Saint of the Day – 11 July – Saint Olga Queen of Kiev (c 890-969) Queen of the Ukraine – born c 890 at Pskov, Russia and died on 11 July 969 in Kiev, Ukraine of natural causes. Also known as Olga Prekrasa, Olga the Beauty, Helena, Helga, Olha. Patronage – Kiev, converts, widows. Her body was incorrupt, though it was lost in the early 18th century.
While Olga’s birthdate is unknown, it could be as early as 890 and as late as 925 but she was born and lived in Pskov. Little is known about her life before her marriage to Prince Igor I of Kiev and the birth of their son, Svyatoslav. Igor was the son and heir of Rurik, founder of Rurik dynasty. After his father’s death Igor was under guardianship of Oleg, who had consolidated power in the region, conquering neighbouring 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 Drevlians were a neighbouring 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. They stopped paying tribute upon Oleg’s death and instead gave money to a local warlord. In 945, Igor set out to the Drevlian capital, Iskorosten (today known as Korosten in northern Ukraine), to force the tribe to pay tribute to Kievan Rus.’ Confronted by Igor’s larger army, the Drevlians backed down and paid him. As Igor and his army rode home, however, he decided the payment was not enough and returned, with only a small envoy, seeking more tribute. 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.”
When Igor was murdered in 945, Princess Olga assumed the regency for her son, Svyatoslav. Olga served as regent until her son was of age in 964. She was known as a ruthless and effective ruler. She resisted marrying Prince Mal of the Drevlians, who had been the killers of Igor, killing their emissaries and burning their city in revenge for her husband’s death. She resisted other offers of marriage and defended Kiev from attacks.
During her son’s prolonged military campaigns, she remained in charge of Kiev, residing in the castle of Vyshgorod with her grandsons.
In the 950s, Olga travelled 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 Bishop. 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 baptised and instructed in the ways of Christianity
“When Olga was enlightened, she rejoiced in soul and body. The Bishop, 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 Bishop, saying, ‘Through thy prayers, Holy Father, may I be preserved from the crafts and assaults of the devil!’ At her Baptism she was named Helena, after the ancient Empress, mother of Constantine the Great. The Bishop then blessed her and dismissed her.”
By her example, she influenced her grandson, Vladimir I. He was the third son of Svyatoslav and brought Kiev (Rus) into the official Christian fold.
Olga died from illness in 969. When Svyatoslav announced plans to move his throne to the Danube region, the ailing Olga convinced him to stay with her during her final days. Only three days later, she passed away and her family and all of Kievan Rus’ wept.
At the time of her death, it seemed that Olga’s attempt to make Kievan Rus’ a Christian territory had been a failure. Nonetheless, Olga’s Christianising mission would be brought to fruition by her grandson, Vladimir, who officially adopted Christianity in 988. The Primary Chronicle highlights Olga’s holiness in contrast to the pagans around her during her life as well as the significance of her decision to convert to Christianity:
“Olga was the precursor of the Christian land, even as the day-spring precedes the sun and as the dawn precedes the day. For she shone like the moon by night 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. But she herself was cleansed by this sacred purification…. She was the first from Rus’ to enter the kingdom of God and the son of Rus’ thus praise her as their leader, for since her death she has interceded with God in their behalf.”
Her relics were found to be incorrupt and translated to the Church of the Tithes in Kiev, the first time relics were displayed in Rus-Ukraine, however, her relics were lost forever in the early 18th century.