Saint Olga was princess of Kievan Rus during the 10th century. Kievan Rus was a powerful kingdom in Eastern Europe at that time. After her husband was killed in a dispute with a neighboring tribe, Saint Olga ruled Kievan Rus as regent, as her son Svyatoslav was still a child. She traveled to Constantinople to receive the Christian faith, and was baptized by the Patriarch of Constantinople, with Byzantine Emperor Constantine VII serving as her godfather. She returned to Kiev and tried to introduce Christianity to her country, but paganism was to remain a powerful force in Kiev. Her son Svyatoslav too refused to convert. Nevertheless, her grandson Prince Vladimir the Great would follow her in accepting Christ, and under his rule Kievan Rus would embrace the Christian faith.
God is glorious in his saints!
Welcome to the Christian Saints Podcast. My name is dr Darren Ong, recording from Sepang in Malaysia. In this podcast, we explore the lives of the Christian saints, from the Anglican, Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions. Today, we commemorate Saint Olga equal-to-the-apostles, Princess of Kiev.
The Eastern Church gives the title equal-to-the-apostles (in Greek, isapostolos) to Saints who have been responsible for bringing Christianity to a new people. In this case, Saint Olga is given this title isapostolos because it was she who first brought the Gospel to the Eastern Slavs – the people we know today as Ukrainians, Russians, Belarussians
Saint Olga was born a pagan, from Pskov (a city that today is in Russia), sometime In the late 9th century or early 10th century. Very little is recorded about her early life. She married Prince Igor of Kiev and gave birth to his heir, their son, Svyatoslav. They were rulers of Kievan Rus’, which was a powerful kingdom in Eastern Europe which controlled lands that make up mordern-day Ukraine, Russia and Belarus.
Most of the accounts of Saint Olga’s life will be from the “Russian Primary Chronicle” , a 12th centiry historical document telling the history of Kievan Rus. When I quote from this Chronicle I will be using the version translated and edited by SAMUEL HAZZARD CROSS AND OLGERD P. SHERBOWITZ-WETZOR. The chronicle tells of how in the Year 945, Saint Olga’s husband Prince Igor of Kiev was killed during a dispute with the Drevlians, a tribe based in what is today northern Ukraine. At the time of his death, the heir to the throne, Olga’s son Svyatoslav was a toddler. The jubilant Drevlians sought to force Saint Olga to marry their prince, so they could secure control over Kievan Rus.
Saint Olga dealt with the Drevlians deviously. She at first pretended to be interested in their marriage proposal. When the Drevlians sent a delegation of ambassadors to Kiev, she told them to remain in the boat while the people of Kiev carried them to the city. She explained to the Drevlians that this was a way to show them honour. She then dumped the boat into a deep trench and buried the ambassador alive, asking the Drevlians if thir honour was to their taste.
Saint Olga then sent messengers to the Derevlians telling them that they should send their most distinguished men to escort her as she traveld to their city to marry their prince. The Derevlians did as they were told, unaware of the fate of the first delegation of ambassadors. When these distinguished men arrive in Kiev, Saint Olga invited them to first take a bath at the bathhouse. She locked the bathhouse doors and burnt it down, killng all inside.
When she traveled to the Derevlians’ city, she requested first a grant funeral feast for her dead husbands’ honour. When her hosts were sufficiently drunk, she got her retinue to kill them – the primary chronicle records that 5000 Derevlians died in that feast. She then went back to Kiev to prepare for an attack on the Derevlian’s capital of Iskoroten. Let’s hear directly from the primary Chronicle (again this translation is by Cross and Sherbowitz-Wetzor)
Olga hastened with her son to the city of Iskorosten', for it was
there that her husband had been slain, and they laid siege to the city.
The Derevlians barricaded themselves within the city, and fought
valiantly from it, for they realized that they had killed the prince,
and to what fate they would in consequence surrender.
Olga remained there a year without being able to take the city, and
then she thought out this plan. She sent into the town the following
message: "Why do you persist in holding out? All your cities have
surrendered to me and submitted to tribute, so that the inhabitants now
cultivate their fields and their lands in peace. But you had rather die
of hunger, without submitting to tribute." The Derevlians replied that
they would be glad to submit to tribute, but that she was still bent on
avenging her husband. 'Olga then answered, "Since I have already
avenged the misfortune of my husband twice on the occasions when
your messengers came to Kiev, and a third time when I held a funeral
feast for him, I do not desire further revenge, but am anxious to receive
a small tribute. After I have made peace with you, I shall return home
The Derevlians then inquired what she desired of them, and ex-
pressed their readiness to pay honey and furs. Olga retorted that at
the moment they had neither honey nor furs, (59) but that she had
' one small request to make. "Give me three pigeons," she said, "and
three sparrows from each house. I do not desire to impose a heavy
tribute, like my husband, but I require only this small gift from you,
for you are impoverished by the siege." The Derevlians rejoiced, and
collected from each house three pigeons and three sparrows, which they
sent to Olga with their greetings. Olga then instructed them, in view
of their submission, to return to their city, promising that on the mor-
row she would depart and return to her own capital. The Derevlians
re-entered their city with gladness, and when they reported to the in-
habitants, the people of the town rejoiced.
Now Olga gave to each soldier in her army a pigeon or a sparrow,
and ordered them to attach by a thread to each pigeon and sparrow a
piece of sulphur bound with small pieces of cloth. When night fell,
Olga bade her soldiers release the pigeons and the sparrows. So the
birds flew to their nests, the pigeons to the cotes, and the sparrows
under the eaves. Thus the dove-cotes, the coops, the porches, and the
haymows were set on fire. There was not a house that was not con-
sumed, and it was impossible to e.."Xtinguish the flames, because all the
houses caught fire at once. 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. Some of the other captives she
killed, while she gave others as slaves to her followers. The remnant
she left to pay (60) tribute.
Saint Olga then served as regent for her son Svyatoslav, who was now Prince of Kiev. She was diligent in promoting trade throughout Kievan Rus’, and during her regency her lands experience peace. At this time Saint Olga, still a pagan traveled to Constantinople, expressing a desire to convert to Christianity. The primary chronicle records her encounter with the Byzantine Emperor Constantine VII.
Olga went to Greece, and arrived at Constantinople.
The reigning Emperor was named Constantine, son of Leo. 61 Olga
came before him, and when he saw that she was very fair of counte-
nance and wise as well, the Emperor wondered at her intellect. He
conversed with her and remarked that she was worthy to reign witli
him in his city. (61) When Olga heard his words, she replied that she
was still a pagan, and that if he desired to baptize her, he should per-
form this function himself; otherwise, she was unwilling to accept
baptism. The Emperor, with the assistance of the Patriarch, accordingly
When Olga was enlightened, she rejoiced in soul and body. The
Patriarch, 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 mainte-
nance of chastity. She bowed her head, and like a sponge absorbing
water, she eagerly drank in his teachings. The Princess bowed before
the Patriarch, saying, "Through thy prayers, Holy Father, may I be
preserved from the crafts and assaults of the devil!" At her baptism
· she was christened Helena, after the ancient Empress, mother of Con-
stantine the Great. The Patriarch then blessed her and dismissed her. 62
After her baptism, the Emperor summoned Olga and made known
to her that he wished her to become his wife. But she replied, "How can
you marry me, after yourself baptizing me and calling me your daugh-
ter? For among Christians that is unlawful, as you yourself must
know." Then the Emperior said, "Olga, you have outwitted me." He
gave her many gifts of gold, silver, silks, and various vases, and dis-
missed her, still calling her his daughter.
· Since Olga was anxious to retur~ home, she went to the Patriarch
to request his benediction for the homeward journey, and said to him,
"My people and my son are heathen. May God protect me from all
evil!" The Patriarch replied, "Child of the faith, thou hast been bap-
tized into Christ and hast put on Christ. Christ (62) shall therefore save
thee. Even as he saved Abraham from Abimelech, Lot from the Sodom-
ites, Moses from Pharaoh, David from Saul, the Three Children from
the fiery furnace, and Daniel from the wild beasts, he will preserve thee
likewise from the devil and his snares." So the Patriarch blessed her,
and she returned in peace to her own country, and arrived in Kiev.
Saint Olga built churches in the major cities of Kievan Rus’ and tried to increase the Christian faith’s influence. However, Slavic paganism was still strong in Kievan Rus’. Much to her despair, her son Svyatoslav declined to follow her in converting to Christianity, and remained steadfastly a pagan. The Primary chronicle spends a lot of time regarding the relationship between mother and son:
Now Olga dwelt with her son Svyatoslav, and she urged him to be
baptized, but he would not listen to her suggestion, though when any
man wished to be baptized, he was not hindered, but only mocked.
For to the infidels, the Christian faith is foolishness. They do not com-
prehend it, because they walk in darkness and do not see the glory
of God. Their hearts are hardened, and they can neither hear with
their ears nor see with their eyes. For Solomon has said, "The deeds
of the unrighteous are far from wisdom. Inasmuch as I have called
you, and ye heard me not, I sharpened my words, and ye understood
not. But ye have set at nought all my counsel, and would have none
of my reproach. For they have hated knowledge, and the fear of
Jehovah they have not chosen. They would none of my counsel, but
despised all my reproof" (Prov., i, 24-31).
Olga remarked oftentimes, "My son, I have learned to know God,
and am glad for it. If you know him, you too will rejoice." But he did84
The Russian Primary Cllronicle
not heed her exhortation, answering, "How shall I alone accept another
faith? My followers will laugh at that." But his mother replied, "If
you are converted, all your subjects will perforce follow your example."
Svyatoslav did not heed his mother, but followed heathen usages, for
he did not know that whoever does not obey his mother shall come to
distress. For it is written, "Whosoever heedeth not his father or his
mother (64) shall suffer death (Exod., xxi, 17). But he was incensed
at his mother for this reason. As Solomon has said, "He that correcteth
the unrighteous getteth to himself reviling, and he that reproveth a
wicked man getteth himself a blot. Rebuke not the evil, lest he hate
thee" (Prov., ix, 7-8). For rebuke addressed to evildoers provokes
But notwithstanding, Olga loved her son Svyatoslav, and said, "So
be the will of God. If God wishes to have pity upon my kin and upon
the land of Rus', let him lead my son's heart to return to God, even
as God has granted me to do." Thus saying, she prayed night and day
for her son and for the people, while she brought him up to manhood
and adult age.
When Svyatoslav grew up, Saint Olga relinquished control of Kievan Rus’ to him. Prince Svyatoslav was frequently away commanding armies in battle. On one occaision, the Perchenegs, a neighbouring power opportunistically decided to lay siege on Kiev while Svyatoslav and his army were elsehwere. Saint Olga was in Kiev with her grandchildren, and she cleverly fended off the siege, by fooling the Perchenegs into thinking that her son and his armies were returning very soon.
Despite their religious differences, Svyatoslav and Saint Olga remained very close. Although Svyatoslav remained pagan his whole life, his son Prince Vladimir the Great (Olga’s grandson) would embrace Christianity when he became prince, and it was under Prince Vladimir’s rule that Kievan Rus’ would become a Christian nation.
Saint Olga would pass away peacefully in the year 969. The Primary chronicle records her passing thus:
Her son wept for her with great mourn-
ing, as did likewise her grandsons and all the people. They thus car-
ried her out, and buried her in her tomb. Olga had given command
not to hold a funeral feast for her, for she had a priest who performed
the last rites over the sainted Princess.
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 purifica-
tion. She put off the sinful garments of the old Adam, and was clad
in the new Adam, which is Christ. Thus we say to her, "Rejoice in the
Russes' knowledge of God," for we were the first fruits of their recon-
ciliation with Him.
She was the first from Rus' to enter the kingdom of God, and the
sons of Rus' thus praise her as their leader, for since her death she has
interceded with God in their behalf. The souls of the righteous do
Saint Olga is commemorated a saint in the Eastern Orthodox church, and also the eastern rite catholic church with a feast day of July 11. She is a particularly important saint for Ukraine, Russia and Belarus. I would like to share a couple of homilies about her. The fist is an excerpt of a homily by Metropolitan Lawrence Huculak, who leads the Ukrainian Greek Catholic church in Winnipeg, Canada, where he focuses on Saint Olga’s efforts to pass her faith on to her son and grandchildren
Often when we reflect on the great saints of the Church we think of the martyrs, the popes and patriarchs, the bishops and priests, the religious sisters and ascetics who devoted their total lives to God. When we think of Saints Vladimir and Olga we think of a different category of people. Saints Vladimir and Olga were secular leaders of the people; they were parents; and they were members of the laity. The example they gave in their lives has as much meaning for us today as it did a thousand years ago when they lived on this earth. Princess Olga was a woman of faith. Even though she lived in a very pagan world, she held strong to her Christian faith and tried to pass on this faith to her children and grandchildren. So often in the history of the Ukrainian people it has been the mothers and grandmothers who have shown wonderful examples of Christian piety in their lives, and have tried so very hard to pass on their faith to their children and grandchildren, especially when there has been no one else to do this. During the Communist times in Ukraine it was the mothers and grandmothers who passed on their faith to their children. And even today when so many parents have no time or desire to live theirChristian faith and pass this on to their children and grandchildren – it is the grandmothers who carry the torch of Christian heritage.
The second is a homily by the Russian Orthodox Metropolitan of Sorouzh, Anthony Bloom. Metropolitan Anthony uses Saint Olda’s life as an example for how to be a bold Christian in a society hostile to the faith. I will read an excerpt, just the parts of that homily mentioning Saint Olga directly:
The Life of St. Olga, whose memory we celebrate today, should be for us both a judgment and an inspiration. Olga was a Christian two generations before the Baptism of Russia; she was a Christian in isolation among the courtiers of her husband, who despised Christianity as the religion of the weak, laughing at it, and along with his companions ridiculing Princess Olga and her faith. And she stood alone, never wavering; she was not timid to declare who she was, proclaiming her faith in the One God, the Lord of lords, the King of Kings, and also the Savior of the world.
What a lesson this is for us! We live in a world that sometimes mocks us, that lives as if the Evangelic values had lost all meaning – but we are not threatened by any real danger. Even now there are countries where it is dangerous to be a Christian; not long ago declaring oneself a Christian in Russia could have been dangerous and could bode trouble both for oneself, and for one’s family, and for one’s friends; and yet people stood steadfastly and believed. And, following the example of St. Olga, it was women who withstood: it was women who saved the Church and Russia by their heroism and their readiness to accept suffering and to give their life for the Church and for God.
Let us give thought to this, because there stands before us and towers above us in her full height the image of St. Olga, alone in a sea of pagans – and not in a society like ours that already has within itself the Gospel leaven, and where we have so much in common with the current pagans. She stood alone and did not waver; and therefore she was able to so withstand that she was able to convey to her grandson Vladimir a vision of the world that has never faded away and did not give him any rest until he found the answer. She revealed to him a new dimension of humanity and awakened in him a hunger for greater things, things more truthful and holy than the false gods that his father honored with his entourage. And because she was able to withstand ridicule among the courtiers of her husband, to her grandson was revealed God in Christ and, by his appeal, he opened the hearts of millions of people and the vast expanses of the Russian dominion, where Christ the Savior came to reign.
Let us learn from this woman, who was both more fragile and stronger than all men: like the Mother of God, she was stronger than any fear and hesitation. Let us learn to stand alone and to proclaim our faith, but not in words – words no longer convince anyone; people have heard enough misleading, beautiful words – but by living in a Godly manner, as Christ’s very own people. Amen!
Thanks for listening to this episode of the Christian saints podcast. Look for the Christian Saints podcast page on Facebook or Instagram, or look for us on Twitter at podcast_saints. All music in this episode was composed by my good friend, James John Marks of Generative sounds. Please check out his music at https://generativesoundsjjm.bandcamp.com/
Let us end this episode with the Russian Orthodox Troparion and Kontakion for Saint Olga’s feast day on July 11:
Troparion — Tone 1
Giving your mind the wings of divine understanding, / you soared above visible creation seeking God the Creator of all. / When you had found Him, you received rebirth through baptism. / As one who enjoys the Tree of Life, / you remain eternally incorrupt, ever-glorious Olga.
Kontakion — Tone 4
Today let us praise God the Benefactor of all, / who glorified divinely-wise Olga, / that through her prayers, He may grant our souls remission of sins.