OLGA (baptized - Elena) (the year of birth is unknown - † 969 in Kiev), Princess of Kiev, the wife of Kiev prince Igor
Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus and Princess Olga at the Hippodrome in Constantinople in 955, fresco of the St Sophia Cathedral of Kiev. XI century

OLGA (baptized - Elena) (the year of birth is unknown - † 969 in Kiev), Princess of Kiev, the wife of Kiev prince Igor


The origin of, perhaps, one of the most famous rulers of Rus, like many facts of her biography, is a subject to various scientific discussions. Despite the fact that the sources have preserved a detailed description of her life and reign, it is rather difficult to separate the truth from the fiction of the chroniclers or the paraphrase of the biblical stories, to deal with numerous inconsistencies in facts and dates.

There are three main versions of Olga's origin. According to one of them, she came from the village of Vybutino (present-day Vybuto) of the Pskov region (or from Pskov itself). V.N. Tatishchev calls Olga “the Beautiful” and connects her origin to the semi-legendary Gostomysl [44, p. 117]. N.M. Karamzin doubted the authenticity of such an origin of the first ancient Rus princess.

Olga's scandinavian origin is indicated by her name [1, p. 22-31; 4, p. 198-200; 29, p. 24], however, a number of researchers nevertheless reject the concept of Olga's varangian origin, as well as her possible relationship with Oleg, which is indicated by the Piskarevskaya and Typographic Chronicles [X, p. 31; 38, p. 195].

Less known to public is the version proposed by I.D. Ilovaisky about Olga's bulgarian origin [11, p. 441-448; 28, p. 232-233].

The exact date of her birth is unknown. The only starting point can be the record of the wedding with Igor, which took place in 903 and at the time of which the girl was either ten [XI; XIII], or twelve years old [XII, p. 11; 14, p. 32]. Again, the very records of the wedding in 903 raises doubts among historians [10, p. 575; 36, p. 369], since the date of birth of Svyatoslav, the only reliably known son of Olga and Igor, according to the Ipatiev Chronicle is 942 *. It turns out that the couple had no children for forty years, and Olga was supposed to become a mother at a very old age. The range of opinions of researchers about Olga's date of birth is very wide: from 893–894. [12, p. 102; 25, p. 48; 39; 44] up to 923-927. [13, p. 302-303; 14, p. 41; 37, p. 150].

Chronicles report that Oleg was chosen the bride for Igor and married him long before the beginning of the independent reign of the latter. The Piskarevsky Chronicle even says that Olga was the daughter or some close relative of Oleg himself [X, p. 31]. The Book of Royal Degrees contains a more romantic story of Olga and Igor's acquaintance at the crossing near Pskov. The prince, hunting in those places, decided to cross the river and, already in the boat, discovered that the carrier was a young beautiful girl. Igor remembered her when the time came to marry, not wanting any other bride for himself, and demanded from Oleg to find the Pskov girl [IX, p. 7-16].

The next mention of Olga is found only in 944 in the Rus-Byzantine treaty. At the same time, her name is the third in a row after the name of Igor himself and their common son with Olga, which probably emphasizes Olga's significant position even then. However, the main events with her participation unfold after the death of Igor in 945. Igor, having collected tribute from the Drevlyans, returned to the city again, thereby violating the norms of unwritten law. After the prince with several warriors was killed, the Drevlyan prince Mal sent matchmakers to Olga. Further sources contain a lengthy description of Olga's revenge. The ambassadors who appeared for the first time, were ordered to be put in a boat and buried alive. The second delegation sent from the Drevlyans, was ordered to be burned in a bathhouse. The third revenge of the princess was that having drunk the Drevlyans during the funeral service for her murdered husband, she, together with a small squad, killed all those present. The fourth, most colorful revenge consisted in the burning of the Drevlyan capital, Iskorotin, with the help of birds. According to legend, Olga went on a campaign against the Drevlyans and, having laid siege to the city, demanded a "small" tribute - three pigeons and three sparrows from each yard. Having received what she wanted, she ordered to tie the rods to the birds, set the rods on fire and set the birds free. The doves and sparrows returned to their homes and Iskorosten burned out to the ground. The surviving townspeople were either killed or taken into slavery. Igor's squad recognized Olga as regent of the young Svyatoslav and, accordingly, a full-fledged ruler.

The story of the burning of the town with the help of birds, as noted by the researchers, is not unique. Similar parallels, in particular, can be found in scandinavian mythology [see, eg: XIV; 47], therefore historians tend to consider stories about Olga's revenge as a late insert [9, p. 158-161; 34, p. 15; 36, p. 370-372].

Nevertheless, a number of facts about her reign are not in doubt. Olga finally subdued the Drevlyans to her power, abolishing the local princes and introducing government through the posadniks. She systematized the collection of taxes, establishing clear terms and sizes of fees and at the same time making the tribute itself more complex: from now on, two-thirds of the tribute went to Kiev, a third - to Olga herself [10, p. 575]. The version about the establishment of tribute by Olga in Novgorod remains controversial. The chronicles report the establishment of tribute for Msta and Luga [ibid.]. However A.A. Shakhmatov, D.S. Likhachev and others doubt that Olga undertook a trip to Novgorod [V, p. 305-306; 8, p. 457, n. 22; 48, p. 84-86; 49, p. 84-88].

The name of the princess is associated with the first attempt at the church establishment in Rus and the expansion of international contacts [19, p. 41–52; 26, p. 219-338; 27, p. 24-24; 30, p. 1458-1473; 33, p. 10-13; 39; 40, p. 25-35].

Byzantine, Old Rus and Western sources have preserved the records of Olga's visit to Constantinople and baptism there under the name of Elena [I, p. 216-233; III, p. 139-171; IV, p. 101-130; VI, p. 176-181; XV, p. 207-293; XVI, p. 181-185; 2, p. 111-117; 18, p. 35-48; 20, p. 72-92; 21, s. 134-143; 45, p. 3-26; 46].

The date of the embassy to Byzantium is still the subject of scientific discussion. The most complete description of Olga's visit with her retinue at the Byzantine emperor is contained in the work of Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus himself "On the ceremonies of the Byzantine court." However, difficulties with the dating of this source do not allow us to accurately establish the date of the princess’s embassy. N. M. Karamzin called 957 [12, p. 102; 40, p. 25–35, p. 42–43; 46]. G. G. Litavrin suggests an earlier dating: 946 [16, p. 49-57; 17, p. 173-183; 18, p. 35-48; 19, p. 41–52; 22, p. 429-437]. There is also a version that Olga went to Constantinople twice: in 944 and 946. [35, p. 161-172], or in 946 and 955. [34, p. 17-18]. Despite the fact that the place and date of Olga's baptism are also the controversial subject**, the main version today is that Olga was baptized in Constantinople in 957 [10, p. 575-576]. A vivid episode telling about the sudden love of the Byzantine emperor in Olga and his harassment and how Olga cunningly avoided the unwanted courtship of the Basileus, asking him to baptize her, apparently, is a transposition of the biblical plot and does not correspond to reality [2; 9, p. 158-161; 18, p. 35-48; 45, p. 3-26]. N.L. Pushkareva believes that this legend was based on Olga's unfulfilled plans to establish dynastic ties with Byzantium through the marriage of Svyatoslav with one of the Byzantine princesses [34, p. 18-19]. Probably Olga intended to baptize all Rus, but these plans were not destined to come true: in Rus Olga faced a strong pagan opposition led by Svyatoslav [10, p. 575].

In 959 Olga sent an embassy to Otto I with a request to send a bishop to Rus for baptism into the “Roman faith”. Bishop Adalbert arrived in Kiev, but in 962 he returned back. According to A.V. Nazarenko, Olga's intentions most likely proceeded from foreign policy objectives. Relations with Byzantium at this time turned out to be strained, but by the time of Adalbert's arrival the situation had changed and there was no longer a need for an alliance with Otto [26, p. 219-338; 27, p. 24].

Despite the fact that formally Olga was the regent under the minor Svyatoslav, in fact she ruled much longer than it would have taken before the prince's majority. Even without taking into account the controversial date of birth of the son [VII, p. 56; VIII, p. 28] (Olga at that time should have been well over forty,by the standards of the early Middle Ages an old age, although a number of researchers do not see this as a contradiction [25, pp. 52–56]), Olga's reign continued for a long time when Svyatoslav , having already matured, used to spend most of his time in military campaigns.The Primary Chronical reports that only after the Pechenegs' raid on Russia in 968, when the elderly Olga, together with the children of Svyatoslav, withstood the siege of Kiev, he started to reign in Kiev, and even then - at the insistence of his mother.

Researchers' assessments of Olga as a statesman vary. In pre-revolutionary historiography, the prevailing point of view on her was as a wise and far-sighted ruler [12, p. 129; 32, p. 100; 43, p. 237]. In Soviet times, scientists recognized her reforms in the field of collecting tribute, which strengthened the princely power and laid the foundation for the administrative structure of princely Rus [6, p. 295-298; 24, p. 186-188; 36, p. 363–365; 41]. S.V. Yushkov considered the financial reforms a logical continuation of the liquidation of the captured Drevlyan state [50, p. 108-109]. The opinion of R.G. Skrynnikov and N.P. Voronin, about Olga's lack of independence as a ruler, did not become widespread both in Soviet and in modern historiography [3, p. 38; 42, p. 26].

Olga died in 969 in Kiev [II]. Already in the XI century the cult of her veneration by the Christian church began to form. Her grandson and future Baptist of Rus Vladimir I transferred her remains to the Tithe Church in Kiev [II]. In the XVI century Olga was canonized as an Equal-to-the-Apostles saint [5; 7, p. 35].

Day of honor of Princess Olga is on July 11.

* N.M. Karamzin believed that the date of birth of Svyatoslav is 933. However, at the same time, the message of the Ipatiev Chronicle about Olga's regency under the minor prince becomes doubtful: at the time of Igor's death, Svyatoslav should have been about 12 years old - an age approaching adulthood. The Primary Chronicle testifies that during the campaign against the Drevlyans the prince was so small that he could hardly throw a spear forward, so that it landed next to his own horse [VII, p. 594; 25, p. 25]. A. Y. Karpov calls the date of birth of Svyatoslav 939 [14, p. 41].

** B.A. Rybakov believed that Olga was baptized at home and came to Constantinople as a Christian [36, p. 362-364].  


  • Svyatoslav Igorevich, the Grand Duke of Kiev (945 (968) - 972)


In the treatise of Constantine Porphyrogenitos "On the ceremonies of the Byzantine court" it is said that when Elga (Olga), Archontissa of Rus, in September [957] was at the reception of the Emperor Constantine and his wife and son, the retinue of the Rus princess included archontissas-relatives (16 women) and the most prominent of the maidservants (18 slavegirls). The priest Gregory was also with Princess Olga [III, p. 143, 144, 146].


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