Grand Princess Olga: Pagan Vengeance and Sainthood in Kievan Rus
By Heidi Sherman
World History Connected, Vol. 7.1 (2010)
Introduction: It is a strange historical twist that the first “Russian” woman to be canonized in the Orthodox Church was a Viking warrior princess who spent much of her life as a pagan. Olga earned her sainthood by becoming the first member of the house of Riurik, the dynasty that ruled European Russia and parts of Ukraine and Belorus for more than seven centuries (860s – 1598), to convert to Christianity. But the role of this battle maid in the spread of Christendom to the eastern Slavs is only part of her remarkable contribution to the history of Eastern Europe.
Olga is the only woman for whom we possess significant biographical details in the written sources for the Kievan Rus period of Russian history (860s – 1240). In contrast with Western Europe and the Byzantine Empire, medieval Russian women did not participate in literary culture aside from the occasional inscription or letter of the type found on birch bark in the excavations of medieval Novgorod. The laws of the period reveal that women enjoyed few legal protections compared with their male peers. Women could inherit property from their parents or husbands, but only in the absence of brothers and sons. If the sons were young, the widow managed the family’s estate until the sons reached their majority.
Olga is in this way typical of the free elite women of Kiev. For nearly two decades (945 to 962) Olga ruled the rapidly expanding kingdom of Kievan Rus, which received its name from its capital Kiev on the middle Dniepr River, as regent for her young son Sviatoslav. And she did so in stunning fashion despite significant obstacles. Olga assumed power at a time when the realm was shaken by tribal violence and administrative disorder. She bloodily pacified rebellious tribes and replaced tribute taking with a regular system of taxation. Olga’s decision to convert to eastern Christianity instead of Catholicism was also a fundamental step in the spiritual and political alliance of Kievan Rus with the Byzantine Orthodox world rather than with Latin Christendom. In short, it took the will and perspicacity of a barbarian widow to begin the transformation of the Rus lands from a loosely knit pagan chieftaincy into a more stable and centralized Christian kingdom.
Reconstructing Olga’s story is a complex matter because there was very little that was written down during her lifetime, when Kievan Rus was as yet a mainly pagan kingdom without a literary tradition. Chroniclers may have begun to record the actions of the dynasty after the official adoption of Christianity a generation after Olga’s death, but these early records unfortunately have not survived. The most important account of Olga’s life comes from a source written many generations after Olga’s lifetime, The Tale of Bygone Years, a chronicle that was completed by the monks Nestor and Silvester who lived at the Kievan Caves monastery, which was supported by the Riurikid princes of Kiev. As Riurikid dependants, the author-monks organized the narrative around the role of the ruling family’s ancestors in creating the Christian state. Because much of the chronicle covered events that took place many generations prior to its compilation, the authors appear to base the tale upon oral accounts, some clearly inspired by legend. The result is a rich and often dramatic history that is reflective of the multi-ethnic traditions, Eastern Slavic, Scandinavian, and Finnic, that made up the culture of Kievan Rus. Olga’s story as told in The Tale of Bygone Years is a product of this type of chronicle writing. We are fortunate that the chroniclers fashioned an exciting portrait of Olga, one that can be corroborated occasionally by contemporary sources from Western Europe and the Byzantine Empire. An examination of Olga, therefore, is in effect an exercise in early medieval source criticism.