the flocks landed back in their thatched nests in the Drevlians’ houses, they lit them 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,” according to the Kievan Rus chronicle.
“The people fled from the city, and Olga ordered her soldiers to catch them. Thus she took the city and burned it, and captured the elders of the city.”
Olga divided up the captives. Some, she slaughtered. Others, she sold into slavery. And the lucky few were allowed to rebuild the town.
Her vengeance finally complete, Olga left the Drevlians completely broken – but willing to pay any tribute to stay on her good side.
How Olga Of Kiev Became Saint Olga
Olga of Kiev burned her enemies alive, buried diplomats, and destroyed entire towns. So how did she become a saint in the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches?
In the 10th century, when Olga ruled the Kievan Rus people, they were pagan. But the nearby Byzantines were on a mission to convert their neighbors to Christianity.
After completing her vengeance against the Drevlians, Emperor Constantine VII invited Olga to visit Constantinople. On that journey, Olga converted to Christianity. When she returned to Kyiv, she encouraged her subjects to convert.
The Byzantines declared Olga “equal to the Apostles” for her conversion.
“She shone like the moon by night,” recorded a Byzantine chronicle, “and she was radiant among the infidels like a pearl in the mire, since the people were soiled, and not yet purified of their sin by holy baptism.”
The Byzantine emperor agreed. When Emperor Constantine VII met Olga of Kiev, he asked for her hand in marriage. Olga turned him down. And this time, she did it without bloodshed.
Then, in 1547, the Russian Orthodox Church officially canonized her as Saint Olga of Kiev, the patron saint of widows and converts.