"Olga was a fascinating figure, her life dramatic and even cinematic. Her character arc, from Igor’s wife to Igor’s avenging fury to a diplomat with international importance lends itself easily to the imagination"
It seems that Vikings, and everything Viking-related, is internationally popular right now. Take the multi-season History Channel hit “The Vikings” or the BBC show “The Last Kingdom.” The Swedes got in on it with “The Last King.” Even Russia couldn’t help titling its recent blockbuster about the early years of St. Vladimir’s life “Viking” (A good movie, by the way, but avoid the 18+ rated version. See if you can find the 12+ version, it’s much better).
So it’s not so surprising that a screenplay about St. Olga of Kiev that I’m writing with Ryan Jaroncyk is getting some early interest from production companies from Santa Monica to Russia.
Olga was a fascinating figure, her life dramatic and even cinematic. Her character arc, from Igor’s wife to Igor’s avenging fury to a diplomat with international importance lends itself easily to the imagination. Since I’m expecting to be working on this screen play for a while, I thought now would be a good time to explore the contours of her life. The rest of this post is primarily translated from a Russian post, which you can find here.
THE WIFE OF IGOR
After the death of the great warrior Oleg, the unstable polity of Rus began to fall apart. The Drevliane rose against their Varengian overlords, trying to separate from Kiev’s control. It didn’t help that a new horde of Pechenegs approached the borders of Rus at the same time. But Igor took care of both problems with a sure hand. He reconquered the Drevliane and lay a heavy tribute on them (Igor became their new and most hated enemy after that). As for the Pechenegs, he managed to use diplomacy, backed with a faithful and powerful army.
Igor’s rule saw the continuing unification of the East Slavic tribes. Now all of Rus paid tribute to Kiev directly.
By this time, Igor was married to the Varengian Olga, who was a member of a prominent family (some versions even have her as Oleg’s daughter, which is the version I am exploring in the screenplay). Some stories say that Igor saw her when he was hunting in the forests near Pskov as a young man, and he was captivated by her beauty and her sharp mind. Again, this is exactly the line I’m following in the screenplay.
An interesting historical point about their married life: they were monogamous. This wasn’t all that common in early Rus, when princes were allowed many wives. But it was a testament to the strength of their bond and their humaneness in general.
Her Varengian name was Helga, and the Slavic version (Olga) is the feminized version of “Oleg,” which means “holy.” Though the pagan understanding of holiness is completely different from the Christian one, it still does assume a special spiritual disposition, chastity and sobriety, intelligence and even prescience. Not surprisingly, the people came to call Oleg a “Farseer,” while they came to call Olga “the Wise.”
IGOR’S AVENGING FURY
Igor was killed by treachery in the middle of the day while he was gathering tribute from the Drevliane, one of the tribes of the Rus. It seemed that his death would lead to the complete dissolution of Rus, especially since Olga was left as regent in Kiev for her small son, the future Prince Sviatoslav. Immediately, the Drevliane separated from Kiev and refused to pay any more tribute. However, the rest of the Russian elite united around Olga and not only acknowledged her right to rule as regent, but followed her lead without demur.
By that time, Olga was in the prime of her physical and spiritual powers. Legends were told of her beauty and her wit, even in surrounding countries, as far as Byzantium itself.
From the first moment of her rule, Olga showed herself to be confident, authoritative, visionary, and even cruel. First of all, she had her revenge against the Drevliane.
The chronicles relate a fascinating and dramatic story. The Drevliane, perhaps realizing how tenuous their position was, decided to entice Olga with an offer of marriage to their own ruler, named Mal. This embassy had another meaning as well, clearly understood to any politician of the time. It was an olive branch—Olga was being offered a new husband, and in return she would not avenge the murdered one.
Olga pretended to accept the ambassadors with honors. She invited them to the court on the next day. They were to be carried in boats by her own warriors as a special honor. But instead, she had a ditch dug near her own palace, and when the ambassadors, filled with their own significance, were carried in on longboats, she ordered them thrown into the ditch and buried alive.
Immediately after that, Olga required that the Drevliane send another embassy. It was the custom in Rus to offer ambassadors the use of a steam room to wash before official proceedings began. After a long road, the wash was a pleasant thing, and it also carried a hint of ritual ablution before an important event. No sooner had these new ambassadors entered the steam room than the doors were locked and the house was set on fire. They were burned alive.
Finally, Olga herself traveled to the land of the Drevliane to celebrate a pagan ritual feast over the grave of her killed husband and to mourn him. When the nobles of the Drevliane had drunk a large amount of alcoholic beverages, Olga ordered all of her warriors, who were sober, to kill them all where they sat, at the foot of the mound where her husband was interred.
Olga, the pagan, had her revenge like a pagan. There was something of the ritual in it. This triple revenge followed the usual pattern for Slavic burial customs. Bodies were typically laid in boats after death—an old Russian tradition. Cremation was also typical for all Russian lands. Sometimes, human sacrifices during the ritual feast over the grave of the dead were practiced as well.
But now, once the ritual vengeance was concluded, Olga began her personal vendetta.
She had her armies attack the main city of the Drevliane, Iskorosten’. In open battle, the Drevliane were routed. The chronicle vividly describes how Sviatoslav, still a boy, began the battle by hurling his small spear in the direction of the enemy. The remainder of their army and the rest of the civilians hid behind the walls of the city. The siege lasted several months. Finally, only guile managed to bring the city down.
Olga seemed to soften in her demands by asking a small tribute—three sparrows and three pigeons from each household. She promised to leave soon afterward. As soon as the tribute was collected, Olga had her warriors tie burning tinder to the feet of the birds. Then they were released. Since all the birds were homing, they returned to their households. Soon the entire city was ablaze, and the Kievan army began their assault.
OLGA THE WISE POLITICIAN
But Olga unified the tribes not only with cruelty and guile. As a wise and far-seeing ruler, she realized that the pagan ways of vendetta didn’t make for any lasting unity. So she instituted reforms, including a new system of tribute. From now on, the tribute amount couldn’t randomly be changed by the ruling authority, and the cities themselves had to bring it to special collecting agencies once a year. From there, the tribute made its way to Kiev.
Then Olga and her armies traveled all through the rest of the cities, instituting this standardized from of tribute and the collection agencies throughout Rus. This was the first organized system of taxation in Rus. According to the chronicles, this led to a flourishing period for the newly unified Rus.
These collection agencies also served as local courts and as official representatives of the princely power in Kiev. Perhaps not surprisingly, the places these agencies were organized were most often in the centers of cities, the places where markets gathered. So these spots, associated with Kiev’s power, became the nexuses for ethnic and cultural unity for the Russian tribes.
Later, when Olga became Christian, she built Rus’s first churches right next to these government outposts. During Vladimir’s time, they even became conflated in the newly formed unit called the parish. Olga also put a lot of money and effort at improving infrastructure throughout Rus. Of course, any regularly enforced system of taxation takes a little time to become accepted throughout, so Olga made sure to live on one of Kiev’s hills, surrounded by a wall and her best warrior band near her at all times.
OLGA THE DIPLOMAT
Having put the foundation for unity at home, Olga turned to international affairs. She had to show that the time of difficulty following Igor’s death did not weaken Rus’s international authority. Historians note that during her reign, the first border between Poland and Rus was formed. Massive frontier outposts in the south guraded that part of Rus from invasion by nomadic Asiatic tribes. More and more foreigners came to Rus to trade.
This new influx of money allowed Kiev to start building in stone. As I mention in a different article, eventually Kiev was a kind of wonder of the ancient world known throughout the East and West.
But Olga realized that all this was only window dressing. While the different tribes followed different religious traditions, there was always the threat of disunity. Rus was becoming a major international player, and she thought that a single religion would go a long way to encourage Rus’s continued growth, especially with the Roman Empire and the Saxon kingdom to contend with.
Olga saw that, culturally speaking, both the Romans and the Saxons were far more advanced than the Rus, and she understood that the bedrock of that culture was the Christian religion. She began to be convinced more and more that Rus’s future path of greatness lay not only in military exploits, but through spiritual achievements.
Leaving Kiev to Sviatoslav, who had grown up already, Olga traveled in 954 with a large fleet bound for Constantinople. This was a peaceful fleet (unlike her father Oleg’s famous attack on the Emperor’s City), which was both diplomatic and religious in nature. However, political expediency demanded a show of military force in the Black Sea, so that the proud Romans would remember Oleg and not simply brush off his daughter as insignificant.
It had the desired result. Olga was admitted into the Emperor’s presence, with Constantine VII Porphyrogenites even organizing a feast in her honor. During their conversations, Olga and the Emperor confirmed the previous treaty struck between Constantinople and Rus in Igor’s time.
THE QUESTION OF BAPTISM
At the same time, Olga was dumbfounded by the luxury and grandeur of Constantinople, as well as by its cosmopolitan nature. Many nations spoke many languages in its streets. But more than anything she was astounded by the spiritual richness of Christianity, its churches and the holy objects held in them. She was present at liturgies in all the major churches, including Hagia Sophia. This was what she wanted for her land; this grandeur and this holiness.
One of the major questions discussed with the Emperor ended up being Olga’s baptism into the Christian faith.
Most nations of Western Europe had accepted Christianity by this point, either from Rome or Constantinople. These nations, having accepted baptism 300-600 years before the Rus, had outgained the Rus culturally by a significant margin. However, paganism held fast in Eastern Europe and wouldn’t go down without a fight.
Olga understood that Christianity was necessary if she wanted the cultural riches of the Romans and the West. Still, she recognized the power of paganism and the strength it held over her people’s imaginations. Therefore, she chose a moderate path. She decided to become a Christian alone, hoping by her example to inspire her fellow countrymen.
Finally, it’s important to note that for Olga, accepting Christianity was not merely a political decision. It was an answer for many of her internal questions and worries. She had suffered a good amount in her life—the death of a beloved husband, a violent series of acts to avenge his death, burning an entire city of civilians—all this couldn’t help but leave its mark on her soul. After all, Olga was always one to strive for rightness. She tried always to be fair and humane to all.
Some of the Chronicles even go so far as to suggest that the Emperor was besotted by her beauty and intelligence, even asking for her hand in marriage. That is highly unlikely—the Romans, for all their diplomacy, considered the barbarian Rus as little more than talking animals. But it does make for a good story. Ultimatley, Olga refused his hand, the story goes, instead asking him to be her godfather.
That part at least seems to have been historically possible. She was given the name Helen after the mother of Constantine the Great. Constantine VII’s wife was also name Helen. This moment, with Olga bowing her head before the God who had captured her heart, is immortalized in a miniature painting accompanying the Chronicle of Ioannis Skilitis, with the note,
The ruler of the Rus, a woman named Helga, who came to the Emperor Constantine and was baptized.”
In this chronicle, she is drawn in a special headdress “as a newly baptized Christian and honored deaconess of the Russian Church.” Next to her was baptized a young woman named Malusha, who later became the mother of St. Vladimir.
It should be noted Constantine VII was no fan of the Rus. It must have been difficult to induce him to become the godfather of Olga. The Russian Chronicles wax poetic about Olga’s conversations with the Emperor, in which his counselors are amazed at her probing mind and spiritual maturity. In any case, she did manage to convince the proud Romans that the Rus would be capable of taking on and absorbing the genius of Christian spirituality and culture. In this way, Olga was able to “conquer” Constantinople more completely than any of her military forefathers.
Constantine VII, a prolific writer, actually left an account of Olga’s reception at court. He describes the majestic throne of the emperor with its mechanical singing bronze birds and roaring lions that accosted the incoming embassy of the Rus, which numbered 108 people. Then he wrote about the more intimate meetings in the chamber of the Empress, as well as the official feast in the hall of Justinian.
A DISAPPOINTING END
Diplomatically speaking, however, Olga’s trip was not quite successful. She was unable to secure a dynastic marriage of Sviatoslav with one of Constantine’s daughters. Nor was she able to get the Romans to agree to an establishment of a Metropolitan’s see in Kiev.
Her disappointments continued when she returned home. She tried to convince Sviatoslav to convert, but he was a confirmed pagan. He worshiped Perun, the Slavic counterpart to Thor, and refused to abandon his military faith. Their relationship began to cool after her conversion.
Unperturbed, Olga began a project of building churches in Rus. She founded the great Church of the Wisdom of God in Kiev soon after her return from Constantinople. It was consecrated on May 11, 960. This day is still commemorated as a feast day of the Russian Church. The most important holy relic in the church was a cross she received at her baptism. On it was engraved the phrase:
The land of Rus is renewed by the Holy Cross, accepted by Olga, the noble princess.”
However, her Christian zeal angered some among the elites, who were still pagan. They looked with hope at Sviatoslav, who resented his mother’s attempts to convert him. By this time, he was around twenty years old. His pagan entourage managed to remove Olga from any influence in the government of the Rus. Sviatoslav took all power to himself. He even killed some Christians and destroyed some of the churches Olga built.
It must have been difficult for Olga, who was so active and intelligent, to be relegated to the women’s quarters. However, she was still respected. Whenever Sviatoslav went on a military campaign (which he did often), she took over as regent. However, there was now no possibility of even considering a large-scale conversion to Christianity, which upset Olga greatly.
As she grew old and sickly, Olga, who had been baptized by one of the greatest dignitaries of the Christian church, was forced to keep a priest by her side in secret, lest she inspire a new wave of persecutions against Christians. She was buried in the Christian rite, having forbidden that any pagan feasts be performed in her honor.
She didn’t manage to see it during her life, but her efforts were instrumental in her grandson’s decision to unify the Rus under Christianity, a decision that did indeed lead to a flowering of a nation. Eventually, Rus took the reins of Christendom in the East from the Romans. This “Third Rome” lasted until the twentieth century.